Thursday 25 April 2013

On adding variety to Debating Competitions.

In the spirit of Cracked and the internet tradition of “Lists of N things,” here is a list of possible ideas for competitions that make a change from the standard five rounds talking about obscure IR issues in generic university rooms.  

To be clear I’m not sure how feasible it is to run these. There are probably good (if boring) reasons why everyone sticks to standard competitions (apparently “making a loss” and “no-one turning up” are considered bad). But I think it would be good to have a bit more variety in the circuit.

Some of these practical issues can be overcome by tying experimental competitions to pre-existing larger ones to attract more people and minimise costs (for example Aberystwyth is running a “No Notes Invitational” before their main tournament). Or looking at more innovative ways of raising money, e.g. the “Kickstarter” method, where you run the competition only if a certain number of teams register in advance, you can then sell extra positions for a slightly higher price, but with the confidence you’ve met the minimum numbers.    

There may also be a market advantage for societies running them. As an increasingly large number of societies are hosting Opens and IVs the competition to attract people is fierce. Not everyone can have a team of worlds CA’s setting motions, or give out enormous quantities of free drink, so this can provide an alternative way of distinguishing your competition.

Not every tournament needs to be “Euros Prep” or “Worlds Prep,” the vast majority of people who attend competitions are never going to go to either of these, and of them even less have a serious chance of breaking. Getting away from the standard formats and topics allows people to enjoy themselves, relax and takes away the bias in favour of people who have memorised obscure facts about IR. (Accessibility is good, and we could be better at it, but that's another essay).  

Also, I can’t be the only one getting bored of doing very similar competitions, in generic university rooms? After a while they all just blur together, so a little variety would be nice.

The first two examples will be about changing the sort of motions we set, then I will look at modifications to the format itself. If you’re not interested in examples and want to hear more about why we need variety at all, skip to the end.

1 Fictional IVs

(By this I mean IVs set in fictional worlds, not IVs that are themselves imaginary...) Strathclyde’s Alternative Open, the Game of Thrones Open and Harry Potter Open are examples of this that have already happened. Rather than being restrained to the dull humdrum real world we expand into fictional realms and debate interesting issues there.

For example: Should the Wizards of the Harry Potter world reveal their existence to the muggles? Should Batman just shoot the Joker? This house would ban the capture of Wild Pokemon? (I actually ran that one at Durham Open, and discovered to my horror the chair had somehow never watched it.)

This gives us a break from the standard fare, and allows newer debaters to get involved without memorising facts about South American water distribution. Often you can get much deeper and more interesting philosophical issues out of hypotheticals than you can by limiting yourself to real world situations. Issues of free will and moral responsibility are often much clearer when you talk about magic and robots, and it allows you to get to the meat of the issue without wasting time on practical objections. (See Shengwu’s excellent blog post “Why I set motions about robots and aliens” for more details.)

2 Subject specific IVs

You ever thought of a really good motion that you could never run because 90% of debaters don’t have sufficient background knowledge to debate it? Then this IV is for you. Rather than having the standard be “the average well informed voter” you can make it “the average Philosophy student” or “someone who did high school science.” Thus opening up a range of debates which have interesting issues, but require certain expertise (or agreed facts) to work (listening debates where people argue about how physics works makes me cry inside).

Example motions:
Philosophy: THB there is no moral distinction between acts and omissions. THB materialism is false. THW ban the production, sale and possession of the works of Ayn Rand.
Science: TH supports the Many Worlds interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. TH regrets the dominance of evolutionary psychology. THW ban all research into Strong AI.
Law: THW make some change to the way courts are run that seems really important to lawyers but is incomprehensible to anyone else.

You get the idea. I’m sure you can think of many more from your own area of expertise.

2.1 Lets go Meta.

One amusing possibility would be to run a “Meta IV,” as if there’s one thing debaters enjoy talking about more than obscure bits of IR trivia it is debating itself. Basically the things debaters rant about at socials turned into motions. So people have to come up with actual arguments rather than ranting, and because it would be so beautifully recursive.

Possible motions: TH regrets the rise of “knowledge heavy” debating; THW abolish speaker points; THW subject the position of chief adjudicator to popular voting; THW introduce a mandatory retirement age for Debaters.

3 Modifications to the format

Tweaks to the format allow us to focus on particular skills that are necessary for success in BP, but not normally focused on. For example style will rarely be the determining factor in a Debate, but good style can move you up the tab significantly. The same thing goes for incremental improvements in other skills that alternative formats can force.

For example: Leeds used to run an entirely first person competition (e.g. This house as a Holocaust survivor would not forgive your captors.) Which made for a lot of very interesting arguments, and got away from the loose abstractions normally used in debateland.

For example: An IV that banned the use of paper notes would force people to be less reliant on pre-prepared material, so flow and improvise more; Without Points of Information one might have to count rebuttal more exactly; An IV where speeches were only 1 minute long would teach people to be succinct; If they had no prep time at all people would get better at improvising, or die.  

3.1 Restrictions on who can compete.

This is less interesting, but I should include it for completeness. Competitions can acheive a specific atmosphere or training outcome via restricting teams. Obvious examples of this are novices competitions, pro-ams, women's, and mixed doubles. Has anyone tried an old hacks IV?

4 Completely different formats

The IONA and European circuits have become pretty much exclusively BP format these days. Which is fine, because as far as I can tell it is genuinely the best format available (not that I’m biased...). But it might be interesting to try out different formats for experimentation sake, and to see how people adapt. More importantly they teach us to step outside the narrow boundaries of the BP format and consider debating and argumentation in general, which is probably more useful as a general life skill (sadly there are no professional BP leagues, yet).

For example: APDA (like a top half debate plus a reply speech) is still moderately popular in Europe, and is close enough to BP that it wouldn’t freak us out, but supplies its own challenges, and removes the complications of competing against teams on the same side; There’s the various weird American formats like Policy that are judged extremely differently from BP (and I won’t pretend to understand) which would force and entirely different mindset; British universities have already run Australs competitions (Australian 3 on 3 format) which are closer to standard BP, but can encourage different tactics; Iron man competitions have been run in various places (like normal BP but you make both speeches) and St. Andrews used to run an individual speakers competition (guess how that worked), both of which put the burden of generating material on one person, making them better at it in the future.  

Concluding thoughts.

Though, as I’ve said, these things may not work in practise, I think it is important that we try to add an element of variety and excitement into the debating circuit. The worst thing that can happen to any subculture or hobby is that it becomes stuck in the same pattern, becoming self obsessed and fighting over increasingly minor and technical things. I’m not saying the format and topics is bad in itself, if I did I wouldn’t spend half my life there. But there is a cost to it being the only thing we ever do, it makes it harder for new people to get involved, and makes us take ourselves too seriously.

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