Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Judging Competitive Debating - Part 3 - Chairing

This is part of my series of introductory articles, which explain the basics of competitive debating and follows on from "Judging competitive debating - Part 1 - A general framework" and "Judging Competitive Debating - Part 2 - The process of judging."

Pictures chairs when discussing how to chair?
Wow. So hilarious. Very original.
CC Wikimedia commons

Chairing is one of the odder roles in competitive debating, on good days it takes practically no work, but it can also be incredibly difficult.

In theory, the chair is responsible for keeping the debate running smoothly, dealing with any issues that arise and running the judging discussion in such a way that the correct call is made. In practice the actual chairing of the debate is a fairly minor part at an actual competition, as speakers know what order to go up in, and issues of keeping order rarely happen.

Conducting the judging discussion is more difficult, not everyone who is an amazing judge is an equally good chair as it requires not just coming to the correct call and understanding the debate, but requires interpersonal skills for managing the discussion and dealing with disagreements. 

Chairing is a difficult and responsible role, so its perfectly natural to be nervous when doing it for the first time, just like when speaking. Just remember to work through the substance of the decision and not be intimidated.

This is harder to make strict rules on than some of the other stuff I've written about, as it varies from debate to debate, but I've tried to give some general guidelines. If you want to learn to chair in more detail the best way is to watch and imitate experienced chairs in how they run the discussion and ask them questions.

Procedure stuff

At the beginning of the debate you need to ensure all the teams and speakers are present and in the correct positions. If necessary you may have to go looking for teams who have gotten lost, or alert the organisers so that they can supply a swing team. [A swing team is a team that takes a place in a debate when one of the competing teams isn't present for whatever reason. Generally composed of volunteers from the hosting organisation, for the purpose of the debate they are treated like any other team, but normally cannot break.]

The chair also normally notes down the speaking order for the teams in the room (as they don’t always sit in the correct order) by making a note on the ballot. Also an increasing number of tournaments ask you to do a pronoun introduction at the same time, where the speakers and judges state their preferred pronoun (e.g. “My name is John and my preferred pronoun is he”). Chairs can also field any questions about the format of the debate , or the exact wording of the motion.

The chair can either time the debate themselves or ask a wing judge to do so. 
I've seen older chairs
CC Wikimedia commons
Whoever is keeping time should make an appropriate sound by banging the table or clapping, or whatever at the end of the first minute, the beginning of the last minute, and twice at the end of the last minute (often they also do three bangs fifteen seconds later to indicate the judges are no longer taking notes and the speaker should really wrap up now). There are apps like Debatekeeper for android and Debate Timer for IOS that can do this for you.

Keeping order. In actual parliaments this can involve stopping people speaking out of turn, or for too long, or breaking up fights, but this is rarely an issue in debating. The chair normally just needs to make sure people are being generally polite (e.g. not talking too loudly, or being disruptive when another speaker is speaking) and maintain order with points of information (e.g. making sure someone stops talking when asked to). The same applies to audiences where relevant.

Announcing of speakers is simple enough. The general script is after each speech to say “I’d like to thank the speaker for that [excellent/other pleasant adjective] speech and invite the [name of next speaker] to continue the debate/continue the case for their side of the house/finish off the top half/finish off the debate.” You can add some flair to this if you like, as long as it doesn’t demonstrate any favouritism.

At the end of the debate you should thank all the speakers, invite them to shake hands and leave the room while the judges come to a decision, then either return when called (in an open round) or find you later for feedback (in a closed round)

Expressions during the debate - you should generally not give too much away when judging so don’t make any obvious gestures or facial expressions in response to particularly good/bad points, but feel free to smile and nod encouragingly when a speaker is obviously nervous or inexperienced. You don't need to be a robot, you can laugh when they say amusing things, but you should give an impression of neutrality.

Judging discussion

Standard way to start is for you and all your wings to look over your notes and come to a rough call. (I wrote about this more in part 2). The advantage of all doing this separately is so that people can get their thoughts and arguments together, and avoid people being biased to think in certain ways, or lean to certain conclusions because they were brought up first. [This is a general issue in group discussions and brainstorming which psychologists call "collaborative fixation."]

Chairs are powerful - CC Photopin
When asking the wings to give their rough calls I would ask the least experienced wings first so they are not intimidated if they agree with a more experienced judge. At this point don't ask for, or allow, people to go into explanations, this is just to get a rough idea where everyone stands. Note down each persons call and then you can either tell them yours, so some chairs prefer not to to avoid biasing people's comments.

For the actual meat of the discussion it is difficult to set down hard and fast rules, as it will depend a lot on what happened in the debate and the personalities of the wings.

Try to include every wing in the discussion even if they are quiet due to nerves or inexperience, and conversely you may need to cut off people who are dominating the discussion or discussing things that are unhelpful to the call.

Take notes of what people are saying during the discussion so you can include their thoughts when you are giving the reasoning for the call and feedback afterwards.

If you have positions that everyone agrees on (e.g. CO clearly came 4th) I would quickly get someone to run through the reasons for the sake of due diligence and sanity checking, then move on. There’s no point rehashing something everyone agrees on when you could use that time discussing more contentious parts of the call.

Based on the rough calls order the discussion around disagreements. Focus on the comparison between teams rather than overall comments on the debate. It can be useful to have judges on different sides of a question give their justification, (e.g. Alice why did you think OG beat OO? Bob why did you think OO beat OG?). Or narrow down discussions to particular parts of the debate (“Who do we think was best on the Opp bench?”).

A lot of the stuff about how to choose between teams was covered in the previous posts, so I won't rehash it. But remember as chair to keep focus on the important points of comparison between the teams, and make sure that you and your wings are discussing what was actually said in the debate, rather than reading more into arguments you like, or drawing connections where they weren't made. You should also be clear about what is important and relevant in the debate, its fine not to come to a consensus on whether a particular point stood if that point was not very important to the overall results of the debate. 

As in any judging discussion the objective is not to "win" by getting everyone to agree with your call, but to come to the right call. It does not undermine your authority as chair to change your mind, delusions of infallibility are far worse than taking information from wings into account, that is what they are there for after-all. You also shouldn't try to broker and trade with wings about votes for different positions in the debate (e.g. ""I'll agree to give OG the 1st if you agree to give CO the 2nd.") This tends to result in incoherent calls that reflect no-ones real opinion. If you have differing interpretations that cause you to see the debate radically differently you should try to discuss and resolve those, rather than compromising on a mishmash. 

Ideally once people have discussed a question they will come to agreement, but given the limited time available feel free to cut off discussion if a majority has formed and you have to move on. If you have genuinely irresolvable disagreements about a call you can call a vote, but I would avoid this if possible.

Treat your chair well. - CC Stockvault
Once you are agreed on the call you can then discuss speaker points. Start with the best speaker and work downwards in most cases. Asking the judges which speakers they thought were better than one another (e.g. CG extension was clearly better than the sum but about the same as opp extension...).

Write down the positions and speaker points on the ballot, getting someone to double check your mental maths where necessary (so the tab team doesn’t feel the need to murder you). Then give the ballot to a runner, or asking a wing to take it to the tab room. 

Then call the speakers back in to give feedback.

The standard method is to announce the result (Opening government took the first....) then make comparative justifications between the teams (We thought the argument about X beat the argument that Y...). 

It is important to differentiate this from comments that are intended to help the speaker do better in the future but were not part of the reasoning for the decision (e.g. you could have done with better structure, you could have talked about this thing...). Depending on time and other considerations the chair may also make general comments after the comparative feedback.

When doing the comparative feedback you need to be structured and confident in how you go about it so that the speakers feel confident in how you came to the decision. Referring to notes made during the judging discussion can help, as can specifically referencing what teams said rather than making general statements.

Don't be afraid to tell teams which parts of the call were contentious on the panel and where things were relatively clear. This can help teams in calibrating where the need to develop and in knowing what they need to make clearer in future. A close call is often a sign of neither team having been clear enough.

Often novice chairs are intimidated at giving feedback to speakers who are 'better' or more experienced than them. Remember that it was their job to convince you of the rightness of their position during the course of the debate. Even if their bizarre economics analysis was very clever, if they haven't gotten it across to you and the other judges in the course of their speeches that's their problem not yours.   

You should also remind speakers that they can ask you or any of your wings for individual feedback afterwards. This gives you an opportunity to go into more detail about what worked and didn't in specific speeches, and give advice for longer term improvement.

Thanks for everyone who gave feedback on drafts of this. I'm doing a variant on NaNoWriMo where I try to write 1000+ words a day, so will probably post a fair amount in the near future. I wrote a slightly ranty thing about ethics and Dr Who on my personal blog that may amuse. Comments and feedback are as always appreciated, especially questions from novice chairs. -JH

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