Saturday, April 22, 2006

My experiences on the debate team

National Forensics LeagueI got onto the debate team in my freshman year largely because people told me my college chances would depend on being "well-rounded". (I'd been enjoying being on the math team since 7th grade for the same reason, so why not?) It quickly became my favorite extracurricular activity. I was terrible at the speech side of speech and debate, though I now realize I could have been good at the improv category. But debate was better anyway.

The first two and a half years were spent on what was called "varsity debate", which is very legalistic and structured. Not that that's a bad thing. In varsity, the entire year would be spent on one resolution that governed all debates; for instance, my first year it was "Resolved: that the federal government should initiate and enforce safety guarantees on consumer goods." (Yes, that's from memory.)

There were four people in each debate, two on each team: the positions were First Affirmative (1A), Second Affirmative (2A), First Negative (1N), and Second Negative (2N), and whatever position you were, you were all year long, and very likely in subsequent years as well. I was a 2A and damned good at it. Each debate round consisted of the following sequence:
  • 1AC - First Affirmative Constructive: an eight-minute speech which was prepared ahead of time, the same one all year long. It established the "case and plan" which the affirmative team developed and would argue the whole year. The case had to fit within the resolution; for instance, my freshman year's case concerned the use of antibiotics in animal feeds causing bacteria to become resistant. Everyone knows this nowadays, but back in 1979, this was pretty radical stuff to be arguing for! The plan then proposed a method of dealing with it. I can still, 25 years later, recite stretches of this speech from memory -- even though I never once delivered it, since I was a 2A.
  • 1AC Cross-Examination: three minute cross-examination by the 1N of the 1A, done in a style similar to a lawyer questioning a witness. No arguing, only asking and answering... though of course you could subtly score a point here and there in a cross-ex anyway.
  • 1NC - First Negative Constructive: The affirmative team debates their own case and plan every debate all year (and so typically carry around a single small index card box of evidence). The negative team has to be ready to argue against any case and plan the affirmatives might bring up, so they have several suitcases full of evidence cards and whole systems for dealing with different cases. Later in the year, when they know what everyone's arguing, they're usually better prepared. This eight-minute speech establishes the tone of the debate, generally.
  • 1NC Cross-Examination: The 2A (me!) cross-examines the 1N about his or her speech for three minutes.
  • 2AC - Second Affirmative Constructive: An eight-minute speech, all improvised, addressing the points raised by the 1NC. This is the only chance the affirmative team gets to raise new arguments that aren't in the case and plan, but are needed to counter the negative's attacks. Unless the negative team is very weak, this speech will be crammed full.
  • 2AC Cross-Examination: The 2N cross-examines the 2A for three minutes.
  • 2NC - Second Negative Constructive: The 2N gets eight minutes to bring up new arguments and bolster old ones. This speech is important because it's the last chance to introduce new arguments to the debate.
  • 2NC Cross-Examination: The 1A cross-examines the 2N for three minutes. An odd cross-ex since the 1A won't be doing the next speech.
  • 1NR - First Negative Rebuttal: In the rebuttal speechs, no new topics or arguments can be introduced, only rebuttals of previous arguments. These speeches are all only four minutes. Even though the last full speech was from the 2N, now the 1N speaks, so in essence the negative team gets 12 minutes straight of speech with only a cross-ex in the middle. Which forms a pretty potent barrage to refute, but it does mean this speech is the least important in the debate, generally speaking.
  • 1AR - First Affirmative Rebuttal: Generally speaking the 1A is the position for the weakest debater since 8 of their 12 minutes is reading a canned speech. However, though this is only four minutes of improv, they have 12 minutes of speech to counter, so it's an important speech. Or it should be. Typically it wasn't, because typically the 1A was the weakest player.
  • 2NR - Second Negative Rebuttal: The negative team's last chance to score points.
  • 2AR - Second Affirmative Rebuttal: Last licks! The most important part of the round, usually. As the 1A was usually the weakest debater, the 2A was usually the strongest since he would have to carry a weak partner, while the negatives were a more even team.
So in total, each team would do 24 minutes of speaking and 6 minutes of cross-examining. Your total prep time for this was 3 minutes, for the entire round. I would usually use no prep time. By the time my opponent was done speaking, I was already ready with notes and outlines.

This is great practice for the mind muscles and very fun, even if it does tend to be kind of legalistic, proving ground for those who might become lawyers and legislators and such. In my junior year, though, I heard about another kind of debate, called Lincoln-Douglas, and as soon as I heard what it was like, I said, why haven't I been doing this all along? My varsity team kind of fell apart and my defecting to L-D was part of why it did.

In L-D, you would have a new topic every tournament. You'd not find out what it was until the afternoon before. It'd be something more philosophical than legalistic, like "Strong fences make good neighbors", or "The vision of George Orwell's 1984 has come to pass". You weren't a team, just single debaters. You wouldn't even have, let alone depend on, index cards with bits of evidence to read off. Best of all... you would be arguing affirmative some rounds and negative other rounds in the same tourney on the same subject. That develops some nice mental flexibility, having to switch sides from one round to the next on the same topic. It was great fun.

L-D rounds are much shorter: AC 7 minutes, AC CX 3 minutes, NC 7 minutes, NC CX 3 minutes, AR 4 minutes, NR 4 minutes, if I remember right. Even less prep time, too, which again I rarely used. Very much something where you have to think on your feet. Less structured, but you still have the situation -- lost to most people who engage in what passes for "debate" on the Internet -- where you have to make cogent arguments that actually refute your opponent, you have to take turns, and you can't just repeat yourself louder. I sometimes wish more people had been forced to do this.

I came into it very late, towards the end of my junior year. Even so, in my senior year, I went to the state finals and took 11th place in New York, which is not bad at all -- New York being large and also home to some of the strongest schools in the country (notably, in our division, the Bronx High School of Science, and Sacred Heart Academy, to which my own high school was always a respectable but distant third). If I'd gotten into L-D earlier, I would have, I feel sure, taken a state finals trophy before I graduated.

Once in a while I think back on the mental invigoration of that, and wish I could get involved in something like it again. But I know better than to get involved in political or philosophical debates on newsgroups or fora.

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