Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Civil Disobedience and debate, pt. 2

Let me begin this little tale by explaining the background...

BNstate (you know where BNCC is if you are old enough... you might have been there for NPTE) has a very small local circuit. More or less, it was us, fancy pants college, Catholic College, Good Baptist school and Small Lutheran school doing our kind of debate on a regular basis. Other schools would throw in a token team or two on occasion and come up with an entry for state, but they had no emphasis on debate and didn't travel the national circuit.

BNstate has also produced some excellent high school policy debaters, most of whom leave the state to compete. Some stay to compete with a couple of decent policy schools, but if they really want to be serious about college policy, they go elsewhere.

Hubby and I moved to BN state and I was hired to start the program at Catholic College (CC). I didn't work at Big Northern Community College (BNCC) until the next year -- where D1 and I started the team.... So, we start coaching at CC and preparing students for the small competitions at SL.... and we do so like we learned to do debate on the national circuit, via Red State (Hubby's current employer and BA school).

The national circuit practices included coaching debaters during their 15 minute prep time and later using files of information gathered to prepare cases.

SL thought this practice was pretty much going to ruin debate. They started putting rules in place at their tournaments -- but, like good Lutherans, they were very passive aggressive about it. The phrasing was something like, "teams are not expected to coach in preparation time or to use materials other than a dictionary in preparation time" -- It didn't say "expected not to" -- which is quite different from "not expected to"....

.... Snarky side comment that is kind of out of line -- The director of debate at SL got his BA at SL and debated for them, it is too bad that he didn't get a better education, or he'd have been able to proofread his invitation and realize that "not expected to" and "expected not to" mean very different things...... back to the original story...

So, the last time hubby and I went to SL's tournament and decided to do some coaching in prep. Our students weren't advanced enough (or were too lazy, really) to generate materials to be used in prep.... so our only violation was giving them some constructive advise during their preparation time.

...... explanation for the non-debaters -- "preparation time" is the 15 minutes between the reading of the resolution and the beginning of the debate. Each new resolution requires the team to prepare to support or defend the resolution. It is now normal for coaches and students to confer to some degree about what they'll run. We call this educational and helpful for debaters of all levels.... those who are against it think we are dictating cases to our debaters -- we've tried that at one tournament, it is a horrible idea and we never did it again... back to the story...

Hubby and I know that SL doesn't really approve of coaching in prep, so we did it in a discrete manner. We find corners or empty classrooms etc... We aren't in their face about it and we always get our own rounds started first. We also don't share our advanced knowledge of the resolution with our students, as that is cheating.

In the past two years we tried to discuss the coaching in prep practice with the SL leaders, to no avail. They don't even want to discuss why they object to the practice or hear why it might be a good and helpful thing. The fact that it increases access and increases the levels of both knowledge and case writing in debate fall on deaf ears. We suspect the real reason is that Hubby routinely beat the SL coach as a competitor.... but, never the less, we tried.

At the last SL tournament, SL director got dirty -- he claimed to have seen us coaching during prep for round 5 (but, he couldn't have... anyway), told our opponents and judges that coaching in prep is a reason to drop us -- and that the other team should make the arguments (ummm... isn't that coaching?). For round 6 (since he couldn't make the tab program work to do this) he hand wrote a round 6 posting that gave us judges he knew were very much against coaching in prep. We didn't coach in round 6 (and were very public about not doing so) and (we found later) those coaches dropped our debaters for actions done before round 5. When asked if coaching in prep impacted their decision, they got hostile.

So -- before we knew about breaks (remember, no disclosure of records either) we hatched a plan. The plan was simple -- If one or both of our teams broke, the first constructive speech would begin with a concession of the round. We'd then say that we are going to ignore the topic and begin a debate on the value of coaching in preparation time and allowing research materials in prep. The point was to set-up a situation in which the judges in the round would have to have those arguments played out in front of them... they may not listen to the arguments, but they couldn't help hearing about it.

Sadly, I can't tell you how it would have worked out -- because both of our teams were 3/3 -- with two of their three losses coming in the last two rounds. Some 3/3 teams broke, but we didn't have the speaks to do it....

We asked for our packet and left the tournament.

That was the last time we went back to a tournament run by SL. My last two years coaching, I took my students to two tournaments in-state. One was run by a nice but not exactly flexible TD who wanted to handle a large squad not showing up for the tournament by giving byes all over the place (as in, they were in about 1/2 the rounds, so 1/2 of the teams would have had un-earned wins...). Thank goodness Good Baptist's director convinced him to re-pair the tournament. The other was state -- where my best team was 1-3, my worst team was 2-2 and my middle team (but the sweet, smiley ones) broke to elims 3-1.

I had other reasons not to return to our state tournament -- but it didn't help that SL director tried to unilaterally impose his parli rules into the state rule set. I caught him and GB's director made him take them out AND posted corrections with the pairings....

Recently, SL announced that they have canceled a couple of their small tournaments because of lack of attendance. Often the difference between making it and not is a matter of two or three teams.

A major factor in my decision to stop coaching debate was that we had to travel so far for competitions. SL is practically local (90ish minutes), but since I held a firm belief that their tournaments were anti-educational AND a terrible experience for my debaters, I could not take or send my teams to them. As a result, I handed the program over to a wonderful policy coach.

So -- I suppose in the end SL got some punishment for their actions. It really is the case that if they hadn't had such stupid and anti-educational rules, their students would have been able to debate in the tournaments they canceled. It is also the case that if coaching and materials had been allowed all along, the level of debate would be higher and as such, the education gained in each round by the debaters would have been increased.

It is pretty clear how our planned action would have been a full act of civil-disobedience...

1) We identified a real problem with a real solution.
2) We tried to change the system from within (for two years or so, at least...).
3) Had we been advanced to the next round (or had the shenanigans began earlier in the tournament) we would have been civilly disobedient.
4) Our act of disobedience includes taking at least one punishment and may have resulted in others, which we would have accepted and publicized in order to make the point about the rules in place.

So, folks, debating about debate isn't new -- nor is civil disobedience in debate. The difference is that your recent actions weren't exactly costly or difficult for you, although I am still skeptical about how they can produce change...

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