Shengwu Li uses his large experience in debate and as a CA to give new CA’s advice on setting motions.
As it stands, knowledge about how to debate well is pretty effectively passed on from one generation of debaters to the next. There are typically training regimens and/or coaching arrangements that pass on institutional knowledge, and good debaters will debate publicly often enough for many to learn by imitation.
However, there is one important bit of knowledge which has (so far) stubbornly refused transfer from generation to generation; namely, how to set good motions at a debating tournament. Most of the process behind setting good motions happens out of the public eye, and even though the quality of the end result is plain to see, frequently the mistakes CA teams make are subtle and difficult to diagnose.
Setting good motions is difficult. But I’ve been at this rather a long time, and I thought I’d make a list of recommendations. Hopefully this will eventually lead to some kind of overlapping consensus on what constitutes best-practice for a CA team.
- Start thinking of motions months in advance. Don’t try to come up with motions on the day itself. When you set a motion at a reasonably sized IV, you are deciding what more than a hundred people will think and talk about for the next hour of their lives. Take the time to do it right; if you’ve come up with a motion half an hour beforehand, it’s unlikely that you’ll have thought through enough of its implications to know how well it will turn out when eight intelligent debaters argue about it for an hour. There are two reasons you should do this. First, setting balanced motions requires thorough motions testing, which frequently cannot be accomplished on the day of the IV. Second, setting interesting or inspired motions is a contemplative process. Inspiration may strike five times over the course of a month, if you’re being reflective and alert to world events. Inspiration will almost never strike five times in the course of a day; so don’t show up needing to create interesting motions on the fly.
- Be self-critical about your own ideas. Have lots of ideas for motions, and winnow down ruthlessly. Whatever you do, don’t ‘own’ a motion and treat it as your child. Frequently, ideas that seem cool or interesting at first sight may not turn out to be good debates, and you need to be able to acknowledge that in order to set motions well. Most of the motions you initially think of will turn out to be problematic. I typically generate dozens of motions for each IV , in the knowledge that less than a quarter of the motions I create will eventually make it through the testing process.
- Test motions thoroughly for balance and depth. Ideally, you should get pairs of debaters (of varying skill levels) to prep each side of the motion, to make sure that they ‘get’ it. But at a minimum, you should conduct the following tests:
- Ask yourself whether a debater who reads (but doesn’t remember every detail from) reputable mainstream news sources would know what the debate is about.
- Check that there are at least five logically distinct, individually persuasive arguments on each side of the motion that are accessible to non-specialists. (Sometimes five isn’t enough; but it is a bare minimum.)
- Check that neither side has a silver bullet, that is, a persuasive argument that is so strong as to admit no effective answers.
- Ask yourself if experienced debaters whose only concern was victory would split roughly 50-50 on whether they would rather be prop or opp.
- For early rounds in the tournament, check that there are few ways for Opening teams to doom Closing teams by their incompetence.
- Ask yourself if it is possible for opening teams to ‘break’ the debate via sneaky definitions or policies. (Put yourself in the mindset of an opening team looking to win the debate by whatever means necessary, however unsporting they are.)
- Don’t expect each member of a CA team to have a certain number of ‘their’ motions in the final mix. Setting motions is a joint responsibility, and all members of a CA team should be responsible for every motion that is announced in its final form, regardless of who had the initial idea. Frequently, some members of a team will be better at coming up with ‘seed’ ideas, and others will be better at critiquing and refining them. Specialise, exploit your comparative (and absolute) advantages. If, in negotiations, you let slip one problematic motion from another member of the CA team, just so they’ll stop objecting to one of yours, you are doing all the competitors a disservice.
- Don’t set motions just because you can imagine yourself having a great time in Opening Government. This happens more often than you think. It may be that because you’ve thought a lot about the subject, you can find the proposition arguments that win devastatingly. Well done, you. But think about the arguments that good debaters who are non-specialists will have access to after fifteen minutes of thinking, and balance debates according to that.
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