At the World Debate Forum 2013 in Berlin, Doug Cochran provided ten suggestions for a better WUDC. Achteminute, the German debateblog, asked him to share a bit more on his thoughts about one of his suggestions: abolish POIs. Seventwenty read the interview and asked some follow-up questions.
Doug, how are you?
Very well, thanks!
On Achteminute you further explained your suggestion that we should drop POIs from BP. For those of our readers who don’t have the time to click this link, can you repeat the argument – why should we abolish POIs?
Sure thing- it’s very kind of you to give me the space to set out my reasons. I should probably start by saying- as I do in the article- that I’m not that involved in debating at this point, and I’m very firmly of the belief that debating is what its current participants want it to be. That having been said, I think that POIs are damaging to the format because they are disruptive and very difficult to evaluate.
Let’s start with the disruptive part- POIs can indeed sometimes be obnoxiously offered. If we really feel this is a problem, wouldn’t it be better to regulate away the bad behavior? For example, we’ve already said formally, as a community, that debaters shouldn’t ‘flag’ their POI when offering it – we could do the same thing here, couldn’t we?
That’s a fair point. I suppose my feeling is that regulation is limited in what it can achieve. I’m of the view that regulations work best when we have tangible ‘bright lines’ that can separate out the lawful and unlawful behaviour. Telling people not to be disruptive is all well and good, but it would take a courageous judge to call an experienced speaker to order (this may be a peculiarly British phenomenon). More generally, I think that a lot of the disruptive quality of POIs is inherent to the fact that you are spending lots of time out of your seat saying, ‘’Sir/Madam!’’ and trying to get everyone’s attention. Even if debaters behave, I still think it interrupts proper listening.
Part of your argument was also that they’re difficult to evaluate. What problems do judges run into?
Well, I think the problem is that they aren’t certain how to penalise teams who don’t take a sufficient number of POIs. Assuming we’re only going to punish those speakers who don’t take any, it’s worth mentioning at the outset that there’s then an awful lot of jumping up and down for a single question in each speech, so even if POIs were theoretically useful, the fact that we have a requirement only that one be taken limits their usefulness. Even then, it’s very difficult for judges to know what to do when a team doesn’t take one.
But isn’t this a matter for CA-teams to provide clear instructions on?
Absolutely, but I don’t think there is clear guidance to be offered. I’ve been on a number of Adjudication teams, and I’ve never been able to formulate a standard that I thought was easily workable. As I say in the article, the current standard of ‘penalise the team as though they had accepted a damaging POI’ doesn’t seem to work. Which of their arguments did this hypothetical POI damage? To what extent did it do so? Which opposing team receives the credit? I have no idea. I should also point out that that I have only once in my debating career witnessed a judge tell speaker that their failure to take a POI impacted upon the rank they received. Judges are worried about being seen as incapable of assessing arguments- thinking about rules is seen as the sort of thing that bad judges do in default of weighing what the teams have actually said.
At Amsterdam EUDC, where the adjudication team (of which I was a part) suggested a two-point penalty for a speaker failing to take a POI (assuming they were offered a sufficient number). Suffice it to say, judges and speakers didn’t like it. Tournaments thereafter made a great show (to applause) about how they would have no mandatory penalty. The idea has since died (though I’d happily bring it back!).
Suppose someone says: I find debates with POIs more interesting to watch, because it provides the viewer with more interaction?
As I say, if POIs are intrinsic to everyone’s enjoyment of the activity, then that’s absolutely fine and I’ll happily shut up and stop ruining everyone’s fun! My own view is this: particularly in public debates, when there’s a crowd watching, producing a thoughtful, measured speech that captures the audience’s attention is just much harder if it’s done amidst a hail of interruptions. Imagine Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ or any other great speech being offered by people jumping out with pained expressions screaming, ‘Sir!’ We’ll likely never reach those lofty oratorical heights, but I think that POIs make it so much less likely that we’ll even come close.
So, what do you think? Should POIs be abolished or do they add indispensably to debates? Respond in the comments!