The recent judges’ briefing for the upcoming European Championships in debating has stirred some controversy. This is Michael Shapira’s reaction to the changes made in how to make and deal with POIs.
The recent brieﬁng and later clariﬁcation released by the adjudication core of the upcoming EUDC Manchester 2013 has included some changes in the way we are to treat Points of Information (POI). These changes consist of two major elements. The ﬁrst is, that being allowed to offer a POI has changed to become 15 seconds of “protected time”, in which the POI giver may do as he or she pleases. The second change is an introduction of a “Mandatory POI” under which a speaker must take a POI during their speech. Failing to do so, the speaker is then required to take a POI at the six minute bell (or shortly thereafter).
This has, as I’m sure the A Team expected, attracted a bit of attention, some of it negative. I would like to join that discussion speaking on behalf of myself only. Before I start I would like to say: Shengwu, Omer, Dessislava, Joe, Moki and Andrew, I’ve had the pleasure of judging or being part of an A team with each of you. I found each of you to be brilliant individuals from which I learned and can still learn a lot. I regard you as friends. Please see these remarks just as they are, concerns over a choice that was made and how it was presented.*
1. It is a big a change.
During a reply to a Facebook post Shengwu commented that the 15 second rule is not that different from that other rule requiring you to speak 7 min. The later published FAQ document further states that 15 second POIs had always been the rule. I disagree with this on two levels, one more conceptual and the other practical.
• The Conceptual Change. This is admittedly, perhaps subjective. However, I was educated to understand that the speaker’s speech time are hers and hers alone. The speaker has seven minutes, two of them protected from interruption, in which she can do what ever she thinks is necessary to try to convince the panel that her side is the winning one. She may use all 7 minutes as she may use 1, she may take 12 POIs, she may sing or tell jokes. We as coaches and adjudicators normally tend to advise against these practices, as they are in general less persuasive. But there is actually no categorical reason why a person can not argue well and win a room with a 4 minute speech or that the answers to those 12 POIs didn’t contain with in them all argumentation needed to win a round. It is just not likely, but we let the speaker choose his method.
I see not taking POIs as falling in the same category. I agree that POIs add to the ‘overall engagement’ of the debate. However engagement in itself is only a tool that adds to persuasiveness. It stands to reason that you are less persuasive if you can’t deal with opposite opinions and arguments.. Effectively dealing with the other sides arguments is such an impressive persuasion tool, that we emphasize it when giving feedback or reasoning. We do it so often, that perhaps it became too easy to confuse the means from the end. It is possible to be the most persuasive person in a room without what we would call engagement, It is just rare. I believe we should allow debaters to go for it if they wish, penalties will arrive if it doesn’t work. Debaters should be allowed to try it, or, as the Manchester 2014 Judges brieﬁng put it “be open to more styles”.
• The More Practical Change. Perhaps your conception of debate is different than mine. Perhaps you see the new rules as enhancing the opportunity for engagement and there for good and indeed in line with other rules. Fine, but please bear with me regarding actual changes in the way we play the game that these rules make. At least so we can from now agree that some degree of change was made.
POIs as I know them, and can attest to, are normally short, often under 8 seconds, and often halted by the speaker before completed. This is how BP debate has been played for several years in most of the European Circuit and at WUDC. If in some distance past this wasn’t the case, it has not been so for the past 5 years. Indeed if what I say wasn’t the truth, the change to the rules would not have been necessary.
As a result we teach and train BP in manners that take in to account short POIs. This effects the way we are use to debate in three ways I can think of, perhaps there are more:
• We are used to give shorter POIs. I personally spent much of the the last year training my students to work on making their POIs shorter and more to the point in order to ensure their message is delivered before they are sat down. It is a skill they all worked on developing and improving. They no longer need that. They now have to adapt to writing longer POIs. That is a change. Perhaps we will all be better off if POIs become a bit more robust, but that is a change.
• The answer to a more elaborate POI on the spot, or the answer to serval points given at once (speciﬁcally allowed under the new rules), is a new, perhaps blessed, challenge that debaters need to adapt to. Again, a change in the way we do certain things during our speech, and a new skill that needs to be worked on, honed, and improved.
• The fact that the speaker effectively “lost control” of 15 seconds of time, means that time you allocate for POIs in your speech has changed. You now must consider the 15sec, along with the longer time it would probably take you to answer it. Correct time management is a tough skill to develop, and those who were use to the old system, are now confronted with a change.
2. The timing issue.
I hope that by now you agree with me that a change has indeed been made. But many changes happened to debate over time, isn’t it possible that this is just another step on the way to a more perfect format? The answer is, yes, it is possible. However most European debaters and judges were introduced to this change when the brieﬁng was published, two weeks before the tournament. I think that in a smaller, less important tournament this may have been acceptable, giving enough time for those who strongly appose it to ‘vote with their feet’ and not go. Furthermore the price for not being used to a new format would not be as high.
This is not the case for EUDC. For start due to the importance of the tournament the audience is pretty much captive. But further more, debaters spend months preparing for EUDC. They work on skills based on the format they know, and often choose tournaments between January and August based on the amount of preparation to EUDC they will receive.
If this change is one that the European Debate circuit needs, then it would have been immensely better had the Adjudication core announced in advance that they plan to implement it. Allowing debaters, coaches and tournaments to set themselves to these new rules and enjoy or provide adequate preparation. I don’t believe that two weeks, is enough for those adjustments.
I understand that in some IONA tournaments these or similar rules have actually been implemented and obviously to some degree of success. This makes matters much worse in my opinion as this makes continental debaters (e.i the majority) disadvantaged beyond the normal languages barriers that are normally there.
Finally on this point, I’d like to address why this is different from previous changes such as adding an analysis motion for the ﬁrst time in EUDC Koç 2007, which in turn enriched the debate experience. Yes, in Koç some may have suffered from not being familiar with analysis motions. But those who did, paid the price in one round, giving them ample time to make up the lost points if that happened. The POI change effects all rounds. If you are a debater that needs time to adjust to this change in one of the manners I’ve mentioned: EUDC will be harder for you no matter how many prep tournaments you went to before hand.
3. European Debaters Lose Their Advantage.
The European Debating circuit has a signiﬁcant advantage over others at WUDC. We don’t have to change from the format we are used to, the one that includes the shorter POIs. A European debater who is use to giving uninterrupted lengthy POIs, will have a harder time once she is sat down mid point at worlds and does not enjoy the protecting interruption of the chair**.
Some may argue that moving away from the WUDC format is actually a healthy addition to the developing of the European circuit’s abilities. They would say that being able to diversify in formats increases our ﬂexibility. They probably would point to the success of the Australasian circuit in recents worlds as an example. I think they will also probably be right. But that is, for lack of a better word, debatable. As this effects the debating careers of many European debaters, it probably would have been better if they had a chance to voice an opinion.
An Adjudication core should have discretion in making sure that the game is as standardized as possible. That will always include some degree of adjustments. We chose our A teams because we trust their experience, expertise and judgment. As I said at the beginning, I believe that in EUDC Manchester 2013 we have an entire list of individuals worthy of that trust and then some. At the same time I think that a change of this sort would have been easier to accept had there been more open communication between the debating circuit and the Adjudication core about those plans. Such openness would give more debaters that feeling that if European Debating is going to change direction, they had a chance to say something about it. A commendable example is Frederick Cowell and Danique Van Koppenhagen’s handling of the new DCA selection process in the bid for EUDC Durham 2014. The decisions were ultimately their own and will be presented to council soon, but an honest discussion was invited and considered, even if not all opinions ended up getting representation.
To sum up. An A team has a pedagogic role, but it is also a service provider. If a change needs to be made, it should be proudly stated and not lay behind claims of adapting to the way the game is played today (at least in the continent, it is not). The enjoyers of the service, our participants, should receive time to absorb the changes and if something effects drastically the way European Debating is done, it would be nice to feel that European debaters were more involved in that change, even if not as decision makers.
I’m sure EUDC Manchester will be terriﬁc, two of my favorite motions setters are in that team. I wrote this not because I think the new rules should be changed at this point, I don’t. I wrote this because I felt that I had something to say about how changes to debate can be better introduced in the future. This is also why i choose this medium and not a more personal one. I am in no way an absolute authority on debate and so I’ve tried not to attach any normative value to the change itself, as it could turn out to be a great thing.
That would not be surprising, considering the high quality of the 6 people who decided on it. 6 people for whom I feel nothing but respect.
Please don’t bin me. 🙂
* Point of disclosure: during 2012 I was part of a rival bid to Manchester that never materialized. These words have nothing to do with that bid. If any readers think otherwise, please feel welcome to do so, this letter is indeed more interesting if it is read as a jealous revenge.
** I assume while writing this that future WUDC including the one I’m going to be DCAing at the end of the year (Chennai 2014) are not going to adopt this policy. As it is too soon and I am not writing under that capacity in anyway or form, I can not, at this point, promise that.