Tomas Beerthuis reflects on adjudication in the Dutch Debating Circuit.
Adjudication, a crucial part of competitive debate, is under increased pressure and threat in the Dutch debating scene. In order to ensure continuous growth of new debaters, we need to protect the quality of adjudication and with that, the quality of debate. For that, a different approach is necessary.
Why good judging is crucial
A lot of us love debating because it allows you to play an intelligent game that can be won by being better at playing it. When judges fail to understand the rules of the game, part of the fun disappears. Few people are born a good judge, it requires time and practice to internalize the rules and etiquette. When you play Tennis and you are serving, it’s annoying when the referee doesn’t know that when the ball touches the net and subsequently crosses it, it means you get another service. When playing Hasbro’s Risk, it’s annoying when another player doesn’t know that you can cross from the Middle East to East Africa. When you play football and the other side scores when it’s off-side, it would be frustrating if the goal would count nonetheless. When the outcome of a debate is arbitrary, based on individual preferences, winning and losing becomes luck. It’s then a bit like Russian roulette, where you hope to get lucky each time.
Apart from reduced fun, poor adjudication influences how much people learn. Great feedback that is spot on can really give people the boost that they need to develop their skills and feel empowered. Moreover, without good adjudication, competitions are simply no longer fair. It’s much less fun to call yourself the winner of a tournament if the results were completely random. Especially in a game where we like to test ourselves in competitions, we need to ensure that there is a very strong common understanding of what winning looks like. Without that, the foundation of the game is lost.
Threats to good adjudication in The Netherlands
The Dutch debating scene, still a relatively small scene, has historically had a relatively deep and wide judging pool. Today there are 2 key developments:
#1: There is a decrease in training new judges
Debating societies spend much less time on training new judges than they did historically. There are few judging workshops, there is little encouragement for judging as a separate challenge and very few rewards for judges from societies. For example, judges often need to pay to go to a tournament, which can work as a discouragement. This development breaks down the foundations needed to build a strong pool of judges in the Dutch circuit. Often societies struggle to balance various priorities, such as recruitment, finance and tournaments. However, what’s important to recognize, is that without investment in adjudication, the game gets badly damaged. It’s not much use organizing a fantastic debate evening or a tournament if the outcomes are rubbish. It discourages people, leads them to believe that the game is random and diminishes their development.
#2: There are too few (good) judges
The historically wide and deep judging pool has decreased over the past few years. Increasingly, tournaments are struggling to fit each room with a competent chair judge, leading to a decrease in the strength of our adjudication. This is partly because of development #1, but also because societies tend to send novice members to adjudicate, rather than mobilizing their experienced core. There is also a tendency to break/dodge the N-1 rule, furthering strengthening the problem at tournaments.
How we change the tide
There are tons of initiatives possible to change these developments. Below I suggest some that I support and that have shown to be effective in the past.
1. Use incentives to promote judging
We need to reward judging as something that is valuable to our game and community. Not only does this give proper credit, it also encourages others to judge more. Think of things like making judges attend a tournament for free (no reg-fee) or getting a free drink. For top judges, consider paying for their travel costs or parking. Societies wanting to organize a tournament should include this as a cost line in their budget. Or set-up a point system (possibly within societies) that allows you to be prioritized for tournaments when you’ve judged a lot. Alternatively, use a stick rather than a carrot and set-up a system where you need to judge in order to speak at tournaments.
2. Mobilize (experienced) judges to judge
Societies very often do not meet their N-1 rule or send novice judges to competitions. This doesn’t help judging, because there will be too few experienced judges to help train the novice judges. Moreover, there are too few judges in numbers as well, because societies often try to dodge the N-1 rule. This needs a change in behavior from societies to mobilize more (experienced) judges. There is a role for the Dutch Debating Association to help enforce this.
3. Actively train new judges
I strongly believe that societies should invest in actively training new judges. This can be done by organizing judging workshops, sharing educational videos or just spending 5 minutes at the beginning of a debate evening to discuss a judging question or case, inspiring people to think like a judge.
4. Share knowledge across the circuit
There is a role for the Dutch Debating Association to leverage the existing knowledge sharing system online, organize workshops or promote cross-society learning. Think of sharing judge briefings, videos, documentation or possibly even picking judge accreditation back up. It’s also the Association’s responsibility to protect judging across the circuit.
5. Take individual responsibility
This applies more to experienced debaters than those just starting. Having enjoyed good adjudication gives you a responsibility to give back to the circuit by going to tournaments and judging yourself. In a game where everything relies on volunteers, this is your chance to give back to debating and help others be as good as you became.
Putting in place the measures above will no doubt help to bring back judging to a higher level. We need to also sustain that over time. What tends to happen in debating, is that we forget about judging when the circuit or a society is having a challenging time. Especially then, we need more investment in good judging. When your society is struggling to retain members, it will not do much good to have even worse judging. This will deter people from debating further, rather than make your life easier. It would also exacerbate all of the issues outlined above, leading to worse outcomes.
We can bring back powerful adjudication to our circuit – using smart tools to encourage and cherish judging. Simultaneously, we should take responsibility for judging and share our knowledge across the circuit. It’s important to maintain a dialogue around developments such as these in our circuit. In order to respond adequately to challenges in Dutch debating, we need to identify existing problems and offer solutions to try and make a change. It’s my hope that this article will contribute to that as a first step.
Photo credit to Manuel Adams