Author: Lawrence Zhou, UW assistant coach, WYVA coach, Team Wyoming coach
Team Wyoming had an incredible showing at the 2021 WHSAA State Forensics Tournament! We had finalists in every single division of debate – cross-examination (policy) debate, Lincoln-Douglas debate, and public forum debate!
In particular, congratulations to Hot Springs’ Jean-Luc Wilson and Jacob Randall for reaching finals of policy debate; Lander Valley’s Kephas Olsson and Mark Susanka for closing out Lincoln-Douglas debate; and Cheyenne East’s YuYu Yuan and Alexa Mejia for championing public forum debate (and additional congratulations to YuYu for being nominated as a Wyoming High School Forensics Association Ambassador)!
Team Wyoming members also constituted a significant portion of the other elimination rounds: WYVA’s (Niobrara) Kaitlyn and Jaden Campbell were in semifinals of policy debate, Green River’s Jessica Petri was in semifinals of Lincoln-Douglas debate, and Natrona County’s Artis Winfrey was in semifinals of public forum debate.
Many other Team Wyoming members also put up an impressive showing at the state tournament, scoring wins against some of the best debaters in the state: Green River’s Carter Tuttle in policy debate, Green River’s Faith Duncan and Laramie’s Sophia Gomelsky in Lincoln-Douglas debate, and Lander Valley’s Claire Lane in public forum debate.
Finally, shoutout to Niobrara’s (WYVA) Logan Rubottom for placing fourth Dramatic Interpretation (and first in his division)!
Team Wyoming is a testament to the fact that regular practice and inter-squad competition helps everyone. We have big plans to expand next year and to further help contribute to improving Wyoming forensics. And if you’re not already part of Team Wyoming, we strongly encourage you to join us next year! It should be even better, especially as we improve on the lessons learned from this year.
WYVA's State Prep
Whereas the Round Robin theme was ingenuity and argument innovation, the State theme was probably something more like adaption and consistency. The Round Robin was characterized by lots of elite, hired judging which enabled the debaters in the pool to run with arguments that might not fly with more local judging pools. Unsurprisingly, the Round Robin saw debates that were, on average, faster and more technical than the average local Wyoming tournament. However, the State Tournament did not have such a judging pool. Of the 24 judges entered to judge policy, only nine judges had a listed paradigm on Tabroom.com, and more than one of those paradigms was simply to encourage the debaters not to speak too quickly. We could not rely on deeper files, technical jargon, or wacky arguments to win. Instead, we had to adapt.
In that sense, we had some advantage because WYVA had some prior experience in other debate events which were more oriented around persuading more traditional judges. On the other hand, WYVA had also spent the entire season being exposed to more “progressive” and technical forms of debate and one of the hardest things to do is shedding a lot of the bad habits associated with those styles. To help facilitate this adaption, we had a few Team Wyoming sessions dedicated just to talking about adaption and practicing speaking conversationally and without unnecessary debate jargon. In retrospect, I wish we had done a few more practice sessions because knowing how to adapt and actually being able to do it in round are two totally different things.
We also had to think about how to beat these teams with more experience than us. In particular, we had to figure out how we would debate against Rock Springs and East, the two teams that had consistently beat us throughout the season (unsurprisingly, Rock Springs won States and East was in semifinals).
Now I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t think that deeply about the strategy to defeat those teams. I was swamped with other debate and schoolwork. And there’s only so much that you can do in terms of cutting new positions at the State Tournament because there’s a natural disincentive to break positions that are too far out of left field. But we did go in with one big strategy change: another new aff.
New affs are valuable because they deflate the value of (limited) pre-round and pre-tournament preparation and force debaters into unscripted speeches. You also get the benefit of anticipating the most likely responses to your aff and extensively frontlining them out which saves more of your very precious in-round prep time for thinking about how to execute your strategy as opposed to thinking of the strategy in-round.
Of course, not all new affs are good, so why did we choose not to read mandatory minimums or the tax crimes aff? Well, we actually did read mandatory minimums in the first aff round. Despite it being an aff that everyone has read all season, it is still a good aff – it’s just one of those affs that probably doesn’t solve that much, but what it does solve is pretty obviously bad, and doesn’t cause any real harms. The only thing you have to be prepared to answer as the aff is just the standard slate of bad generics like the states counterplan, the federalism disadvantage, and different flavors of backlash disadvantages. If you had a decent 2AC to those positions, you’d probably win most of your rounds all else equal. Unfortunately, the part that concerned us was the “all else equal.” Good teams can make bad arguments sound good, and we were just at an experience deficit against East and Rock Springs.
The tax crimes aff was also viable, but it’s just not an aff very friendly for most local judges. If we had gotten a judge favorable to that affirmative position, we would’ve definitely read it.
So we prepared to read the mandatory minimums aff for most of prelims but saved our new aff in case we hit either East or Rock Springs.
And hit them we did. In the second aff round, we were hitting East, so we broke the new aff. The new aff was about hotspots policing, a policing strategy that focused police resources in very specific “hotspots” of crime. Unlike the vast majority of other affirmative cases read in Wyoming, this aff was not “soft on crime” but rather “hard on crime.” While this seems at first glance to be a very odd strategic choice (the resolution is already fairly aff-biased because many hard on crime policies are just clearly ineffectual and counterproductive), it actually made a lot of sense. The aff was actually written for WYVA’s NSDA District Tournament specifically to read against East. The reason it was strategic is because almost every single one of East’s arguments they had been reading throughout the year was only against affs that were “soft on crime” like eliminating mandatory minimums or the death penalty. We knew that reading an aff in the complete opposite direction of their link arguments would throw them for a loop. Even if East had the prep or the ability to spin their arguments in-round, it would take them a few speeches to adapt in the time-pressured round which would be all that we needed to get an advantage over them. Plus, we knew that East would not read a kritik against us, so we could comfortably get away with saying the police were good without getting into trouble there.
Ultimately, we didn’t win against East in that round – they are formidable opponents and managed to spin their arguments to apply to this aff. However, the aff still served us well and we read it in the third aff prelim round and in both the quarters and semis. Even though we lost the surprise factor of reading the aff in those subsequent rounds, teams were still not able to compile a particularly deep case neg against it in the 24 hours since we broke the aff, and because this aff sidestepped the vast majority of team’s neg prep on this topic, it still threw many teams off their blocks and gave us a competitive advantage.
This aff came from a time when I was walking to the grocery store listening to a podcast episode from The Weeds which offhandedly mentioned a study about hotspot policing and how it was widely accepted in the criminal justice literature. I was intrigued, so when I got home, I started researching it and I discovered the literature base for it was surprisingly robust, so I immediately cut the aff in preparation for Districts. Aff inspiration can come from anywhere, which is why I strongly encourage so many of my students to listen to educational podcasts to just learn more about the world.
As for negative prep, we knew that we had already debated many of the teams throughout the season and we were pretty certain that only maybe one or two teams would break a new aff at State. So, we mostly focused on ensuring that our existing neg prep covered all our bases against the affs we knew people were reading. We didn’t innovate anything in particular, just refined and updated our existing files. Although, shoutout to Matt Liu for throwing together a politics DA against an aff in under 30 minutes when our files were a little incomplete.
But that prep is just one part of the equation. Executing that prep is as, if not more, important than doing the prep. I said earlier that the theme of the State Tournament was adaption and consistency. None of the prep we did, from the new aff to the refined neg positions, mattered if it was presented in a way that was off-putting to most judges. Whereas we spent most of pre-round prep at national tournaments talking about strategy and finding last minute updates for positions, we spent most of pre-round prep at the State Tournament talking about the importance of slowing down, sounding persuasive, and adapting to the judges. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if WYVA listened to me give the same spiel about adaption ten times throughout the course of the tournament, because the thing that mattered the most at this tournament was persuading the judges. If they couldn’t understand us (or didn’t want to), then we couldn’t win.
In retrospect, I wish we had spent just another week prepping for the tournament, particularly focusing on adapting, going slower, and improving our ethos. In many debates that are close, oftentimes the difference between winning and losing is just whether a judge thinks you sound like you’re winning. While we had a few sessions in which we simulated practice defending the new aff in a more persuasive manner, maybe just another practice round or two could’ve boosted our speaks by just a little, enough to change the seeding and the outcome of the tournament.
Thoughts About the State Tournament
This was my second time judging at the Wyoming State Tournament, although I spent most of my time last time judging in the Lincoln-Douglas and public forum pools. This time, I was judging in the policy pool. Overall, I thought the tournament ran well (and I thought it was cool that they borrowed from Matt Liu’s ZRM model), without significant delays in the tournament.
However, that is not to say there isn’t room for improvement. Many of the pairings came out at inconsistent times. Sometimes, the pairings would come out 5 minutes before the round started and other times it would come out 35 minutes before the round started. While certainly not the worst experience, it is a little frustrating. Having run tournaments before, I can understand that delays are inevitable. However, I do wish some of the delays were more clearly communicated to the debaters. For example, at the East Oklahoma NSDA District Tournament I was judging at a few weeks ago, whenever the tournament would run behind, they would always blast out a Tabroom announcement saying when the new pairings would be released. That allowed judges, coaches, and debaters to not wait anxiously for pairings and allowed them to, for example, get something to eat during the downtime. Hopefully this should not be as much of an issue when tournaments return in-person (hopefully) next season.
The other major frustration was the lack of oral disclosure in rounds. Written at the top of each ballot on tabroom.com: “Judges should have cameras during judging. No oral critiques should be given. No oral disclosures...must be on separate logins per 2021 online rules. CX is a partner debate.” Now the first part I am a big fan of. There has been a notorious series of incidents across the country where it turned out the judge was not at their computer during the debate, driving during the debate, or even judging two rounds at two different tournaments at the same time. Forcing judges to have their cameras on was a good move – it ensures judge accountability and also is valuable to debaters who can see judge’s non-verbal reactions to their arguments.
But the second part about forbidding oral critiques or oral disclosures stands out to me as something that State Tournament should ditch in coming years. I’ll set aside the issue of forbidding oral disclosure for this section (I’ll return to it in a bit) – I could be convinced that not revealing the winner has some value (although I obviously tend to think that revealing the winner is good), but I do think that at least allowing some oral critiques and feedback is valuable even if the judge doesn’t reveal who won. The Wyoming Debate Roundup has already written about the case for oral disclosure and feedback, and I’ve published a longer case for it here, so I won’t rehash the basic arguments for this practice, but I will just add two thoughts about this practice (or lack of it) here:
First, it seems especially odd to bar comments at the State Tournament which is, for most, the last tournament they will have on the topic. Apart from the very few teams going to NSDA Nationals, most teams will never argue about criminal justice reform again. That makes feedback that teams will only receive after the tournament somewhat useless. It also prevents teams from improving or iterating on their arguments during the course of the State Tournament. For example, in one of the rounds of policy debate that I judged, I noticed that one team was consistently mispronouncing an author’s name in multiple speeches. I noted this on the ballot but that wasn’t going to be of much assistance to a debater who still had several prelim rounds where they would likely continue to make the same mistake unless someone pointed it out. Being able to just mention to the debater in the post-round feedback session about the proper pronunciation of a name would’ve likely prevent the same mistake in all the subsequent rounds. I think the value of post-round feedback is valuable as teams learn from each round, but especially so at the last major tournament of the year for most teams. As a coach, I do wish we had feedback, especially for novel arguments we were deploying because judge feedback is useful for figuring out how to craft and present those arguments in later debates.
Second, when the WYVA team was asking about why the tournament forbade oral disclosure (they were used to receiving it from many of the tournaments they had traveled to), I realized I didn’t know precisely why it was forbidden. After some contemplation, I think the answer has to do with the diverging views on tournaments. I think that roughly, the standard view of a tournament is that the tournament itself is used simply to reward those that did good pre-tournament preparation and that the time following the tournament was the time to learn. I call this the “product then process” view of tournaments – the tournament produces a product, i.e. a result, and then you use that result to inform your process of improving and learning at debate. I think that roughly, my view of a tournament is that the tournament is both an opportunity to reward hard work but is itself also a learning process. I call this the “process and product” view of tournaments – the tournament is itself a process of learning and that can result in a product like a tournament win. These views are very rough and will probably get refined in a later post, but the main point is that I view tournaments as themselves educational experiences to learn from during the process of competing whereas I think the standard view of tournaments is that they are simply competitive enterprises and you can learn from the tournament after. Here, I think it’s obvious that what’s important to many coaches is simply the placement their teams receive at the tournament. That matters, but so to does the process of learning during the course of the tournament.
I think my view best accords with debate as an educational activity. I think the immense benefits you can receive from just one good tournament can outstrip the benefits of doing research or speaking drills for a week. I’ve seen debaters make exponential gains in their debate skills from just one good tournament where they had one critic in the back of the room who just gave advice in a way that finally clicked with the debater. I’ve seen teams learn of entire sets of arguments in the prelims of the tournament and then successfully deploy them in elims. The growth that tournaments can afford to students cannot be overlooked.
Now, I am not a paid coach at a high school with competitive incentives for success. My pay, or the existence of my program, does not depend on the competitive successes of my team. I think that fact does shape the worldview of some coaches who do need to see results from their students in order to continue justifying funding for their team. I think that leads some coaches at schools to view tournaments as competitive enterprises and the classroom setting as the educational part of debate. I think that’s probably the wrong view because I think that tournaments are often the most educational parts of debate. I think that the process of competing, of debating different teams, and receiving feedback from a wide variety of judges is often more educational than what you learn in a classroom setting (although both are obviously important).
I do want to clarify: I would be perfectly happy with banning judges from disclosing decisions but allowing them to offer post-round feedback. While not perfectly in line with my preferences, I think it would be a massive step in the right direction and radically improve the quality of debates locally.
However, I would much prefer if they announced results immediately after rounds. Again, we’ve already written about this issue in the articles linked above, but I have a few observations about the lack of disclosure at the State Tournament specifically.
First, there should be disclosure in elimination rounds. A huge proportion of traditional tournaments follow this practice. For example, at NSDA Nationals, all elim rounds announce results immediately following the debate. Even in my home state of Oklahoma, they always disclosed results after each elimination round. I think the rationale here is straightforward: the unnecessary stress of waiting for results is not worth holding out. I could see a reasonable exception being made for finals because the announcement during the awards ceremony is meaningful, but in every other round, I cannot see a good case for withholding the results. In almost no other competitive event do you not find out the results of a competition until an hour or more after the conclusion of the competition. The stress that the competitors have about the results is simply not worth it. If a team lost, they should be allowed to enjoy the freedom of being done competing. If a team won, they should be able to begin preparing for the next round without wondering if their preparation will go to waste.
Second, information asymmetries are real. Some teams will basically have an advantage of knowing their record because of informal connections to judges, even if those connections are one or two places removed. Teams with connections to judges were able to exploit those connections to obtain information about their competitive record in the middle of the tournament. That results in the worst of both worlds – some teams will know their records and other teams won’t, but that information will disadvantage smaller teams or teams without extensive connections in the debate community, so it is subject to many of the same harms associated with knowing one’s record (whatever those harms may be) but those will be unequally distributed. I think this is especially true at the State Tournament where there is a strong incentive for teams to find out their record and it is difficult for judges to keep their decisions to themselves. Coaches often talk about decisions with other coaches and hired judges may discuss rounds with their friends, and that information can easily get spread knowingly or unknowingly through the grapevine until it reaches the teams whether one intended for that information to be private or not. I don’t think there is a good way to curb the spread of this information because so much of it is gossip and to the extent any clamp down on this sort of gossip is successful, it only further advantages teams with more connections. I think the most obvious way to alleviate this information asymmetry is simply to have oral disclosure after rounds.
Third, not knowing one’s record affects one’s performance in later rounds. Every coach of students knows this. If you think that you might have lost rounds 1 and 2, you have a level of uncertainty and pressure that faces you for every single remaining round. That uncertainty and stress translates to suboptimal performance in later rounds. I think it would be best we reduced that uncertainty.
Overall, I thought this State Tournament was a great experience, not just for Team Wyoming and WYVA, but for everyone involved. While online tournaments are just not the same as in-person events, I thought the tournament went well and helped close a strange debate season.
Hopefully you found these thoughts and reflections valuable. If you have any thoughts or comments, please let us know – we’d love to open up more of a dialogue with the Wyoming debate community about these issues.
 Of course, several of the judges without listed paradigms actually did have debate experience, including several who were current college parliamentary debaters, but that knowledge alone was not particularly useful as it didn’t give us meaningful insight as to how the judges evaluated debates and we had to spend pre-round time Googling the judges.
 For example, I lost a decent number of rounds after I first learned what fast and progressive Lincoln-Douglas debate was like because I could not adapt back to judges. It took my coach a few months to get me to slow down and abandon the unnecessary jargon before I could start consistently winning local Lincoln-Douglas debate rounds again.
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