But I’m an Obama Supporter…

It’s been a thousand minutes (give or take a year) since our last post, but we were recently contacted by a reader and thought we would get back on the horse. Just in time! Ballots are pouring in. The current Public Forum debate topic is about instituting universal background checks, and one common argument on the negative is that background checks are racist: they are enforced by a racist criminal justice system, and perhaps more to the point draw their data from that system. Here is a ballot that almost voted for this argument…

Obama Supporter Ballot

Here are some of the comments transcribed:

the racist argument is clever but doesn’t hold up because of the reasons stated by pro…”

“you almost let them get by with faulty racism argument…”

PS – I am a BIG OBAMA supporter and voted for Hillary – so I was ready to believe the racism argument, but con mitigated their own contention”

Okay, so this judge managed to not-so-slyly shade the argument about racism in three ways. First, the judge outright called the argument “faulty” in their comment to the affirmative team, which would undermine the judge praising the argument as “clever” if “clever” wasn’t already the shadiest way to praise an argument. The argument that the criminal justice system is racist and would disproportionately deny guns to black people is not “clever”; it is a fact. So, um, second, “clever” is shady.

Third, and let’s really process this, I AM A BIG OBAMA SUPPORTER GET IT I CAN’T BE RACIST. This is, ironically, tellingly racist in a few ways. First, it belies the judge’s anxiety about their decision. If they felt good about voting against this argument, there would be no need for an apology/justification like this. Second, deflecting your racism by claiming to be an Obama supporter is like saying “I can’t be racist, I have a black friend”, except instead of even actually having a black friend, you think you just can’t be racist because you saw a black person on television once. Third, voting for Hillary is not an indicator of anti-racist credentials. Fourth, voting for anyone is not an indicator of anti-racist credentials. Fifth, whoa this judge actually wrote that on a ballot. Sixth, white people shouldn’t try to establish their anti-racist credentials; it’s not a good look. Instead, they should focus on working to minimize their racist impact on the world and supporting anti-racist efforts when possible.

Judges: don’t justify your bad decisions; make better decisions.



Demanding an End to Sexual Assault

This ballot is from last March; the topic was a withdrawal of American troops from Okinawa. The affirmative team in this debate was arguing that the American military has a legacy of sexual assault in colonial territories, and that a withdrawal is the only way for us to address that legacy. This judge disagreed.


If you can’t make out the handwriting, here is the transcript of the highlighted sections:

10,000 rapes from WWII irrelevant, drop it…

This isn’t LD…

Arguing that if there were any sexual assaults we should withdraw to prevent them was, to be blunt, stupid. No one supports sexual assault, but to ask for literally zero crime is ridiculous…

Pro adopted an absurd absolutist position that if any sexual assault occurs we should abandon the base to prevent it. They also conflated the base not being popular locally with abuse of rights, which is inherently ridiculous.


Let’s quickly talk about “This isn’t LD”. The implication here seems to be that only in Lincoln-Douglas debate can students talk about ethical claims, or that Public Forum debaters can only talk about numbers. We object to this sort of debate ghettoization; let the kids debate! Ethics, values, policies, facts, they are all a part of all forms of debate (or at least they should be).

Now let’s talk about…oh god…this judge’s attitudes about sexual assault…

Ten thousand rapes during the American invasion of the Pacific certainly seems relevant to us, especially when discussing American occupation of a Pacific island.

The rest of these comments suggest that it is absurd to demand an end to sexual assault, which implies that there is some acceptable or “normal” number of sexual assaults, which is exactly what rape culture would tell you.

Also, and this should go without saying, don’t call students stupid. Don’t call their choices stupid. It’s not stupid to demand an end to sexual assault, and even if it were, as an educator it’s your job to help the student develop, not to demean them.

Double also, that last line…it’s ridiculous to think that the base’s unpopularity with the local population is linked to sexual assault?

There are two things happening at the same time. First, the judge is endorsing/furthering rape culture by resisting the demand to eliminate sexual assaults; second, the judge is belittling students. They reinforce each other, and they are both awful. At a moment when a Presidential candidate has defended bragging about sexual assault as ‘locker room talk’, it is especially important for educators to take these issues seriously and encourage, not discourage, students to challenge these oppressive structures.

Give constructive feedback to students. And also don’t be a patronizing patriarchal stooge.

On Emotional Appeals…

We are learning more everyday about the need for social and emotional learning; emotional IQ has been a thing for decades; schools (good ones, anyway) work tirelessly to wrap services around the whole student, emotions and all. Educators (good ones, anyway) strive to connect curriculum to their students’ lived experiences and emotional worlds. Shoot, teaching freshmen (and maybe all of high school) is just one emotional appeal after another….

Why, then, do debate judges so often treat “emotion” like it is some sort of boogeyman? Here is a ballot that seems to have big issues with a student’s use of “emotional appeals”. See the transcript below.

Women's Rights Ballot

…You made several emotional appeals (“If you care about women’s rights”, “mothers”). This is not relevant to debate…

There is, as always, a lot to unpack here. First, as we mentioned above, we would push back on the judge’s aversion to emotional appeals. Education can’t just exclude emotions, and education about persuasion and advocacy should actively include emotions. It’s part of what debate is.

Second, um, women’s rights? Mothers? Does anyone suspect there might be something else at work here? It seems like this female student argued about the importance of protecting women’s rights, and the judge took that to be “an emotional appeal”. This happens far too often: female debaters are considered “emotional”, and then written off.

This, of course, adds weight to the criticism above: not only are emotions part of sound pedagogy, but the unnerving attempts by many judges to exclude emotions from the debate round probably have something to do with the patriarchy.

Third, after falsely labeling arguments about women’s rights as emotional appeals, the judge falsely labels them again as ‘fallacies’. Which is probably, itself, a fallacy, but who really knows.

And god forbid if you utter the word “mothers” and render everyone in the room too teary-eyed to continue…

SO…judges…please consider how to expand your pedagogy and approach to debate to allow for all manners of effective advocacy and to account for all types of students. It’s okay for students to feel things; it’s okay for you to feel things, too.

And check yourself when writing about emotions and/or gender: ask yourself if there is something else going on. Hear each student on their own terms, and strive to control (maybe even eliminate) your biases and assumptions.



Don’t Yell At Students…Even In Writing

Like most ballots, this one has some probably decent advice mixed in with some pretty bad practices. Let’s take a look.

Yelling Ballot

We think the judge is right, that students shouldn’t be rude (in cross-examination, or probably ever). We also think it’s fair for judges to comment on verbal filler or other distractions in a student’s delivery. But why the all-caps? It looks like this judge is trying to express their frustration and anger at the student for repeating certain crutch phrases or words.

DON’T DIRECT FRUSTRATION AND ANGER AT STUDENTS. It’s not about you; your emotional state is quite beside the point. If a teacher ever, EVER, screamed at a student to “stop saying cool”, most parents would (rightfully) lose it.

Moreover, telling a student to stop an undesirable behavior without suggesting a desirable behavior to replace it with is rarely effective. Instead of yelling at a student to stop saying “sure”, suggest a better way to agree with someone: vary your word choice, don’t verbalize agreement every time, or work on agreeable tone variation. Or just relax and be cool about someone using a word a lot.

Also…with the typos…look, spelling is overrated. It’s a dumb skill and the computers are rendering it unnecessary day by day, so why do we even care, right? But if you’re going to criticize a student and point out that verbal clutter can distract from what you’re trying to say, then, well, just please try to be a little better about your typing?  Because it’s distracting us from what you’re trying to say.

Give good advice, don’t take our your frustration on students, try to take some care in constructing your ballots. Please and thank you.

Monitor Your Emotions, Ladies

Here’s a ballot that has some thoughtful comments on it, from a judge we know personally and tend to like in the back of the room. Still, in this round between two young men (the con team, on the left of the ballot) and two young women (the pro team, on the right of the ballot), this judge managed to demonstrate how patriarchy can insert itself into our ballots, perhaps without us realizing it.

Quiet Ladies Ballot

To the young men: “very good strong stance and clear description”; “very good, strong, forceful but clear speaking“. From these descriptions, you’d think this judge would like a strong, forceful debater. Let’s check out what she wrote to the young women: “Monitor your emotions in response to your opponent…”; “make sure you are not too overly aggressive and hold your composure…” . Wait, what?

The judge says below this that “both sides very aggressive and at times rude with cutting each other off. Continue to work on emotional response.” So obviously the round was a hotly contested one, with apparent aggression and rudeness on both sides. But the boys get praised (very good, strong, forceful, etc), and the girls get criticized (monitor your emotions, don’t be overly aggressive, etc). It would be nice if this were rare, but we know it is not; male and female debaters are held to different standards, implicitly and explicitly, and we have to do a better job checking ourselves when we judge rounds.

Also, the history of sexual violence in Okinawa is not ambiguous; this judge turned an argument about 60 years of documented sexual assault into “allegations of rape on her ballot. This is a not-so-subtle function of patriarchy and rape culture, that rushes to soften or deflect accusations of sexual assault. These sorts of comments contribute to an environment where survivors of sexual assault are reluctant to come forward and report the crime.

So, how can this ballot be not-so-bad? Hold male and female debaters to the same standards; make sure your ballot doesn’t teach young men that it’s okay or good to dominate conversations, and make sure your ballot doesn’t teach young women that being assertive or even aggressive is “too emotional”. Also, be extra careful with your language about sensitive and important issues; even a casual comment can do much damage.

Here Is a Negative Nicholas…

Sometimes judges don’t like a performance. That’s great! Different opinions and perspectives are vital for students to grow, and often it’s ballots that disagree with us (or our choices in round) that are more helpful than ballots that do nothing but praise us.

That said, judges should offer constructive feedback that helps the student adapt their performance. Even if a student chooses not to make a change based on a ballot (maybe the student just disagrees with the judge), it’s still useful to understand what change they could make.

Here’s a ballot about a DI performance, and the transcribed comments. Count how many actual suggestions there are. Spoiler alert: it’s zero.

Negative Ballot Pg 1 Negative Ballot Pg 2

“Why are playing Jeffrey Dahmer like a drag queen? Would he really care about someone’s shoes? Movements very strange? I think you need to play him more realistically. Great intro! This piece will shock the mommies and daddies but it’s not gonna work w/experienced judges.”

“Well I’m gonna tell you what I’m sure you’ve been told, but Jeffrey Dahmer is not this flamboyant. I feel as though you are almost implying through your performance that gay folks are deviant. It doesn’t make sense. Your performance choices are not really motivated. Piece is very over the top. One-dimensional. He sounds like Buffalo Bill from Silence of the lambs….All your tricks are just not working for me. My main issue is that I feel as though you are trying really hard to elicit a reaction out of us w/out developing subtle moments. Piece is over the top, sensational, just not hitting any realistic moments. I feel as though you are trying to shock us. Shock value choices can’t substitute for strong acting and character development.”

Whew, that’s a lot of criticism. And sure, a coach might be able to suss out what needs changing, but how does this ballot help that coach do it? There are absolutely no suggestions, no tips, no coaching points that a student can use. It’s just a series of negative comments about the performance, as if the judge did not care to help the performance improve, but only thought about how to tear the performance down.

Also…can we please stop using “mommies and daddies” as some sort of slur? We know many, many judges and coaches. Never in our experience has a woman given birth and suddenly lost the ability to flow a debate round; we’ve never known a man to become  father and suddenly forget what good speaking is.

If you think a performance needs changing, or just isn’t doing for you, that’s absolutely fine;  but remember that you are there for the students. Your ego shouldn’t matter. Write ballots that help, not hurt; that educate, not discourage.