Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Here Comes Da Judge

In the Disney/Pixar film Ratatouie, a food critic notes “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment.”

The experience of judging high school debate was a learning curve from the beginning, but while it was a contest of nerves and wit for these high school students, it was an exercise in self-measurement and semi-formal jurisprudence for me.

It became readily apparent that most of these kids exhibited more dedication and skill for their age than most, and were more versed in presentation and argumentation than was I. And here they were at my university, quasi-experts in their given subject matter, most of them having traveled hundreds of miles and championed other debates. And they’re placing their rhetorical talents and future success in the matches under my purview; it’s up to me to issue a ruling on the best between the two teams.

Like most adults, underneath I’m questioning if I’m competent and capable of living up to the role. Kevin, a school counselor from New York and my cohort during the informal orientation, seemed to be pushing back the same doubts. But there’s not a lot of room for doubts here; I’m wearing a suit, for heaven’s sake. Like most adults, I’ve got to suck it up and act like I know what I’m doing.

Back up for plot exposition: I’m here because I signed up for a one credit hour class at the University of Kentucky, billed as a debate class. After not even being present for the first class (due to mislabeling; it wasn’t my fault), I made contact with the professor who explained that really, it was just a way for members of his college debate team to earn college credit for all of their work. However, he was willing to put a custom curriculum together so that I could still earn the credit, and after hearing some of my previous experience with argumentation, he thought I might make a good judge for the Tournament of Champions event taking place near the end of the semester. As it turns out, UK hosts the thing, and it's quite the to-do in the world of debating. It seems to be the famous event no one's ever heard of.

So on a somewhat drippy Saturday morning, I’m on a campus which would normally be deserted, but is instead a hive of activity with students and their coaches.

Kevin and I follow one of the debate coordinators to a basement room to watch her judge one of the first debates. The topic is not particularly interesting to me; whether or not the Employee Free Choice Act was good for the American people. While we watch, two teams of two each take positions. The first two present cases individually, with rebuttals, then in a two-person crossfire, then the other two members, second rebuttals, then a second two-person crossfire, and finally a grand crossfire. One student mentions a violation of a constitutional amendment in his presentation. Somewhat familiar with the document, I grab my pocket copy out of my laptop bag and consult it, finding no basis for the claim. I mention this privately to the judge, who responds that I may be right, but it’s the other team’s job to point this out.

The judge also introduces us to her informal system of judging each person and each team, using a diagram to fit each candidate in their own box. (I tried my own method for the first debate I judged, but quickly found hers worked better.)

The judge issues her verdict, and we file out of the room to make way for the next judge and students. The opponents, as will be the case for most of the rest of the debates, were hotly contesting the points during crossfire, and one could infer that they were bitter ideological enemies, until the debate ends and each member shakes hands (which, by the way, was against medical advice, thanks to scares about “swine flu”, which has yet to wipe out the human race) and makes chatty comments back and forth.

So that’s it, then. I head back to the debate office (once the site of most of the my informal classroom discussions on argumentation, it’s now grand central for judges) and pick up a ballot with my name on it, and the names of the kids I’m about to judge. Whoa.

I also find that I’m one of only a few natives to the area; everyone else is asking where the student center is, or where this building or that building is, or where restaurants are, and I get to draw on my knowledge of the area to help people.

I find my way to the classroom where my first debate is taking place. ("Finding my way" because after all, it’s not like I go to every building on campus; there are large portions I’ve never been to.) I rather pictured more of an audience. Instead, in most cases, I’m alone in the room with the two teams. This first time, one or two coaches were there for support. Hmm.

The teams commence their debate, and I begin scrawling notes to myself. Like any debate, there are good points and there are weak ones. Soon enough, it’s over, and I finish making notes. Though I allowed no prejudices to influence my vote, a winner began emerging even as the debate went on. Whether or not I agree with the Employee Free Choice Act is irrelevant; I have to judge based on who argued their side most effectively. Nothing external that I know (even a statement I know to be false that goes unchallenged by the other side) can factor in.

After hearing the ups and downs from five or six different teams, I soon became well-versed indeed in its merits! Politically, I do not agree with it. Yet, three of the four opinions I “handed down” went to the pro side. (IE, "the EFCA is good for the American people.")

Feedback is strictly at the discretion of the judge. I am usually the type that gives feedback, but while I was still finishing my notes, one of the team members asked “Sir, do you give feedback?”

Note to self: Get used to being called “sir.”


I said I would when I finished writing my notes and filling out the ballot, and offer my feedback and constructive criticism. I ask if they want to know who I will be marking as the winner, and both sides do. If disappointed at the outcome, neither side shows it, but it’s early in the debate stages, so a loss is not a crushing blow yet.

I have a large gap between the next debate. (Should have brought my laptop, but instead I spend time chatting with another judge or two, and reading from Mark Levin’s Liberty and Tyranny, which is an awesome read by the way.) I judge the next debate, once again offering feedback. One student mentions that few judges actually make comments on the presentation style; only the substance. (I had made comments such as, “when you present, your posture is hunched over to look at your notes. You might be more effective, authoritative and project your voice more if you stood erect” or “your crossfire sounded a bit hostile there, you may want to dial it back a bit to create a more positive image.”) I didn’t know this, but I thought it only made sense to offer as many tips as I could to these guys. As if they needed much; I later learned that many of these students had been accepted to such prestigious schools as Harvard, MIT, Stanford or Yale.

One’s faith about the younger generation is slightly uplifted.

Sunday, I leave church and return directly to campus. One of the debate coordinators hands me a ballot and tells me I’m “in for a treat” and says he picked me to judge this debate because I was such a good sport the previous day. (I was?) But it was a treat. The two teams packed multiple good points on both sides into their time-limited presentations, questioned precisely the weaknesses of points I had silently noted, and picked apart different definitions with legal precision. At the end, I congratulated both teams, told both what the debate coordinator had told me, and said that I had not been disappointed. (Most amusing in this debate was the argument about how Friedman changed his mind on EFCA. Both teams realized only after the debate that they were talking about two different Friedmans, Thomas and Milton.)

Here though, a potential conflict could have existed. Judging is a zero-sum game. Even if both teams (who, let’s face it, don’t really care about EFCA) had presented excellently, as these two had, I had to brand one the winner and one the loser. As luck would have it, I’ve already been informed that both teams are doing well in the tournament (no surprise) and will progress no matter what the outcome of this match. Whew.

Now everyone is biting their nails; the first round progressions are being posted, and everyone is anxious to know. I’m fortunate not to be under any pressure.

Once again, I have a long period between times, so this time I go find a free computer to browse on until my next debate.

There’s one last elimination debate to judge, and it turns out to be a humdinger. Everyone is murmuring about it. Two teams from the same school have been randomly matched up in the computer, which apparently makes things dicey. Both teams are happy to debate against each other, but the coaches want to make sure that purely objective judges are in place. This is an elimination round, so three are needed. Turns out I fit the bill of being 100% objective, so Kevin, some fellow from Florida and I are it. The room is small, but packed. The same format holds, and many of the same arguments, testimonies and experts are kicked back and forth. The end result is that, for the first time, I vote with the con side of the debate. Kevin sides with the other side, and the fellow from Florida reluctantly agrees with my vote. The losing team is slightly irate, feeling that they dominated the debate, and even makes some attempt to dispute the point with me.

But this was no 51/49 split; I felt one side outperformed the other by a comfortable margin. In the end, there was no right or wrong. Just my opinion, and once given, it was all that counted. High school debate or not, that seems like a lot of power.

Welcome to being a judge.

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