In Defense of Judge Intervention… Sort of…

james-lewisby James Lewis

Assistant Coach, University School (Cleveland)

Every weekend before tournaments across the state of Ohio, debate judges are given instructions to prepare them for the task ahead. This year at the OHSSL State Tournament I had a flash of sudden insight (or idiocy, depending on your perspective) in the midst of judging instructions.

A member of the tab room staff was telling us that we might know that arguments/claims made in the round are wrong, but that we should essentially refrain from intervening unless the other side pointed that out. I nodded along in agreement as I usually do, until I was struck (at probably the worst possible moment: the State Tournament) by an insight:

I actually don’t agree with that standard in judging debate.

I have been judging debate of some form for almost fifteen years now and have heard my share of bad arguments, mangled evidence, and untrue statements.

Because I try to familiarize myself with some of the topic literature in preparing for a resolution—and because I happen to have an uncanny memory for certain things—I know when debaters are taking a quotation from an article out of context.

Personally, I majored in political science at a school where philosophy was prioritized, and I feel that experience helps me recognize when debaters are misapplying and misconstruing John Locke’s Second Treatise. Professionally, I teach both American- and Ancient History, so I am fairly well versed in a wide range of subjects; and, like many judges, I happen to know a little about current events and how the world works.

And because I had a solid liberal arts education, I know rot when I hear it.

Yet if we accept the judging instructions (as I have for so long) given before every tournament, I must set all that aside and accept whatever I am told in a round.

However, discouraging judges from relying on their own base of knowledge and experiences is problematic from an educational standpoint. First, it does not prepare students for engaging with audiences who will have been shaped by their own experiences, knowledge, and world views. It assumes that persuasion is an art that is practiced on a blank canvas.

Perhaps even more dangerous is how this sends a message that the key to effective communication is not knowing what is actually true, but simply convincing your audience that you sound like you know what is true—OR being savvy enough to know what your audience may not know. Such is an education in sophistry.

Ultimately, I believe that we must ask ourselves what we mean to teach our young debaters about communicating effectively and being persuasive.

“[D]iscouraging judges from relying on their own base of knowledge and experiences is problematic from an educational standpoint.”

How far do we want judges to go in employing the innocuous (and probably oft ignored) “NVI” (“Not a Voting Issue”) on the ballot? If I hear a student cite The Bell Curve in his or her attempt to prove the mental inferiority of African-Americans—and his or her opponent does not know enough to counter the abuse of that evidence—do I simply accept the debater’s analysis? If a female judge hears a student cite misleading evidence to “prove” that women should not work outside the home—and his or her opponent does not know enough to counter the abuse of that evidence—must she accept the debater’s analysis?

Whether we do—or we don’t—expect judges to avoid intervention in such cases, where do we draw the line? What is the solution?

I would propose that we modify our expectations for our judges—to balance the need for impartiality and the need to hold debaters to a high standard of accuracy. Judges should continue to be instructed to keep their personal beliefs and biases out of judging the round. At the same time, we should grant judges the power to bring their prior knowledge to bear upon the round. We should not ask judges to sit idly by when evidence is being abused or misconstrued, or when our debaters present patently absurd or false statements as the truth.

Judges should be invited to play a larger role in the educational process that is debate by using the most powerful tool that they have at their disposal: the decision/reason for decision. You can bet that the debater who loses a round for using inaccurate evidence, or because of his or her incorrect understanding of history or philosophy, will work to correct that deficiency a lot sooner than a debater who gets away with nothing more than the innocuous “NVI” on a ballot.

This proposal, of course, would call for some discretion on the part of judges, and probably would call for some training by tab room staffs. The line between what we know objectively to be false and what subjectively is false—can be a thin one, and calling on judges to make that distinction between the two might play into their personal biases. Certainly, we must also remember that these are high school students and avoid imposing drastic penalties on competitors for minor errors. But that is a dilemma at the heart of any debate or discussion.

Whenever I seek to persuade someone of my position, I must work to present compelling evidence and logic that is unimpeachable despite the background and biases of my opponent. Our debaters might as well learn that now.

“Judges should be invited to play a larger role in…debate by using the most powerful tool…at their disposal: the decision/reason for decision.”

What is more, there is no group that can be trusted more to exercise the discretion called for—than our debate judges. This is a group of adults committed to the educational value of debate and they show it by giving their time and, in many cases, writing detailed and thoughtful ballots. They are accomplished in their own right and come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Sometimes our debaters can forget this and, in the self-assurance that is natural to gifted young people, can brush off the ability and talents of our judges. We can help our students learn humility and hopefully recognize the value of our judges by empowering them (judges) to hold students accountable for the accuracy and truthfulness of their arguments.

My hope is that, at some point in the near future, judge instructions will sound something like: “Please do not impose your own opinions on the debaters. However, if you they make a statement that is inaccurate or untrue, or if they mishandle evidence, you may weigh that in your decision-making. If you do so, please indicate on the ballot how the student’s error affected your reason for decision and how the student might correct those errors.”

If judge instructions sound like that, then the already great value of our activity certainly will be enhanced. #