For the Love of Policy Debate

by James Kellams, Debate Coach, Hoover High School (CAN)

Hello, fellow OSDA coaches and friends.  I am James Kellams, currently the debate coach at Hoover High School in North Canton.

At Hoover, I am responsible for teaching the head-to-head, confrontational debate categories of Public Forum and Lincoln Douglas.  But I also teach another form called Policy Debate (PD), or Cross-Examination (CX) Debate, or Two-Person (2P) Debate.

Maybe you’ve heard of it?  I would not be surprised if you’ve heard little about it, nor would I be surprised if you’ve heard only negative things about it.

In general, “Policy” tends to be a unique and often misunderstood form of debate.  It does not fit well with the prevailing Ohio tournament formats because the rounds take way too long to complete; judges tend to be way too highly specialized (thus, difficult to find); and the competitors tend to speak way too fast—so fast, in fact, that some of my colleagues might claim it should not be considered a legitimate communication event.

Personally, I have been involved with Policy Debate in one capacity or another since about late 2005.  Believe me, I’ve heard all the good, the bad, and the ugly.  After all, a category as old as Policy Debate tends to collect a lot of baggage; in fact, it became weighted-down with negativity and nearly died in several Ohio districts.  (The “Queen of Debates” was supplanted by a younger, tournament-friendly, judge-friendly upstart eventually named “Public Forum Debate.”)

But a core group of coaches, judges, and alumni were determined not to allow 2P to disappear, and soon they realized there still existed a very strong recognition (by the then OHSSL Executive Committee) that Policy Debate should continue to be supported in Ohio tournaments by those directors willing to provide the needed competition rooms, tab room space, and printer paper.

As a result of this support over the last few years (yet perhaps unnoticed by some), Policy Debate has had a renaissance of sorts—driven by coaches determined to revive the best of what it used to represent: strong ethics; professionalism; masterful argumentation skills; and most important, a highly educational activity.

Nevertheless, despite the tremendous and exciting resurgence of Policy Debate, there are still many problems for which there are no easy solutions.

Tournament directors take pride in offering fast and highly efficient tournaments. Moreover, the adoption of the Bid Qualifying System in Ohio has been an extremely successful way to ensure excellent competition and maximum attendance at tournaments with limited numbers of rooms and capacity.  Yet while Policy Debate also has adopted new ways to speed up and be more cost efficient (with paperless debate and the National Debate Coaches Association’s open-evidence project)—even the most efficient rounds take at least an hour and a half to complete.

As a result, Policy teams can only debate three rounds while Public Forum and Lincoln-Douglas may debate four or five.  Also, the Pre-District Qualifying (PDQ) tournaments require break-rounds, which (even if started at noon on a Saturday) may often continue past five o’clock in the evening.

Consequently, all too often awards and recognition for Policy Debate success tend to take place mainly within the Policy community, among Policy competitors and coaches and a spattering of Policy judges.  Rarely, it seems, are Policy Debate teams on the stage in front of their school peers, and teams who have no Policy debaters often hear little-to-nothing about the accomplishments of these worthy student competitors.

While tournament-wide recognition of Policy Debate excellence could serve as an incentive to attract others to the extremely enriching tradition of 2P, I understand the logistical problems with hosting this category of competition.  I’ve often walked the cold, dark halls of schools on a Friday or Saturday evening, when few outside of the category are still around.

Nevertheless, I encourage everyone to recognize that these young men and women are continuing a noble tradition—one to which they, too, dedicate countless hours of research, work, and practice to perfect their craft.

They learn traditional argumentation skills, philosophy, critical thinking, research skills, and so much more while gaining an extraordinarily diverse education that will serve them throughout their entire lives.  I know this because I’ve been involved with the activity long enough to witness the fruit it bears.

I encourage you not to forget these students likely still in competition rooms while their classmates gather in the auditorium for awards and honors.  Take a moment to recognize them.  Name them and let them know that what they do is worthwhile.

They will appreciate it so much, and traditionalists like myself will thank you.