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    Announcement: Introducing Our Forthcoming Content!

    RobGlass

    Hi,


    I’m the new Editor-in-Chief of PolicyDb8, and I just wanted to introduce you to our forthcoming content. 


    Starting this week and running for the foreseeable future we will be posting two to three articles a week about Policy Debate. Some will be about its culture, both for good and ill, and how we can improve it. Some about the power of debate outside the round and the potential of our activity. And some will be advice for students, and coaches, both for how to improve as students and competitors and also to give perspective for what debate offers for those of us who want to venture out beyond the cloister and into the so-called “real world.” 


    The goal of this project is to offer a place for both long-form content about debate and also to be a site for dialogue and discussion absent the polarizing and destructive tendencies of social media. As time goes on we’re hope to branch out to offer new, and more innovative, forms of engagement and to increase the kinds of content that we have on offer, and we hope that you’ll join us for that journey.


    If you’re interested in contributing please feel free to reach out to me directly, all offers and forms of feedback are welcome.

    Thank you,


    Rob Glass

    Editor-in-Chief Policydb8

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  • Similar Content

    • By RobGlass
      Debate can take you nearly anywhere. Places you never imagined you could go.
      Sometimes, places you wish you’d never found—places like media outlets dedicated to disseminating white supremacist ideologies.
       
      For the last year, my research interests, background in debate, and generally antagonistic personality have brought me deep into the world of “bloodsport debating,” a style of unstructured, polemic debate practiced by the white supremacist far-right. By arguing amongst themselves, the right has created the aesthetic of flourishing political discourse while never straying too far from their core belief that the composition of a nation must be carefully curated and maintained.
       
      A significant contingent of the left has rejected the political utility of debating those who hold such abhorrent views—a feeling I suspect is tied to an understanding of debate that is the most pedantic, elitist version possible. Such a case was recently made in an article by English feminist author Laurie Penny, who collapsed all forms of debate into “the way [she] was taught to do it at [her] posh school,” and “fundamentally an intellectual dick-smacking contest dressed up in institutional lingerie, and while there are plenty of women out there who can unzip their enormous brains and thwack them on the table with the best of them, the formula is catastrophically macho.” Yikes. That’s a link.
       
      Most of us recognize that form of debate, primarily practiced by very online avatars, but it’s far from the only kind that exists. Policy debate presents us with an argumentative training ground that isn’t just about logic, but about persuasion more broadly. In a recent piece in Current Affairs, Nathan Robinson explains that “‘debate’ is not strictly a contest of logical argumentation; it is a contest of persuasion, and the strict presentation of factual arguments and conclusions is only one of the ways in which this occurs.” The most valuable aspect of policy debate is its uncertainty and ability to accommodate diverse intellectual tactics, putting everything from the audience to the argument style to the very definition of winning and losing up for re/interpretation.
       
      Understanding debate holistically is critical for real-world advocacy. One significant reason white supremacists win the public relations war with the majority of civically-minded citizens is that they tend to the audience rather than beating someone over the head with the most correct and logical information. Any debater who has been caught with an unsympathetic judge in the back of the room knows that if your audience doesn’t have the intellectual tools or frame of mind to understand your argument, you may as well have never made it. White supremacists excel at speaking to the audience instead of the facts, tapping into the “common-sense” racism most Americans feel. Rather than allowing this to lead us to the conclusion debate is impossible, we should redouble our commitment to strategizing around the audience and truth, instead of hoping the truth will speak for itself.
       
      Some readers may now be wondering, “Why bother?” The answer is simple. At some point, you aren’t just refusing to debate—you’re also refusing to persuade. The hesitation around this kind of engagement, Robinson argues, has tangible consequences:
      “There’s something that sounds faintly dirty about encouraging people to think beyond purely rational forms of persuasion. But it’s that refusal to get one’s hands dirty with rhetoric that is the problem, not the willingness to use language rather than physical force as one’s chief political weapon. The choice is not necessarily between “trying to reason logically with the other side” and “engaging in violent struggle.” It could also be that for progressives, persuasion is usually best effected neither through violence nor formal deductive reasoning, but through effective messaging, telling people things that actually get them to support your politics. In other words, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it and who you are.”
       
      I have been met with my fair share of suspicion and horror for engaging white supremacists in their spaces but am no less convinced of its importance. It’s not true that, as the refrain goes, “There’s just no debating white supremacy” or “We can’t debate over people’s humanity.” Those debates are already occurring, with or without us, in well-funded spaces and highly publicized platforms all over the world. Of course, any engagement must be careful to avoid amplifying or strengthening white supremacy’s public platform, but the fight for liberation and justice requires walking into deeply immoral spaces and hijacking them with better arguments and the kind of credibility that you can only build through repeated exposure and thoughtful consideration of your audience.
       
      After all, white supremacy is not simply immoral in the abstract—it’s immoral because it’s a terrible argument whose backing falls apart with even the slightest application of scrutiny. Articulating those embarrassing gaps in white supremacy’s logic strengthens people’s convictions against it and empowers them to tackle those arguments in their daily life. Debate certainly can’t save us on its own (and we should not all run out to debate every random racist on the internet), but it is one important tool in the Big Box of Tactics because you lose 100% of the flows you drop.
       
      When persuading people to turn away from the alt-right, I rely on four main lessons from my time in policy debate. While other forms of debate are wonderful for teaching public speaking skills or introducing someone to a civil or traditional method of argumentation, there’s nothing quite like this activity.         
       
       
      Lesson 1: “Framework Makes the Game Work”
       
       
      Anyone who has debated in the Southeast in the last decade has heard Erik Mathis repeat this phrase, though I was far less appreciative of it as a competitor. The process of moving through a debate round teaches us that, no matter what you choose to do with your life, you will have far too little time to do it. The further you get into a career or a doctoral program, the more you have to make difficult choices about where to spend your time building depth at the exclusion of something else.
       
      Given these temporal constraints, framework provides an argument about what information the audience should dedicate their time to evaluating. In other words, framework controls the rubric for what it means to win.
      When it comes to debating white supremacists, the stakes can feel exceptionally high if “losing” means more people walk away believing in the elevated humanity of whiteness. Reworking a debate to be about something else—like the ethics of even allowing white supremacists to advocate for their position when it is not cogent enough to meet even a basic burden of proof—sets the bar higher and changes how people are approaching the question as they evaluate the arguments. 
       
       
      Lesson 2: Know Your Opponents Argument Better Than They Do
       
       
      If there’s one thing that sets policy debate apart from every other activity, it’s the depth of research. From deep, two-sided research emerges “round vision,” or the ability to predict an opponent’s available strategic options in their last speech before the debate even begins. Those new to debate will often get caught up in the logical minutia of something that can be easily conceded in favor of ten new, late-breaking examples that can’t all be adequately examined. A deep understanding of what your opponent believes is the single best predictor of how persuasively you can preempt their positions.
       
      For example, many on the right have begun to cite a recent academic “hoax” wherein people spent a year attempting (and mostly failing) to publish outrageous fake articles in feminist studies journals. There are a host of reasons why this hoax is not a sufficient indictment of entire academic departments, but anyone that invested in delegitimizing research that undermines power will quickly turn to hyperbolic examples about professors or graduate students that spoke too candidly about whiteness, or masculinity, or colonialism on Twitter. It’s far more powerful to indict evidence in the broader context of your opponent’s worldview—especially if you can explain their arguments and ridiculous examples before they do.
       
       
      Lesson 3: Truth and Tech Matter Differently
       
       
      Hillary Clinton may have won the flow in every presidential debate against Donald Trump, but a disproportionately powerful minority of people saw her as a loser. As she prattled off policy details and encouraged people to seek out live fact-checking websites, Trump accused her of starting ISIS and paraded in women who had accused her husband of sexual misconduct. The audience, with no idea how to compare those two things, defaulted to whoever and whatever they trusted before the debates began.
       
      Knowing your opposition’s content is important, but so is knowing their form. A bombastic persuasion style must be met with something equally invested in emotional connection while also seeking the upper hand in credibility. A highly technical, civility-minded opponent requires a more controlled style that tackles precision with more accessible, but still truthful, explanations. Advocates find ourselves faced with every kind of interlocuter, and nothing teaches you to adapt your explanations to the setting quite like approaching the same topic 50 different ways with different opponents and audiences each time.
       
       
      Lesson 4: Research, Test, Clash
       
       
      As Wisconsin’s own Assistant Director Jordan Foley always reminds me, “You can’t beat the game in one night.” Debate is an iterative process of persuasion that can’t be reduced to even the most impressively and thoroughly researched files. Creating a persuasive message requires taking research and testing it by clashing against those who hold other perspectives. Things that seem obviously persuasive in your own head or friend group may have no resonance whatsoever with those outside of it. There’s no better way to figure out what is convincing than to try to convince people, failing, and reworking your arguments until you break through.
       
      Clash also provides the opportunity to attack weak arguments—I truly cannot overstate the impact of the phrase “Can you point to a line in the study that says that?” in front an audience who has never seen their intellectual icons pushed to prove they are characterizing evidence fairly. 
       
       
       
      Debate will take you to places you never imagined, and to some you’ve surely been eyeing since you began your educational lives. No matter where you wind up, debate will have taught you a core set of lessons about how to persuade people, and what they can (and can’t) be persuaded of in any given context.
       
      By the end of your career, you will have spent years training yourself in a particular style of argumentation. You will take what you've learned out of the often-cruel world of competitive debate and into a much crueler world that you will find yourself desperate to change. Along the way, persuasion will be a critical part of asking for help, building a base, and making real forward movement.
       
      Growing into an advocate is a lifelong process of honing and sharpening and adjusting our tactics. As debaters, we have something necessary (but not sufficient) to spur change—good or bad. With those skills in mind, where will debate take you?
       
       
       
       
       
      CV is the Director of Debate at the University of Wisconsin--Madison and a doctoral candidate in the department of Communication Arts. They study institutional use of genetic data and human taxonomies in political discourse. 

      View full article
    • By CV Vitolo-Haddad
      Debate can take you nearly anywhere. Places you never imagined you could go.
      Sometimes, places you wish you’d never found—places like media outlets dedicated to disseminating white supremacist ideologies.
       
      For the last year, my research interests, background in debate, and generally antagonistic personality have brought me deep into the world of “bloodsport debating,” a style of unstructured, polemic debate practiced by the white supremacist far-right. By arguing amongst themselves, the right has created the aesthetic of flourishing political discourse while never straying too far from their core belief that the composition of a nation must be carefully curated and maintained.
       
      A significant contingent of the left has rejected the political utility of debating those who hold such abhorrent views—a feeling I suspect is tied to an understanding of debate that is the most pedantic, elitist version possible. Such a case was recently made in an article by English feminist author Laurie Penny, who collapsed all forms of debate into “the way [she] was taught to do it at [her] posh school,” and “fundamentally an intellectual dick-smacking contest dressed up in institutional lingerie, and while there are plenty of women out there who can unzip their enormous brains and thwack them on the table with the best of them, the formula is catastrophically macho.” Yikes. That’s a link.
       
      Most of us recognize that form of debate, primarily practiced by very online avatars, but it’s far from the only kind that exists. Policy debate presents us with an argumentative training ground that isn’t just about logic, but about persuasion more broadly. In a recent piece in Current Affairs, Nathan Robinson explains that “‘debate’ is not strictly a contest of logical argumentation; it is a contest of persuasion, and the strict presentation of factual arguments and conclusions is only one of the ways in which this occurs.” The most valuable aspect of policy debate is its uncertainty and ability to accommodate diverse intellectual tactics, putting everything from the audience to the argument style to the very definition of winning and losing up for re/interpretation.
       
      Understanding debate holistically is critical for real-world advocacy. One significant reason white supremacists win the public relations war with the majority of civically-minded citizens is that they tend to the audience rather than beating someone over the head with the most correct and logical information. Any debater who has been caught with an unsympathetic judge in the back of the room knows that if your audience doesn’t have the intellectual tools or frame of mind to understand your argument, you may as well have never made it. White supremacists excel at speaking to the audience instead of the facts, tapping into the “common-sense” racism most Americans feel. Rather than allowing this to lead us to the conclusion debate is impossible, we should redouble our commitment to strategizing around the audience and truth, instead of hoping the truth will speak for itself.
       
      Some readers may now be wondering, “Why bother?” The answer is simple. At some point, you aren’t just refusing to debate—you’re also refusing to persuade. The hesitation around this kind of engagement, Robinson argues, has tangible consequences:
      “There’s something that sounds faintly dirty about encouraging people to think beyond purely rational forms of persuasion. But it’s that refusal to get one’s hands dirty with rhetoric that is the problem, not the willingness to use language rather than physical force as one’s chief political weapon. The choice is not necessarily between “trying to reason logically with the other side” and “engaging in violent struggle.” It could also be that for progressives, persuasion is usually best effected neither through violence nor formal deductive reasoning, but through effective messaging, telling people things that actually get them to support your politics. In other words, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it and who you are.”
       
      I have been met with my fair share of suspicion and horror for engaging white supremacists in their spaces but am no less convinced of its importance. It’s not true that, as the refrain goes, “There’s just no debating white supremacy” or “We can’t debate over people’s humanity.” Those debates are already occurring, with or without us, in well-funded spaces and highly publicized platforms all over the world. Of course, any engagement must be careful to avoid amplifying or strengthening white supremacy’s public platform, but the fight for liberation and justice requires walking into deeply immoral spaces and hijacking them with better arguments and the kind of credibility that you can only build through repeated exposure and thoughtful consideration of your audience.
       
      After all, white supremacy is not simply immoral in the abstract—it’s immoral because it’s a terrible argument whose backing falls apart with even the slightest application of scrutiny. Articulating those embarrassing gaps in white supremacy’s logic strengthens people’s convictions against it and empowers them to tackle those arguments in their daily life. Debate certainly can’t save us on its own (and we should not all run out to debate every random racist on the internet), but it is one important tool in the Big Box of Tactics because you lose 100% of the flows you drop.
       
      When persuading people to turn away from the alt-right, I rely on four main lessons from my time in policy debate. While other forms of debate are wonderful for teaching public speaking skills or introducing someone to a civil or traditional method of argumentation, there’s nothing quite like this activity.         
       
       
      Lesson 1: “Framework Makes the Game Work”
       
       
      Anyone who has debated in the Southeast in the last decade has heard Erik Mathis repeat this phrase, though I was far less appreciative of it as a competitor. The process of moving through a debate round teaches us that, no matter what you choose to do with your life, you will have far too little time to do it. The further you get into a career or a doctoral program, the more you have to make difficult choices about where to spend your time building depth at the exclusion of something else.
       
      Given these temporal constraints, framework provides an argument about what information the audience should dedicate their time to evaluating. In other words, framework controls the rubric for what it means to win.
      When it comes to debating white supremacists, the stakes can feel exceptionally high if “losing” means more people walk away believing in the elevated humanity of whiteness. Reworking a debate to be about something else—like the ethics of even allowing white supremacists to advocate for their position when it is not cogent enough to meet even a basic burden of proof—sets the bar higher and changes how people are approaching the question as they evaluate the arguments. 
       
       
      Lesson 2: Know Your Opponents Argument Better Than They Do
       
       
      If there’s one thing that sets policy debate apart from every other activity, it’s the depth of research. From deep, two-sided research emerges “round vision,” or the ability to predict an opponent’s available strategic options in their last speech before the debate even begins. Those new to debate will often get caught up in the logical minutia of something that can be easily conceded in favor of ten new, late-breaking examples that can’t all be adequately examined. A deep understanding of what your opponent believes is the single best predictor of how persuasively you can preempt their positions.
       
      For example, many on the right have begun to cite a recent academic “hoax” wherein people spent a year attempting (and mostly failing) to publish outrageous fake articles in feminist studies journals. There are a host of reasons why this hoax is not a sufficient indictment of entire academic departments, but anyone that invested in delegitimizing research that undermines power will quickly turn to hyperbolic examples about professors or graduate students that spoke too candidly about whiteness, or masculinity, or colonialism on Twitter. It’s far more powerful to indict evidence in the broader context of your opponent’s worldview—especially if you can explain their arguments and ridiculous examples before they do.
       
       
      Lesson 3: Truth and Tech Matter Differently
       
       
      Hillary Clinton may have won the flow in every presidential debate against Donald Trump, but a disproportionately powerful minority of people saw her as a loser. As she prattled off policy details and encouraged people to seek out live fact-checking websites, Trump accused her of starting ISIS and paraded in women who had accused her husband of sexual misconduct. The audience, with no idea how to compare those two things, defaulted to whoever and whatever they trusted before the debates began.
       
      Knowing your opposition’s content is important, but so is knowing their form. A bombastic persuasion style must be met with something equally invested in emotional connection while also seeking the upper hand in credibility. A highly technical, civility-minded opponent requires a more controlled style that tackles precision with more accessible, but still truthful, explanations. Advocates find ourselves faced with every kind of interlocuter, and nothing teaches you to adapt your explanations to the setting quite like approaching the same topic 50 different ways with different opponents and audiences each time.
       
       
      Lesson 4: Research, Test, Clash
       
       
      As Wisconsin’s own Assistant Director Jordan Foley always reminds me, “You can’t beat the game in one night.” Debate is an iterative process of persuasion that can’t be reduced to even the most impressively and thoroughly researched files. Creating a persuasive message requires taking research and testing it by clashing against those who hold other perspectives. Things that seem obviously persuasive in your own head or friend group may have no resonance whatsoever with those outside of it. There’s no better way to figure out what is convincing than to try to convince people, failing, and reworking your arguments until you break through.
       
      Clash also provides the opportunity to attack weak arguments—I truly cannot overstate the impact of the phrase “Can you point to a line in the study that says that?” in front an audience who has never seen their intellectual icons pushed to prove they are characterizing evidence fairly. 
       
       
       
      Debate will take you to places you never imagined, and to some you’ve surely been eyeing since you began your educational lives. No matter where you wind up, debate will have taught you a core set of lessons about how to persuade people, and what they can (and can’t) be persuaded of in any given context.
       
      By the end of your career, you will have spent years training yourself in a particular style of argumentation. You will take what you've learned out of the often-cruel world of competitive debate and into a much crueler world that you will find yourself desperate to change. Along the way, persuasion will be a critical part of asking for help, building a base, and making real forward movement.
       
      Growing into an advocate is a lifelong process of honing and sharpening and adjusting our tactics. As debaters, we have something necessary (but not sufficient) to spur change—good or bad. With those skills in mind, where will debate take you?
       
       
       
       
       
      CV is the Director of Debate at the University of Wisconsin--Madison and a doctoral candidate in the department of Communication Arts. They study institutional use of genetic data and human taxonomies in political discourse. 
    • By Kathryn Rubino
      I get asked that question a lot by a variety of people — debaters and civilians alike — and the truth is, no one can answer that question for you but you. But (there’s always a “but” isn’t there) there is probably a lot more involved in answering that question than you probably think.
       
      But before we get into the nitty gritty who the hell am I and why am I at all qualified to counsel you on your future career. Well, I am a lawyer by trade, after my own debate career I went to Columbia Law School and proceed to work at a top law firm for a number of years (what we refer to as “Biglaw” in the industry) all the while continuing to coach college policy debate (first at NYU, now and for the last 13 years at USMA). Now I’m a Senior Editor at Above the Law (“ATL”) the most widely read legal industry blog. Working at ATL allows me to turn a critical eye to the legal industry and legal education and come up with some pretty definite opinions on the subject.
       
      So, should you go to law school? Well, the first question is really, “do you want to be a lawyer?” Maybe that sounds silly or rudimentary, but a surprising number of law school applicants don’t want to be lawyers or, perhaps more accurately, have no idea what it’s like to be a lawyer. See, a lot of people (myself included) go to law school because it seems like the thing to do. Perhaps you've considered and rejected an academic career, but you’re otherwise pretty smart, and law school seems like an easy way to jumpstart a career. Or you’ve taken and done pretty well on the LSAT and so it seems like the next logical step. Or your family has always presumed that your argumentative penchant means you’re destined for a career in the law. All of those are… not great reasons to go to law school. 
       
      So ask around (there are a ton of debate alumni that made their way to law school) and see if actually practicing law is something that you’re interested in before you go any further. And ask a lot of different sources because the work a litigation partner at a top firm does is different than working at a small firm in trusts and estates, which is different than working in-house at a hedge fund advising on deal. Also, to be honest, a lot — and I mean a lot — of lawyers are quite miserable. Substance abuse and depression are much higher in lawyers than other professions. For a lot of law firm attorneys, the long hours (we are talking a minimum of 2000 billed hours a year — note billed hours  are a subset of total hours worked), high pressure, and terrible personalities are a recipe for disaster. 
       
      Next, you need to consider if law school makes sense for you financially. That’s obviously a very fact-specific inquiry, and I mean if you or your family are fabulously wealthy, then what the hell, go to law school, but law school is a giant financial investment that can/has ruined lives. You need to carefully think about a number of factors to see if it makes sense for you and I’ll try to give you a few guidelines to think about. 
      Law school is expensive — like, very expensive — and most law schools don’t give out a ton of financial aid. So you need to weigh the debt load you can expect to take on by going to law school compared with your expected salary when you graduate.
      (Law School Transparency has some great school by school breakdowns on the debt load of graduates and employment rates that you should definitely be looking at before you make a down payment on tuition.)

      People often, mistakenly, think a JD is a ticket to instant wealth. And there’s a reason for that — starting salaries at an elite law firm (AmLaw 100 level) are an eye popping $190,000, plus yearly lockstep bonuses. That’s a stupid amount of money for a 25 year old with no work experience to be pulling down — but not everyone is making that much money. Let me acquaint you with the bimodal salary curve.  As you can see, a very small percentage of law school applicants are going to be making the really big money. The average starting salary for recent graduates is about $70,000. That’s nothing to sneeze at but it doesn’t go all that far when you’re servicing $200k in student debt.
       
      Be honest with yourself about the job opportunities you have for the law schools you can realistically get into. The legal profession is very elitist (as if the Kavanaugh hearings weren’t enough evidence of this fact) and you will not have the same opportunities as a graduate from every institution. Elite firms don’t go to on-campus recruiting at mediocre law schools, public interest opportunities are just as, if not more, competitive as Biglaw ones, being a federal law clerk is one of the most sought after markers of prestige and those jobs are determines based solely on your grades your first year (if not first semester) and the name of your law school.
       
      Here are the basics of what you need to know: the number one factor that determines what law schools you get into is your LSAT score — winning the NDT might have been cool, but if you can’t get over a 170 on that test, Harvard is probably out of your reach (Yes, a growing number of law schools accept the GRE in lieu of the LSAT but it is a very new program and no one is exactly sure where the cut offs for GRE scores will be); 
      the top 14 law schools as defined by US News & World Report (referred to as the T14 ) are a tier unto themselves; 
      some schools have good employment statistics but only for a particular region of the country (for example I wouldn't go to University of Iowa unless I wanted to work in the midwest); 
      for-profit law schools are absolute trash more concerned with raking in tuition dollars than educating lawyers; 
      and, relatedly, look at the bar passage rates, you cannot get a job as a lawyer if you cannot pass the bar exam.
      Obviously these factors are a bit of a sliding scale — should you go to a Tier 1 (but not T14 law school) with a full ride over Yale Law School with no financial aid if you want to practice in Biglaw? What about a solid regional school with $10k of aid versus school on the bottom half of the T14 if you dream of public interest work? You should check out The Decision series on ATL or the podcast Thinking Like A Lawyer for examples of how other industry pros answer these tough questions. 
       
       
      So should you go to law school? I don’t know. But here’s what I know: a lot fewer people than want to go to law school should go to law school, I am way happier being a non-practicing attorney than a practicing attorney, and I am still paying off my law school loans.
       
       
       
       
       
      Kathryn Rubino is a Senior Editor at Above the Law, host of The Jabot podcast, policy debate coach at the United States Military Academy, and former Cross Examination Debate Association President. Feel free to email her and follow her on Twitter (@Kathryn1).
    • By Dr. Joe Bellon
      The Hard Truths of Work-Life Balance in Debate
       
       
      My Two Families
       
      I grew up in a dysfunctional family characterized by mental illness, alcoholism, and abuse. I know, this is supposed to be about work-life balance in debate. Bear with me. It is.
       
      When you grow up in that sort of environment, it doesn’t seem unusual to you. The way you’re raised is just the way you’re raised. Everything that happens seems perfectly normal — natural, even. It’s not until you start venturing out of your house and talking to other people that you begin to realize that what happens where you live isn’t what happens everywhere.
       
      Debate was my second home. I started my high school’s debate team as a first year student, and I stayed in debate as a competitor and then a coach for 34 years. I could fill an article three times this size with everything debate taught me. It introduced me to the academic field of communication, which is now my career, and much more importantly it introduced me to my wife. Debate gave me good friends all across the country and all over the world, as well as the priceless opportunity to work with countless talented students.
       
      For all of its many benefits, however, debate was sadly similar to my biological family. Like the vast majority of those in my profession, I accepted the normalcy of debate’s coaching culture. The neverending work that occupies your every waking hour and eats away at your personal life. The research that promises precious additional chances at victory if you cut just one more card, then another, and then another. The arguments that always seem better when you write them, the practice speeches and coaching sessions, the planning and budgeting, the advocacy on behalf of the program. And that’s not to mention the tournament travel, with its string of 20-hour days, bad food, caffeine, stress, endless driving, and judging.
       
      While you’re inside that culture, this is all a matter of pride. Debate coaches make workaholics look like slackers because we know how important the activity is. We know how important the students are. We sacrifice for them, for the education we value so much, for the school, for our communities and our people. Most of us are never going to get the resources we need, that our students need, so we fill in the gaps because somebody has to or the kids suffer. Our students are worth the pain and the exhaustion and the long hours. They are worth everything.
       
      That is a beautiful story. I used to tell that story all the time.
       
      Allow me to tell you a different one.
       
      Hard Truths
       
      The story of debate coaches and our hard-working, sacrificial heroism is a lot like the stories we tell inside abusive families. They sound fantastic right up until you tell them to anyone who isn’t from an abusive family. Like that time a neighbor’s dog bit my face when I was six and my dad spent half an hour trying to kill the dog instead of driving me to the hospital? Everyone in my family loved to hear that story. My dad was such a character. But when I told it to my new friends in college they all just stared and looked worried instead of laughing. And slowly it occurred to me that the story wasn’t funny or entertaining at all. My friends were right to react the way they did.
       
      Debate coaches do amazing work, and our jobs are incredibly important. But if we’re going to be honest, we need to do some mental gymnastics, step outside the bubble of our own community for just a minute, and accept a few hard truths about what we’ve been doing, how we’ve been doing it, and the cost we’ve all been paying.
       
      Truth: Sacrificing Ourselves Teaches Our Students Bad Lessons
       
      When I became the Director of Debate at Georgia State University, I went to my college coach and mentor for advice. Melissa Wade told me a lot of things that day, but one of the things she said was that kids learn a lot more from our example than they do from anything we say to them. At the time I didn’t fully understand what she meant, but over the years I started to realize the deep wisdom of her words. I was sitting at a national tournament, and they were giving out a prestigious coaching award to a famous coach. His former debaters gave a string of speeches extolling his virtues as a coach, and many of them told stories of the sheer number of times the coach had forgotten to pick up his own child from daycare or school because he was doing something for the debaters. Everyone laughed and applauded.
       
      Our debaters learn vastly more from what we do and how we act than they learn from what we say or the arguments we write for them. The deep lessons they take from us are the lessons they learn from our example regarding how to live life, how to treat people, what to prioritize, and so on. And when we deprioritize ourselves for debate, we are teaching our students to devalue themselves as well. When we ignore our families and our partners to focus on debate, we are teaching our students how they should treat their own families and partners. If we want to be good educators, if we want to teach our students good lessons, then we have to learn to model the kind of behavior we want them to value. If we want them to learn to be happy, healthy individuals, then we have to value ourselves enough to show them how to be happy and healthy.
       
      Truth: We Value Winning Too Much
       
      This may be the hardest truth for us to accept, but here it is: winning doesn’t help your debaters that much. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m a big believer in competition, and winning does some really important things. Most notably, it can serve as a reward for students who work hard, and it can help students understand when they’re doing things well. Too often, however, we treat winning not as an educational tool but as the be-all and end-all of debate. Melissa Wade used to call it “the death drive to the trophy,” and I thought that was hyperbole until I started coaching teams that were regularly in the running to win tournaments. Winning is important for motivation and learning, but there’s a diminishing marginal return in terms of value to the student — yet debate culture acts as though the opposite is true. We tend to focus most of our attention and our efforts on the teams that win the most, when it’s the other teams who really need us.
       
      We should be focusing less on winning and more on helping our students become better debaters and better people. We should be focusing on making our debate teams happy, healthy, and supportive environments where the students who come to us — often very smart but just as often very troubled and hurt — can find a safe place to grow. I was out to dinner once at a big national tournament with my group of noisy, silly, laughing students, when I looked across the restaurant and realized that a team from a much more successful school was at the same restaurant. They all sat in grim quiet at their table, no one smiling or talking to each other. The coaches looked angry and disappointed. That team won a lot more debates than we did that weekend. In fact, I think they won the tournament. But I left feeling a lot more successful.
       
      Truth: We Are Promoting Our Own Toxicity
       
      The sorts of expectations that have grown up around coaching — that we allow to continue to exist — promote a culture that endangers students, coaches, and the activity itself. There are intense pressures on everyone who coaches to stop doing the things that give them balance and perspective, and which allow them to make good decisions. And when we value people who set aside personal happiness and healthy partnerships in pursuit of debate success, we too often end up hiring people who derive all their pleasure from within debate. The dangers of putting deeply unsatisfied, unbalanced adults who have lost the support they need to make healthy decisions together with large populations of vulnerable young people should be obvious. We are already a community with a long history of failing to protect our students and report bad behavior by coaches.
       
      We simply cannot make debate a hostile place to people who want to have happy families and rich lives outside the activity if we want debate to be safe, healthy, and sustainable. We need to incentivize and reward reasonable work boundaries for coaches, and we need to value life modeling as much or more than competitive success when we hire people.
       
      Truth: Personal Sacrifice Can’t Overcome Systemic Inequality
       
      In college I debated at Emory, a well-resourced program with a storied history. As a graduate student, I coached at Wake Forest University and the University of Georgia, two more schools with proud histories and strong resources. But my high school program was small and funded by the students, and the college program I directed for 15 years had the smallest budget in the district for most of the time I was there, and those experiences are what structures my understanding of debate. As a director, many of my students came from poor backgrounds and schools with little debate experience. I loved coaching those students, and I wouldn’t have traded them for any other debaters, but I often lamented my inability to give them what students from richer programs had. I know what it’s like to be the only coach on one side of an elimination round when the other team has six. When you care for your students, it feels like you’re always letting them down no matter how hard you work.
       
      I now understand two things, though. The first is that it’s impossible for one coach to do the work of six, unless those six are incredibly lazy — and they never are. Better funded programs will always have the edge because they are better funded. That doesn’t mean poorer programs always lose. Being forced to be scrappy can make you really creative. But it does mean that coaches who try to balance resource inequity by destroying their own lives are living a lie. The second thing I now understand is that the most important work I did for my students didn’t involve destroying my life. It was showing up, and it was showing them that it was possible to work hard but also value themselves and their loved ones.
       
      What Is to be Done?
       
      I love debate, and I am immensely proud of the time I spent coaching. I want debate coaches everywhere and at all levels to succeed, I want students to have great experiences as debaters, and I want the activity to grow and flourish. For all that to happen, though, coaches in general need to start doing things differently when it comes to work-life balance. To be fair, some coaches are already doing things very differently, and I hope they spread the word. For those who are still stuck in the old mindset, however, I have a few suggestions.
       
      First – and this will be the hardest thing for most of you — accept your own limitations and have some humility about your own importance. You are not good to anyone if you destroy your own life and become a terrible, unhappy, desperate version of yourself. You deserve happiness. And your students are shockingly capable without your constant attention. The ones who aren’t won’t benefit from that attention anyway.
       
      Second, be intentional about drawing some boundaries around your personal life, and then enforce those boundaries. There should be days where you don’t stay late, or days when you leave early. There are weekends when you should not work on debate at all. You should announce those boundaries so your students know what to expect, and you should explain that you are taking time off to have a life, to spend time with your partner or your family or just your dog. Let them see you leave to do things for yourself and your loved ones.
       
      Third, take seriously the idea that you need a life outside of debate. That means hobbies that aren’t debate-related, taking the time to build relationships outside the activity if you don’t already have them, and doing some non-debate work (even if it doesn’t immediate contribute to your current career).
       
      Fourth, understand that you don’t have to be a debate coach forever. There’s this notion in debate that you’re not a real coach unless you’re a lifer, but debate coaches come in all shapes, sizes, and career durations. If you don’t want to be a coach forever, cultivate your post-debate career with the same intensity you’d give to tournament preparation. Honestly, you should do that even if you do think you’re going to be a coach forever. Things change.
       
      Fifth, value winning less and learning and character building more. Teach your more experienced debaters to coach your less experienced ones, and make that as much of an expectation as research or argument construction. Give your time to the students who need help, not just the ones who are most likely to win, and teach everyone self-reliance. If you’re someone who makes hiring decisions, hire people whose careers demonstrate a concern for students more than a concern for tournament success. Vet applicants extensively for how they treat students and whether they might have a history of abuse or improper behavior.
       
      Finally, if you’re one of those lucky coaches whose program is well-funded, share the wealth. Work to lower expectations for coaches in general, help out new and underfunded programs (there are many creative ways to do this that don’t involve money), and assist folks who need help advocating for more resources. Teach your own parent organization to value your work as a force for good in the community. Too often, well-funded programs help create the work-life balance problems I’m talking about. If we’re going to change things, we’re going to need some leadership from you too.
       
      It’s easy to dismiss all this when you’re in the middle of things, when you’re going crazy prepping for the next tournament or rushing to the next practice debate. By all means, do what you need to do. One of the great things debate teaches us is to work really hard when we need to. The problem is that we’ve created a culture in which anything less than maximum effort all the time is seen as unacceptable. We owe ourselves and most especially our students a better culture than that.
       
       
       
       
      Dr. Joe Bellon is a Senior Lecturer in Communication at Georgia State University. He served as the Director of Debate at GSU from 2001 to 2015, during which time he set school records for participation, national rankings, national tournament success, and number of teams qualified for the National Debate Tournament. He is the primary author of The Policy Debate Manual, which has introduced tens of thousands of novice debaters to the activity.
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