In the Fall of 2015 I started a Public Forum debate team for the Lakeland school district. Prior to that, I spent 30 years as a Policy debater and a Policy debate coach. Since then I have largely been coaching Public Forum debate, though I still judge at some college Policy tournaments and coach Policy debate online.
Why did I do it? Because I simply had a lot of trouble retaining students in Policy debate and the number of Policy tournaments and programs in our area (New York, Northeast) was rapidly declining. Many of my students didn’t continue after the first year due to the high cost and time commitment of a 4-7 week summer camp, which is necessary if one wants to be competitive on Policy debate. During the 2014-15 season, we had two novice Policy tournaments canceled because enough Policy teams did not register for the tournament. These trends obviously reinforced each other.
Each year I become more involved with Public Forum debate through debate camps I started, my work with the New York City Urban Debate League (NYCUDL), summer programs, online coaching, and the development and promotion of debate abroad. Public Forum is obviously a debate format that is growing and is attracting a lot of new students. In contrast to our local Policy debate options, there are so many strong Public Forum tournaments in the Northeast that it isn’t even possible to attend all of the tournaments.
Now, after nearly four full years of coaching instead of just supporting the event I’d like to offer some reflections on what I’ve learned about the event, including its strengths and areas for improvement. Like I debater, I will make these points in organized blocks, hoping to develop some uniform themes by the end.
Most importantly, I want to emphasize that Public Forum debate is not some weak event for lazy students and coaches. When Policy coaching colleagues learn of my switch to Public Forum debate, I get this common reaction: “Well, things must be a lot easier for you now, and it must make things easier for the debaters.” While I haven’t found any more hours in the week to work, I don’t think it is any easier for either myself or the debaters.
Well, basically because PF is a difficult event. For starters, the topic changes almost every month, so while debaters and coaches are involved with tournaments on one topic, they are preparing for the next month. Between November and February of 2018, we debated about the Law of the Sea Treaty, pharmaceutical price controls, Kenynesian economics, and (likely) arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Given that generic arguments don’t work well in PF, everyone has to learn about and prep unique and specific arguments on each topic.
The way PF generally works is that debaters prepare somewhat specific cases that essentially focus on specific advantages to the resolution. For example, on the January 2017 topic on whether or not military spending should be increased, some Pro debaters focused on the economic benefits and others focused on the importance of increasing naval power. A third team argued that we need to counter China’s A2/AD capabilities and a fourth argued that we need to develop new weapons to win a war against China. Con debaters develop specific disadvantages. For example, one team argued that more military spending undermines social spending, another argued it would increase the deficit, and a third team argued it would encircle China and provoke a nationalist lash-out. PF debaters basically debate the resolution like Policy debaters would debate “whole res.”
Each of these scenarios is developed in a constructive speech and each constructive speech usually has 2-3 scenarios. Combined, PF debaters probably needed to prep answers to 40-50 scenarios (advantages/disadvantages) for the January 2017 topic. And they needed to do this while preparing for the February topic that year – lifting of the embargo on Cuba. This is in addition to participating in practice debates, giving practice speeches, and attending tournaments.
If someone wants to do well in PF debate, there is probably a time commitment of 10+ hours a week, plus tournaments. This is similar to (or exceeds) the time commitment needed to succeed at the upper levels of Policy debate. I don’t think students have more than this amount of time to spend on debate during most weeks of the school year.
Some say that PF debate has to be easier because so many more students are doing it. For starters, this is a problematic assumption. Simply because more people do something doesn’t mean that it is easier. For example, I normally had 2-4 national circuit Policy Debaters, but 20-30 kids in the school take AP Physics and many more take multiple AP courses. The students aren’t doing this because they think it is easy but because they think it is a valuable investment of their time. Perhaps, for better or worse, they see PF as a better investment of their time. I’m not sure, but I don’t think it’s a safe assumption to assume that we have 10 or 20 times the number of students doing PF debate as PD because of an assertion that it is easier. Generally, across all events, academic debate attracts highly ambitious and motivated students and we haven’t added lazy people by adding another event.
And like Policy debate, PF debate attracts an incredibly bright and ambitious set of students who one most compete against to win. In a study of 2016 admissions data, I found that twenty seven percent (27%) of graduating seniors who reached the octofinals or octofinals equivalent rounds (top 16 two-person teams, top 32 students) at NSDA, TOC, and NCFL nationals in Public Forum (PF) debate in 2017 are attending ivy league colleges and universities. Twenty-nine percent (29%) of the same students are attending schools ranked in the top 10 by US News & World Report (“USNWR”). Fifty two percent (52%) are attending schools in the top 20. Sixty-two percent (62%) are attending schools in the top 30. Seventy-nine percent (79%) are attending schools in the top 75. I’d be shocked if Policy debaters were admitted to top universities at a higher rate, and, most importantly, it shows just how difficult it is to compete in the event. Winning a major PF tournament involves defeating hundreds of academically talented and ambitious students, which is no small feat no matter how much one prepares.
There are obviously parts of PF that make it easier for students to participate in. There are more tournaments, so debaters do not need to travel as much to compete. Since parents and professionals can judge, it is easier to find judges, and most of them do it for free, saving money. The topic changes every month, so if students don’t debate in a particular month they are not so far behind. Since the event is generally more accessible, it is easier to find coaches. Coaches make debate possible.
Most importantly, students don’t have to attend debate camp for 4-7 weeks just to debate. I don’t mean to win, I mean to just have a reasonable chance of engaging in arguments (understanding, answering) on a topic in a given debate.
Before switching to PF, I did have students who attempted to debate in their second year of debate without attending camp. This was basically impossible, as there is no way for students who did not attend camp to engage with students who spent 50+ hours a week for 4-7 weeks researching a topic and improving their skills. Students who attempted this would go to a tournament, really have no idea what happened in their debates despite some reasonable amount of prior preparation, and then quit the team. This is, of course, compounded by more and more teams debating less literal interpretations of the resolution and merely associating themselves with it in some vague way.
Now I have a lot of students who don’t attend PF camp and debate all year. Yes, if they don’t attend camp they are disadvantaged for the September-October topic and do not have as many opportunities to improve their skills, but substantive advantage is only meaningful for two months, it is only a two week advantage, and, even then, since PF debaters debate the resolution in a less broad sense, debaters still understand the arguments being made in the debates, win or lose.
PF also easier for students to engage in debate at a level they feel comfortable engaging in. PD is basically all or nothing — you have to go to camp for 4-7 weeks, prepare extensively, travel frequently, and practice a lot. These are all great things, but not all students want to participate at this level. Other students want to take more AP courses, join the robotics team, take college classes over the summer, start a non-profit, etc. Debate is a great thing, but it isn’t the only great thing. Since the topic changes every month, since students don’t need to attend camp for 4-7 weeks, since they don’t have to travel as much, they can spend time doing other valuable things in addition to debating. They aren’t going to win the very best tournaments if they spend a lot of time on these other things, but it is still possible for them to participate in meaningful debates while engaging in them. Practically speaking, PD presents the option of, “all in or quit.”
And if they want to go “all in” and be successful on the national circuit, they can spend the time and do that.
Also, I’m not even sure what the “impact” of students spending less time on debate during the week or the summer is. The successful PF debaters I know on my team and elsewhere are very hard working people. They have very difficult academic schedules (usually full loads of AP courses), engage in community service, support local and national advocacy, attend other academic camps and curricular programs in the summer, and take online courses. Their days and weekends are generally consumed with academics, they are not taking a break at the beach.
And who cares if a debate event is great if hardly anyone does it? If debate is good, we should structure that activity in way that encourages more people to participate. This doesn’t have to be in a way that everyone can participate, but it does need to be in a way that more people are likely to participate. It has to be in a way that makes it possible to have a significant number of coaches.
I think in many ways the “Policy only” crowd struggles to accept the fact that when we only had Policy debate shrunk and substantially shrunk. There were entire states with no debate at all. I’m sorry, but it’s hard to argue that debate is great and accept the fact that there are hardly any opportunities for students. We can debate why that was the case, we can wish that coaches worked harder and that more people would give up life for debate, but it just didn’t work out that way.
Public Forum Debate is Educational
Basic skills. There are some fundamental skills that are taught in all forms of debate and Public Forum debate teaches all of these skills. These include how to identify a claim, a warrant, and an impact to all arguments. Public Forum debaters learn how to make arguments, identify arguments, explain arguments, support arguments with reasons and evidence and impact arguments.
PF debaters also learn how to flow, how to organize responses, how to keep track of and extend dropped arguments, and improve their note taking.
They also learn about argument types, including link/no link, internal link/no internal link, impact/no impact, impact turns, and uniqueness/non-uniqueness.
And they learn how to compare arguments — magnitude, time-frame, and probability. Public Forum debaters also weigh with scope — the number of people affected (even if they aren’t dead) and reversability — is one impact ultimately reversible (Trump election) . Just like in Policy debate and Lincoln-Douglas debate, debaters start this weighing early in the debate and continue it in their Summary and Final Focus speeches.
PF debaters learn how to research, including how to research multiple topics over the course of a season. And, of course, they learn about the topics.
It’s demanding. The big PF tournaments (Berekly/Harvard) have 300-400 teams. Win a tournament with 400 teams? Not so easy.
A Benefit of PF Debate Over Other Formats
Speaking/persuasion/judge adaptation. I think one strong value of PF debate is that it places a premium on speaking and adapting to judges. In most tournaments, PF debaters have to adapt to a variety of judges, including policy judges, LD judges, judges with competitive PF debating and coaching experience, individuals who are judging for their very first time. They also have to manage judges whose own personal beliefs span the political spectrum. Policy and LD debaters, especially those who compete on the national circuit, are only expected to debate in front of a very narrow set of judges.
Some Drawbacks of Public Forum Debate
Shorter speeches. I think the most objective limitation of PF debate is that debaters speak for half as long in PF debates (6 minutes) as they do in LD debate (13 minutes) and PD (13 minutes). If there are six debates in a tournament, that’s 42 minutes less of speaking pers person than in LD or PD in the same amount of time students spend at a tournament. Across multiple tournaments, that’s a considerable weakness.
Argument complexity. Arguments in PF debate are considerably less complex. This is true for a few reasons.
First, as noted, the speeches are half as long.
Second, debaters have less time to prepare for a topic and there is less of a premium on evidence (though that is crowing), so there is less complexity to learn.
Third, there is no time to develop arguments in PF debates due to the structure. What does this mean? Well, in PF debate each side presents their initial 4 minute case. Then there are two four minute rebuttals where each side is supposed to refuge the other side. After that, we move to brief (2 minute) Summary (2 minute) and Final Focus speeches (2 minutes). Compare this to PD where there is an initial constructive speech, a 1NC (which is closer to a rebuttal as it is mean to refute the 1NC not be a separate case), a 2AC (which is rebuttal to the 1NC) and then the negative block (2NC/1NR) where teams select certain arguments and develop/expand on them. The same thing happens in the 6 minute NR in LD. In PF, however, there is no time to develop any arguments. As it is, Summary speakers have to pray they can cover any offense in rebuttal, try to summarize their own case, and then try to extend any relevant defense against the original case.
Fourth, while I’m a skeptic of specialized judging, most of the PF judging community is not willing to engage the depth of the particulars of a Policy debate on a complex issue that lasts 90+ minutes.
No premium on truth. PD and LD competitors spin and exaggerate evidence, but I don’t think they make stuff out of thin air. If they do, they have their evidence/quotes readily available for their opponents to scrutinize, even in real time (they often share their evidence just before their speeches). In many PF debates I’ve judged debaters have completely made up stuff out of thin air, tried to avoid showing opponents evidence, have paraphrased evidence in ridiculous ways, make it difficult for competitors and judges to evaluate evidence by showing entire PDFs (and taking to find those PDFs), and generally not even wanting people see it (I guess because it really doesn’t say anything?). One of the skills I think debate teaches is how to closely read a text in order to look for claims in supported claims. Paraphrasing, obfuscating, and making evidence difficult to find really makes it difficult to accomplish these goals and to doesn’t exactly encourage the best ethics.
One prominent coach has compared this to basically cheating on a research paper, which in most schools would be a violation of the honor code, and I think he is correct. It is a significant weakness of the way the event is practiced.
Argument limits. Random judging has many benefits, but one disadvantage is that PF debaters only present the most mainstream of arguments and (also because of the time) fail to connect their arguments to other wider issues. PD & LD encourage debaters to go outside the norm into more radical and interesting ideas to discuss as well as to see the interrelationships among arguments. Since students, especially high school students, do not get exposure to these ideas in school, debate is a great place to generate the exposure for the students. I don’t think locking debaters into the mainstream is a good idea.
It’s not exactly socially progressive. There is sort of no way to say this without being mean, but students of color from low SES backgrounds regularly reach the top levels on the national circuit in PD and LD. I don’t know if there are instances of this in PF, if there are they are few and far between?
Why? I’m not sure entirely, but I think there are a few reasons. First, there are outside resources committed to developing debate in the Policy format in the schools these students attend. Others have pushed to provide nationally competitive opportunities. So, there are simply more lower SES SOC in these events. Second, I think the specialized judging in these events helps. Integration of low SES SOC has changed the argument make-up and allowing students to “pref” certain judges who are receptive to these arguments improves competitive outcomes for these students. Third, I think that PF is just generally white/encompassed in whiteness. PF debate, at least on the circuit, is mostly high SES students who come to tournaments dressed in super nice and often very expensive clothes. The “slickness” is persuasive to lay judges. THis wins. I just think the SES barrier to entry is substantially lower in Policy than PF.
Of course, it’s not clear if these drawbacks are unique. If PF took students away from other formats then there could be a relative loss of skill, but if students who participate in PF would not have otherwise participated in debate then there is no relative advantage.
What Really Makes PF Debate Work?
Why has PF grown when other events struggle? Pro Policy folks often suggest that it is because lazy people can do it. I obviously don’t agree with that (see above). So why do I think it works?
Most importantly, it’s welcoming to potential coaches. “Access” in debate is often discussed in the context of student access, and I have engaged in that discussion earlier, but what is a “prereq” (as the PF debaters say) to debater access? Coach access. There currently aren’t enough coaches in debate, so the only way to get to more debaters is to have more coaches.
What welcomes coaches? Providing them with a topic that the students will actually show up to debate? Provide them with an event that isn’t so complex (kritiks, counterplans, developed theory, complex topicality arguments, research intensive, filled with unwritten rules (norms)) that they can learn about it and coach it in say the 5-10 hours a week that they might have (which is a lot)! Before there can be any more debaters, there have to be coaches who think they can understand an event and help students.
And coaches need to feel welcome as judges. In PD and LD we have preferences, which basically make it impossible for any new coach to judge, as the judge will not know everything that I’ve referenced above (kritiks, counterplans, etc) and debaters will strike them for that reason They will also say they are “idiots.” If you show up to a place and everyone says you are an “idiot” you aren’t going to stick around.
It’s reasonable. While still demanding for a new coach, it is reasonable. Most new coaches can help students prepare to debate reasonable interpretations of the topic.
People debate the topic. While there is certainly social value to not debating the topic in such a literal manner, I think it makes it almost impossible to start new PD programs. I hear coaches give up over this issue all of the time.It’s accessible to students. See above.
Has PF resulted in a net increase in the total amount of debate?
It is without a doubt that PF has massively increased the total number of people participating in debate. One simple example More than 900 students participated in the various divisions of the Harvard PF tournament last year. Policy and LD were maybe down a combined 200 students…that’s 700+ new kids (and Harvard lost Policy #s to another tournament, not to PF).
I also think a case can be made that it has increased PD. Why? Because schools started PF programs and those programs grew into larger debate programs. Some kids became interested in PD, and with a debate coach infrastructure in existence that could at least travel them and take them to tournaments, Policy programs sprouted up.
Does PF Undermine other debate formats?
I’ve obviously addressed this above. It has led to the significant growth of debate in places where it had dried up/didn’t exist. We currently have a net increase in numbers. Some PF programs have spun off Policy programs.
I don’t know that i have any strong conclusions on this issue. It is mostly a mixed bag on two accounts.
Student participation. I love Policy debate but the way it can’t practiced support any significant (in my mind) level of student participation. I don’t think this is because there aren’t enough students who would choose to participate in the event where it is offered, but the simple reality is that there weren’t enough people who were able and qualified to coach it. This meant a dearth of offerings and few programs. It’s just really hard for me to say that debate activity that for practical reasons supports such little debate is the best one.
Time and tournaments. I think that all students basically can find 10ish hours per week to prepare for debate competitions during the school year and need to do that to be competitive, at least nationally competitive, in all events. I have a sense that all competitive students do that. The education advantage Policy debaters have is that they spend much more time on debate during the summer, enabling them to use more complex arguments during the year. Of course, that doesn’t mean PF debaters are lazy; generally, they are spending more time on other academic pursuits during the summer. But, one big weakness is that PF students do spend half the time debating on a weekend as the PD and LD debaters who spend the same amount of time at the tournament.
Depth and complexity. Policy and LD arguments are more complex.
Socially progressive. Policy and LD are more socially progressive.
Basically, I think Policy and LD have a lot of value in terms of argument complexity, depth of research, the ability of the events to promote socially aggressive argumentation, and benefit students by doubling the participation time at tournaments. That said, I think PF has a lot of value in helping students develop argumentation skills and absent its existence many students would be without them. In general, I think the “PD Only” advocates need to accept the reality that many of the defining features of the event also drove many people away and that in many parts of the US many people, especially coaches who are essential to making debate possible, no longer wanted to participate in it. And it is almost completely inaccessible of potentially new coaches for many reasons. A format of debate can only be valuable if it serves a significant number of students. PF does that.