[Ndca-l] Issues concerning the high school community

Claire McKinney olddirtyclaire
Tue Dec 17 20:24:30 EST 2013

Dear all,

Aaron Timmons? email provides an opening in the high school forum that I
feel more comfortable speaking in than in the college forum. As a long-term
assistant coach with indirect employment with a school, my perspective may
be a bit different. I have felt uncomfortable talking in the college
forums, partially because I am no longer involved in the collegiate brand
of the activity. Here are my thoughts. I?ll address Aaron?s thoughts first,
then add one of my own.

Regarding the first thought, while I agree that there are forms of
argumentation that I agree are inappropriate, this question requires a
larger question, which is what is the role of judges who take themselves to
strive to be neutral arbiters to intervene in drawing this line? What is
the role of tournament directors? Judges like myself whose livelihoods are
not tied to programs, or ?guns for hire? who don?t even have consistent
institutional affiliation and thus may be unconcerned about the survival of
a particular program may take the laissez faire ethos of debate as a given
and thus refuse to sanction things they may find personally offensive. Is
this a question for tournament directors instead? I think this is an
interesting question regarding regulating content.

On the second question of respect, this is also something which may have
increased meaning in our current moment, but I find to be of more endemic
concern. That is, I often feel that the hyper-competitive environment that
I sometimes experience and contribute to, where the value of winning
remains unquestioned and of paramount good, means that often, we don?t show
the respect we ought to towards all competitors. While I think this is less
a problem in many of the settings of high school debate, the over-emphasis
on the meaning of winning and forgetting the value of losing for students
sometimes leads to attitudinal and pedagogical practices that are less than
beneficial for students. Understanding that students mirror how we talk
about one another and treat other competitors and the question of wins and
losses may invite some needed self-reflection for all of us.

On the third point, regarding camps, I may be speaking out of turn, but
there *are* camps that already do this that many of the elite programs
rarely if ever send their students to. I have been a teacher at the
University of Texas? camp for over a decade, and our curriculum has been
committed to both intense policy training and critical education to engage
with alternative practices for that entire time. This is not a plea to send
your students to the UTNIF (I have no real ties to UT?s debate program that
are not social and my tenure with high school debate will probably
significantly diminish as soon as I complete my PhD). I would venture to
say that many regional camps across the country have similar dedications
that go unnoticed, because camp decisions are rarely made on evaluating the
contemporary curriculum of a camp, and more driven by the elite nature of
the staff, path-dependency based on where students have gone before, past
negative reputations of certain institutions, and the social network of
students that make a particular camp the hot camp of the summer. We all
know that camps advertising success of camp attendees is less about the
camp curriculum and more about who is able to draw what natural talent from
which highly resourced programs. If you want to espouse a dedication to
diverse camp pedagogy, it may be time to spend a couple hours investigating
regional camps and encouraging students to attend those.

I want to say a couple of additional things, one about the issue of MPJ and
one more general statement not directly responsive to Aaron?s email. They
are both related to how our thinking often distorts how we act, sometimes
in unproductive ways.

On the issue of MPJ, while the idea of a permanent underclass has some
traction in college, I think in high school, the issue is a little
different, if no less salient. The high school community is, on the face of
it, more transitory than that of college; except for a laudatory and
amazing few who are long standing paragons of the community, many people
cycle in and out of the high school coaching and judging community. We are
much more regionally divided than college; more talented students go their
entire career traveling within a 300 mile radius, as do their coaches and
judges. Thus, when such judges or coaches without reputation appear on
preference sheets, the amount of known unknowns is much higher in high
school than college. This also means that we see more judges we do not know
in high school than most students in college. I personally think this
inevitable uncertainty is a good thing, because too much expertism and
narrowness seems to be part of what is at issue at the college level. Of
course, at the TOC, the college circuit descends on high school and many of
us know what it means not to fulfill a commitment because a second year out
is deemed better for students.

What I do want to say is that we are all guilty of making poor decisions in
preferring judges because we either act out of prejudice or out of
distorted senses of the danger of certain judges because of past
experiences. We certainly inflate negative experiences in our mind (social
science tells us as much), and we also don?t allow for judges? learning.
When I was first judging high school a decade ago, I was a very poor judge
because of inexperience, especially with policy arguments. But a decade on,
I sometimes feel that I don?t judge certain teams because of some fear that
I make those same decisions now. I admit I may be a poor example (perhaps I
am a terrible judge and lack self-awareness), but when judges make what we
believe to be poor decisions because they did not have access to elite
success (often the case for many low-income, non-white, and non-male
debaters), we perhaps should be willing to be more circumspect when two
years down the line, they may have changed. Willing to risk a win one feels
one deserves in order to expand diversity in one?s judge preferences might
be worth it. Wins aren't that important; allowing for personal growth might
be more important. So the next time you see a non-privileged name on the
preference sheet (whether it be regionally or identity-based
non-privileged), ask yourself if placing a racial minority, a woman, or
someone from a non-elite school below the 4 mark is a practice you want to
engage in. It?s very easy to say that THIS woman, or THIS racial minority
or THIS unknown school is particularly unpreferred, but all those
particulars add up.

Finally, I want to say a word more on pedagogy. I am concerned with the
calcification that I see not only in college but also in high school in
condemning certain teams or schools for making certain types of arguments
in and out of debate rounds. I am heartened by the openness I have seen in
high school with regards to allowing students to discover who they are
through debate. We all make mistakes and say things we regret, but allowing
that students (and coaches) are human who are engaged in self-forming
experimentation will allow us to be cordial and see one another as
genuinely engaging in these discussions in good faith. Being able to admit
when one is wrong or why one is sticking to his or her convictions while
genuinely trusting one?s interlocutors and respecting different ways of
intervening in discussion is so incredibly valuable. I do hope that in the
course of the conversation, we remember that the reason debate works is
because we trust and genuinely love one another and that all our
disagreements are from a space of respect, not denigration.

Thanks again, Aaron, for beginning the conversation. And sorry for the
length of my email.


Claire McKinney
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