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Layperson’s Terms: What are Policy Debaters SAYING?

I don’t debate. I’m not one for huge time commitments, hours spent researching, and long, scholarly summer camps. However, many of my friends here at College Prep participate successfully on the debate team, and I always wish I could understand them when they start babbling about their latest trips to Long Beach, where they get “bids” and they debate as “Aff” or “Neg.” I’m sure that plenty of you non-debaters can relate to my plight, so I took it upon myself to interview Victor W. (‘18) about important components and terms of Policy debate. As you’ll see, I’ve attempted to dumb it down as much as possible––to the point that even I can sort of grasp what’s happening at those mysterious tournaments. I hope you’ll leave my article with some semblance of understanding of Policy debate.

You’ve all heard the announcements and seen the Campus News emails congratulating the debate team on getting to “quarter finals,” or something like that. Let me now explain how Policy debaters progress through the different levels of debates. Each team begins with 6 “prelims” (preliminary rounds). The team’s success in the prelims determines their advancement; typically, winning 4 or more prelims, as well as getting a high number of speaker points (see below), will send the team into the elimination rounds: octofinals, quarterfinals, semifinals, or finals. If you’ve heard your debate friends mentioning “breaking,” they mean that they made it to an elimination round. In octofinals, there are 16 teams divided into 8 debates; in quarterfinals, there are 8 teams in 4 debates; in semifinals, there are 4 teams in 2 debates, and in finals, the last 2 teams debate each other.

Judges award speaker points in the prelims, on a scale of 0 to 30. However, because College Prep debaters are generally good speakers, it’s rare to get fewer than 25 points, so people generally say the speaker point scale is from 25 to 30. Judges base speaker points on a debater’s ability, poise, clarity, and enunciation. The points are not awarded one by one; they’re more of an overall assessment of someone’s skills.

The above terminology is pretty universal for different forms of debate; now, I’m going to talk specifically about Policy. Every year, most Policy debaters must go to a multi-week debate camp over the summer in order to prep for the year’s one “resolution.” The resolution is the nationwide topic that people will debate. In this current 2016-2017 school year, the resolution is “The U.S. federal government should substantially increase its economic and/or diplomatic engagement with the People’s Republic of China.” At debate camp this summer, the Policy students learned about the history of the People’s Republic of China and its politics. They also practiced their debate skills, and researched the resolution for the majority of their time at camp. When debating a resolution, debaters only discuss whether or not to implement such-and-such idea, not how, because “how” is a whole different issue from the resolution’s point.

You may have heard your debate friends saying they need to “cut cards” this weekend. Debate research differs from, say, term paper research. The debaters read full articles online, decide how much of the article (often most of it, apparently) can help them in the debate, and copy/paste that portion into a different document. They then underline anything they want to use, highlight the exact words they want to say, and transfer their newly annotated evidence into Verbatim (a debating software). This process is what debaters call “cutting cards.” Once it is in Verbatim, their writing becomes a “card.” During a debate, the teams will read from their cut cards, which must include a source citation, the date, and a “tag” (a summary of the evidence).

Above, I said that they would “read” from their cut cards, but what I really meant was “spread.” Most forms of debate involve spreading, an abbreviation of speed-reading. Debaters use spreading to maximize the amount of arguments they can fit into a limited amount of time. When the opposing team fails to respond to an argument in the given time period, the argument gets “dropped,” or conceded, so for the purposes of that debate, it is true. The idea of spreading is to say too many arguments for the opposing team to answer; that way, more arguments can get dropped.

I think it’s time, now, to describe the structure of a Policy debate to you lovely readers––that is, if you’re still with me. The basic format is simple, but I have trouble understanding its details. Two teams debate the resolution in a Policy debate: the side defending the resolution is called the Affirmative, or Aff, and the side against the resolution is called the Negative, or the Neg. The Aff presents a course of action, which the Neg tries to disprove. The debate takes a very rigidly timed form, which Victor kindly explained to me with an illegible diagram:

  1. 8-minute 1AC (First Aff Constructive)

  2. 3-minute 1NCX (First Cross-Ex by the negative team)

  3. 8-minute 1NC (First Neg Constructive)

In the constructive, the team lays out their case. Next, there is cross-examination, where the teams ask each other questions about their sides.

The Neg has multiple strategies and tips to win their case: “disads” (disadvantages), “kritiks” (critiques), topicality, and a counterplan. I’ll explain each one, because frankly none of them make sense right off the bat.

In a disad, the Neg argues that the Aff’s plan would be worse than not doing the Aff’s plan. A disad has a three-part argument consisting of evaluating the status quo, linking the Aff idea to a bad thing, and the impact of the bad thing. For example, if the Aff argued that putting chocolate on pizzas would be a good idea, the Neg’s disad would say something like “Right now, pizzas are delicious. Adding chocolate would increase the calorie count of the pizzas. Eventually, it would catastrophically impact the current American obesity crisis.”

A “kritik,” or “K,” challenges the underlying assumption behind the Aff’s case. Generally, the Neg kritik would link the Aff idea back to sexism, ableism, the patriarchy, etc. Think of a K as someone always championing a minority group.

Topicality isn’t something the Neg team can do in every debate, but when it occurs, it’s really helpful for the Neg. When Affs argue in favor of the resolution, they have to propose a policy that fits with the resolution; if said policy isn’t topical––if it doesn’t link directly back to the resolution––then the judge must vote for the Neg by default, no matter how excellent the non-topical Aff plan is.

When the Neg team proposes a counterplan, they’re asserting that their plan is better than both the Aff plan and the status quo. They might introduce a number of positions to counter the Aff. Basically, the Neg would say “If the Aff plan happens, then something else bad will follow. The status quo is no better than the Aff consequence, so our plan is the best.” Except, of course, they’d spread it and use fancy language.

I mentioned “impacts” a few times when I talked about Neg strategies. Anything bad that happens as a consequence of a plan is an impact. The most fundamental impact discussed in Policy debate is the “extinction impact,” which is exactly as it sounds. If such-and-such plan happens, the impact will eventually lead to global extinction. Usually, the extinction impact is global warming or nuclear war (don’t ask me how U.S. diplomacy with China could contribute to either of those outcomes).

I’ll wrap up by telling you how a debate ends. It’s amazingly simple, compared to the rest of what happens. The judge decides, based on everything I just talked about, which team has made a better case, and that team wins. It’s actually that clear-cut.

Hooray! If you’re still here, you’ve successfully educated yourself with a surface-level knowledge of Policy debate. I can’t tell you how many times I said “I regret everything” when interviewing debaters, but now you, too, can feel my pain as you struggle to grasp the concepts. I hope that you’ve somehow enjoyed reading my article. If I receive kudos, maybe I’ll force myself to write one on Public Forum debate. Maybe.

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