We all know what the green nametag means.

I see it in the hall, or on the way to a round. They’re wearing it casually, with their jeans and their converse and their casual pullovers. The green nametag.

It means they know the drill here. It means they’ll be able to see through my every bluff and façade. It means my impending doom. Because it means they’re alumni.

“Alumni judges are great!” says the perky lady to whom I have just been complaining. “They know what it’s like to be a competitor! They can give you the BEST feedback!” Sure, I think gloomily, the best five pages of feedback I’ve ever gotten on one ballot. They’ll probably have a pre-written judging philosophy, too.

As a competitor, I confess I wasn’t a huge fan of getting an alumni judge. But all that changed when I became one; when suddenly, I was the one with the green nametag—and it wasn’t at all what I expected.

I’m here to tell you, from the other side, what it can be like as an alumnus—and how you can best communicate with one.

Of course, what I’m about to say will vary from person to person. These aren’t hard and fast rules. This is simply the way that I’ve seen many alumni operate, and it’s what I’ve found to be true for myself as I transitioned from competitor to judge.

First, let’s try to understand the context of where some of these alumni (myself included) are coming from. The people who come back to judge, typically, are the ones who were significantly involved in competition. In all likelihood, they had a large friend group, or some form of success, or both. They’re coming back to a place where their names were known—by friends and by competitors and by impressed parents. They’re coming back expecting it to be the same. They’re coming back expecting to be remembered.

So then comes the shock. You graduate, you come back to make an appearance, and suddenly realize you’re something of an outsider. Sure, students still respect you, look at the green name tag with a little awe, and envy your ability to wear street clothes instead of suits, but there has been a fundamental shift. You’re excluded. Oh, you’re not intentionally left out, but by the very nature of the system, you can’t be part of that intimate band anymore, bound by stress and nerves and late night hyper debate geek parties. Not only that, but everyone has already begun to forget your accomplishments in the thrill of their own.

For some, this is why the first year out is always the hardest. Having been deeply entrenched in the speech and debate culture, I felt like I’d been kicked out of the club—where I expected to find butterflies, Pegasi, and salted caramel chocolate truffles, I instead found Chicago rush-hour traffic.

The First Result: Standards

This context sets up a few interesting results. It rocks the ‘normal judging standards’ paradigm, and introduces a whole new class of crazy.

  • The Impossible Standard

Most often, you’ll get alumni judges who were legitimately excellent debaters. They know what they’re talking about, and you can (and should) learn a lot from them. But these judges also tend to hold you to a very high standard. Notorious for being stingy with speaker points (“No one ever gets a five in Cross-Ex. It’s not possible.”), these judges typically compare you to themselves, their senior year, in their best round—which is a pretty high standard.

  • The Arbitrary Standard

Other times, you will get alumni judges who set up completely arbitrary standards. One set of debaters was told, “I’m going to flip a coin. Whoever wins gets to choose the weighing mechanism.” Now all of a sudden, the debaters are at the mercy of the judge’s every whim.

The Second Result: Self-Emphasis

  • Philosophies

The standards are carried over into the judging philosophy. Instead of a simple explanation of a few pertinent thought processes, alumni judging philosophies tend to turn into a checklist of ‘things the debaters must do in order to win’. Though I don’t think we realize it, we alumni tend to take the focus off the round and put it on ourselves—our credentials, our pet peeves, what we think makes for a good debate round.

  • Ballots

Alumni seem to be afflicted by an ailment that Google Translate so eloquently calls ‘Multum Verbis’. I confess I suffer from this condition acutely. Alumni ballots are long. Again, I assure you, we have the best intentions, but we do like to hear ourselves talk. We want to feel like we’re still relevant in the debate world. Sometimes, we go a little too far. We again take the focus off of the round, and put it on ourselves—how we would have debated, and, surely, crushed the opposition. “Neg: you should have run a Counterplan. Bam. Instant win.” “Here’s my email if you want to learn more.” “That’s not how a disadvantage works. I’m voting against you on uniqueness because the disadvantage didn’t show the threshold for the impact. It’s required to even be counted as an argument. Aff, you should point this out next time.”

Tactics:

  • Ask

Despite my recent rant, it is important to ask for their debate experience AND for their judging philosophy. First of all, some alumni get really offended if you don’t ask for it. (They’ve been waiting for months to give you their page-long prewritten judging philosophy, complete with headings and subpoints. Don’t deny them this moment of joy.) And secondly, we alumni are a very diverse bunch. You may get someone who graduated in 2009 and still holds a very traditional view of technique, or you may get a student from Berkeley who has extremely different ideas about what you can and cannot do in a round. You want to know what it is that you’re getting into.

  • Adapt

Once you’ve gotten that, adapt your approach accordingly. I’ve had students ask me about my experience, and then, at some point in the round, give me an in-depth explanation of the Stock Issues. Not a good use of time. Plus, it makes the judge feel like you weren’t listening to a word they said.

  • Recognize

Acknowledge their experience, their relevance, and their desire to be perceived as knowledgeable. Make them feel important. Use phrases like, ‘As I’m sure you know…’ or, ‘Since you’re familiar with ___, you probably know ___.’ They’ll nod along with you and make notes on the flow. It makes them feel like they’re still in the loop.

  • Speed

You can pick up the pace with alumni. They don’t need any of the extra fluff. “Is my judge ready? My timer? My audience? My opponent? Great, then let’s begin. First, how are you doing today?” Just cut to the chase.

  • Subpoints

Use many numbered subpoints. Alumni like to keep track of arguments all the way across the flow. It makes them happy. And if you can demonstrate how each point has carried through the round, you’re halfway home.

  • Impact Calculus

Perhaps the best tactic for persuading an alumni judge is the use of Impact Calculus: physical impacts that are weighed by mechanisms or analysis. There are a few excellent posts on this already, and you can read more about it here.

If all else fails, I have one last tip for you. Read your ballots out loud, as if they were your words to a younger student. I often thought a judge was being unnecessarily harsh when really it was my mental vocal inflection that I was projecting onto their words.

As a competitor, the sight of a green nametag ratcheted up my stress level about 50%. I thought that most alumni judges were there solely to pounce on my every mistake and eviscerate my performance in the most thorough way possible. In reality, though, most alumni judges are simply thrilled to be back on home turf.

All I ask is that you take the time to read and appreciate their book-length ballots.


Anna Johansen is a TP and advanced speech coach in the Chicago area. During her two years in NCFCA, she competed at Nationals in eight speech events and Team Policy debate (taking 3rd place at Nationals in Original Interpretation her novice year, and IronManning at Nats the year after). After graduation, Anna moved into a teaching position at her local club, EverReady, where she discovered her passion for coaching and seeing lives transformed.
Currently, she is also working part time for an executive level recruiting company. In addition to providing targeted research and support, she works in the internal hiring sphere, screening resumes and interviewing candidates.
Anna is pursuing a degree in English, and hopes to continue teaching and writing long-term. Whether it is through editing others’ work or creating her own, teaching the tools or using them, she wants to pass on a love of speaking and writing and communicating to everyone she comes in contact with.