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Each year, my debate club requires every student to go through the NCFCA’s “Comprehensive Guide to Policy Debate” curriculum in the fall, regardless of experience level.  Having read it multiple times before, I was skimming the week’s assigned chapter twenty or so minutes before club last year.  But something caught my eye that made me nearly throw the book out the window.  I’d never seen such heresy in my entire life!  

If you’re reading this right now, in just a moment, I’d like you to scroll to the bottom of the page while closing your eyes and comment your answer to the following question:

On average, how many affirmative cases will be out there in a given Team Policy debate resolution?

Go ahead and put your answer in the comments now.

Alright, assuming you followed directions, let’s continue with the article now.  If my opinion is even minimally representative of NCFCA competitors, then I’m guessing your answer might have been hovering around fifty.  Maybe forty if you compete in a smaller league.  Well I’ve got news for you.  To paraphrase the NCFCA’s debate curriculum mentioned above,

“In a given year, there will likely be anywhere between ten and twenty possible reforms that fall in the topic area.  This may seem like a lot, but careful preparation allows Negative teams to research most cases and develop a strategy against each one in advance of the first tournament.”

In an age where I’ve witnessed teams toting around as many as four debate boxes’ worth of evidence at tournaments, this estimate simply seems absurd.  Ten cases?!  How could the official league textbook have got this one so incredibly wrong?  Well, the short answer is that the textbook is twenty years old, and while it’s been updated a number of times, this portion has likely remained unchanged; the only point that the textbook is trying to convey is that there are a variety of cases which teams will have to research against in order to be successful–the specific number isn’t important.  

However, this begs two questions.  First, what can explain this spike in the amount of affirmative ground (or at least the amount of ground actually used by affirmatives)?  While this may be a gross oversimplification, I think there are two primary factors that explain this:

First, research has become progressively easier in recent years.  One mom in our club actually competed in policy during her college years, and she once commented that back then, she and her partner would spend upwards of 100 hours at the library each week conducting negative research during the summer and anywhere between 20 and 40 hours per week during the school year.  Compare that with 2021, where you can write a brief in an hour from the comfort of your own home, and we’re living a veritable cake walk nowadays.

Second (and it may just be me who thinks this, so do weigh this against your own judgement), I believe that debaters have progressively trended towards resolutions that allow for more and more possible affirmatives since research is also becoming progressively easier; if it’s possible to research forty cases during the fall instead of thirty, then debaters will gladly vote for resolutions with more than thirty possible cases.  In my own experience discussing resolution voting with friends each year, I’ve discovered that resolution scope is one of the biggest deciding factors; intermediate and advanced debaters (keep in mind that novice families don’t vote) seem to favor broader resolutions. 

Alright.  If research is becoming easier and debaters are becoming more confident in their research, then we’ll likely be dealing with resolutions with fifty-plus cases for the foreseeable future.  So what should we do about it?  The natural response may be that we don’t need to change anything.  After all, if research is easy, we can still keep up with huge numbers of affirmatives.  But is that really true?  While debaters might be able to keep up with the research burdens imposed by broad resolutions, I don’t think it’s plausible that our level of understanding can keep up.  That is, if you’re forced to spend five hours researching something instead of just one, then you’ll comprehend it at a deeper level simply because you spent more time thinking about it.  But more and more, by spending less time researching each individual case, debaters tend to understand them less and less.  I’ve been in negative rounds where I lost despite having more than double the evidence that the affirmative had, and I’m pretty sure everybody can relate to this at some level.  

That takes us to the second question: what can we do about it?  While this is by no means an exhaustive list, I offer three suggestions.

First, figure out what cases you need to prioritize researching.  To do this, ask yourself three questions about each case:

  1. What do I need to prove to beat this case?  Do you need evidence to prove it, or can you make your argument from a non-evidentiary standpoint?  Depending on your answer, you may or may not truly need research on this case; while it might be nice to have some, always prioritize the cases where evidence is integral to the negative position rather than just a convenience.
  2. Who is running this case?  The fact is, you’re probably going to beat a novice team no matter what case they’re running and no matter how much or little evidence you have.  You’re definitely not going to beat the best team in the region without ample preparation.  Prioritize cases being run by the better teams.
  3. How many teams are running this case?  In simple terms, you’re going to want a brief on a case that twenty teams are running more than you’ll want one that only two are running.  If neither of the above criteria indicate what to research, always prioritize cases that more teams are running.

Thus, even if you end up briefing fewer cases in a year, the ones you do brief will be the ones that matter, but more importantly, you’ll have a thorough understanding of each one due to having spent more time on them.  

My second tip for increasing comprehension is pre-writing generic arguments.  Before you go off and start telling me that generic arguments are vague, almost never truly related to the affirmative case, etc., I’ve got some news for you: you’ve probably been running generic arguments all along.  To take a basic example, both the 2020 NCFCA and 2021 Stoa policy resolutions lend themselves to a generic national security disadvantage; with the NCFCA resolution, debaters would argue that consolidating energy sources effectively puts all our eggs in one basket and is thus risky, and with the Stoa topic, debaters argue that virtually any topical case, given that the resolution mandates a decrease in military commitment, in turn results in the US letting its guard down against foreign threats.  Yet despite their ubiquity, in my experience, teams tend to run these arguments poorly and without the proper backing where evidence is concerned.  Thus, if you’re going to run them anyway, you might as well ensure you run then effectively.  By pre-writing your own generic arguments, and particularly generic disadvantages, you can center the debate around your argument rather than the affirmative’s to some degree, meaning that while ideally you would comprehend every affirmative case out there, as long as you understand your generic arguments, you’ll have a solid shot even in negative rounds where you don’t quite have as solid a grasp on the affirmative case as you’d like.

Third, talk about cases with your friends!  Being forced to put your ideas into words and hearing others’ ideas are immensely helpful in gaining a firm understanding of a case, basic though it may seem.  You may have had a “brainstorming session” in club once or twice that didn’t really go anywhere and turned you off to brainstorming as a whole, at least where debate is concerned.  However, if you can find a group of friends that also are passionate about debate and want to succeed, when everybody is invested in the discussion, you’ll be surprised at how much you can get out of it.

In short, research is great, but as a wise man once said, “brains win rounds, not briefs,” and we’d all do well to follow his sage advice.  No matter how many cases there may be, no matter how many trees you may need to kill to write enough briefs, cliché though it may sound, always remember that your brain is your strongest weapon.

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