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argghhh! You didn’t win nationals!

Actually, that’s not precise… more like, “I lost at X point, and that was FRUSTRATING.” And so you’re aiming your frustration at some pre-pre-pre-season research.

I get that.

This will help your efforts pay off. It’s a pretty comprehensive guide for starting off the new year of research on a solid footing.

And remember, all but one team lose nationals… it’s ok.

1. Mindset: Research is DISCOVERY, not SHOPPING

You’re collecting nuggets of information to build a mental palace of what the world of ideas says about these topics. You’re not looking for the key discovery that confirms your theory, or much like Noah’s Ark researchers, you’ll constantly be finding it! That’s because of human bias.

Unbiased listening is one of the most essential skills in debate and life. The best leaders can objectively view themselves, process new information critically, and see from the perspective of others.

But it seems that when a topic is announced, every year I hear dozens of debaters rapidly blitz through all their pre-existing notions about what this topic contains. Yet, most topics tap into tens-to-thousands of years of history in terms of how that policy or principle came to us today, in the controversy that it is.

When you start with a “blank canvass,” in the research sense, it doesn’t mean you’re painting new color. You’re the canvas.

2. Setup: Tree-Style Tabs

When I’m doing heavy research, I use tree-style tabs, a Firefox plugin. There’s a similar one for Chrome, and you can just search either browser’s plugin/extensions for tab management. “Top of browser” tabs are bizarrely inefficient once you’re opening 10 tabs. And when you’re chasing down a search term and all it’s permutations, it’s great to create a hierarchy of tabs.

You can even save and reopen these tabs, in many cases!

3. Collection: Information Hierarchy, Track all Themes

Use a document with nested bullet points, or use a spreadsheet (Google Sheets if you want to share with a partner… which you probably do). You’re going to find themes, sub-themes, and sub-sub themes, if you’re researching well. Possibly 10 layers deep.

This is an important piece of annual research. It will pay off when in January you notice that a new piece of research footnotes an article you’ve read before, and you know that article discussed the key theme based on faulty-methodology studies from 10 years ago that were later admitted fraudulent. That’s happened to me THREE TIMES, with: global warming, depleted uranium, and gun control.

You’ll find that you eventually you know the names of the top 10 people who discuss the issue, and you remember which way they went for what nuance. You’re going to get deeper than headline news.

You’re also looking for major DISCUSSION POINTS in the literature. You’re not looking to make a judgment right now! Learn the themes so you can understand the strongest points on both sides, and don’t get blindsided by unconsidered points of view. So write down the names of themes, which will have sub-themes, sub-sub themes, etc, as discussed above.

Like this, getting started with the China topic:

Theme 1: There’s a Trans-Pacific Partnership.
> Sub-theme: Executive Fast-Track Authority
> Sub-theme: China
> Sub-theme: Japan
> … etc w/issues China and Japan care about, for example
Theme 2: … etc

Notice, you’re NOT choosing a case after the end of your first day of research. If you spend a solid 4 hours, you’ll probably know 50% of the themes even discussed, which you can later look at for exploring for advocacy and positions that turn into the greatest cases.

4. Collect: Contextual Definitions

Terms in the resolution that need defining can be defined contextually by the literature base. For example, there’s the dictionary definition of “free trade,” but “free trade agreements” are almost never that. It would be a mistake to use the dictionary definition, as if the authors are referring to that, when they mean FTAs—inclusive of all kinds of negotiated exceptions.

We used a “field contextual” definition to win a crucial nationals outround in 2004, proving that the District of Columbia could be considered a “protectorate” of the USA. Debate the topic like those who are engaged in that world debate about it, from liberal arts to privacy.

“Liberal Arts” example. Five minutes of research, starting at ssrn.com for “liberal arts” found that:

  • Liberal education is another way to refer to this
  • I downloaded this SSRN paper, referring to 106 liberal arts colleges in the USA, b/c they must have a sort of definition to determine what’s “liberal arts.” http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=654241
  • I found there’s actual a Carnegie Classification System for type of college, and there are around 200 “Liberal Arts” colleges. So I looked for that system using Google.
  • Found it! http://carnegieclassifications.iu.edu/descriptions/ugrad_program.php
  • Conclusion: in the field, “Arts and Sciences” is liberal arts, and “Professions” is the contrast. I can easily argue that “practical skills” refers exactly to this classification.
  • WOW! A powerful source of argumentation for this year’s LD topic will be knowing the list of top colleges that fit into each application, and studies on what their graduates go on to do. Luckily, if I want a balanced neg… there’s a defined list of colleges that the literature base says meets that criteria. BOOM.

5. Differentiated Collection: Videos, Podcasts, Interviews, and Books go Untapped

Look at Dr. Srader’s post on how his University research team always got ahead, Starting with a New Debate Topic. We’ve done this several times – go visit your local University library. If you’re in the D.C. Area, the GMU library is great.

Copy to PDF all kinds of pages from all kinds of books. Don’t read them that day. You can learn the themes and collect loads of relevant info, but you won’t know it’s relevant sometimes until months later. So just collect.

In addition, I’ve found debaters spend about 80% of their time in what can be described as “articles,” hopefully in peer-reviewed journals as much as possible (e.g. at SSRN.com, Lexis, etc). But there is GOLD in videos (like TED talks, video lectures from Universities, and expert talks captured onto YouTube), radio or TV interviews, podcasts, and—of course—books. Get deeper and engage the world of ideas by engaging where IDEAS are really discussed: in not-headline-news forums.

6. Reflect: Self-Analyze

Are you really efficient? Shouldn’t you turn off social media and any form of communication for just two hours, crank up some music you’ll tune right out but has rhythm, and RESEARCH? Yes… yes, you should. Everything will be better.

7. Subscribe: Podcasts, YouTube Channels, NPR Debates, Economist Blogs, Amazon Prime/Netflix Documentaries…

Tap into some great channels of information on the topics you are following. They’ll keep you updated throughout the year.

You should probably subscribe to this blog while you’re at it. Because we’re going to turbocharge this place this year.

8. Discuss: Engage in the World of Ideas

Decide now: are you a self-serving pawn broker, who gains and resells information, or are you an information hero who advocates for what’s good? If you’re trying to do good in the world, then you care about the big picture… and don’t want to sell any judges on wares they shouldn’t be buying.

So openly discuss what you’re finding. You’ll learn more, they’ll learn more, you’ll go deeper, and in the end… competitively you’ll be fine anyway. But that’s not the point, is it? Are people means to an end (your own), or are you pointing them towards good decisions well-tested?

9. Inspired Cases and Generics

Only now can you think about building your arguments. You’re now participating in the world of ideas.

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