The title here is deceiving. I write this article not just for novice debaters or people who know novice debaters. I write this also for advanced debaters that are looking for ways to contribute positively to the development of junior debaters. In each section, I’ve written a sizable commentary directed at novice debaters. However, I’ve also included some thoughts for advanced debaters in regards to those sections, so I encourage older debaters with more experience to read and think about them, so that they can make themselves available assist those debaters that are just starting NCFCA.
Do. Not. Give. Up. This is the single most important ‘Thing’ for new debaters. This observation comes from watching dozens of other novice competitors and hearing others tell their own forensics story. Unless you are abnormally nerdly, as I was, you will probably not like debate at first. In fact, it’s possible you won’t like debate your entire first year. My first debate class of about nine people had two people answer “yes” to “do you want to do debate?” and seven “my mom made me” answers to the question “why are you doing debate?” The next year, not a single one didn’t want to do debate. In the next several rounds of new debaters, the vast majority of new competitors have “my mom made me” as their only reason for doing debate their first year. At the end of the year, that percentage is completely reversed. If you’re starting your new year and aren’t thrilled, you have way more friends in NCFCA than you’d think. The research shows that a majority of people would rather die than give a speech in public. While that probably doesn’t make you feel any more motivated than it did me when I heard it (“yep…so what, I want to die now?”), I say this so that you can look across the room to your friend thinking just as morbid thoughts as we all were and band together to push through just one year.
You won’t see me beg often, but I’ll beg here. Please commit to one year. Please commit to give in to your parent’s wishes, and make debate something you want to do, even if it’s fake and only for just one year. Maybe, like 100% of my debate class, you’ll find out it is kinda fun. If not, then I can’t and don’t expect you to keep doing something you just can’t find enjoyable. I open with this simply because debate is intimidating at first, and its high learning curve can turn off some people before they really get to experience all that debate has to offer. I want you to experience all of it before you decide to say no.
Advanced Debaters: If you know a novice debater that’s struggling with first-year apprehension, put aside your dignity for a moment and beg them to commit. I can’t imagine the feeling one might get if a few years down the road a student just a few years your junior came up to you and thanked you gratuitously for motivating them to stay in debate for several years. Do it.
- Prioritize the End, not the Means
Debate is not an end. It is a mean. We’re not looking for sophistry with debate. The end is codified in NCFCA’s mission statement: “addressing life issues from a biblical perspective in a manner that glorifies God.” Now, this isn’t just an important “Thing” for novice debaters, it’s important for everyone. But the sooner that statement becomes your primary purpose, the easier, more fun, and more rewarding debate will be. Take it from one who didn’t learn this for many years into his debate career: Debate for competition’s sake is exhausting and infuriating. Debate used to enhance critical thinking, oral skills, research ability, and the host of other benefits debate offers, in order to glorify God is infinitely more enriching. I won’t say that getting your priorities straight will give you more victories. I will say, however, that success will become less important as a measure of your joy in debate, and you will have joy in debate.
Advanced Debaters: At this point, I feel like the academic that has just finished those journal articles where he outlines “and here’s how research in the future should be done.” While useful, it has done little of the actual research to solve the myriad problems he just discussed. I say this because I urge you to behave in accordance with the mission statement. Look for ways to debate, and discuss debate after rounds in a way that highlights the priority on the glorification of God, rather than the glorification of yourselves. How, you ask? Future research should be done on that. I’m afraid, I can’t give you a concrete answer. But it is important to be a model that demonstrates the spirit behind such a behavior.
- Ask Questions
There’s a saying that goes around, “there are no stupid questions, just stupid answers.” After living at college with seven other guys, I no longer believe in that short proverb. However, I will say that debate has zero stupid questions, so I think the principle applies. If you have something that’s puzzling you, something you don’t understand, or something you just want to know about, fear not and ask the nearest advanced debater. More than not, they’ll be so full of themselves that they’ll offer a very long-winded answer (I speak only of myself here). When that happens, just keep asking questions. Then, once you’ve “learned” what they decided to “teach” you, go ask someone else (I’ll come back to why later). I have never met an advanced debater that ever got annoyed by a younger debater figuratively or literally hanging on them asking them questions. It makes us feel smart, and we’ll be happy to offer our answer. I just offer you one condition to asking lots of questions: ask lots of people. I don’t recommend asking a question to just one person.
Devious trick: Find a group of advanced debaters, and ask a question about something you want to learn more about. Stand back. Watch as the “experts” begin their own debate amongst themselves over the topic. Pick up the pieces. Works nearly every time.
Advanced Debaters: Never make a novice debater feel belittled or ignorant when they ask you a question. Make sure to add a caveat by encouraging the debater to ask other advanced debaters what they think on the subject as well. The point here is to motivate the student to freely ask questions about whatever they want to know, and ask lots of people.
- Be Not Blind
I come now to the caveat from the previous section: go ask someone else. The Spy Museum in Washington DC sells shirts that say “Deny Everything.” We could make one for debate that says “Question Everything.” One hurtful thing you can do to your debate career is think that anyone has debate figured out. Nobody does. I spent a considerable amount of time with my colleague and friend Drew Chambers last year, and we never agreed on running kritiks (an advanced argument, details not necessary). But that’s ok. We do agree on some counterplan issues that a mutual friend of ours is still in the dark on (kidding! kidding!). Thus, when seeking counsel for answers to your questions, it’s best to take everything said with at least a tablespoon of salt. Better, take their answer, and come up with a few of your own arguments for and against it. Everything said should not be taken at face value, in my opinion, but should be filtered through your own perspective on how you think debate best helps you (and students in general) best achieve the mission statement of NCFCA. If you arrive at the same conclusion, great! You have an ally when you’re looking to beef up those arguments. If you don’t, great! You have a devil’s advocate (a very passionate devil’s advocate, for sure) that will force you to defend your idea. Since you can have some pretty intense debates with people and walk away great friends, agreement or disagreement, you both win.
Advanced Debaters: Again, encourage those asking you questions to talk to others that you know are knowledgeable on the subject, including those debaters that bring grimaces to your face when you think of their theories. There are no such things as “converts” or “minions” in debate because they agree with you on a theory or argument issue. The idea behind any education, especially a liberal arts education (which you’ll likely go to college for), is seeking information from a wide variety of sources, and you should encourage that now.
- Make Friends & Colleagues
Most likely, your friends will be your colleagues, and vice versa. But there are two distinct reasons for these people. Friends are important for staying power. If you have friends in debate, most likely you will enjoy debate far than if you didn’t. I feel like this principle applies to just about anything. The only reason I took the advanced spanish class at school was because I had friends in the class I could count on to help me through.
Which hints towards the idea of a colleague. Again, these colleagues will likely be your friends, though actual distance is not the issue with colleagues that it might be with friends (I will get disagreement on this point and I choose not to argue it). Colleagues are there less for coercing you to stay in debate as they are to be the people you turn to for critiques of your performance or work, the people that you toss ideas around with. These are the other irons sharpening your iron. Members of research groups, advanced debaters bubbling over with “debate knowledge,” and maybe even adults that come to tournaments frequently fit squarely in this group. The primary focus of this relationship is bettering yourself and them through a more formal interaction.
Advanced Debaters: Be a friend, and be a colleague. I am not going into a discussion of what being a friend means, but it is more than a business relationship. The colleague relationship is more business-like, focused on facilitating the sharpening of iron.
- Master the Fundamentals
You read the words “kritik” and “counterplan” above. You probably don’t know what either of them mean. If you feel gung-ho enough to wade out into deep water, then by all means look them up (counterplans are easier to grasp in my opinion) and enjoy the swim. If you aren’t motivated too just yet, or just returned from your plunge disheartened, don’t worry about it. There are many more important things about debate than advanced theory arguments. And those should be mastered first. Again, drawing on my own experience, running an argument that’s over your head, too early, can be really uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable. And even if you run “higher-level” arguments flawlessly, it’s still so very possible to lose for reasons that would have been avoided by focusing on “lower-level” argumentation (I put those in quotes because the terms are pretty subjective, so don’t take anything by them). For example, you may run a counterplan that just blows the affirmative team’s mind (maybe even yours!), but if you find out that you lost because the judge knew little about the argument surrounding the counterplan, you may need to take a look at 4-point refutation. Or speaking clearly. Or a host of other “basic” things that can make all the difference in the round. Ethos is the Greek term for character. It refers to your conveyance of credibility to your audience. Simple in the abstract, very complicated in the concrete, and taught very early on in debate lectures (at least the ones I’ve listened to). Yet this “basic” idea can make a world of difference when you’re actively trying to convince a person that your idea is the right one.
This is another example of a “Thing” that affects not only novice debaters, but advanced debaters as well. The difference is, you don’t have years of bad habits to try and overcome and the sooner you learn the better. I learned 4-point refutation much later than I should have, and despite my ability to successfully run counterplans, re-learning my refutation strategy improved my debate considerably. Master the Fundamentals.
Advanced Debaters: Refresh yourself on some of the earliest things you learned in debate. No doubt, you can recognize things that novices you know are learning that you may not have mastered, or need to polish. Identify your ‘4-point refutation’ stumbling block like I had, and fix it. You’ll have plenty of help from the new guys just learning the stuff.
- Pace Yourself
Debate has probably been compared to a race more times than I wish to think about, but now I find myself adding to the list. But, like in a race, you need to pace yourself and honestly give yourself a reality check. It’s unlikely (but still possible) that you will turn into an amazing debater in your first year. That’s ok. It took marginal gain each year for four years before I felt myself explode in my debate abilities, and even that didn’t fully manifest itself until my sixth and final year in debate.
But don’t go all fatalistic either. At the beginning of the year, identify goals you want to achieve and have control over. Ideally, I recommend these not be success-based goals like “I want to win 3 rounds” or “I want to get first place speaker in a tournament.” These are often very out of your hands and can be disappointing and hurtful if you don’t meet them. Rather, make your goals milestones of personal achievement; “I want to get through a speech without saying ‘um’” or “I want to be able to flow every argument mentioned in a round” are more realistic, achievable, and healthy. Additionally, these goals should be compatible with the mission statement. How can you glorify God in your addressment (yep, made up that word the other day) of life issues today? How are you bad at that now? Boom, areas of needed improvement identified. A great source of information for this will be your coach (assuming you have one), your parents, and, to some extent, your partner. However, ultimately the mile markers will be ones you set. At the end of the year, look back on your improvement and see how far you’ve come in the past year. Then, be satisfied as you check off those goals you achieved and buy yourself an ice cream.
Devious Trick: Get bribes from your parents for meeting your goals. Kind of like getting an ‘A’ in your class, except you get ice cream for it.
Advanced Debaters: Besides setting your own goals for the year, try to learn what areas novices are looking for improvement in. Then, offer gentle criticism and offer possible methods of achieving their goals. With the large amount of new debaters coming in every year, surely you can find at least one that has a similar goal to yours, or a problem you may have that you can assist them with. Be active, as colleague and friend, in sharpening yourself and others in debate.
- Don’t Get Hoodwinked
Let me tell you, I loved NCFCA debate. All six years were fantastical years that I’ll remember forever, and not just because I’ve written papers based on my experiences. Debate was probably the second greatest reason why I find myself to be successful in where I am now.
Debate won’t and can’t be everything. And it’s much different from the real world. Debate has a tendency to produce ideas of “how to” do things, and unfortunately they can often work excellently for debate, but for little else. Debate tends to transfer skills rather than formulas. Critical thinking skills will be more than just handy later in life. Being able to speak comfortably with groups of any size is quickly becoming a skill in high demand. The ability to conduct research of your own will save you lots of time when it comes to writing college research papers I’ve recently discovered. So these skills will be powerful assets after your high school debate career.
Structures of 1ACs, how you address arguments, the 4-point refutation formula, pretty much all of the theory arguments ever run; none of these will get you anything more than a blank stare from your peers. Or your parents. Believe me, I’ve gotten plenty. Best example? Facebook arguments. There are few people in the “real world” that actually conduct discussions about controversial topics in the format NCFCA offers. So your tireless effort to memorize formulas, A2’s and complex theories won’t help beyond a possible college debate scholarship. But even that’s a four-year artificial extension. Persuading and gaining respect from “normal” people requires more hard work to discover how best to convey your position to a different audience every time. That is skill-based, and that is what debate will help you with.
Focus on developing your skills, so that you are better equipped to express yourself later. The mathematician that understands the logic behind math is way way better at math than me, who just memorizes formulas for my calculator. Be the mathematician that understands the logic.
Advanced Debaters: You can help, again, by modeling this. Don’t glorify formulas and structures, and “the way it’s supposed to be.” In whatever facet you mentor in, we at Ethos strongly encourage you to mentor, help them understand the formulas applicable to debate, but focus primarily on the skills garnered from the topic at hand.