“Here,” I hissed, “this is what to say in response to their point about the evidence.” My partner nodded and took the paper, frantically jotting notes as our prep time dwindled. I poked her. “They say that it doesn’t apply because it’s talking about the state level, not federal. Our response is that, while the specifics aren’t the same, the principle still applies. See here?” I jabbed a finger at the quote in question, shuffled a few pages into order, handed the stack to my partner, and she bolted off to the lectern.
It was a practice tournament, early in December. Our first year debating together. Her first year debating—ever.
I listened as Makala worked her way through her flow, covering the arguments with impressive confidence. At last she got to the point we’d talked about during prep time—whether or not the example we’d brought up still applied. And I listened in growing horror as she proceeded to tell the judge the exact opposite of what I’d shoved at her during prep time. Literally.
Our position was supposed to be that the evidence was important. She stated that it wasn’t. We were supposed to say the principles were cross-applicable. She denied their similarities. We ought to have emphasized the relevance of the example. She negated it from the round.
My coherent and rational response sounded something like this: Agh! What do I do? Contradict her in my next speech? Start shaking my head emphatically? Stand up, interrupt, and set everything straight??
Fortunately, I managed to stop hyperventilating, and the world didn’t end. Actually, that entire year we had a great partnership, and I still maintain that being paired with Makala was the greatest thing that could have happened to me.
Why? Because despite (or maybe because of) moments like this, being paired with a novice is quite possibly the greatest thing that could happen to anyone.
When choosing a partner, there are a lot of elements to take into consideration. Most debaters assume it’s a combination of experience and personal preference. But while those do play a role, there are other factors at play here– and there’s a lot more to a successful pairing than just your experience level.
So why partner with a novice?
“I spent an entire college year intentionally partnering with a ‘first-time novice’ for eight tournaments. Best year ever.”
There are a variety of things that make novices great partners to have.
You become better.
I was not, by any stretch of the imagination, an advanced debater when I partnered with Makala. But being thrust into the role of ‘the experienced one’, I took new ownership of skills I never knew I had. Debater Drew Magness echoes this sentiment: “This was the best debate experience. I’m convinced that if I wasn’t forced to be better than I was in order to teach and mentor, I wouldn’t be nearly as good of a debater today.”
Your focus shifts from winning to improving.
Going into the competition season with a novice partner, you never know what’s going to happen. Winning might not enter into the equation. Instead, the focus should be entirely on developing skills. This is actually the mentality that we should all have 100% of the time, regardless of partner, but for a first year debater, it’s an easier ideal to grasp.
You get the focus off yourself.
So much of what I see in intermediate debaters is a ‘me first’ mentality—the polar opposite of what Team Policy is all about. It’s not about finding a partner who’s ‘at your same level’. You’re there to support your partner, to make them as successful as possible.
You get the satisfaction of seeing someone blossom in a new habitat.
There was nothing more exciting for me than seeing my partner win yet another speaker point award, this one at Regionals. It’s a thrill like no other, knowing that they’re growing by leaps and bounds.
Are you persuaded yet?
Of course, I’m not saying that if you do this, your year will be a dream. Any partnership comes with challenges. With that in mind, here are some practical tips on how to work well with a novice.
How to Partner With a Novice: Mindset
As a novice, I was easily overwhelmed and discouraged. Let’s face it, there’s a huge learning curve and it’s easy to feel like a failure. If you’re the experienced debater in this twosome, it’s your job to make sure that your partner never feels like they’ve failed you. Make it clear what’s really important, and always find something to encourage them on.
This goes along with the encouragement part. No one goes from zero to sixty in three seconds flat, and you can’t expect them to know things just because you know them. Remember, learning debate can be a relatively quick process. Becoming a debater takes time. Be patient.
This is necessary, but also effective. A common mistake among intermediate debaters is a tendency to get too excited about terminology, theory, and unique case structure. With a novice, straightforward arguments are best. Stick with points that are easy to grasp and articulate. Your partner will have more confidence with them, and they’re usually just what the judge wants to hear anyway. See? A win-win situation.
Don’t underestimate them.
It wasn’t long before Makala was beating me in speaker points. Consistently. Judges frequently commented on her winsomeness, her persuasive speaking style, her charming smile, and all the rest. She rocked. And while not every novice is going to take to debate like a duck to water, you never know what return your investment is going to bring.
Okay, so once you have the ideological infrastructure laid, you can start adding in concrete action steps.
How to Partner With a Novice: Practical Tips
Cover the Basics.
Make sure you know how much your partner knows, so you’re both on the same page. I still remember one round where the Negative team was running a non-mutually exclusive counterplan. I leaned over to my partner and whispered, “Do you want to Perm it?” She gave me a blank look and asked, “WHAT IS THAT?” We decided not to Perm the counterplan.
Practice rounds and drills are your best friends. Pick a case, strategize against it, and then spend the bulk of your time on practice 1NCs. Your novice partner gives a 1NC, and you cross-examine them. This is where you’ll see the most growth. Once a debater begins to feel confident with simply speaking, they’ll be ready to start taking ownership of the ideas that they’re talking about.
You basically get no prep time for yourself. You spend all of it making sure that they’re equipped for their next speech—pulling evidence, helping with refutation, brainstorming tags, and organizing content. Remember that part about getting the focus off you and helping the other person succeed? This is where it happens.
Know the Case.
You want them to be as confident on Aff as possible. It’s an area they can target and succeed in, because there’s no limit on prep. They can know the case better than anyone else in the country. Have strategy sessions where you discuss the case and your partner teaches it back to you. After drawing up a list of every argument against your case you can possibly think of, discuss responses to each one and write up a prepared sheet of refutations. Go through your evidence and flag cards to support each pre-written response. Cross examine your partner after they deliver the 1AC. Pre-script a 1AR.
The novice gets 1A for sure. (The last Affirmative speech is a crucial time where you need to identify the most important arguments in the round and condense them into a persuasive form—all skills that take time to develop, so you shouldn’t throw a novice into that situation). This principle also applies to the last Negative speech, so you may decide to take the 2N position as well. However, this is more debatable, since it means that your partner is in charge of setting the tone for your side in the 1NC, and they might not be up for that.
Instead of throwing them at plan implementation and economic disadvantages, let the novice explain big picture things. Like “free markets are important,” and “the constitution should be followed”, and why those things are true. They set the framework, and you can fill in the details.
Research is a really difficult skill to pick up. Be prepared to do most of the heavy lifting, but also take time to research with your partner so they learn all the more quickly.
Ideally, do this together with your partner so you can work with mutual expectations. Set goals that are skills-oriented instead of win/loss-oriented. Once they’re set, you can help each other achieve them. (One of Makala’s most inspiring was,‘Win one Negative round.’ She’s such an overachiever. But hey, we met and surpassed that goal!)
In the end, perhaps the most important tip is to be their friend–and let them be yours. Far from being an act of charity, having a novice as a partner is a wise move on multiple levels.
After the accidental reversal of our position, I managed to get my heart rate under control. Together, we chose to brush past the argument with a cursory nod, move on, and then had a really good laugh about it after the round.
We went on to compete at Nationals that spring.
And she’d never debated before in her life.