I always tell my debate students that you should absolutely ask your judge at the beginning of the debate round to tell you a little bit about their background, experience, and/or expectations. But sometimes, a judge’s judging philosophy may leave you more confused (or amused) than you were before you asked.
Rewind with me back to when I was a junior in high school, debating in the first round of a national open tournament. My partner Kara Stivers and I were facing two kind brothers from Tennessee who had red hair, huge smiles, and a grand load of southern charm.
Our judge was a community judge who looked to be maybe 70 years old. He seemed quiet and softspoken, and it was early in the morning so Kara and I were following his lead and staying quiet and low key and we organized our table. But as our first opponent took the lecturn, he smiled hugely and bellowed, “Well, sir, would you mind sharing with us your judging experience or anything that you’re particularly looking for in this round?”
The man looked thoughtful, set down his pen, and leaned back in his chair slightly. In a soft, grandfatherly voice, he began, “Well, I’m a mailman, and when I was a kid I wasn’t a great student. I was never all that academically driven, and my mom, well, she was always trying to get me to do better….”
[Tennessee kids are nodding profusely and smiling huge smiles.]
“…So by the time I was in high school, there was this kid in my class—a kid I knew pretty well—and his name was Ted. Ted was a great student—he was always so driven and energetic. He was always getting the top scholarships—he worked hard and did everything right—he lined himself up to make something of himself…”
[Now the Tennessee kids are nodding and smiling even bigger and murmuring things like, “Oh, good for Ted,” and, “That’s great.”]
“…Well, my mom, well she saw everything Ted was doing. And she would say to me, ‘Son, why can’t you be more like Ted? Ted gets good grades. Ted gets scholarships. Ted will get a good job…’”
[Tennessee kids are nodding and smiling with unhuman vigor at this point.]
“…Well, we graduated, and over the years I lost track of Ted. But then one day I found out, Ted was the Unabomber.** So, that’s where I’m coming from as I judge this debate round.”
The color went out of the Tennessee kids’ faces a bit as their smiles awkwardly faded. Kara and I nodded thoughtfully and tried to appear empathetic. We all waited. That was it. One of us managed, “Thanks for sharing that, sir.” And twenty seconds later the debate round began.
Yes, always ask your judges about themselves. But also always be prepared for the shock or confusion that may follow!
**Ted Kaczynski (known as the Unabomber) was a domestic terrorist who killed three people and injured twenty-three people in a nationwide bombing campaign from 1978 to 1995.