Evidence in debates is organized into units called cards (because such evidence was originally printed on note cards, though the practice has long been out of favor). Cards are designed to condense an author’s argument so that debaters have an easy way to access the information. A card is composed of three parts: the tag, the cite, and the body. The tag is the debater’s summary of the argument presented in the body. A tag is usually only one or two sentences. The cite contains all relevant citation information (that is, the author, date of publication, journal, title, etc.). Although every card should contain a complete citation, only the author’s name and date of publication are typically spoken aloud in a speech. Some teams will also read the author’s qualifications if they wish to emphasize this information. The body is a fragment of the author’s original text. The length of a body can vary greatly—cards can be as short as a few sentences and as long as two or more pages. Most cards are between one and five paragraphs in length. The body of a card is often underlined or highlighted in order to eliminate unnecessary or redundant sentences when the card is read in a round. In a round, the tag is read first, followed by the cite and the body.
As pieces of evidence accumulate use, multiple colors of highlighting and different thicknesses of underlining often occur, sometimes making it difficult to determine which portion of the evidence was read. If debaters stop before finishing the underlined or highlighted portion of a card, it is considered good form to “mark” the card to show where one stopped reading. To otherwise misrepresent how much of a card was read—either by stopping early or by skipping underlined or highlighted sections—is known as “cross-reading” or “clipping cards” which is generally considered cheating. Although many judges overtly condemn the practice on their paradigms, it is hard to enforce, especially if judges permit debaters to be excessively unclear. Opponents will generally stand behind a debater whom they believe to be “cross-reading” or “clipping”, as if waiting to take a card (see below), and silently read along with them in an attempt to get their opponent to stop or the judge to notice.
As cards are read in round, it is common for an opponent to collect and examine even while a speech is still going on. This practice originated in part because cards are read at a rate faster than conversational speed but also because the un-underlined portions of cards are not read in round. Taking the cards during the speech allows the opponent to question the author’s qualifications, the original context of the evidence, etc. in cross-examination. It is generally accepted whichever team is using preparation time has priority to read evidence read previously during a round by both teams. As a result, large amounts of evidence may change hands after the use of preparation time but before a speech. Most judges will not deduct from a team’s preparation time for time spent finding evidence which the other team has misplaced.
After a round, judges often “call for cards” to examine evidence whose merit was contested during the round or whose weight was emphasized during rebuttals so that they can read the evidence for themselves. Although widespread, this practice is explicitly banned at some tournaments, most notably National Catholic Forensic League nationals, and some judges refuse to call for cards because they believe the practice constitutes “doing work for debaters that should have been done during round”. Judges may also call for evidence for the purpose of obtaining its citation information so that they can produce the evidence for their own school. Opponents and spectators are also generally allowed to collect citations in this manner, and some tournaments send scouts to rounds to facilitate the collection of cites for every team at the tournament, information which is sometimes published online.
Styles and Delivery
Speed: Policy debaters’ speed of delivery will vary from league to league and tournament to tournament. The fastest speaking debaters in the nation speak from 350 to in excess of 500 words per minute. In many tournaments, debaters will speak very quickly in order to read as much evidence and make as many arguments as possible within the time-constrained speech. Speed reading is referred to as “spreading” or simply “speed reading.” At the majority of national circuit policy debate tournaments, spreading is the norm.
This rapid-fire delivery is sometimes perceived in a negative light. Rapid delivery is encouraged by those who believe that increased quantity and diversity of argumentation makes debates more educational. Others, citing scientific studies[who?], claim that learning to speak faster also increases short and long term memory. A slower style is preferred by those who want debates to be understandable to lay people and those who claim that the pedagogical purpose of the activity is to train rhetorical skills. Detractors further claim that the increased speed encourages debaters to make several poor arguments, as opposed to a few high quality ones. Most debaters will vary their rate of delivery depending upon the judge’s preferences.
Many judges are willing to prompt debaters by yelling “clear!” or variants when they can no longer understand because the speed has become to great or because the debater is enunciating poorly.
Flowing: Debaters utilize a specialized form of note taking, called flowing, to keep track of the arguments presented during a debate. Conventionally, debater’s flowing is divided into separate flows for each different argument in the debate round (kritiks, disads, topicalities, etc.). There are multiple methods of flowing but the most common style incorporates columns of arguments made in a given speech which allows the debater to match the next speaker’s responses up with the original arguments. Certain shorthands for commonly used words are used to keep up with the rapid rate of delivery. The abbreviations or stand-in symbols vary between debaters.
Flowing on a laptop has become more and more popular among high school and college debaters, despite the reservations of certain schools, tournaments, and judges. Some debaters use a basic computer spreadsheet; others use specialized Flowing Templates, which includes embedded shortcut keys for the most common formatting needs.
Theory: Although there are many accepted standards in policy debate, there is no written formulation of rules. Sometimes debaters will in fact debate about how policy debate should work. These arguments are known as “theory arguments,” and they are most often brought up when one team believes the actions of the other team are unfair and therefor warrant a loss.
Burdens of the affirmative
Stock issues: One traditional way to judge policy debate states that the affirmative team must win certain issues, called the stock issues. They are generally interpreted to be as follows:
- Significance: How significant is the problem that you are trying to remedy through your interpretation of the resolution?
- Harms: What is the harm itself? Are people dying? Is the economy in recession? How severe is it?
- Inherency: What is inherent in the status quo that prevents from already being solved?
- Topicality: Does your case fall within the topic? Does your case meet the parameters of the resolution?
- Solvency: Does your plan actually solve the problem?
Hardly any judges today continue to judge debates based on these stock issues alone.
Advantages and Disadvantages: Most affirmative teams today generally frame their case around advantages, which are good effects of their plan. The negative team will often present disadvantages which contend that the affirmative plan causes undesirable consequences. Debaters often, in an attempt to make sure that their advantages/disadvantages outweigh the advantages/disadvantages of the other team, will impact these arguments with a very high magnitude result, such as the extinction of the human race or a global nuclear war.
Negation theory: Negation Theory is a theory of how a debate round should be decided which dictates that the negative need only negate the affirmative instead of having to negate the resolution. The acceptance of negation theory allows negative teams to run arguments, such as Topical Counterplans, which may affirm the resolution but still negate the affirmative’s specific plan.
After the affirmative presents its case, the negative can attack the case with many different arguments, which include:
- Topicality: The Negative will attempt to argue that the Affirmative team does not fall under the rubric of the resolution and should be rejected immediately regardless of the merits or advantages of the plan. This is a type of ‘meta-debate’ argument, as both sides then spend time defining various words or phrases in the resolution, laying down standards for why their definition(s) or interpretation(s) is superior. Most yearly topics have at least one or two commonly run Affirmative cases that are only arguably topical, so Topicality is often justified as a check or deterrent on and against such plans, which usually have quite strategic components.
- Disadvantages: The negative can claim that there are disadvantages, or adverse effects of the plan, which outweigh any advantages claimed. In order to outweigh any positive effects of the affirmative case, impacts are often must be arguably ‘larger’ than the opposing team’s.
- Counterplans: While some conceptions of argumentation theory require the negative position in a debate to defend the status quo against an affirmativeposition or plan, a counterplan allows the negative to defend a separate plan or an advocacy.The counterplan must be superior (and not equal) to both the plan and any possible combination of the plan and counterplan. A plan and counterplan that are labelled mutually exclusive are structurally competitive in totality, meaning that the two plan actions are contradictory and could not logically coexist. Tests of competition in terms of potential combinations of plan and counterplan are called permutations, or perms in debate slang. The most common form of permutation and the immediate test of competition is the “Do Both” permutation, testing the total combination of the plan and counterplan in comparison to the counterplan alone.There are two types of permutation that are especially controversial:
- Severance permutations—Severance permutations attempt to do part of the plan and all or part of the counterplan and thus “sever” out of part of the plan.
- Intrinsicness permutations—Intrinsicness permutations attempt to do all of the plan, all or part of the counterplan, and something in neither the plan nor the counterplan. Their rationale is that the counterplan is not intrinsically competitive with the plan because the added actions make it possible to achieve the benefits of both the plan and the counterplan.
- Kritiks: The negative can claim that the affirmative is guilty of a certain mindset or assumption that should be grounds for rejection. Kritiks are sometimes a reason to reject the entire affirmative advocacy without evaluating its policy; other times, kritiks can be evaluated within the same framework for evaluation as the affirmative case. Examples of some kritiks include ones against biopower, racism, centralized government or anthropocentric viewpoints. Critiques arose in the early 1990s, with the first critiques based in deconstructionist philosophy about the intrinsic ambiguity of language. Kritiks today has evolved to include the affirmative advocacy within their alternatives. These kritiks argue that the ontology implied through the reasons to prefer the affirmative are inherently bad and should be rejected. This circumvents the question of the benefits of the plan itself, instead focusing the debate on the representations of the plan. The alternative then serves the steal the affirmative ground through the passage of the plan minus its “bad” representations. This type of alternative is commonly known as a floating PIK (plan inclusive kritik alternative).
- Theory: Sometimes the subject matter of the affirmative’s case will create an uneven playing field from the beginning. In these cases, the negative can resort to making objections as to the procedure or content of the affirmative case. These objections often are “theoretical” in that they try to make objections based upon what bad can/has come to debate from the infraction.
Speaker points: The judge is charged not only with selecting a winner, but also must allot points to each competitor. Known as “speaker points”, its goal is to provide a numerical evaluation of the debaters’ speaking skills. Speaker point schemes vary throughout local state and regional organizations particularly at the high school level. However, the method accepted by most national organizations such as the National Forensic League, Tournament of Champions, National Catholic Forensic League, Cross-Examination Debate Association, and National Debate Tournament, use values ranging from 1–30. In practice, within these organizations the standard variation is 26–29, where 26s are given to extremely poor speakers, where a perfect score is considered incredibly rare and warranted only by an outstanding performance. Most tournaments accept halfpoint gradiations, for example 28.5s. Generally, speaker points are seen as secondary in importance to wins and losses, yet often correlate with a team’s win/loss rate. In other words, the judge usually awards the winning team cumulatively higher speaker points than the losing team. If the judge does not, the decision is considered a “Low-Point Win”. Low-point wins usually indicate that the debate was poor, as neither team spoke well; or that the team which lost was ahead overall, but lost on a technicality or minor issue, or by a very slim margin.
In some smaller jurisdictions, the judge ranks the speakers 1-4 instead of awarding them speaker points. Either speaker-point calculation may be used to break ties among teams with like records. Some areas also use speaker rankings in addition to speaker points in order to differentiate between speakers awarded the same number of points.
At a majority of tournaments, debaters also receive “speaker awards,” which are awarded to the debaters who received the greatest number of speaker points. Many tournaments also drop the highest and lowest score received by each debater, in order to ensure that the speaker award calculations are fair and consistent, despite the preferences of different judges. The amount of speaker awards given out varies based on the number of debaters competing at any given tournament. For instance, a small local tournament might only award trophies or plaques to the top three debaters, whereas a widely attended “national circuit” tournament might give out awards to the top ten or fifteen speakers.
Paradigms: Experienced debate judges (who were generally debaters in high school and/or college) generally carry a mindset that favors certain arguments and styles over others. Depending on what mindset, or paradigm, the judge uses, the debate can be drastically different. Because there is no one view of debate agreed upon by everyone, many debaters question a judge about their paradigm and/or their feelings on specific arguments before the round.
Not every judge fits perfectly into one paradigm or another. A judge may say that they are “Tabula Rasa,” or willing to listen to anything, but draw the line at arguments they consider to be offensive (such as arguments in favor of racism). Or, a judge might be a “policymaker,” but still look at the debate in an offense/defense framework like a games-playing judge.
Examples of paradigms include:
- Stock Issues: In order for the affirmative team to win, their plan must retain all of the stock issues, which are Harms, Inherency, Solvency, Topicality, and Significance. For the negative to win, they only need to prove that the affirmative fails to meet one of the stock issues. These judges are more likely to dislike newer arguments such as kritiks and some theoretical points.
- Policymaker: At the end of the round, the judge compares the affirmative plan with either the negative counterplan or the status quo. Whichever one is a better policy option is the winner. The better policy option is determined by comparing the advantages and disadvantages of each.
- Tabula Rasa: From the Latin for “blank slate”, the judge attempts to come into the round with no predispositions. These judges typically expect debaters to “debate it out”, which includes telling the judge what paradigm they should view the round in.
- Games Player: Views debate as a game. Judges who use this paradigm tend to be concerned with whether or not each team has a fair chance at winning the debate. They usually view the debate flow as a gameboard, and look at arguments according to an offence/defense structure.
- Speaking Skills/Communications: This type of judge is concerned with good presentation and persuasion skills. They tend to vote for teams that are more articulate, and present arguments in the most appealing way. These judges usually disapprove of speed.
- Hypothesis Tester: In order for the affirmative to win, they convince the judge to support the resolution. Conversely, the negative must convince the judge to negate the resolution.
- Kritikal: Judges that love kritik debates and looks to who most effectively breaks free from a harmful mindset such as patriarchy, racism, orientalism etc.