Only bad judge adaptation. That phrase has been a standard of mine in order to rouse my teams who’ve lost a debate, out of their claims of illegitimate decisions, and into focusing instead on what they could have done better to make the decision go their way. Of course, the sentiment is a bit disingenuous; we all prefer certain judges to others, either because of their ideological dispositions, their thoroughness in decisionmaking, their intelligence, or their personality. Unfortunately, we do not always see the judges we prefer in the back of the room.
How, then, can you adapt to judges successfully while being careful to not overadapt? Below are some suggestions to begin to consider debate from the perspective of your audience as opposed to presuming that you are always already persuasive. Some are fairly intuitive, but some may hopefully have you consider more esoteric factors.
1)Reading judge philosophies
This may be a fairly simplistic piece of advice, but judge philosophies are not always what they appear. When you read a judge philosophy, you may be reading it for the information you want, but when judges write judge philosophies, they are writing them not in moments when they are judging, but rather when they are reflecting on what it means to judge. And just as there are varying degrees by which judges reflect on their decisions, there are varying degrees by which judges reflect on their judge philosophies. I do not mean to suggest that judges who are most reflective are better at either judging or writing philosophies (those who take over an hour to reconstruct an entire debate are sometimes more erratic in decisions than split-second decision makers). Rather, what one communicates in one’s philosophy is often what they think is important, not what you do. Have conversations with people you know who judge and ask them why they wrote what they did in their philosophies and you’ll begin to notice there are concerns that get communicated in varying ways. Here are some of the most helpful pieces of information I find in judge philosophies.
Does the judge default to offense/defense or is a risk near zero the same as zero?
I think this bit of information often communicates a lot about how you ought to frame your arguments and also how much the judge values big-picture analysis versus technical line-by-line. If offense/defense is their default, the judge not only will probably give the aff always some risk of case and the disad some risk of the impact, they also (and this is speculation) very rigorous in trying to discern just how much risk there is, based on evidence and line-by-line execution. If someone is more willing to “vote neg on presumption,“ remember that the story surrounding your arguments may carry more weight than careful calculation. These are not extremes, but exist on continuums; “near zero is zero” thinkers still evaluate the line by line and “offense/defense” thinkers still value big picture framing.
How does the judge evaluate theoretical arguments?
Learning a judge’s baseline for topicality, process counterplans, permutation theory, framework, etc., will help you evaluate what an investment of time in any of these issues will get you in the debate. If the judge’s baseline is “reasonability,” know that you have to invest time in competing interpretations framing or in establishing a large internal link and impact to whatever the theory argument is. If someone says they “love” theory debates, you probably have to accomplish less to get a greater return.
Does the judge address speaking style in the philosophy?
This question varies from “I hate speed” to “Be clear or a dock speaker points” to “be polite” to “Do X thing and I’ll give you a 30.” Judges are humans and want the debate to be a worthwhile experience for themselves as well as for you. If someone hates speed, it would behoove you to transform your speaking style or to ask for feedback if you are going too quickly. If someone says clarity is paramount, you may also want to slow down a click so that they are more disposed to both understanding your arguments and liking you. As someone who calls for decorum in a debate, I will tell you that rudeness or arrogance is the quickest way to make me want to vote against you, which, in close rounds is an unfortunate weight and in clearer rounds, and unfortunate drag on your speaker points.
Those who have some sort of bribe in their speaking style (this is distinct from those who say “You will get a 27 if you run X argument, or you will get a 30 if you execute X strategy correctly), I am personally suspect of those who would turn debaters into trained monkeys. If you have preference sheets, these folks would be low for me, because they notion that doing something unrelated to the debate ought to be rewarded with speaker points degrades the activity and the debaters. It also exposes that the judge is perhaps less serious about the task of adjudicating than one would like.
Does the judge address the kritik in the philosophy?
Regardless of what they say about the kritik, if it is addressed in the judge philosophy, then you know it is at least an argument that the judge has a passing familiarity with. Unless the mention of the kritik is followed by a categorical refusal to vote on it, I value those unknown judges who mention it over those unknown judges who do not. The reason why is because, as 1980s PSA GI Joe told us, “knowledge is half the battle.” Even if someone is not disposed to vote for a kritik, knowing how it functions makes it easier to communicate the argument than if someone has no knowledge of the argument. This may be a controversial stance, because familiarity can also breed contempt, but someone who is reflective of their feelings about the kritik will probably be more open to the argument they hate than someone who hasn’t considered it at all.
If you are a critical debater, I would also say that you ought to look for clues that a judge is familiar with critical literature. Every academic field has its jargon, and if you can use its shorthand to communicate a lot of information in a short amount of time, it makes what could appear to shoddy explanation to one judge look like economical link work to another.
What I find unhelpful:
“I will listen to any argument”
While relative to the “I will only listen to disadvantages,” this may be valuable information, in all other contexts, it is worthless. Listening to and evaluating are two very different things.
The big caveat, though, is not to consider judge philosophies as dogma. People who say they hate kritiks may still vote on them; if you don’t have a viable disad strategy, sticking with what you do well will usually be rewarded more highly than if you over-adapt and do something poorly.
2) Keeping your own judge book
Judge philosophies are extremely limited in their utility. Why? Because no matter what we like to think of ourselves as judges, how we judge only manifests during judging. Thus, any smart debater should keep a judge book, where you record who judged, what round, and against what opponent, whether you won or lost, and anything relevant to how someone judges in a document updated after every debate. If you debate locally, you will often see the same judges weekend after weekend, and nationally, the usual suspects show up at most national tournaments. Having a judge book where you record someone’s quirks and how they actually think about arguments will help you the next time the same judge is in the back of a room. Example:
East Jeebus Regionals
Neg vs New High School
We won on topicality, but she said that this violation (T: substantial is without material qualification) is horrible. If the other team had gone for the counter-interpretation we would have lost.
She thinks it was the right 2NR decision, because I dropped the perm on the CP and the case was definitely outweighing the disad based on block versus 1AR impact calculus.
I need to ask follow-up questions in CX for it to be strategically valuable.
In order for a judge book to be very useful, you should ask a judge after a debate questions about what you could do better. If you lost, ask how they evaluated certain parts of the debate, or how you could make your argument more persuasive in the future. Ask about particular speeches (yours) and what you could do to make them better. These questions will give you greater insight into how the judge thinks about components of debate and often will give you advice in how to frame arguments in the future. Writing down that information will make sure you remember what to do the next time you debate in front of them.
3) What a judge eats for breakfast
There is a saying that “justice is what a judge eats for breakfast.” That is, a judge’s mood often determines how generous they are in their evaluations. A study in Israel confirmed this: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2011/04/11/justice-is-served-but-more-so-after-lunch-how-food-breaks-sway-the-decisions-of-judges/
If you didn’t read the article, the gist is this: When judges hadn’t eaten in a while, their judgments in favor of parole dropped from around 65% to near zero.
Why is this relevant to you? Judges in debate are not making life-altering decisions, and thus are perhaps even more susceptible to environmental factors in rendering decisions. We all know debate tournaments are one of the unhealthiest places you subject yourselves to. Bad food, lack of sleep, over-caffeinated, high stress. With all this, it’s no wonder that judges are often not at their best. The first round in the morning on Day 2 or the last round of the day, you can expect even the most straight-edge judges to be a little off their game. If you know that you have a judge you is prone to staying up all night doing research for their squad, they will have an additional hurdle on day 2. Remember you are debating for a human and make their lives easier. Make your decisions clearer and rely less on small arguments for winning the debate. If you are winning on a small analytic argument, in the rebuttal, give it more than the 15 seconds that may usually be necessary to win the arguments; trade quantity in for quality when your judge is tired and may miss something.
4) Elims are not prelims
So you won your preliminary debates on ASPEC, Severance perms bad, Death good, and your singularity add-on. In elimination debates, you go for ASPEC and you lose. What changed?
When someone is judging by themselves in prelim debates, they are often more willing to vote on dumb but dropped arguments. Some, not all, judges become more self-conscious about voting for the same arguments in front of 2 other judges (who may be more respected, experienced, etc. than themselves) and a crowd of spectators. While I would not encourage you to go for arguments the debate community considers dumb in prelims, I would especially caution you against those decisions in elims. Judges tend to read more evidence, take more time, and discount dumb arguments at a higher rate in elimination debates. The social pressure to be considered a “quality judge” may constrain judges against making decisions based on small or perceptually dumb arguments. Know that you are playing to a room in elimination debates, which is a whole other game.
Judge adaptation is often a minor consideration in debate, especially since mutual-preference judging. But knowing how a judge thinks and framing your arguments in ways that seem intuitive to them will increase your wins and your speaker points. Learning how to respond to others is a vital (and, debate’s new favorite theory buzz-word, portable) part of the communication skills debate trains us in.