This Blog has now moved to - all future posts will be made there!

3 January 2008

Comment on the judge break

I have noticed on a couple of sites that there are judges at Worlds complaining about a preference for "white" judges in the break. Now I'm not in Thailand. I don't know which judges feel hard done by (they seem to be reluctant to go on the record). But I do dislike the bad habit among lazy debaters to play the race card when things don't go their way. I think it is unfair in the extreme to someone to trot out allegations of racism. That’s the sort of allegation that sticks even if not true. Therefore I'm going to outline some observations about the process for the judge break from my years at worlds.

The judge break is the hardest decision for the adjudication team. It is often said that no debater ever believes she/he gave a bad speech. Well it can also be said that no judge ever thinks she/he gave a bad decision.

There is no points system for judges. No such thing as a win, second third etc. Instead the adjudication team have to go by subjective feedback from other judges and from the teams. The adjudication team should read every test, experience and feedback form. I know we did that when I was a DCA and I assume this happened in Thailand. Judge ranks are adjusted across the 9 rounds based on the feedback.

If a judge's feedback stands out (for good or bad) then the adjudication team might follow up with another judge on the panel or might talk directly with a team to get clarification. They can also have the judge "watched" by a member of the adjudication team or by a trusted judge.

You will, of course, have a list of trusted judges who will break because they have years of experience and a proven ability. You don't think too long about breaking Ian Lising or Derek Lande (unless the break is made up of 16 La Verne Teams and 16 Cork teams).

However after all that it is still a very subjective thing. Most of the discussion will be about the last 10 places. For the 10 happy judges there will be 20 unhappy. At my first couple of worlds I was one of those 20 unhappy judges. Having broken as a judge a number of times since and having been a DCA I can now look back and realise that the decision not to break me was probably the correct one as I didn't have the level of experience of other judges. Nothing wrong with the decision then (though I might be a bit miffed if it happened now but I’d seek clarification and quietly disappear with my tail between my legs rather than bitch and moan on the web).

However there are some judges who you simply cannot break because of their feedback. In a couple of cases at Stellenbosch we had very serious allegations made against judges. One of the judges who we did not break and was then one of the most vocal critics on break night had a number of complaints against them which had been confirmed by other teams and judges. We could not break that judge. The rules of natural justice say you should allow the judge a chance to respond to the allegations and perhaps even address their accusers. However when you are in the middle of worlds you simply do not have the time to hold this sort of full investigation. If you get feedback from a number of rooms that the judge’s behaviour is out of order then you just dump them and move on to the next issue.

Some qualified judges may be left out of the break for completely valid reasons and it isn's always that they were dumped. There is a rule at Worlds that you have to judge a minimum number of preliminary rounds. If you don't judge those then you can't break. People asked me why I didn't break at Dublin worlds. Well I had to work during the knock out rounds so I wasn’t going to be there but I only judged 3 preliminary debates so even if I turned up at break night Paul couldn't have added me to the list (assuming he would have wanted to). I believe there is a similar potential issue next year at Cork but I won't name the person in question in case it was resolved (hopefully I won't be in the position as I plan to be there for the 9 rounds and then throw myself on the mercy of Derek's good graces along with all the other judges)

Also, to be honest, some experienced judges may be left out because they just piss off the adjudication team. The adjudication team is having a very tough week and adding to their misery is the fastest way to get binned on day three when fatigue boosts vindictiveness among the DCAs. We had one judge in that position. She was a chair judge but not a high ranked one so didn't see a lot of good debates. Every round she complained to us about the quality of debates she was seeing. We hated to see her coming up the steps to us but still had her as a chair and in the break. Finally in round nine she went back to her room without handing in the ballot. We had to send someone from the tab room to the accommodation to get the sheet. That delayed the whole process and resulted in us getting to the break night at 11:30 AFTER all the food was gone. That was the final straw and we dumped her from the break slotting in another judge from her country. She then went to worlds council and lodged a complaint against us over the "racist" decision not to break her.

There are also political considerations. Do you break the best judges or do you balance regional considerations. Personally I think you break the best judges. At WUPID recently we didn’t even consider where the judges came from. We broke on their ranking, experience and feedback. We had a smaller pool of judges to pull from so I don’t think too many regions/countries were disappointed. At Worlds it is a very large pool and if you break the best judges then some regions who sent their best people as speakers and only sent first years as judges will lose out.

Also there are political issues within countries. There are some countries where the politics of debating is cut throat. I once was asked by one guy I didn't know to be videoed with him, and say hi to all the people in his home country. I was later told that that was used as my “endorsement” of him in some internal political battle for supremacy in his national debating association. Insane!

This political aspect means that you can have the head of a national association as a judge at worlds and he/she is seen as the big fish from their area. But based on experience and feedback they are no where near the break (national championships often get a higher rating locally than at worlds). They are in their position of power based on ego and political ability and that does not translate automatically into judging ability. However in order to protect their national position they have to claim that the decision not to break them was based on racism rather than the fact that they are a crap judge. There is nothing more dangerous to an adjudication team than a bad judge with a big ego and a local fan base.

And finally to say that the adjudication team is only human and sometimes they do get it wrong. At Stellenbosch we had one judge that none of us knew anything about and we had him as a panellist. His country rep (who we all knew and respected) came to us and said that he was a good judge and we should look at him again. We pulled his file and found that he had listed very little experience and his adjudication test was not good (both in result and more importantly in reasoning). But based on the advise from his rep we bumped him up to second panellist and had him watched by a trusted experienced chair. The feedback from that was that he was a sound judge but not spectacular and not really up to the break standard. That was it and we forgot about him. The following year I was watching the video of the final and there he was on the final adjudication panel. For the life of me I can't remember his name but he had really impressed the adjudication team that came after us and went all the way to the final. That can happen. It happened in Stellenbosch with one judge who I knew but didn't think he would break. I did not judge with him until the final but the rest of the adjudication team had and they insisted on putting him through at each stage from break through to the final where he contributed well and deserved his place. If it was down just to me he wouldn't have broken but the others insisted and it turned out they were right and I was wrong.

OK that’s a long and rambling post. I don’t know who the judges were that lost out at Thailand. However I wanted to explain why, in my experience, the accusations of racism and a preference for “white” judges may be unfair to the adjudication team.

Update: Just in case anyone misinterprets the article and thinks I'm talking about Tuna at globaldebate as one of the complaining judges. I'm not. He didn't break but it's clear in his article that he accepts that he didn't break and is only reporting what others said. I judged with him a few times at WUPID (including the final) and hold him in very high regard (hence the reason why I want to make sure I have not inadvertently caused him any offence) . I would have no problem judging with him on a panel in the break rounds of Worlds. I have seen the issue raised on a few blogs and sites and just thought I would put in my view.


  1. As someone you left out of a break, I would like to say that yes, I was unhappy at the time, but that it was absolutely the right decision.
    I learned a lot about that in org comms at home, and I think that playing the race card is the wrong way to go.

    Adjudicators are in a mini-race, and the truth is that not all the good ones make the break, because there are usually - aside from the few obvious choices (past and present CAs and DCAs) - there are more qualify-able judges than slots.

    But then again, what;s debating without controversy?

  2. Hear hear, Colm. Every word of that is true for WSDC too, and I could supply an anecdote from there to back up each of yours. I guess the thing is for adjudication teams to be as transparent as possible in advance about how they're going to pick judges (including writing articles like this), and then challenge judges /debaters to suggest something better, if they don't like it.

  3. Anonymous10:21 am

    There is irony in Colm criticising some people for posting anonymously on his website, despite not naming names, except as concerns a well known publicd figure, but happily endorsing what is effectively anonymous blacklisting smears against an adjudicator who will never get the right of reply. Perhaps Colm can elucidate the distinction to myself and others later.

    I appreciate however his honesty, as long as the judges are consistent I think most people don't mind people being cut from the break. They'd rather we cut supposedly good adjudicators who have a cloud over them and settled only for impreccable people. It doesn't send a great message though in recruitment for adjudicators...

  4. Andy Hume3:39 pm

    Make up your mind, anon. Are you in favour of anonymity, openness, confidentiality or what?

    Having been in this position (as a DCA and CA) I agree with everything Colm says. I have broken judges ahead of more "experienced" judges, I have been accused of leaving out better judges in favour of my friends, and I've been accused of picking judges because I wanted to sleep with them. (Actually, that last one is kind of true.) And I see some familiar names on here who I may have excluded at one time or another...

    It's a very difficult balance and you will enrage a lot of people whatever you do. So the only recourse is to gather as much info as you can on as many adjudicators as you can, and then sit down round a table with your adjudication team and make your best call as transparently and fairly as you can.

    Racist? Bollocks to that. Why don't we talk about how few women have been on Grand Final panels in recent years despite representing nearly half the participants? Eh? Eh?

    As for anon's suggestion that how "once they've been smeared there's no option but to blacklist them", that's lacking in nuance, as it were. It depends what the allegation is, doesn't it? It is simply not the case that any allegation against a judge will result in that judge being demoted or dropped.

    It all depends on what the problem is, how serious the allegation is, whether it can be corroborated, and what the judge in question says about the incident. (I would certainly have spoken to the adjudicator concerned in the case Colm refers to - which I think I recognise.)

    Anyway, who won?

  5. Andy Hume3:47 pm

    Oh, it finishes tomorrow. Ignore that last bit.

    [Shuffles off: old, out of touch and embarrassed]

  6. Hello every one I am Sarfaraz Ahmed from Bangladesh. I am also known as Surfi in the Debating Circuit. I have started my Worlds Career as a debater in Toronto 2002, and then went on as an adjudicator. In WUDC 2004 in Singapore I adjudicated good teams as a chair in all 8 rounds and the 9th round I was in a Bubble room with a DCA, and I did not break. But that did not break my heart because I was one of the panelist with a DCA in a bubble round and for me that was good enough for breaking. In WUDC 2005, Malaysia I was one of the debater in the adjudication test, and similarly I chaired 05 rounds with panelists, 02 rounds individually, and again a bubble round with DCA Kevin Massie, and yet I did not break, and I was really heart broken. But what Colm have said, thats its hard for the DCA's to decide who to break, I found out when I became a DCA at All Asians 2005. I could not agree with you more Colm. Two Thumbs up.



Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.