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16 April 2010

The Adjudication Hall of Fame: Room of forgotten skills by Omar

A guest post by former Worlds Council Chair Omar Salahuddin.  This article was originally posted on his Facebook account and Omar has given permission for it to be reproduced here.

The Adjudication Hall of Fame: Room of Forgotten Skills

A short while ago, probably still labouring under the naïve idea that something might happen to redress the iniquitous state that debate adjudication is in - and a recovery in aspects other than mere Matter-related ones might occur (Some hopes. I have more chance of experiencing spontaneous human combustion while exercising in the pool) (and we don’t even have a pool…), I penned a note in an effort at catharsis, still seething at some of the unremarkable adjudication that Dengkil Institute for the Terminally Insane’s debate squad had experienced during the MDO.

The effort was not in vain. I have managed to moderate ‘seething’ to ‘relatively unsettled’ and my psychiatric nurse has been able to reduce my medication, at least to the point where I am able to take other solid food now.

There was a surprising amount of feedback, actually. Some of it appended to the note on my Facebook page, some of it received via e-mail and even some that appeared on my phone: very terse comments in the case of the latter. What was surprising was that almost all those respondents that have amassed a reasonable length of adjudication experience seemed to agree with me; and I am not that familiar with finding others in agreement with the things that I say. Which prompted me to ask myself the question: ‘If everyone agrees, then how ever did debate adjudication get into the mess that it’s in right now?’

Fortunately, I would have been even more surprised if one of my other internalised doppelgangers had answered the question (Besides, my multiple personalities were far too busy playing ‘Hide the sausage’ beneath a temporal lobe and giggling a lot), but it got me thinking again – and I came up with another question: ‘If asked, what would I detail as being the things that the current flock of adjudicators no longer seem to take into account in their blinkered approach to assessing debating?’ After all, if one is critical, you should be able to put your mouth where the money is and mean it from the heart of your bottom – or something like that.
It wasn’t too hard to tell you the truth. I just thought of all the stuff that nobody seems to comment on anymore and started from there, then I started to seethe again, so here goes ‘cathartic effort #2’.
In no particular order (which probably means that there is a definitive order to what follows, it’s just that the trauma that has caused these deep-seated scars to form has been somewhat mollified by drugs, to say nothing of the medical applications of large quantities of alcohol – and besides which, I wrote them down as they occurred in my befuddled little mind and then couldn’t be bothered to cut and paste them into a different order. Suck it up!).


Engagement has become largely a matter of dynamic analysis, in that adjudicators seem to feel that they are present in the debate primarily to legislate on the extent to which the material a team develops has a definitive, quantifiable relationship to a similar volume of material being developed by the other side. This is both strange and inexcusable: strange, because debates should not be just about the presentation of loosely assembled, woefully prioritised and often poorly inter-related information and an assumed sense of ‘balance’ between these two - and inexcusable because it ignores all the other (and potentially more critical) aspects of engagement.

a) Humour, wit, cynicism and sarcasm:

As I have said before (and I guess the sheer number of ‘mention’s is now beginning to resemble a dirge; one of the less jaunty kinds, if there are, indeed, any jaunty dirges), the adjudicator that can properly evaluate the importance of manner-related aspects in a debate is as rare these days as a flight of Leicestershire Great Whites. Well, at least in Asia, it is.

Elsewhere, adjudicators often go into debates expecting to be entertained; expecting to indulge in the odd cackle, the occasional guffaw, the simpering chuckle, but we don’t. We go into debates expecting, indeed demanding to be bored into utter insensibility, perhaps, because the state of insensibility is more conducive to the proper and meticulous assessment of purely objective material. Or perhaps because no one has ever taught us to account for anything more than the 40 or 50% of marks that are awarded for matter.

Look, it boils down to this: if the wit and humour of a speaker assists in the effective presentation of material (arguments) and is appropriate to the debate (issue(s) under discussion, then that is probably good manner and should be recognised in the award of marks in the relevant category and deserve proper consideration and commentary during the feedback process. On the other hand, if the jokes interfere with, rather than accentuate the points being made, or the wit or sarcasm seems inappropriate to the ideas being developed (you feel like throwing up, rather than laughing), then it might, in fact, be reflected in a reduction in the marks awarded for manner – and it would give you something else, other than, “You said… He said… They said…” statements to deliver in your oral feedback at the end.

b) Rapport, persuasion, sincerity:

…However, it goes much further than the evaluation of witticism and how far the red needle swings up the scale on your internalised clap-o-meter. Engagement is also about the extent to which a speaker can develop a rapport with the audience he or she is speaking too. Now, I know you are already thinking that most of the ‘audiences’ you have ever debated in front of amounted to no more than an odd number of (odd) (sorry, couldn’t resist that) adjudicators (probably only one most of the time), maybe an admiring parent or two and some random bloke who happened to walk in halfway through the first speech and was too intimidated by the Chair’s hostile stares to try and leave before things had obviously ended. By the way, the ‘random guy’ probably came to fix the air-conditioning, which has been making a grinding noise like the grist mills of Valhalla since you entered the room.

However, this is one of the baseline concepts that you, as a debater, have to factor in. Remember, you are trying to convince the adjudicator(s) that your arguments are better, by what might only be a small margin, than those being advocated by your opponents. You are not, on the other hand, required to convince the ‘honourable members’ on the other side. This also means that, as an adjudicator, you are there to be persuaded. How this persuasion is effected forms the heart of good, well-mannered debating.

Some seek to sound sincere, acclaiming their own ideas in tones and rhetorical forms that would probably get a sinner like me past the Pearly Gates. Some employ a depth of emotional engagement with their material and approach that is custom-made to tweak the empathies of those in attendance, and yet others seek merely to entertain, believing (possibly correctly) that someone who’s life has been made even slightly easier to live for the past 7 minutes is more likely to believe the things that you say than they are to believe what the puritanical chump on the other side has been muttering in a monotone for the longest while.

The paramount objective in delivering a speech must be to persuade. If a speaker fails to deliver ideas that are, in some way, designed to get someone else to change their behaviour, then I think that there is a problem with that speech. If I, as an adjudicator, have yet to be convinced of either set of assertions at the end of an hour, then I’ve just sat though a below-average debate that had little or no appeal to my sensibilities, particularly my sense of humour.

Life is serious enough without 6 or 8 prophets of doom trying to make my day infinitely worse. Give me someone who makes an effort to engage with me, not just the other side’s arguments. After all, I am critical to the debate simply because the speakers are trying to persuade me – or at least, they should be trying to do so.

c) Ability to Entertain:

The first time that my BP partner and I got together over a lobotomy bench and decided to debate together in an open competition, I agreed only on the basis that I would do it as long as it was fun. Indeed, the necessity for debaters to enjoy their debating is something I’ve always stressed during my training sessions and workshops. However, for many debaters that I see compete, debating is anything but fun, having taken on all the seriousness of a Nuremburg trial with fewer laughs. This is discomfiting to me, not least because it renders debates boring and repetitive.

It is also fair to say that debating in the two main phases of a competition: preliminary rounds and final rounds, makes different demands on a debater’s skills and understanding of the arcane art. In the preliminary rounds, one’s audience is as I have already described it – at least, for the most part. As preliminaries progress, the camp followers hear stories of teams that are doing well and gravitate into those rooms in the later stages for the experience of seeing teams and speakers that are persuasive, entertaining and (dare I say it) fun to watch.

Even so, new demands come onto teams when they move into the knock-out rounds: They are adjudicated by panels instead of singletons; these panels often comprise luminaries amongst the debating fraternity, alumni members with their own particular trail of history, myth and legend; and for the first time, these teams meet audiences.

If a debater continues to deliver his or her admirable depth of material in a boring monotone at such times, there appears to be no penalty for having failed to capitalize on the fact that there is now an “audience”; a group of people that are expecting not only to be informed, but also to be persuaded, confided in and drawn into the ambit of the speech-maker’s aura by means of emotional appeals, stridency, rhetorical devices and their like. To me, that is reflective of a lack of ability on the part of the adjudicators to recognise the markedly different demands being made on those speaking and to fly in ignorance of the main purposes of Parliamentary debate.

But no! We reward those who speak like automatons on the basis that they say stuff, not develop and personalise ideas in an effort to convince another or develop belief in them. Debate isn’t about proving something anymore; it isn’t about the display of wisdom and an ability to connect; it’s about vomiting up as much material as you can get into a seven minute speech and counting entirely on the objective judgement of those who will assess your efforts.


Individual (speech) dynamics:
Adjudicators have stopped looking for any real kind of balance in a speech. What I mean by balance is a reasonably equal weightage between rebuttal argumentation and constructive argumentation. Debaters that get to their sixth minute, hear the single time signal and then say, “…and now to my first substantive argument are rarely penalised for what seems to me to have been to have been a poorly structured effort at best – and reflective of really bad time management at worst.

Time management? Shmime management. Adjudicators don’t care – and they really should. When a debater is still rambling on at 7:30, I’d be contemplating docking a mark for bad time management, because the speaker is clearly unable to tailor-make their ideas to fit the pattern that they’ve probably had ‘split’ for them and split themselves in their opening remarks. Debates have been won and lost on this kind of dynamic call. Well, apparently not anymore.

Team (case) dynamics:
The trend towards stuffing a speech with, well… stuff (Let’s refer to this as “Speech stuffing”, shall we?) has led to another decline in the abilities of adjudicators: the recognition of appropriate prioritisation. Basically, what happens is that a ‘Speech-stuffer’ throws everything known about the topic into a speech, having determined with the other constructive speaker what stuff he/she knows better. The material ‘spoils’ are thus divided on an ‘I know about – you know about,’ basis, and not on the basis of what is more or less important.

Then, the material is developed (rather than expressed) at breakneck pace and lacks any real kind of emphasis or structural justification (as in, “This idea is important at this point because… and it relates to ideas already/yet to be developed in these ways…”).

With everything having the same outward appearance and value, the adjudicator is expected to give everything equal merit, rather than determine (for himself/herself [God forbid that adjudicators should ‘think’ for themselves]) whether the order works properly, or does not.

Back in the day, this kind of call might well have been useful in determining whether a case on one side or the other had been deliberately ‘hung’; had ‘slid’ from one speech to another, or whether the goal posts had been deliberately ‘shifted’ – perhaps in an effort to respond dynamically to a particularly forceful attack from the opposition. These days, adjudicators who know what a hung case is, let alone feel themselves capable of recognising one, are few and far between.

Debate (holistic) dynamics:
Speakers these days often… no, make that VERY often; deliver material as if their lives depended on the number of words they can average per nano-second. This has a number of effects that should (in my opinion) impact upon manner-related considerations. Firstly, the sheer speed of delivery robs the speech of its natural emphasis: the ‘highs and lows’ that give certain ideas a significance that others might necessarily lack. Secondly, it makes it very hard for adjudicators to take comprehensive notes – so many don’t really bother to try and keep up and just content themselves with jotting down the key words – so, again, ideas and arguments develop a ‘sameness’ of meaning and import, not a hierarchy of significance. Thirdly, Speech-stuffers frequently have to resort to the use of hackneyed rhetorical linking devices – perhaps because their rapidly un-stuffing, fact-retching brains can’t cope with the parallel requirement to organise material properly.

As an adjudicator, I think I should be critical of a speaker who says, “Mr. Speaker, sir,” 19 times in his first minute and a half (the current record). I feel I should also penalise someone who uses the link “At the end of the day,” as some kind of punctuation marker. It is not uncommon these days to have so many days come to an end during a single speech that I feel as if my life has been unnaturally shortened as a result. I also remember one debater (a pretty good one, at that) who would trap himself sometimes into over-using the device “i.e.” rather than mixing in the odd, “for example,” or “for instance” to keep it interesting. Ironically, it was probably his success that spawned a whole legion of debaters in his alma mater also over-using ‘i.e.’ In fact, to the extent that it has become an integral feature of their debating style – but that is not to say that it is a good thing – far from it. After all, even the debater in question used to agree that he would overdo the i.e.s from time to time.

Poorly utilised or over-used linking devices are definitely a manner-issue; so why don’t adjudicators take them into account anymore? Is it perhaps because the general lack of any real adjudicator training programme or accreditation process allows a situation to develop in which novice adjudicators, in gaining most of their early experience watching teams from their own debate society train, begin to believe that everything they see their own speakers do is acceptable – and from that point onwards take that as the benchmark against which everything else is measured?

All this taken into account, the thing that one should perhaps take away from this is that debate dynamics are often tied very strongly to manner-related considerations; which suggests that, to ignore them is to adjudicate debaters in a blatantly unfair and biased fashion.

Ad Hominem Attacks:
Debaters can basically get away with anything these days. If you want to insult a team or an individual; his nation or his rhetorical skills, just dress the epithet in the thin disguise of a humorous comment and a couple of items of superior vocabulary and you’ll probably get laughs, rather than a mark deduction and a comment from the chair at the end.

A debater can portray the approach that a previous speaker has taken as, “The most offensively fascist doctrine of a clearly gender-confused individual, but I suppose we must forgive him, seeing as he’s from S*ng**p*r*,” and even the adjudicators will laugh. Well, maybe they should, perhaps if the debate is happening in an exhibition match or a master’s round, but they should also be deducting something for manner too, as it clearly bad manners (as my Gran’ used to say) and offends several of the inevitable prescriptions in the rulebooks that are supposed to legislate against persona l attacks mounted on the basis of sexism, racism, ageism and all the other ‘isms’ to boot.

Given the kind of thing that was reported as happening during the Master’s Final at Koc Worlds, how far does someone have to be offensive and how much can they indulge in personal attacks before the adjudicator is, in duty bound, to start penalising the speaker in the manner category? Well, you try finding someone who has ever done more than mention, during feedback, “Oh, and perhaps you’d better watch the personal insults in the remaining rounds too, just to be on the safe side.”

The ‘safe side’ of what, we might ask?

Points of Information (POIs):
The rules and guidelines that I have been involved in writing, at one time or another, all suggested (rather than explicitly ‘ruled’) that, in parliamentary debate styles at least (All-Asians, WUDC, etc), a speaker should endeavour to take and respond to an average of 2 POIs during the course of a 7 minute speech. The POI is important to parliamentary debating because it is the most spontaneous and dynamic of the ‘tools’ that both speakers and non-speakers have access to. Important POIs can completely derail a speech, or even a case; just as bad ones can (and should) be reflected in the appropriate considerations of marks awarded for manner or matter at the proper time.

However, no one takes two POIs anymore – at least, my experience of watching the more significant of Final’s rounds in recent years seems to confirm this. I watched a recording of the WUDC Grand Final in Cork, recently, and only the DPM had the temerity to take two POIs. Everyone else took only one and denied every other attempt to pose a question in response to the ideas being developed at the time.

Moreover, it has become common practice for some team members to offer points only very rarely – and sometimes not at all. When I make a comment on this as an adjudicator at the end of the debate, they just shrug it off as if to indicate that they don’t think that a failure to offer POIs is particularly important. After all, they have to get all that ‘stuff’ they want to incorporate in their remarks written down before they have to speak – and haven’t they already agreed that NASNO (Noisy, arrogant, speaker number one) is going to do all of that POI business anyway? (“Hey, he practices being obnoxious just for that! Hours in front of the mirror in his bed-sit; wasted otherwise.”).

If you’re going to insist that parliamentary debate continues to make all the demands of speakers that it has, thus far, then I think that adjudicators should start penalising debaters that avoid the need to be responsive during a speech and recognising (perhaps through taking proper notes) when a team member is ducking their responsibility to stay in touch with unfolding events and argumentation through the offer of POIs.

Close, Clear and Thrashing margins:
For those familiar with the three-on-three format of Australasian and All-Asian debating, there are three categories that are usually delineated within the maximum mark differential that can separate teams at the end of a debate. As a reminder: if the maximum permissible mark spread is 12 points (a round dozen so that the tabulation software is not too hard pressed to cope with all those horrible digits), a ‘close’ debate should feature a score differential of between .5 and 4.5 points; a ‘clear’ debate should feature a score differential of between 5 and 8.5 points, and a complete toasting should feature a score differential of between 9 and 12 points.

For the mathematically challenged amongst you; particularly those not profiting from a convenient case of polydactylysm, don’t worry about all the halves: everybody seems to have forgotten about those pretty quickly in the mid-nineties (understandably, being the 90.5s!).

At the time when adjudicators; specifically chairs (singles and panels), were required to give oral feedback on the debate in announcing the result, it became easier for many to use the ‘close, clear, thrashing’ categories as a general indicator of the standard of the debate, without actually telling debaters their marks (as this was still something that adjudicators were not supposed to announce). However, it rapidly became clear that adjudicators were using the term ‘close’ to describe the gaps between teams in debates where the actual marks described a debate that was anything but close. In other words, it was easier to justify a decision that had gone against a particular team if the chair could somehow excuse the result on the basis that it was “very close” and even intimate that the speaker scores on both sides had been, in any case, very high.

These days, this trend has become a full-blown addiction amongst adjudicators, for whom every debate – even those in randomly matched first rounds - seems to be a close one and any departure from a mark range confined to a maximum of 3 almost unthinkable.

To me, an adjudicator has to be capable of using the full mark range – and must base the marks that are used on a more subjective and ‘impression-based’ concept of the overall success of teams as this perception develops during the debate. I suspect that it does not happen this way. In fact, I suspect that adjudicators decide who has won and lost, apply the ‘close’ margin paradigm to limit the gap between the teams to an easily justifiable differential, and then avoid any realistic responsibility for fairly and accountably feeding back on the actual debate that occurred.

Then, you might get a range of total team scores over the top 16 teams at the break that covers more than .5 and a similar extension of the gap between the top 10 best speakers that more appropriately reflects real speaking skills.

It may sound a little like I’m encouraging exactly the kind of thing that I really don’t like to hear an adjudicator does: negative marking. If it does, then I’m expressing myself really badly, because the kind of adjudicator that waits for you to make a mistake (at which point the little red bulb over the ‘No’ indicator in the back of the adjudicator’s brain starts to flicker as the delight of being able to subtract yet another mark from the notional average for the competition kicks in…) is a bad adjudicator (and probably a chronic bed-wetter too).

What I am trying to do is to give those people who want to take adjudication seriously an insight into what I consider are some of the things you should be doing and should be rewarding. Take, for example, debaters who say really clever stuff in really clever ways.

In my career as a debate judge, I’ve had the luck to listen to and observe some of the world’s finest speakers. The skills that set these people apart from their peers do not include the ability to cram enormous amounts of matter into a well-orchestrated 7 minute speech, nor, indeed, develop as many case studies and pertinent examples as the fertile mind can possibly conceive. What sets these people apart is their ability to say things in ways that are so sophisticated that you often don’t actually realise that you’re being persuaded by them until it’s already happened. ‘Too late, baby, gotcha!’

Maybe because the word ‘sophistication’ isn’t used in the rules and regulations that pertain, adjudicators don’t seem to feel the need to reward someone who says smart things in really convincing ways. Or then again, maybe adjudicators aren’t taught the difference between a sophisticated argument and a crude, raw hotchpotch of trawled-up data, so the cleverness floats right over their heads and goes largely unevaluated.

This, then, is the age of the “Pseudo, Existentialistic, Quasi-debate”: one that takes place in a vacuum free of logical development, free of passion and essentially free of any real requirement to apply the rules, regulations and requirements that used to be what adjudication was about. I pine for the old days – so call me ‘old fashioned’ and you’ll be right.


1) Change the descriptors:
It’s going to sound radical, but I think the various councils, committees and constitutional guardians should get rid of the “Average, reasonable person” tag that has pinned adjudication into a corner since its first usage in AIDA handbooks and Australasian rules. Why? Well, I (probably alone) believe that it is an outmoded way of characterising the true role of the adjudicator, and should no longer be applicable. Besides, reading that kind of description, anyone begins to think that they can adjudicate debates; forget training and accreditation programmes; forget the fact that the individual never seems to be able to make it into a credible team; as long as he or she thinks that they are (a) average, (b) reasonable, and (c) a person, they can adjudicate. Wrong!

For a start, the best adjudicators are not ‘average’ by any stretch of the imagination. They must have an expert knowledge of the rules; they must be exceptionally well read – and therefore probably possess a level of education in the top ten percentile in their peer group; they must have incredibly well-developed listening skills, which renders them capable of recording the progression of a debate by taking extensive notes and simultaneously maintain an evolving concept of the developing arguments through a sophisticated level of contrastive analysis. Moreover, superior analytical skills must be tempered with a parallel consciousness of the subjective elements of the debate. These skills, and the list I provide is anything but exhaustive, can never be possessed by ‘average’ people.

I find myself strangely in agreement with the idea that adjudicators should be ‘reasonable’, but the term has more than one meaning in an adjudication context. To begin with, it is reasonable to expect that your adjudicator will not “…enter the debate” in terms of bias, superior knowledge, cultural background, patterns of belief, or on the basis of a particular ‘ism’.

However, it should also be admitted by many of those that have any kind of depth of experience that their biases, cultural backgrounds and individually held beliefs are difficult to consciously overcome. For example, the views of those living and studying in what might be loosely termed ‘liberal democracies’ on things like homosexuality and child labour will differ markedly in the ways that they are evaluated – as much as they will be differently expressed. I would contend that it is harder for an Australian adjudicator to give a debate to an Asian team that takes a hard line against something like homosexuality than it is to overcome the inherent biases and adjudicate purely on the basis of what is argued and which of these arguments is better expressed, more credible, more persuasive and sincere. This kind of approach is clearly unfair and unreasonable.

However, there is a second and potentially more important aspect to the ‘reasonable’ descriptor that can be even more contentious: the need for an adjudicator to use “reason” as a means of developing the contrastive analysis that I mentioned above.

The trend towards matter-heavy, manner-free debating was largely the result of two things: the difficulty that some debaters had with the more subjective manner-based components or skills, and the superficial supplementation of this lack of skills with even more material development, comparative analysis and evidence. This precipitated the era of “serious debating” that (again, in my own [and probably lonely] opinion) ensued, with the result that Asian debating has substantially lost ground on debate and rhetorical styles that have been long established in places like ‘The Isles of Ionia’, the continental North Americas and Oceania, where wit, humour and the ability to engage with an audience have been developed to very high levels. You don’t have to believe these claims – just check the numbers of Asian teams and Asian adjudicators breaking at truly international debate competitions over the last half a dozen years and compare these with the five years previous to that.

Notice I mention both adjudicators and debaters in that last sentence. The cliché ‘What goes around come around’ springs to mind. Again, it stands to reason that, if Asian debating has become serious to the point at which speeches and speakers have become dry and dusty caricatures of their political counterparts and no one can entertain anymore, then none of the adjudicators these teams bring with them are likely to be able to appreciate manner-related elements when they bump into them in a well-lit amphitheatre. Therefore, quid pro quo, fewer Asian adjudicators break because host organisations and the CA/DCA panels they put together lack confidence in the ability of our judges to adjudicate in a balanced and appropriate fashion.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, the power of reason. To me, the expectation in a ‘serious’ debater that their adjudication panel is some kind of three-leafed blank sheet that they are at liberty to write upon in any fashion they choose is patently false, but this is where the “throw-in-everything-I-ever-read-on-the-subject-and-call-it-analysis” approach has led us. After all, when pre-competition adjudication briefings in the past came to the issues pertaining to the ‘average, reasonable person,’ it was always expected that one would be able to use one’s own knowledge and understanding of the world when determining the particular structure, weight and importance of an idea.

For instance, if a debater mistakenly refers to New York as being the capital of the United States of America, the adjudicator should be free to recognise that this is not, in fact, true. However, the adjudicator in such an instance would also be expected to judge whether the slip was fundamental to the ideas being developed at the time and therefore injurious to the speech or the case as a whole. After all, a more classic example of “negative marking” could not occur if an adjudicator were to give the debate to the other team on the basis of this one error. A somewhat simplistic example, I know, but you should recognise the dangers inherent in disallowing an adjudicator from employing their own ability to think.

And now to the last of the terms: ‘person’. Personally, I am utterly convinced that one of the chairs in a recent debate was actually from the same planet in the Betelgeuse system that Ford Prefect hails from, but I’ll grant you the fact that most of them should probably be humanoid, at the very least. The only comment that I will add here, as something of a qualifier, is this: Persons are persons (pretty obvious so far), not automatons (ah-ha). Adjudicators must not leave their humanity behind them in the briefing room when they drop their individual bags of bias, belief mechanisms and personal preferences under a chair. Feedback must also be based on the three principles that form the basis for debate evaluation and assessment; to whit, matter, manner and method. I am sorry to say that so-called ‘serious debating’ has had a negative impact here too.

2) Separate pre-competition briefings:
I don’t mean to keep harping back to the ‘days of old, when knights were bold, and judges knew their business’ but in many ways, I can’t help it. When a situation has deteriorated, at least in one’s own eyes, then a backward glance at how things used to get done before they went bad can often lead your thoughts into pathways with further currency.

Pre-competition briefings for debaters and adjudicators used to be held separately of each other. I think they should be separated again. Why? Well, for one, the kind of porridge that gets served up in joint briefings is repetitive and designed to avoid upsetting anyone by actually taking a firm stance on issues like… well… manner issues, for instance! Moreover, several of the ones that I’ve attended lately seem to have become an excuse for all of the Chief Adjudicator’s friends, relatives and object de l’amour to share in the presentation, spicing their chunk of input with inappropriate commentary, war stories and witticisms designed to titillate the senses of the other members of the panel, whilst being completely incomprehensible to anyone else in attendance.

The vast majority of debaters taking part in a national or international level competition already know exactly why they are there and what they are there to do. All they want to hear is how the tab is going to work, what specific approaches or perspectives adjudicators are going to be taking to particular issues (like manner?), how the break will be decided and how substantial the ‘free bar’ tabs are going to be during the socials. That’s it.

On the other hand, many of the adjudicators (and I mean MANY) are far less experienced than their debating counterparts and desperate to know how they should approach judging. They want to hear from someone with a bit of experience and understanding what they should do, given the vast range of situations that can occur in a debate.

Alright, so you want to give the assembled throng some kind of test. You might even want to insist that the row of hoary old bastards that have been adjudicating since the walls of Jericho came down take the test too; after all, they might have learned something in all that time and – God forbid - have begun to think for themselves. “Pooh, pooh,” you say, can’t have all of that. Alrighty then… So, you gather some of your old mates together again; perhaps the ones that got rejected as DCAs, and have them shake off the intellectual rust-flakes and stage a mock debate.

What gets interesting after this has happened is as follows: If the debate has actually been a good one, then the adjudication core will often disagree amongst themselves. However, they must present a united front and therefore reach a decision by consensus: something that is entirely denied adjudicators in every format other than BP. Then, they divide test the papers between themselves and “mark” them. Again, they do this individually and only compare results at the stage when the itinerant flock of test-takers need to be separated into categories.

We even have “interviews” being conducted these days. The hoary old bastards love this feature, I can tell you. Nothing quite like the embarrassment that some of these DCAs suffer when confronted with someone who has adjudicated most of the Major Prophets and was there when Socrates screwed up that helot thing in the Senate.

The point is, you don’t need the debaters in the same room for this exercise. Moreover, why stage a ‘test debate’ when there must be literally hundreds of perfectly useful samples on CD, VCD, various websites and blogs? After all, you have a bit more control over the ‘quality’ of the debate you are going to show to your adjudicators and might actually be able to discuss some of the more pertinent things that occur before you run it, taking your cue from the Chief Adjudicator.

Look, when all is said and done (or, “At the end of yet another dismal day…”), there isn’t too much that is fair in a system that professes a need to test everybody (including the hoary old bastards) and then excludes anyone who agrees to be involved in the test debate. And when it comes to mutually preferred adjudication, what about asking the adjudicators which teams they’d prefer to watch? I think that you’d find that a lot of your adjudication pool members might exclude a good many teams purely on the basis that the last time they saw them debate, the only other sound in the room: apart from the monotonous whining noise of the speakers, the resounding snores of the random guy in the back row and the faulty air-conditioning, was the sound of adjudicator brain cells screaming as they fell into the darkness at the back of once-active minds.

Post testing, assessment and evaluation process, I’m always interested in what happens to the largest groups which, sad to say these days, are inevitably at the bottom of the pile. Look, we all know why we get so many falling into the D/E and Trainee categories: if they were any good, they’d be in a team; and because teams need an accompanying quota of adjudicators, they get a ticket to ride. What happened to adjudicator training? I know that some varsity debate societies take the matter of training adjudicators seriously, but they are also rare. The next time you get a dribbling idiot, a construction worker off the nearest building site and someone who managed to answer the multiple choice question, “How many sides are there in a debate?” on your panel, blame yourself, not the CA. Which brings me to the next item…
3) Adjudicator Accreditation:
Reinstate the one accreditation procedure that was ever any good: The AIDA adjudicator accreditation system, and kick the asses of those on the World’s Council who continue to do absolutely nothing to design one that works at that level. I mean, Jellied Vogon Pustules; if you can identify the basic elements of a particular format and design a marking system to reward speakers who are able to do these things particularly well or badly, then why the bloody hell can’t you design an accreditation programme to facilitate adjudicators in both working their way through the necessary learning processes and perfecting the craft of adjudication.

I’ll tell you why; if you did manage to design a BP adjudicator programme (and I have every reason to believe that you could, because some of us have already designed a working syllabus) you’d probably upset people when they took it and failed it, particularly if their natural skin colour was a variation on ‘sickly pink’ – and we can’t have that now, can we!

Of course, one might be tempted to say that if someone who had taken a test failed it, then that was probably because they weren’t any zarking good at it and probably shouldn’t be adjudicating debates in any case, but I am prepared to accept that this might be something of a cynical view.

One might also be tempted to say that, as each and every international debating competition worthy of the moniker starts with some kind of adjudication test anyway, why can’t those who debate; supposedly intelligent people engaged in looking for truth and solutions, somehow rationalise what already takes place as a matter of course? Ah, wait a minute; I’d forgotten the instinctive urge in all of us to reinvent the wheel whenever we feel that something needs to move a little faster than it will on logs. I beg your pardon. Silly me.

4) Mutually Preferred Adjudication:
Dump it. It profits no one, least of all the adjudication panel, is ethically and morally difficult to defend – and is inherently unfair to the adjudicators themselves. “And that’s all I have to say about that,” (Forest Gump).

Another Ending:
OK, I’ve started feeling a bit better again, having got that off my palpitating chest, so I’m going to stop there (“…for the time being!” a voice sounded ominously in the background).

What has gone before is not intended to be a complete list of all the ills facing debate adjudication at the present time – and doubtless there will be many people that are perfectly content with the zarking status quo that they are all so happy to vomit up in opposition scenarios when they’re actually clueless about any other possible way to go. All I wanted to do was to point to some of the things I think are being lost and in danger of being abandoned to the Room of Forgotten Skills, that’s all.

Mind you, you do realise that, by reading this, you’ll now have subconsciously absorbed a checklist of things that you and your teammates will carry into your next debate; one that will fuel the fires of indignation when your pimply-faced nerrick of an adjudicator focuses entirely on matter-related issues in his feedback (female adjudicators can be neither pimply, nor nerricks – just cannot compute). Time for another seminar, Dr C? Time to try and right the wrongs once more?

Omes, Seremban, April 2010.


  1. With all due respect to Omar, the only part of this that is true in my experience of adjudicating in the last five years is the section on points of information. Even then, it is arguable that the expectation to take two points in a seven minute speech is unrealistic and the rule should change.

    Style, the dynamics of the debate and engagement beyond just the quantity of material have all featured prominently in panel discussions I've been involved in. This type of holistic adjudication, considering all elements of debating, is now the norm the world over with some regional variation as to emphasis. All the points Omar makes (aside from PsOI) are pretty much standard in pre-tournament adjudication briefings. And as far as I can tell, standards of adjudication are markedly better in terms of quality, objectivity and accountability than when I entered debating ten years ago.

    Of course, there will be some competitions that have shallow adjudication pools (and sometimes you'll be on the wrong end of a shafting), but to mistake these isolated data points for a trend is unfair almost to the point of tendentiousness. If I didn't know Omar better, I'd think he were deliberately making mischief.

  2. Anonymous6:35 pm

    Ivan, were these debates that you attended & referred to in the Asian 3-on-3 or BP Format? I think Omar wrote this piece with specific reference to the present state of Asian format debating and adjudication.

    On a personal level, from my experience at indian tournaments, Omar is pretty much (and unfortunately) bang on. This is a debating paradigm that is getting reinforced by both training and at tournaments, through similar adjudication, similar mistakes in that adjudication, leading to similarly boring styles of debating.

  3. That is a fair point, but it seems to me to be a more general tirade with particular emphasis on the neglect of manner in Asia. If Omar means his post to be a corrective to the particular problems he sees with Asian debating and adjudication, then all well and good. I have adjudicated Asian competitions and run training workshops in Asia (though not in India) and don't think adjudication is as parlous there as Omar makes out. But honest introspection within a debating community about how to improve standards is never a bad thing. Omar should just be clearer that this is what this is.

  4. This article was, indeed, written in respect of All-Asian 3-on-3 debate styles and in specific reference to what I do consider to be a parlous state in local competitions and in terms of adjudicator training in Malaysia. Moreover, this was pasted into a personal Facebook account, as mentioned by Colm, and has no pretentions at being in any way academic. Some people get spoiled adjudicating at WUPID (?) Clear enough?

  5. thanks for the blog :)

    by the way, are there adjudicators that adju the debaters depends on their debating society criteria? ( major or minor )
    if it's in major , the debate will come up into different standarization, how poor we are


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