Thursday, August 13, 2009


Orientation is another example of where the national leadership has provoked consternation among the Region 2 affiliates. Personally, I believe this is a case where the leadership's initiative was in the best interest of the country overall. Like the previous posts, this will attempt to provide some history, so both positions can be clearly understood.

Problems of Early Years

An orienter can have a tangible impact on a tournament, for better or worse or both, and there are many horror stories from the early years of the league. One key problem is "injection", where the orienter's view of the event and/or resolution is imprinted on the judge pool. It is natural for those fulfilling this role to have strong opinions about the event, this is why tournament directors are drawn to choose them in the first place. Often, a coach is selected, and in the worst case one winds up with a judge pool that has just been pointed in the direction of that coach's own students -- after all, they're the ones doing it "right"!

A second problem is most common among community judges and new parents. The orienter is their "gateway" to the event, sort of an advance tour guide. Any competitors who operate outside the orientation (or even worse -- appear to contradict it), have to be wrong! Parents who commit to the activity will eventually overcome this barrier, but many community judges only see one tournament a year.

A third problem is an extension of this "tour guide" mentality, and this occurs after the round is over. The novice judge has gone through their first orientation, and the round itself has produced something unexpected. Naturally, they go back to the hospitality area to ask their "tour guide" what they should make of this. I was once at a tiny round-robin given by a new club that we were visiting. All the parents were new that year, and one of the coaches had given the orientation. These parents would then come back to the ballot area at the end of the round, explain what they had seen, and the orienteer would then tell them how to vote! Naturally it is critical that orienters avoid this kind of intervention, focusing instead on making the novice judge comfortable with reaching their own decision.

A fourth problem is also rooted in the expertise of the orienter, and is really more of an issue with team policy. They may be a coach or an alumni, they may have a past experience with the dreaded "community judge ballot" (i.e.- someone who wasn't smart enough to vote their way), and now is their chance to fix the universe by stuffing all their superior knowledge down the throats of the judge pool whether they can digest it or not. There's a very simple rule of thumb: the longer the orientation lasts, the less capable the first time judge will feel.

My favorite horror story is from a team policy round robin many years ago. Some alumni were putting on this little fall warmup tournament at a church school, and they had recruited an alumni coach to do the team policy orientation. For round 1, they used experienced parent judges, and packed the judge hospitality area (and ballot workroom) with all the community judges & new parents. The orientation started at 8:30 just before round 1 went off at 9. We waited...and waited...

By 10:00, many of the novice debates were finished, and round 1 judges were working on ballots outside the hospitality room. By 10:30, I had been in and out of the orientation a couple of times, and I realized that there was no sign of closure: we had a hostage crisis on our hands.

I met with the alumni directing the tournament at tab, we gathered up the round 2 ballots and crashed the orientation, passing them out as we fanned across the room. Some of the audience had looks of terror in their eyes as they headed out to their debate rounds, clutching their ballot in dread. The orienter never stopped talking, he was actually performing textual analysis on the wording of the resolution at that point. I kept my last ballot and headed off to listen to some debaters instead.

Region 2 Solves The Issue

Shortly after the "Round Robin Judge Pool Hostage Crisis" incident, Region 2 began the practice of having coaches from the major clubs tour the state and provide orientation services on behalf of the smaller events. This proved to be no hardship, as there was always someone qualified going to the tournament anyway. There was no standardization of these presentations, but there was no dissatisfaction about this either, because each training was a reflection of the rich complexity of Speech and Debate from the point of view of a long term Region 2 coach from a major club. In fact, it was common for new parents to seek out the orienters they had yet to hear, just for enrichment. At one of the last Point Loma tournaments, the orientation responsibility was even rotated between major clubs from round to round! These orientations tended to last 30-45 minutes, striking a balance between timeliness and proper equipping.

Although these orientations had stylistic differences, there were some common elements:
  • make the judge comfortable with their abilities and competence to evaluate the round
  • place responsibility for clarity on the competitors
  • avoid the problem of "injection", be neutral towards differences between the competitors
  • move quickly through the round structure & any theory, avoid overwhelming the new judge with too many details.
  • express gratitude for volunteering to judge speech & debate!
Organizing the practice of orientation across California increased the quality of our tournaments, meeting the needs of timely community judge training while still providing that initial boost of theoretical teaching for new parents.

It is important to note that California's work on this problem began years before the national organization decided to standardize orientation across the league; and once the national leadership began to move on the problem, Region 2 had snuffed out any problematic manifestations with a settled system in place.

NCFCA Solves The Issue

The orientation slides of NCFCA were first deployed at the Seattle Open. After a brief window of feedback, the standardization process began, which continues to this day.

The slides themselves provoked a firestorm of reaction within California, although the negative response was not universal. All five of the key points listed above were met by the orientation slides. Initially, people were not attracted to the idea of visual training for an auditory competition, but with the passage of time these concerns have proven to be misplaced. The community judges themselves like the slides, and this promoted acceptance. There is some objection to the distracting nature of the multiformat debate slides for single-format tournaments, i.e.- if you're running a team policy tournament, why would you want to confuse a community judge with a sample LD ballot? But this is a localized problem that doesn't happen at most tournaments. One shortcoming that has never been addressed is the lack of emphasis on written feedback to the debaters.

One cannot perform a just evaluation of the slides, however, in isolation, or be overly critical of small issues. It is important to remember what was being replaced: a horror show played out at tournaments all across the country where judge pools were being misoriented and the competitors suffering with the results. From this point of view, the national orientation initiative was badly needed & must be sustained. I believe this is one of the most important and positive changes the current national leadership has ever accomplished.

But there is one central objection which cannot be denied. In order to create a common denominator acceptable to the nation as a whole, almost all significant theory content has been drained out of the slides. This is clearly evident by the aggressive timelines achieved by the standardization initiative: about 20 minutes or less for orientation, and this is compounded by the ban on open questions.

By eliminating theory content, the judges orientation as now practiced by the league no longer meets the goal of giving the new, incoming parent a "boost" in their learning curve of the events. This need must be met elsewhere, and the hardship of this burden falls on the new clubs & their new families. Fortunately, incoming competitors to Region 2 find a sense of community & openness, and not just an atmosphere of intense, focused competition -- but they get that, too.

Region 2 and the Orientation Initiative

I will repeat my claim that the national leadership's orientation initiative was an important and positive step for the league as a whole; but many affiliates in California viewed this transition as a pure detrimental loss to the state, taking away something we still need today in order to solve a problem we didn't have. To the credit of the Region 2 leadership, this transition was accomplished in submission to the national organization, despite the controversy, and slide-based orientation has been the general practice in Region 2 to this day.


  1. I am unsure about what you wanted to communicate. Are you basically just into bagging on the NCFCA? Please don't take that disrespectfully. It sometimes seems like the NCFCA doesn't please people if it takes action and when it takes action. The OI/Expos summer update on coming rule changes seems like an attempt to give people earlier warning of changes (a complaint I have had) and yet people still seems to be griping about it. When I observe things like that, I wonder why no one credits them with trying to improve. I know you would agree that it is hard to please everyone. Honestly, is it that you all think that it is just too late for these changes to matter? I would like to understand you better.

  2. Hi "Want 2 Hear Both Sides"-

    > "no one credits them with trying to improve"

    Was I insufficiently complimentary to the national leadership in this post?


  3. As an 'outsider' that came into NCFCA as a college student, I was alwasy impressed with Sue Sheffield's orientation, which I watched many times (I'm always curious what people are being told about debate!) and saw it evolve.

    I thought she did a good job providing the stability/certainty needed to provide confidence without over-imprinting a single perspective that would dominate irrevocably the minds of those helping the tournament operate.