The Great Adjudication Divide

Michelle Monique Meixieira Groenewald

Calls on the circuit are continuously made for the improvement of adjudication and rightly so. As a debate community we constantly aspire to more, the realm of adjudication should be no different. Some might even claim that those words of “with great power comes great responsibility” might even ring ever more true when it comes to this sphere. A speaker having a bad round affects himself and potentially his partner. Bad adjudication affects all four teams in the room. As many teams on the cusp of breaking will tell you – the difference between a first or second place could entail being immortalised in the “debate hall of fame” or otherwise wishing to drown your sorrows in a barrel of South African Yakka. With so much on the line for debaters – both speakers and adjudicators – this is a call to create awareness of the chasm between what we expect from good adjudicators and how to actually get there. These suggestions are by no means all that can be embarked upon to improve adjudication. The aim is to ensure that members of the debate community renew their focus on ensuring that adjudication is continuously considered as important as speaking and that efforts are made to ensure that this results in tangible action.

This piece will firstly examine the audio-visual materials available to adjudicators to improve their skills. Secondly, the written material available to adjudicators will be considered. Lastly, the individual debate societies and the international debate community’s attitude towards adjudication will be reviewed as a point of interest.

Video training for adjudication

Speaking specifically from the perspective of the African circuit, there is much that needs to be done to ensure that more debaters are given access to training material that is needed to improve themselves. Even on circuits that have more institutional experience, new debaters in large societies that attempt to do training by themselves in order to improve exponentially, without relying too heavily on more experienced debaters, need to be able to take more of their debate training into their own hands. Whilst there has been a definite increase in the online material available, there is still an alarmingly small amount for adjudicators in comparison to speakers.

The most pressing issue is the amount of videos available online. A perusal of Youtube will give results on numerous WUDC and EUDC debates, to name but a few. On Vimeo, Alfred Snider has 1 478 videos to date and yet a search of “adjudication” gives but a single video result. It is very difficult and certainly not widely accessible to find lectures being given on how to become a better adjudicator. Whilst we are privileged to see speeches being made in WUDC finals of very accomplished speakers, I am yet to find a single recorded deliberation or oral feedback from some of the best adjudicators on the circuit. How are adjudicators supposed to learn the skills of how to be a chair that guides discussions of high quality debates and delivers feedback to excellent speakers, that expect to be convinced that their case was perhaps not as awe-inspiring as they believed it to be? Too few adjudicators get the opportunity to learn by actually taking part in prestigious tournaments and even so, are not always guaranteed to be on a panel with adjudicators that can actually teach these skills in the tiny amount of allocated time. My suggestion on this matter is a simple one. Just as debates are recorded, so too the deliberation and the feedback should be recorded and posted online for numerous tournaments happening all across the globe. Those in charge of adjudication training at societies all over the world could then make use of this.

Written material for adjudicators

Whilst there is certainly more available for adjudicators in the written form, it is still insignificant in comparison to what speakers have available. Certainly within the literature there are elements that apply to both speakers and adjudicators, but even so this material is often focused on how speakers can employ these tactics and not on how adjudicators should evaluate them. My trawling of the internet has found the most insightful literature to be chapter 9 of Winning Debate’s by Steven L. Johnson and a Guide to Chairing and Adjudicating a World’s Debate by Omar Salahuddin Abdullah, Ian Lising and Steven Johnson. Other than that: Speaking, Listening and Understanding by Gary Rybold, the Basics of Adjudicating section in African Voices’ First Principles Training Handbook and the Australia-Asia Debating Guide by Ray D’Cruz  – does offer some insights into adjudication. My proposal would be that adjudication trainers should make this material available and highly recommend that adjudicators read and apply this. Over and above that I would urge those that are seasoned adjudicators to compile a comprehensive training guide. This could include the importance of dedicated adjudication training, actual training drills catered specifically for adjudicators, different methods for efficient note taking, guidelines for how to chair a deliberation, how to structure oral feedback and how to be an effective panellist, to name but a few.

Perceptions surrounding adjudicators

When I made the shift from the speaking to adjudicating there were a number of elements that I came to realise put adjudicators, even if only implicitly, in an inferior position. True, that often this was not the intention – but perceptions are powerful. Especially on the African circuit, the most “talented” debaters are chosen to speak at tournaments and those that are left over are those sent along as adjudicators. Whilst of course there are major benefits to being able to both speak and adjudicate, there is often little emphasis placed on new or old debaters contemplating where their strengths, desires or ambitions lie. The natural progression in most cases seems to be to try out being a speaker and failing that attempt adjudication. Otherwise, adjudication is something a debater attempts to do when they have achieved what they hoped to achieve in the speaker’s realm.

Making adjudicators feel even implicitly inferior happens in many small instances throughout the course of everyday tournaments. How often is there much awe and anticipation of the top 10 speakers in a tournament and yet, this same thrill is not reserved for adjudicators. Naturally, it is more difficult to rank the best adjudicators from one to ten because they do not accumulate speaker points, but at many tournaments there is not even a mention of the best performing adjudicators.

An international example of adjudicators not being seen as important as speakers was at Malaysia’s WUDC in 2014/2015. The social media coverage of this tournament was hailed by many as excellent and I myself can attest to the gratitude of being able to watch live debates all the way in South Africa. Yet, a perusal of the twitter feed will show live tweeting of every team breaking as it was announced.  Only upon requests was the names of the breaking adjudicators provided with a link to the spreadsheet. Another consideration is the registration of clashes.

There could be a speaking team that has made it to the final of a tournament and there was an absolutely exceptional adjudicator that would have adjudicated in the final. However, if a speaker and the adjudicator happen to have a clash registered, the adjudicator will be the one unable to partake in the final. Of course, the repercussions of telling a team that they would not be allowed to speak in a final because the CAP was prioritising this specific adjudicator, is unthinkable. There could well be debate on the impracticalities of such a decision, the bias that could creep in, the effect on the speaking partner etc. My point is not necessarily that we need an overhaul of the precedent that has been set. Rather awareness that the underlying message is important. This message could be that the contribution of a brilliant adjudicator who may well be the one to swing a panel with their unique and insightful perspective on the debate cannot be more important than the deserved place of the contribution that the speakers speech will make to the debate.

In conclusion, there is much that our community must undertake in order to ensure that the standard of adjudication right across the globe is improved. This starts with a realisation that adjudicators need to be empowered with the necessary tools and skills. It is integral for adjudicators too, to realise that the onus is on them to actively train and not just point fingers towards teams that are unhappy because they were placed last. It is not acceptable for adjudicators to espouse statements about not being up to date with current affairs because they will “only” be adjudicating at this tournament. It is my hope that we will soon be able to speak of “those” days – when the divide between speaker and adjudicator was a chasm that we bridged as debaters, one and all.