How I judge things
For those of you who are a little less experienced with writing judgments, I thought I'd write you a quick guide to a tried and proven approach to how to judge debates on this site. This should give you a starting point to help you make your own judgments that are rated highly. Of course, some kind of stylistic adaption is warranted, but these general guidelines will serve most judgments well.
This deals with regular 2-sided debates. 4 ways etc are pretty similar though.
Before I read the debate
- The first thing I do is come up with 2 or so arguments for both sides of the resolution. This will be useful later, so I write it down and keep it tucked away. I try to make these arguments with no research at all - just to get my head around the issues.
- If there are words I don't understand in the topic, I look them up. Judges should have a general sense of what the spirit of the topic is so they can detect if one side tries to squirrel the topic (that means arguing based upon an absurd definition).
- I think whether I've seen this debate before. I try to remember what's happened in any past debates on the topic.
As I'm reading/listening to the debate
- Layout is key to parsing a debate well. I like to rule up a couple of pieces of paper into 3 columns. I label these columns "pro", "con" and "feedback".
- When pro makes a decent point, I write a brief summary of the point in blue ink on the pro side (sometimes I judge with Word, in which case I'd use bold font for this). A decent point is one that is relevant to the topic, adds something to the debate and is at least somewhat backed up with an argument. Likewise if con makes a decent point I write it in blue ink on the con side. I leave a large gap after each argument so I can scan the arguments faster.
- If the other side rebuts a point, I write that rebuttal in red ink (or normal font) on the other side, roughly opposite the argument. If there's a rebuttal to a rebuttal, I write that in red ink opposite the rebuttal. And so on.
- As I go, I enter my own personal thoughts on the debate so far in the feedback column. Like, do I want to hear more about certain arguments? Am I getting lost by what point the debater is talking about right now? Does the debater have an effective style? Any thoughts at all, as I go, are noted in the feedback column. If feedback is specific to one debater (style, structure etc) I make a note of that.
- Sometimes debaters will make multiple points that are really the same kind of general issue. Always group these together even if debaters themselves don't realize it. It's your judgement so you impose whatever structure is the most logical. I am careful, however, not to insert my own arguments or thinking into the pro/con columns. 99% of debates will have no more than 3 issues, so if you have like 6 or 7 issues, look critically at your structure and think if you can't organize it better. "Key questions" for the debate is often a good way of thinking about it.
- I skip over forfeited rounds.
- I don't read sources unless the other side contests them. It's up to the debaters to make the arguments - if a contest is made, I check whether the debater used the source inappropriately and if so, make a note of that in my feedback column. If a side is making big claims (particularly any numbers) but has nothing to back them up, I make a note of that too.
- Pro will often define the terms of the topic. If they do and their terms are not totally unreasonable, I accept them. This is called a semi-divine right of definition. If con is the first to define terms and then pro accepts them.
- I read CX rounds and think about how the points raised impact on the arguments on the debate. If a great point is made in CX I count that as an argument or rebuttal.
- I ignore arguments in the reply rounds, but use this time to start deciding a winner. Reply rounds influence my ranking of arguments more strongly than regular rounds because they make the final impression on me. I also ignore non-rebuttal arguments in the last con speech of the debate.
How I decide a winner
- If my paper is totally blank (happens sometimes) then I give the debate to con on the basis of burden of proof.
- I rank the remaining arguments in terms of how much time was spent on them in the debate. Where debaters put their focus on. If I can't decide between two as they had roughly equal attention it's ok to have them tied.
- For each argument, I circle the point or rebuttal that had the biggest impact on me, is the most memorable, has the most analysis etc. If I can't decide between two points it's ok to have them tied, but there should not be a three-way tie. I then call each argument tied, won by pro, or won by con, on this basis.
- I look to who won on each argument and the ranking of the arguments to see if I can determine an outright winner of the debate. Often one side will have a clean sweep of all the arguments! Sometimes a bit of a judgement call may be involved as to how much more important the #1 argument was over the #2, for example.
- If both debaters are literally a tie in my book, I give the debate to pro on the basis of burden of proof.
- I take extra care never to consider my own thoughts or arguments on the topic into the decision.
How I write my reasoning
- I begin with some general remark about how I feel about the debate. "Close but clear" is my favorite phrase - a debate cannot literally be close and clear but it's ambiguously satisfying.
- I summarize each of the main arguments in the debate. This is mostly to convince debaters that I was, in fact, listening carefully to their arguments.
- If an argument had notable, massive shortcomings that made it really obviously unconvincing, I explain them. The intelligence of an average person with no prior knowledge at all on the topic may be assumed. I always also explain to the debaters what they might have done to avoid that problem.
- I explain what was the most important argument(s) and why they were so good that they won the argument for that side.
- I sort the arguments according to their ranking. If it isn't obvious from the debate, I briefly explain why I thought particular arguments were more important in the end than other arguments.
- Finally, I restate the final decision.
How I give feedback
- If there's something that's been bugging me with the debate I say it here. Other than that I give feedback to each debater separately.
- For each debater I look to the feedback column and find 3 things they could improve on (2 or 4 is also ok if I can't decide). Then I find 1 or 2 things they did well and circle those things - blue for pro, red for con. If I have strong feelings on the topic I probably have much more feedback for one side than the other, but I hide that fact and make it look like both sides have roughly the same amount to work on as much as I can. An exception exists if one side clearly did not put as much effort as they should have into the debate. Then it's more acceptable to give one side whatever pep talk they need to straighten up and give it their best shot!
- If I don't have sufficient stuff in my feedback column, I explain to them some arguments I thought of before the debate that they might have missed, or things they could learn from other teams that have done this topic.
- When explaining points to improve on, I use real examples from the debate to explain what I mean. The pattern "Instead of X, try saying Y" is pretty useful. Be as helpful and constructive as you can, even if they're better debaters than you are, and even if this is at the expense of being honest about how terrible an argument really was. Encouragement is key, especially for the losing side.
- Remember that in a judgment your job is to convince BOTH debaters of your decision, so review it carefully before submitting.
Hope that's useful for everybody. Let me know your thoughts and such in the comments too.
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