Thursday, January 3, 2013

Literature base

I'm going to enter into cantankerous old man territory by making this post: the National Forensic League is not doing a great job with Lincoln-Douglas topics, but it is doing a decent job with Public Forum topics. My problem is the scope of the topic literature bases. It is unreasonable (and counter-productive to education) to give students a big topic to research and little time to do it. Students learn best when they can thoroughly explore a topic and are able to prepare on most of the key arguments. Of course, because debate is a competitive activity, some opponents will always search out unusual, squirrelly arguments, but my point is that being caught off-guard should be a rare experience for debaters. If the topic is too broad to prepare and debaters are regularly caught off-guard, then the value of research and preparation is undermined.

Given that topics are used for one month in PF, two months in LD, and ten months in Policy debate, I think the literature bases should follow a 1:2:10 proportion for these various formats. In other words, the length of time a topic is used should be roughly commensurate with how big the literature base is. This only makes sense: LD debaters might prepare for four to six topics during the year, so it only makes sense that they would invest about one-fifth the research and preparation time into each one as policy debater do; PF debaters might prepare for nine to eleven topics, so one-tenth the work seems fair. How would the N.F.L. do against this benchmark?

I started with the last five years' policy topics. The N.F.L. does NOT write the policy debate topics; those are written by the National Federation of High School Associations. Generally, the policy topics are just about the right breadth to spend a whole year researching. This result is probably no accident, because their process requires the topic framers to consider the literature base qualitatively, and to a lesser extent, quantitatively. To make a very rough gauge of the size of the literature bases, I typed in key terms and terms of art into ProQuest. ProQuest is a general use research database, containing both news articles and some academic journal articles, which is commonly available to high school students. I chose search terms that seemed appropriate to find the core articles of each topic. I make no apologies for the very provisional method; don't infer too much from this. I think this gives a sense of scale for comparison, but not much else.

Policy topics:

2012-2013 topic: "The United States federal government should substantially increase its transportation infrastructure investment in the United States."
Search terms: "transportation infrastructure" and ("United States" or "U.S.")
Results: 16,069

2011-2012 topic: "The United States federal government should substantially increase its exploration and/or development of space beyond the Earth’s mesosphere."
Search terms: ("space exploration" or "development of space") and ("United States" or "U.S.")
Results: 25,657

2010-2011 topic: "The United States federal government should substantially reduce its military and/or police presence in one or more of the following: South Korea, Japan, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey."
Search terms: ("military presence" or "police presence") and ("United States" or "U.S.") and ("South Korea" or Japan or Afghanistan or Kuwait or Iraq or Turkey)
Results: 17,954

2009-2010 topic: "The United States federal government should substantially increase social services for persons living in poverty in the United States."
Search terms: "social services" and poverty and ("United States" or "U.S.")
Results: 22,133

2008-2009 topic: "The United States federal government should substantially increase alternative energy incentives in the United States."
Search terms: "alternative energy" and ("United States" or "U.S.")
Results: 36,728

There is a wide variation from topic to topic. But the mean of 24,000 articles seems about right and a reasonable place to start from.

How do PF topics compare? They are in the right ballpark.

2012-2013 PF topics:

Sept. topic: "Congress should renew the Federal Assault Weapons Ban."
Search terms: "assault weapons ban"
Results: 3,367

Oct. topic: "Developed countries have a moral obligation to mitigate the effects of climate change."
Search terms: "developed countries" and ("mitigate" or "mitigation") and "climate change"
Results: 2,546

Nov. topic: "Current U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East undermines our national security."
Search terms: ("U.S. foreign policy" or "United States foreign policy") and "Middle East" and "national security"
Results: 3,105

Dec. topic: "The United States should prioritize tax increases over spending cuts."
Search terms: ("tax increase" or "spending cut") and "fiscal cliff" and ("United States" or "U.S.")
Results: 1,200 (66,279 without "fiscal cliff" term)

Jan. topic: "On balance, the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission harms the election process."
Search terms: "Citizens United" and election
Results: 3,885

Feb. topic: "On balance, the rise of China is beneficial to the interests of the United States."
Search terms: China and ("United States interests" or "U.S. interests")
Results: 5,756
Search terms: "rise of China" and ("United States" or "U.S.")
Results: 3,350

The China topic seems to be dangerously large, but the remaining seven topics have an average of 2,800, just about one-tenth of a policy topic. How do LD topics compare?

2012-2013 LD topics:

Sept./Oct. topic: "The United States ought to extend to non-citizens accused of terrorism the same constitutional due process protections it grants to citizens."
Search terms: terrorist and "due process" and ("United States" or "U.S.")
Results: 5,505

Nov./Dec. topic: "United States ought to guarantee universal health care for its citizens."
Search terms: "universal health care" and ("United States" or "U.S.")
Results: 10,696

Jan./Feb. topic: "Rehabilitation ought to be valued above retribution in the United States criminal justice system."
Search terms: (rehabilitation or retribution) and "criminal justice" and ("United States" or "U.S.")
Results: 10,546

With the exception of the first topic, they are all quite large topics. The health care topic is essentially the 1993-1994 policy debate topic! The criminal justice topic is similar to the Jan./Feb. 2011 LD topic, except that one was limited by its focus on juveniles.

What specific recommendations would I make to the N.F.L.?

First, when writing topics, please consider the size and quality of the literature base. Perhaps develop some standard statistics to gauge the size of the literature base. If the potential topic generates too many hits, narrow the topic in some way; if the potential topic generates too few hits, broaden it.

Second, please report out the statistics to us members whenever we vote between different wordings of the same topic. It would be helpful to know which version is the more narrowly worded.

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