An Open Letter
Adapted from 2019 edition
In a political climate marred by gridlock and government shutdowns, approval ratings of elected officials continue to languish. However, I believe a life of public service still has the potential to be an honorable one; after all, our national motto, E pluribus unum means, “out of many, one.” A legislator is one representative for their many constituents, as well as the citizenry of their country as a whole. Congressional Debate is the one form of debate that exists as a paradox: it is a competitive activity with the aim of collaboratively solving problems.
In recent years, technology — and in particular, social media — has given students a powerful tool for collaborating to organize certain facets of Congress sessions, before students even arrive at a tournament. I truly believe when students have told me: they have an earnest desire to determine what shall be debated, to lessen the research burden, and save precious time for debate in a Congress round.
However, some of the core educational benefits of Congressional Debate have been lost in that process: students used to come to tournaments better prepared, with a better understanding of myriad issues surrounding legislation, instead of such narrowed focus, they are unable to converse about the bigger picture. Now, many even determine which side to prepare on, such that very little during a session is unpredictable, or dynamic. Quite understandably, when students arrive at a less predictable, more geographically diverse tournament like this one, they are woefully underprepared when they realize they did not have the agenda voting bloc they thought they had, or when they don’t have “good recency” from a particular presiding officer. A truly prepared Congressional debater is unconcerned with recency and can strategize which topics to speak on, even when called on, later. This is why we introduced the hour-limit on debate: to introduce more dynamism again.
I have been contacted by parents as well as newer coaches, alarmed their students are being contacted out of the blue by students from other schools (alarming from a privacy and safety standpoint). I also have listened to formally lodged complaints about online group chats predetermining agendas and even presiding officer votes, to the exclusion of those not part of the “in crowd.” More disturbing is reports of cyberbullying and other serious confrontational behaviors online. In short, we have reached a boiling point where something needs to be done.
It is not my place as a tournament coordinator to tell students how to communicate outside rounds, yet I am also charged with ensuring a fair competition for all. I have asked current students and alumni alike how to handle this, and I’ve received various suggestions, including simply outlawing it wholesale and allowing the specter of reporting (“snitching”) to disincentive it. Some are calling for pre-determining sides students should speak on, like other debate events do, which totally eliminates the dynamic lawmaking process we are simulating. One suggestion even offered publishing topic areas for rounds, and not releasing legislation until the day of the tournament, and giving students a half hour to prepare, as is done in Extemporaneous Speaking.
Therefore, this is my charge to you, young leaders: you have the authority to determine how you conduct yourself if you have the privilege of being part of an inner circle. Call out unfair practices and take a stand. Report inappropriate conduct to your coach. Offer constructive suggestions for addressing this problem, before tournaments, associations, and leagues add additional rules and requirements to try and stop it.
Adam J. Jacobi, Coordinator
Harvard Congressional Debate Tournament