Dear Debate Judges, You Should Read Your Paradigms

by Noah Mengisteab

Note: Names were taken out to respect the privacy of the individuals in the round. This post is not supposed to call out particular judges, but instead to increase awareness that all judges need to reflect on how they adjudicate rounds fairly.


Last month, the school that I coach for made it to the final round of the Mid-America Cup. It was the best finish at a TOC tournament for our small and relatively new program. And needless to say, we were beyond ecstatic, but we still had to compete in finals. Per usual, my team checked paradigms of judges once finals pairings were released. Judges #1 & #2 were known mid-west coaches, had tech paradigms, one was a college student, and my students had them in previous rounds. Check. Judge #3 was a college student/coach and informed my team that they had to speak at a slow pace to flow the arguments. 

So far, nothing too unusual for a judging panel. Unfortunately, what followed after paradigms was also common: unfair application of a judge’s paradigm because of bias.  

Judge #3 found that my team was presenting too fast of a rebuttal to flow and concluded he would make the round-deciding vote right then in and there … after the first rebuttal. He did not wait to hear any of the additional analysis my team made in the round. Nor did wait to see if the other team would present their speech too quickly. He had already made up his mind. My debater’s rebuttal was so fast, he just had to make an even quicker decision to vote for the other team.

Let me be clear – as I coach, I know for a fact my debater made a mistake. She spoke way too quickly despite knowing he asked her not to. And there were other issues on the flow that could have gone either way. Voting on speed, so long as it’s in the paradigm, is technically a reasonable decision for Judge #3.

However, I found the timing of his decision completely unfair. If speech speed can be a “voting issue” for this judge, why didn’t he wait until after the second rebuttal so he could compare speeches? His defense – we were simply wrong and were ruining accessibility to this event.  

Now, for a moment, let’s just avoid the lack of awareness and ridiculous optics behind the decision to attack the only team from an all-femxle team and only Black coach at the tournament on accessibility to debate. Instead, let’s analyze if Judge 3’s paradigm was accessible to all of the debaters in that final round. Short answer: NO! He concluded way too early after first rebuttal that the other team, two male debaters, would not speed through their speeches. And according to my other debaters, the similar benefit of the doubt was given in another prelim round … with male-male opponents. It’s not hard to connect the dots here.

Still, the unfair application of paradigms is not limited to just the Mid-America Cup. Research done by the Fem-K research highlights how males under 25 who also are within the debate community as a regular judge or coach tend to make decisions less favorable to womxn debaters. Why? Very clear warrant. Paradigms are not enforced the same depending on the teams in front of them. Leniency in paradigm application typically favors male debaters in front of predominately young-male driven judge pools. 

So what should judges (especially young male judges) and tournaments do to counter this bias? 

First, the vast majority of judges need to examine their decisions and analyze if they consistently apply their paradigm or often fall under the same trend. It’s not enough to call judges out. Change has to occur within judge training for everyone. I know that I fall under the same characteristics as Judge #3 and more than likely have misapplied my paradigm too. However, starting this season, I’ve kept tried to track of my bias by recording the number of losses I hand out to femxle debaters as well as grading the harshness of my comments. It’s kept me more aware of how I unintentionally treat debaters and hopefully enables me to apply my paradigm more fairly. I highly encourage more of my peers to do the same. 

Second, more tournaments should allow teams more judge strikes or switch to a Mutual Judge Preference system. Currently, limited strikes force teams to make strike decisions based on very technical debate issues (i.e., whether or not a judge wants defense in the first summary). This allows known unfair judges to be avoided and continue to taint rounds more often with unrecognized bias. There needs to be a way for teams to check back if judges won’t change their habits. 

And third, teams, districts, and national debate organizations need to take more responsibility in ensuring judges go through bias recognition during training. Older coaches should receive training from higher-ups in teams, schools, and district/state committees. Leadership is required to have more members in our judging pools aware of personal biases. Bias awareness initiatives like those in California’s state debate organization need to spread nationwide. There isn’t a single judge in the country who doesn’t need some type of bias recognition training. 

I’m proud of the students I coach and want them to have a fair shot at winning in every round they participate, but that can only happen if judges, tournaments, and organizations start stepping up, admitting there’s a problem, and stop twiddling their thumbs about it.

Noah Mengisteab is a Senior at Rice University (TX) and the Head Coach of Debate at Duchesne Academy (TX). 

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