Public Forum Does Need to Change: A Research-Based Evaluation
An Open Letter to the Leadership and Membership of the National Speech and Debate Association
We were intrigued to open our November / December issue of The Rostrum and find an article titled Public Forum After 15 Years: An Evaluation. The notion of a published evaluation of the most popular event in interscholastic debate seemed timely because, as PF coaches and competitors throughout the nation know, there are significant issues with the event as it is currently practiced. Those issues, however, have little to do with the length and order of speeches or the side imbalance that may be caused by the coin flip. Rather, had the ad hoc committee conducted an evaluation of the event that focused on impacts as well as procedural matters, they would have reached a disturbing conclusion.
The problem with Public Forum Debate is sexism.
That may seem a harsh critique, but the data are clear. As readers of The Rostrum know, our team of student researchers conducted an analysis published in the April / May, 2018, issue. Our article detailed the competitive disadvantage faced by female-identified debaters in PF, as well as in Lincoln-Douglas Debate and Extemporaneous Speaking. Research conducted by our team showed that female-identified debaters are advancing to elimination rounds, receiving tournament awards, and qualifying for the National Tournament at rates far below their male- identified counterparts, and far below the rates predicted by their participation levels. Although the weekly participation of female-identified debaters in Public Forum nation-wide averages about 42%, the qualification rate to the National Tournament is nearly ten percent lower. This statistic has remained consistent since at least 2010.
Our continued research has uncovered some additional trends that further reveal the sexism problem in PF. For example, we find that female-identified debaters are criticized for being too assertive or aggressive about twice as frequently as male-identified debaters. Moreover, while male-identified debaters criticized for aggressiveness still have a 50% probability of winning the round, female-identified debaters receiving the same criticism lose three- fourths of the rounds in which the criticism is levied. And when the criticism is given in a round in which the female- identified debaters are facing male-identified debaters, the loss rate is closer to 90%.
Records of tournaments from early in the evolution of PF are hard to come by, but we were able to examine data from the NSDA National Tournament from the very beginning of Public Forum (then Controversy Debate) in the 2002-2003 season. Interestingly, we found that from 2003 through 2008, female-identified PF debaters advanced to elimination rounds at a rate closely matching their participation levels. Since that time, however, the break rate for female-identified debaters has consistently been well below their qualification. For example, in 2018 the PF field was 32.6% female-identified, but that percentage dropped to 26.3% in elimination rounds, meaning that 12 female- identified debaters were eliminated statistically early. And 2018 was a good year; in 2017, 25 female-identified debaters who statistically would have been expected to break were instead eliminated in the preliminary rounds. The total deficit of female-identified debaters in elimination rounds from 2009 through 2018 is 163, or an average of 16 per year.
It seems fair to wonder what might have changed from the first five years of Public Forum to the last ten. We hypothesize that 2003 through 2008 was the norming period for the event, a time during which rules were in flux and coaching practices were being established. It was also a time during which two institutions of the speech and debate world – summer institutes and the national circuit – began to pay attention to the event. There is no doubt that by the end of the first five years PF had become a fixture on the national circuit and was attracting large numbers of debaters to summer camps. We believe that those two forces were instrumental in establishing the norms for PF as it is practiced today, a transition that brought a shift away from the original intent of the event as debate for the public at large to the more specialized, technical debate that now includes theory, spreading, and evidence games. We also believe that the norms that emerged preferenced socially-constructed male behaviors and styles while penalizing female-identified debaters who attempted to emulate those styles.
This brings us to the most recent revelation of our research. We conducted an in-depth, round-by-round analysis of a prestigious national circuit tournament with more than 200 debate teams and 120 judges covering more than 800 individual debates. Among the judges were a large number of young, male-identified former debaters who had been hired by the tournament or were brought by squads as alumni judges; many of these judges also listed their experience as instructors in summer camps in their judge paradigms. We compared the win rates for female- identified debaters before this group of judges to that for the judge population at large, with all data normalized to account for the fact that some judges are used more frequently than others.
Our analysis showed that while the general population of judges at this tournament produced a female-identified debater win rate of 45%, the win rate for female-identified debaters before male-identified judges under the age of 25 was only 31%. The size of the judge pools and the large number of debates in the study allowed for a high degree of statistical confidence in this result (p<0.01). Further, because this particular category of judges tends to be used extensively – nearly every round – they have a disproportionate impact on the outcomes for female- identified debaters over the course of the tournament.
We lack the data necessary to demonstrate causal links among all variables, but the results of our work lead us to some disturbing conclusions. First, there is little doubt that the disadvantage for female-identified PF debaters accelerated after 2008, and that this acceleration seems to correlate to the rising influence of summer institutes and the national circuit in establishing norms and standards for the event. Second, the disproportionate criticism of female-identified debaters and the disparate treatment they receive – especially from young, male-identified judges – should cause concern to anyone interested in equity and fairness in debate. When we couple our data to the too- frequent reports of sexism that seems to be endemic within debater culture, we find ourselves questioning whether participation in Public Forum Debate is truly preparing students for membership in a more just society, or if the teaching and practice of the event is instead contributing to socially-accepted sexism among our future leaders.
The NSDA review of Public Forum Debate after 15 years clearly missed the mark in that it ignored the most glaring and impactful problem with the event. When viewed in light of the competitive disadvantage and sexist treatment that female-identified debaters have experienced as participants in Public Forum, concerns about speech order or side equalization are trivial. If the NSDA is serious about improving Public Forum Debate, it should not only establish a new committee to work toward eliminating disparity and sexism from the event, but should also examine any change of policy or practice through the lens of its impact on the inequity that is endemic in debate. To demonstrate a true commitment to equity and inclusion for all, the NSDA must act to correct inequity where it exists, and it clearly exists in Public Forum Debate.
Director of Speech and Debate, Laurel School
Note: Beyond Resolved is unable to post the full study, as Rich and his team are looking to publish it in academic journals.