Monday, January 23, 2012

Advice for new CAs setting motions

As it stands, knowledge about how to debate well is pretty effectively passed on from one generation of debaters to the next.  There are typically training regimens and/or coaching arrangements that pass on institutional knowledge, and good debaters will debate publicly often enough for many to learn by imitation.

However, there is one important bit of knowledge that has (so far) stubbornly refused transfer from generation to generation; namely, how to set good motions at a debating tournament.  Most of the process behind setting good motions happens out of the public eye, and even though the quality of the end result is plain to see, frequently the mistakes CA teams make are subtle and difficult to diagnose.

Setting good motions is difficult.  But I've been at this rather a long time, and I thought I'd make a list of recommendations.  Hopefully this will eventually lead to some kind of overlapping consensus on what constitutes best-practice for a CA team.

  1. Start thinking of motions months in advance.  Don't try to come up with motions on the day itself. When you set a motion at a reasonably sized IV, you are deciding what more than a hundred people will think and talk about for the next hour of their lives.  Take the time to do it right; if you've come up with a motion half an hour beforehand, it's unlikely that you'll have thought through enough of its implications to know how well it will turn out when eight intelligent debaters argue about it for an hour.  There are two reasons you should do this.  First, setting balanced motions requires thorough motions testing, which frequently cannot be accomplished on the day of the IV.  Second, setting interesting or inspired motions is a contemplative process.  Inspiration may strike five times over the course of a month, if you're being reflective and alert to world events.  Inspiration will almost never strike five times in the course of a day; so don't show up needing to create interesting motions on the fly.
  2. Be self-critical about your own ideas.  Have lots of ideas for motions, and winnow down ruthlessly.  Whatever you do, don't 'own' a motion and treat it as your child.  Frequently, ideas that seem cool or interesting at first sight may not turn out to be good debates, and you need to be able to acknowledge that in order to set motions well.  Most of the motions you initially think of will turn out to be problematic.  I typically generate dozens of motions for each IV , in the knowledge that less than a quarter of the motions I create will eventually make it through the testing process.
  3. Test motions thoroughly for balance and depth.  Ideally, you should get pairs of debaters (of varying skill levels) to prep each side of the motion, to make sure that they 'get' it.  But at a minimum, you should conduct the following tests:
    1. Ask yourself whether a debater who reads (but doesn't remember every detail from) reputable mainstream news sources would know what the debate is about.
    2. Check that there are at least five logically distinct, individually persuasive arguments on each side of the motion that are accessible to non-specialists. (Sometimes five isn't enough; this is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a motion to have depth.)
    3. Check that neither side has a silver bullet, that is, a persuasive argument that is so strong as to admit no effective answers.
    4. Ask yourself if experienced debaters whose only concern was victory would split roughly 50-50 on whether they would rather be prop or opp.
    5. For early rounds in the tournament, check that there are few ways for Opening teams to doom Closing teams by their incompetence.
    6. Ask yourself if it is possible for opening teams to 'break' the debate via sneaky definitions or policies.  (Put yourself in the mindset of an opening team looking to win the debate by whatever means necessary, however unsporting they are.)
  4. Don't expect each member of a CA team to have a certain number of 'their' motions in the final mix.  Setting motions is a joint responsibility, and all members of a CA team should be responsible for every motion that is announced in its final form, regardless of who had the initial idea.  Frequently, some members of a team will be better at coming up with 'seed' ideas, and others will be better at critiquing and refining them.  Specialise, exploit your comparative (and absolute) advantages.  Motion-setting should be a discussion between peers, not a negotiation.  If you let slip one problematic motion from another member of the CA team, just so they'll stop objecting to one of yours, you are doing all the competitors a disservice.
  5. Don't set motions just because you can imagine yourself having a great time in Opening Government.  This happens more often than you think.  It may be that because you've thought a lot about the subject, you can find the proposition arguments that win devastatingly.  Well done, you.  But think about the arguments that good debaters who are non-specialists will have access to after fifteen minutes of thinking, and balance debates according to that.
  6. Don't let your hobby-horses run free.  The point of a tournament is to see who debates well across a variety of interesting issues, not who can best get inside the CA team's heads.  I am an economist, but I set very few debates about economics.  You should strive for both superficial variety (don't have tons of IR motions, or tons of feminism motions) as well as 'deep' variety.  The latter is trickier to explicate, but mostly it means that you should avoid debates that, while about seemingly different topics, involve very similar underlying principles.  You should not, for instance, set five motions that require proposition to advocate lying for the greater good.  As Nobel laureate economist Robert Solow said, "Everything reminds Milton Friedman of the money supply.  Everything reminds me of sex, but I try to keep it out of my papers."
  7. Avoid ambiguous wordings.  Debates are fairer and more enjoyable when they are about the issues, not about what the words in the motion mean.  Also, ambiguous wordings frequently give a strong advantage to OG, since they can decide beforehand which debate suits them best, while OO may have to split their preparation time between multiple eventualities.  Use the weeks before the IV to tweak and rework the words in a motion, until they are concise and precise, admitting exactly one legitimate interpretation.  CA teams should, in my opinion, avoid words like "nationalism", or "progressive legislation", which are contested concepts even within academia and could lead to any one of a dozen different debates.
  8. Use infoslides sparingly, and keep them short.   The moments before the motion comes up are among the most stressful in a tournament, and teams aren't in a mood to read multiple paragraphs on a topic of your choice.  They may also attempt to write these paragraphs all down, introducing substantial delays.  Finally, long infoslides give strong advantages to teams who know the CA team well, and can figure out what the debate will be on the basis of the infoslide.  Use infoslides only to convey information that is absolutely necessary to effectively participate in a debate.
  9. Strike the right balance between tried-and-true motions and innovative ideas.  There is no shame in setting debates about banning pornography, or making voting compulsory.  These are important social questions that have stood the test of time, and it's worth debating about them.  Equally, there are new and important social questions that arise every day, and as a CA you should keep your eyes peeled for them.  Always make sure your motions are balanced and deep.  But there's nothing that levels the playing field between old hands and young talent like a debate about killer robots.


  1. I would suggest adding as a guide in making motions to take into consideration the diverse pool of participants and not set any motion that would give undue advantage to a set of debaters from one background.

    1. That is impossible, unless you're speaking in very broad terms. I mean, feminist studies will invariably you an edge in debates about feminism, having an degree in economics will give you an edge in debates there.... There is nothing worth debating that cannot and has not been studied at an advanced level by certain groups of people. The best option is to have a wide spread of motions so that the law of averages can have some sort of foothold.

    2. Precisely! DLSU Worlds had too much motions grounded or inspired by 1st world problems. Actually, no motion was 3rd-world inspired.

  2. Very interesting article. I would like to add one more suggestion: publish the opp-prop statistics after a tournament.
    In Holland, where I have been CA quite often, this is good pratice. It helps new CAs to better estimate whether a motion is balanced or not. Even a very well tested motion set by a cautious CA team may turn out to be biased and this information is very valuable, as it may imply that this is also the case for similar motions.
    Unfortunately, I found that in many international tournaments, the CA team is quite hesitant to publish these data, perhaps because of fear for their own reputation.

    Reinier de Adelhart Toorop, Bonaparte, Amsterdam

  3. I have been discussing an idea concerning setting motions at tournaments with a friend. I'm not sure whether it would help to make motions better or not and would be very thankful to hear what u think about it. The idea is to ask the CA-team to publish a one page kind of fact sheet on every motion they set at the tournament AFTER the tournament. The one-pager would give an overview on what either side (Gov&Opp) could have done in the debate. What is the hoped for effect: that there is a mechanism to actually make CAs talk through motions beforehand and make sure that they are balanced and deep enough. Other positive effects could be to show new debaters how one can approach a certain topic.
    What do you think?