By Parker Kelly, George Washington University, ’20
I went to high school in Houston, Texas and did 1 year of PF and 2 years of LD on the local and national circuits. I was in a few bid rounds and competed relatively consistently (especially senior year) but didn’t qualify for the TOC. I debate for GW now and came onto APDA knowing literally nothing about what the activity was and was lucky enough to have a great team able to show me the ropes.
While sleeping on the floors of a dorm room is a bit of a different experience than being in my own bed for locals or a hotel for the occasional tournament my school would travel to, for the most part tournaments are similar. Perhaps the most important difference is the existence of Equal Opportunity Facilitators, or EOFs. Having a person at every tournament that is ready to assist when people are discriminated against or are facing some other problem is a great asset and one that didn’t exist in high school. I know plenty of people in high school who would have appreciated having someone other than their close friends or a much older coach to talk to about their tournament experiences, and I recommend learning about the program and similar resources provided to everyone transitioning to APDA. The other major difference for novices in particular is the lack of divisions. While there are eliminations rounds and speaker awards for only novices (more on that later), there is not a separate pool in which novices compete. You will be debating against varsity throughout your time as a novice, a unique opportunity to see better debaters and also get destroyed several times. While it may seem painful at the time, I learned more in my rounds where I lost badly to great debaters than in rounds that I narrowly won against other novices.
Partnering with someone else for debate is a very interesting experience. I came to APDA from LD, so I did not have a lot of experience debating with a partner before APDA and found this to be one of the more difficult things to get used to. However, even if you did debate with a partner in High School, I think you’ll benefit from a few of the following tips:
On APDA, most judges you will see are other varsity competitors. This is a weird idea and was one of the hardest things for me to get used to, as that concept would have been incredibly weird in high school. However, you’ll quickly get used to it and it can actually help foster friendships and better relationships broadly between yourself and the APDA community. Because every judge is caught up on what modern debate looks like and every debater has a general idea of what the judge’s perspective is since they have to judge themselves. It takes some getting used to, to be sure, but over time I’ve found that I like this part of the judging system more and more.
The other major change in judging is calibration: every judge, or at least all the non-alumni judges, has to submit a ballot for a calibration round that tab will then use to give them a judge ranking. This helps ensure that the best rounds have the judges that tab thinks are best. While this doesn’t really change the tournament experience, it is worth understanding how this is done when considering your own calibration ballots or in attempting to understand how tournaments are run.
In the US, most high school debate involves both teams knowing the topic and doing out of round research to write their cases. On APDA, this changes dramatically. While I assume most people already know this, each APDA round involves side Government presenting a case of their choosing and giving the relevant background info to debate it before the round with no evidence being read during speeches. My first reaction to this was to think it was ridiculous, as I had spent 3 years dedicating hundreds of hours to researching and casing with the evidence I had found. Over time, however, I came to really enjoy APDA’s casing style, as being able to debate whatever you want to on Government and always debate something that the other side is passionate about while on Opposition ensures incredibly interesting rounds every time, or at least some variance in what you talk about.
As the case and round structures change, so do the relevant strategies. Here’s a small list of some recommendations I have for learning how to case:
One warning: be very careful with tight and spec cases (If you don’t know what this means, I explain a bit more below). There is a tendency when writing a first case to write about whatever you’re most passionate about. Unfortunately, that idea will almost always be tight, as the things you believe are true and obvious often are. Be aware that many people on this circuit will have similar beliefs to you and will thus think that many things that may be debated in society more broadly are just true.
Another tendency everyone has with their first case is to write about things they know a remarkable amount about. I recommend talking to people on your team about any case ideas you have to make sure it is actually accessible to someone without your background knowledge before writing the case.
Whether you read tons of theory in high school or don’t know what the term means, APDA’s style of theory will be somewhat different for you. APDA theory has two primary types and several norms going along with each that you should know:
While there are several broad strategies to tight call, the specific theory argumentation differs from a shell in high school in 2 key ways. First, the interpretation is phrased as a burden required to prove case is not tight. For example, an Opp team may argue that Gov needs to beat their own case to prove it isn’t tight, then will give reasons as to why that burden is correct (which function as standards on a theory shell). Second, there is not a “voter” section like there would be in high school, meaning that you don’t have to justify why fairness or education matters and you don’t have to argue to drop the opposing team, as they will lose if case is tight.
The final important thing to note is that when you call a case tight, the opposition team’s job becomes only explaining why it’s tight. Unlike in High School, a tight call cannot be one of several off case arguments as it becomes the entire round.
While there are other theory calls that are occasionally made, these are the two basic, most common ones. As a general rule, judges are less willing to listen to lots of theory or vote on it, except with tight calls, so try to limit using it to only egregious instances.
Social Life On APDA
APDA has a unique social culture because so many people compete every weekend and spend remarkable amounts of time together. This includes socials that happen almost every weekend, long drives or bus rides with your own team, and almost everyone at the tournament spending all of their time in the same General Assembly room. I don’t have much to recommend about social life on APDA other than that making friends and having fun at tournaments should be just as important to winning if you want to truly enjoy your time in this activity. Some of my closest friends in college go to other colleges but do APDA so I’ve spent plenty of time with them at tournaments as well as time with them having fun outside of APDA. The social culture of APDA is not for everyone, and you should never feel pressured to go to socials or spend lots of time trying to make friends, but I highly recommend getting to know all of the great people on this league. I know I’ve never regretted it.
TOTY, SOTY, NOTY, And Qualifying To Nationals
The following definitions should help you better understand what the rankings on APDAWeb represent:
A Few Other Unique Aspects Of APDA
There are 3 other unique things in APDA that differ from high school that I think are worth taking advantage of:
Hopefully, this article can be a brief introduction to APDA for anyone coming from high school debate. Of course, there are certainly things I’m missing and some things I’ve said are based on my own experience rather than an objective evaluation of APDA. Regardless, I hope this can be useful to any and all novices who chose to read it, especially if you’ve made it this far in. Exempting some unfortunate cases, most people’s experience with APDA will be as fun as they desire to make it, so I hope you make the most of your time in this activity!