Thought Bubble: An Open Letter to Judges

Dear Judge,

           When I say, “thank you for judging,” at the end of a round, I really do mean it. I know for an adult, listening to suited high schoolers ramble on about issues that don’t directly concern you probably isn’t at the top of your priority list. I know that you probably wish you had just paid the $100 fee to avoid judging. Unfortunately, you didn’t pay that fee, and now, you have to devote a day to sitting in an ill-fitting desk, filling out multicolored ballots: please, save your excitement. Now that your fantasies for escape are impossible, let’s address actual judging. Judging is the most fundamental metric of speech & debate: your presence and your beliefs not only impact the specific speaker and round that you listen to but the trajectory of those speakers and of that event. Your decision to judge and imbibe in a free coffee from the judge’s lounge can be a watershed moment for a speaker that’s in desperate need for a good ballot or a supportive critique. Yet, a bad ballot can be the detriment to someone’s fragile confidence or burgeoning career. Frankly, bad ballots suck, but sometimes, you, who spends only one or two days a year in this activity, do not realize what a bad ballot is. So, please, judge, allow me to give you four pointers on what makes a bad ballot and how you can avoid it.

  1. Speech and debate is principally a speech competition, not a fashion show (even though the power suit runway can be pretty fierce). Please do not comment on competitors’ appearances or clothing choices. In seven minutes, you do not learn a speaker’s background: their socioeconomic or cultural status. Due to financial constraints, religious observances, or personal choice, they may not conform to the customary black suits or formal dresses. Not only should you separate this from your ranking, but judge, please be considerate to make comments about the contestants. There’s no worse feeling than reading that a judge cared more about your “loud tie” or “ill-fitting jacket” than the content of a speech that a contestant spent hours preparing for, practicing and delivering.
  2. Just because we do not want to be critiqued for the superficial does not mean that ballots should be only positive comments. Earlier this week, I had the pleasure to receive my first “great job, tough round…6” ballot. This archetypal ballot comes from judges who refuse to offer areas of constructive feedback or justifications for their ranking. I understand the recalcitrance that can come from judges: you do not want to make a fragile teen feel that their speech was irreconcilably bad or choppy. On the contrary, I do promise that speakers will be even more wrenched when a judge offers no justification or room for improvement for eliminating them from competition. There’s a balance between profanely attacking a competitor and offering them a learning experience: always choose the latter. 
  3. Speech and debate can be a pretty #woque community, but as a judge, you have a responsibility to be an impartial arbiter and analyst of rhetorical communication and argumentation. While you might not agree with the message or ideology that underpins a piece, a speech, or a constructive argument, that should not sway your ranking away from the student, notwithstanding strong argumentation and presentation. Obviously, do not rank a poorly argued, controversial argument well for fear of angering the political dynamics of the community. Still, it’s unfair to under-rank a strongly right leaning or left leaning student to remain “neutral” when they can effectively communicate their message. Balance comes from putting the technical elements of speech first and the ideology behind that speech second.
  4. Don’t be afraid to learn. During every local, my mother gets assigned to judge Congressional Debate, and fittingly, during every local, my mother refuses her assignment to judge Congressional Debate. That was, until the last local before the state championship. For once, my coach did not take “no,” with a smile and decided to politely drag her into observing the first half of a congress chamber. Much like an episode of The Bachelor, she fell in love. My mother began to understand Congress beyond the epithet of it being “long, boring, and painful to judge.” Everything from interpretation to debate can be frightful, judge, but please, take the opportunity to learn about these events. Not only does it make your experience less painful at a tournament, but it offers the students a ballot that comes from a more experienced and knowledgeable judge. 

         Judge, if you have not already clicked away from this article, I want to thank you for reading. The ballots that I have received in this activity have introduced me to communication strategies and interesting viewpoints that I did not know even existed. But some ballots are really, really, really bad. As I review the incredibly iconic compendium of curt, (in)coherent, and capricious ballots (see some at http://ballotfails.tumblr.com/), I lose a little hope for this activity. I promise that your Saturday is valid, but only if you offer a concerted effort into improving the quality of speeches and rounds that you watch. After all, you probably want to avoid the reputation of “Great person….bad ballots…6”.

With love,

Christopher Maximos (and every other forensics competitor)