Known Unknowns – 5 Ways to Predict the Topic

One of the most difficult things to teach is how to predict the topic. Today, we’re teaming up with Sarah Spring, Director of Debate at the University of Houston, to put together your fool-proof guide to assessing the “known unknowns” at the beginning of the season. You can find it below the fold.

Pre-Season Anxiety?

Preseason Anxiety can strike at any time. This sufferer has not yet recovered.

Preseason Anxiety can strike at any time. This sufferer has not yet recovered.

August is a tough time for debaters, in both high school and college. Debate camp is over. “Real” school is about to start again. But what causes us to lose the most sleep, more than even what to wear on the first day of class, is the total uncertainty of predicting what this season’s debate topic will bring.

The blank slate of the impending season can be daunting in contrast to the predictable routine of the regular debate season. We’re used to being able to plan and prepare for our opponent’s moves ahead of time. And while the resolution does provide a starting point, anyone who has done any thinking about this year’s resolution has noticed that the term economic engagement is not the clearest guide.

The literature (whatever that means) is not much help — in fact, this piece of evidence (Resnick 2001) making the rounds in Topicality files only confirms the problem:

In the contemporary lexicon of United States foreign policy, few terms have been as frequently or as confusingly invoked as that of engagement.


So what are hard-working debaters to do when they’re fed up with trying to read the tea leaves of obscure scholarly journals? The good people over here at Debate Central and UH Debate have put together some of our own coping strategies to help you get through this difficult time and allow you to prepare for victory.

Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win. Sun Tzu

1. Don’t forget the past…

Previous college and high school topics are a good starting point for predicting what other teams might do, often former debaters stick around to help coach and judge. Understandably, these types tend to build upon their existing expertise, i.e. they look for connections between the current topic and research that they’ve already done. Popular cases tend to recur, and you can often predict the directions others will take with a quick survey of what has been done before.

The archived high school and college wikis can alert you to areas of obvious overlap. Some lazy debaters and coaches will also predictably rely on these resources in lieu of doing original research. While this tactic is all too common, knowing where the slackers will go for their cases makes your job a lot easier. But beware, don’t spend too much time on this task — it can be easy to get bogged down. The good news for you is that for every backfile card, there’s also a backfile answer.

2. Watch the herd

Think about the easiest possible ways to prepare for the topic. What’s the first hit on Google? What’s the easiest possible way to prepare for the first tournament? Its a good bet that more than a few of your opponents won’t get too far beyond these easy answers.

Next, figure out what major camps have done. Take a look at the National Debate Coaches Association’s (NDCA) open evidence project to get an idea what evidence was produced at workshops around the country. The arguments that you’ll find here will likely become common issues during the regular season. Most camps try to predict the scope and direction of the topic, so the evidence available will have also have some good starting points for your own research.

Make sure you synthesize a file and do some work on these arguments. For instance, its probably safe to say that lifting the embargo on Cuba will be a case that you will debate this year, probably even at the first tournament.

Additionally, check out places where there are gaps in the research (say, a camp put out a pretty good affirmative but almost no negative answers). Make sure that, when building your own to-do list, you account for these issues. You should assume that all major cases on open evidence are fair game for the first tournament of the season.

3. Reuse & Recycle

Decide which of your old evidence could be useful for this season. Review your backfiles, hold onto anything you think could be useful. However, this is not the time to be a packrat (don’t hoard ancient politics files) but it is a time to decide what you will still want and put it in a format that will be useful. Be realistic and clear out your old stuff and make space for new research.

Don't turn out like this guy...

Don’t turn out like this guy…

Although cloud-based storage and other innovations can make it seem less necessary to actually throw anything away — a cluttered dropbox can be worse than messy tubs. Think you’ll still want some of the “U.S. not key to the global economy” cards you cut last year? Keep them, but don’t keep the whole file. Will you actually need all those cards about high-speed rail? Doubtful. Sort the “still useful” stuff into a “2012-13 Season Back-Up” file so that you’ll have only what you need.

4. Be a Packrat

Yea, yea we just said don’t be a packrat. But that’s only true some of the time. For this topic, keep it all. The cloud is your friend. Keep a file of “possible ideas” to come back to. When you’re cutting cards on a new topic or even just exploring the background material, you’ll undoubtedly find more possible arguments than you can turn into complete files.

If you stumble upon an article that would make a great disadvantage or affirmative, save it for later. The best tool for this hoarding that I’ve found is Evernote — and the Evernote webclipper. You can always come back to this dynamic to-do list later in the season. Even better, you can share your notebooks with your team to avoid duplicating your efforts. Do make sure, however, that you at least think about how you’d answer the argument if someone else found the same thing.

5. Become Topic-Fluent

Learning the context of the topic is invaluable. Early in the season you should read for content, rather than any specific evidence. Later in the season, you will be more comfortable skimming and finding the most relevant portions of an article. But for now, you should read the entire article and assimilate as much as you can. Since the topic is new to you, you have a lot to learn. You’ll be well served by this investment in learning the jargon and context of the literature. This fluency will help you to create better searches, know where to look for that one card you need before the district tournament, and be able to recognize the important information when you’ve found it.

Perhaps even more important though is the payoff that will come when your opponent smugly declares “new aff” but when you read their evidence, its not new to you, only to them. Knowing how to read and categorize the types of arguments made by those who think about the topic is the secret to being prepared for any contingency.

Calm yet?

I'm ready to debate!

I’m ready to debate!

Probably not. But a little anxiety can be a good motivator, in moderation, of course. Need more reassurance? You can always get a second opinion on your cases and files with the free case critiques at DebateCentral. And don’t be afraid to ask for help and advice, not all of it will be good, but one good thing about the debate community is that we’re always willing to give our opinion. Regardless, the bottom-line is, the first tournament will come faster than you think and everything will be fine because you’ve taken a few simply steps to venture into the unknown.


Post collaborator Sarah Spring is the Director of Debate at the University of Houston. Follow her debate team on Twitter @HoustonDebate and catch them on Facebook at University of Houston Policy Debate.

About Lauren Sabino

Lauren Sabino is the Director of Youth Programs at the National Center for Policy Analysis. She currently administrates Debate Central, the largest free online debate resource.
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