When you sit down to do some debate research, the number one thing on your mind is probably finding evidence to support your claims. However, there’s another kind of research that’s just as important: the kind that helps you sound like you actually know what you’re talking about.
I’m talking, of course, about background research. This is a tremendously important part of the preparation process which is overlooked by far too many debaters. You don’t want to be using your cards like a crutch, bumbling around to guess what they say and making tagline extensions to cover the flow. Instead, having a robust personal understanding of the topics of discussion allows you to weaponize your cards: using them tactically to support your ideas.
Background research means familiarizing yourself with the history, laws, key terminology, systems, and institutions about which you will be debating. Doing this is so important, because it allows you to craft nuanced and factually accurate arguments. The absolute easiest way to convince a judge that you are right is to actually be right. Moreover, being grounded in strong understanding keeps you from embarrassing yourself and damaging your credibility by revealing that you are ignorant about the topic at hand. Not to mention that it just generally makes you a smarter, more well-rounded person.
Good researchers find their footing in the topic before they start crafting arguments.
How much would you say you currently know about principles of economics, American civics, the work of major philosophers, recent history? Be honest in your self-assessment. If the answer is “not very much,” then you’re rolling the dice every time you have debates about these issues. Not knowing what you’re talking about can come back to haunt you in terms of your overall credibility as a speaker, as well as your win/loss record. Within the past year, I have personally observed many cases of this. A few examples:
- “There’s no link to politics because the link is talking about the executive branch; the aff uses a federal agency.” (WRONG. The federal agencies are in the executive branch. Loses debate on politics.)
- “The alternative is historical materialism” against an aff that was a prime example of historical materialism (Demonstrates lack of awareness of the concepts being discussed. Loses debate on the perm.)
- “The GOP doesn’t matter because the Democrats control the House.” (WRONG. The Republicans control the House. Loses debate on politics.)
- “There hasn’t been a major economic downturn for many decades.” (Umm… 2008? Loses debate.)
- Endless K buzzwords without any meaningful explanation of what they mean. (Repeating jargon isn’t making an argument. Loses debate due to lack of analysis.)
In each of these rounds, one side’s major strategic blunder could have been avoided had they just done a little background reading.
Now, no one is suggesting that high school debaters need to be experts on every subject. After all, learning about new subjects is what you are here to do! However, taking the initiative to learn the basics before you dive into debates is critical.
Here are a few suggestions for how to get started:
- Research the history of the central issue of the topic. If you’re doing CX, look at how surveillance (both within the US and globally) has been used throughout history. If you’re doing PF, read up on previous racial justice movements and how they affected the country in various ways. No matter what event you do, see if you can dig up any examples of times when particular perspectives have succeeded or failed. What conclusions can we draw from history?
- Understand how experts use the terminology of the topic. If you’re doing LD, what is the legal definition of “adolescent”? Do definition organizations interpret it differently? For CXers, what government programs constitute “domestic” surveillance, versus strictly foreign surveillance? Don’t limit yourself to only the words in the resolution; you should also be looking up any terms you hear often that you aren’t 100% confident you could define with precision.
- Get to know the main ideas of philosophers/theorists you want to cite (or frequently have to defend against). The best option would be to read the book(s), but that might be unrealistic for some, due to the time investment required. A decent substitute is reading the Wikipedia page for the book(s) or author(s) in question. You can also check out the many excellent entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (which almost assuredly covers any subject you might need). Or, take one these free online courses from MIT. In general, a good rule of thumb is to avoid running any K argument that you don’t feel like you could easily explain in your own words to a non-expert.
- Learn about the basics of the American system of government. What is in the constitution? What does each branch of government do? Who is responsible for what?
- Similarly, find out what congress is up to right now. When is congress in session and when do they recess? Who is in power? Which bills are currently on the agenda, and which will never see the light of day? How does each party feel about the relevant issues? What are the main obstacles to passing some particular piece of legislation? These questions are particularly important if you plan to run politics disads, or if you frequently have to answer them. Knowing what’s going on gives you a major upper hand in terms of debating uniqueness, thumpers, internal link stories, etc.
Of course, there will always be more to know. These are only a place to begin. Don’t feel stupid when you encounter ideas that are wholly unfamiliar; that is inevitable, and part of your growth as a thinker! Instead, focus on gaining as much background knowledge as possible on topics you know you will have to discuss. There’s no reason to go into a debate willfully unprepared. You wouldn’t show up without any evidence, so why would you show up without doing any background reading?
What subjects do you think are crucial for debaters to educate themselves on? Do you have a favorite resource for looking things up? Tell us in the comments.