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Participating in the NFHS Debate Topic Selection Process

By Nicole Yeakley Cornish on September 11, 2018 hst Print

“I hate this year’s policy debate topic.”

As a debate coach, I have heard this statement repeated by students, coaches and, admittedly, even myself sometimes when a new topic was released. Then, each year I dove into the topic research and grew to understand why the topic was chosen and enjoyed teaching students all I had learned, developing new strategies and creating exciting arguments. The wealth of ideas that seemed to come from policy debate topics was fascinating.

As a coach, I researched Sub-Saharan Africa, Earth’s oceans, poverty, military presence in the Middle East, alternative energy sources and the list was still growing. So, when my state organization’s annual conference was offering a session on “how to author a policy debate topic,” it seemed like something I needed to know about.

Dr. Rich Edwards of Baylor University, a longtime advisor of the topic wording committee for the NFHS, explained in detail the process of the topic selection meeting. It seemed daunting. Dr. Edwards described a process of reading and writing, submitting for review, reading and writing, and then attending the NFHS Topic Selection Meeting to answer questions about all you had been reading and writing.

School was starting soon, my debate team had a full schedule of competition, and I was preparing to teach a new course. The idea of writing a topic paper was pushed somewhere in the depths of an ever-growing to-do list. But when Jana Riggins, the director of speech and debate for the Texas University Interscholastic League, asked a few years later if I would write a topic paper, I said “yes” immediately.

There was yet another school year starting soon, with another to-do list and a competition schedule that was just as long, but I was prepared to challenge myself. It was reassuring when Mrs. Riggins discussed an opportunity to attend the topic selection meeting as a learning experience before I began the process of writing the paper. That summer, I attended the Topic Selection Meeting in Oklahoma City.

The process was fascinating and full of people willing to help. In a large room, with delegates from across the country, each topic paper was put through a straw vote. With enough votes, the paper was referred to a Marshall Subcommittee. At this point, we split up into smaller rooms.

Each Marshall Subcommittee was led by a member of the wording committee tasked with bringing back just one suggested resolution from each paper to the whole committee. Although the wording committee member led this meeting, it felt like an academic endeavor for everyone involved. They welcomed input from anyone at the table. Soon, I found myself asking questions and suggesting wording choices.

As we moved from Marshall Subcommittees back to the large room, that same feeling continued. Participants from all over the country provided input, asked questions and made suggestions. One at a time, questions were posed to each of the authors, who had an opportunity to share with everyone in the room why they felt like their topic should be debated by high school students across the country. After this process, delegates from each state began to vote for topics until the final five topics were chosen.

I couldn’t wait to get started on a topic paper of my own and knew immediately what I wanted to write about. I knew our country’s immigration policy had not been substantially updated in a very long time. I also knew from participating in and coaching that the individuals involved in competitive debate were among some of the brightest minds in the country. What ideas for change would these students and their coaches create?

For the next eight months, I read every book about immigration policy I could find. My debate team loves Half Price Books. If we get anywhere close to one while on a debate trip, they want to go. When they finished exploring the bookstore, they all knew right where to find me—in the section devoted to immigration policy. On the long drives to and from debate tournaments, we discussed immigration policy.

Putting all of that information into a paper was an extraordinary task. Several nights were spent with my laptop and books laid out all over my living room floor, as I tried to determine what information to fit into the paper. Finally, I had a first draft. That draft was sent to the NFHS, and it came back with notes from a reviewer. I read more articles and books, wrote some more, and then submitted the topic paper in its final form.

In August, I attended the Topic Selection Meeting in Orlando along with 10 other topic authors. I sat in a Marshall Subcommittee while we chose an official topic wording, and answered questions from the wording committee and other delegates about the resolution and the type of debate that students might engage in. At the end of a long two days, my topic made it to the top five, and would therefore appear on the national ballot.

When I later learned that immigration actually would be the debate topic for the 2018-19 school year, I was excited to hear what great arguments the debate community would create. What surprised me the most was my reaction to the inevitable question, “Do you think this affirmative case fits within the topic?” My answer each time was genuinely “maybe.” The exercise of writing a paper that focuses not on a specific stance, but on whether or not a topic is debatable, left me wanting the students to debate any part of the resolution.

I have always told my students there is no right or wrong answer in debate. Some arguments are just better than others. As I visited with people about the immigration topic, I felt that more than ever. Policy debate topics aren’t about solving an equation with a right answer. Policy debate topics are meant to inspire a discussion about the best public policies and their consequences.

I hope debaters and their coaches challenge themselves to explore every aspect of this topic, address the best public policy options, and weigh the consequences of those policies, even if they do initially “hate this year’s policy debate topic.