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High school debate in the nineties was more narrowly focused than debate seems to be now. The only forms of debate recognized at tournaments were CX and LD. There were plenty of speech events but no public forum, no expository address or extemporaneous commentary. These "new" events reflect a change in the overall public discourse. (E.g. commentary/editorialization used to be a smaller part of the news media's content but now it is a substantial portion and often intermixed with factual reporting.) Since I debated both LD and CX in high school, I'll talk about each in turn.


The legend of LD's creation is based in rejecting everything CX represented: spreading, highly technical format, extensive use of evidence, etc. Phillip Morris used to sponsor the NFL (they did into the late nineties, maybe they still do). Legend has it Phillip Morris executives went to see the NFL finals round in the early eighties and were disappointed their sponsorship was not crafting the future orators of the next generation, just a bunch of jerks talking about blowing everything up. So to make them happy the NFL created LD as an alternative that debated philosophical disputes in a way that could be appreciated by any observer. (I do not know how truthy that story is, but that is the myth passed down when I debated.) That duality of LD and CX mostly stayed in place until the 2000s.

When I debated, there was only the hint of alternative arguments. Very, very few people had kritik-like arguments and those were structured into the typical debate format. Both aff and neg used the same framework for their constructive cases. Opening quote, definitions (although some put these in an observation), observations, value, criterion and then typically two or three contentions. Most debaters used a mixture of philosophical arguments from classical and modern philosophers with non-philosophical sources of quotes. It was highly unusual to hear any structuralist, post-structuralist, or post-modern philosophers cited. I seem to remember only hearing one kritik-like argument at the TFA (Texas Forensics Association) state tournament from a Greenhill debater who went on to win at the NFL that year.

There was a very explicit division between LD and CX up until the very end of the nineties. Spreading had only really started seeping into LD in 1999. You talked about quotes, never cards. Most LD judges refused to follow a debater who tried to spread. You could count on your speaker points falling every time you said the word "cards" to refer to your evidence. Judges at the novice level were almost always parents volunteering to help their kids out at whatever school was running the tournament. You knew the difference between an experienced judge versus an unknowing parent just by the deer-in-the-headlights look. You would start to get varsity debaters who didn't break judging outrounds. Varsity rounds were usually judged by coaches or college debaters who were paid by the tournament or competing teams. Rarely you would get an unknowing parent but sometimes it happened. I assume the division of judicial labor remains the same today.

The style of debate reflected the intended style of LD and the technology available. No electronics were used in debates except digital timers. No laptops, tablets, etc. Cases were printed out and you flowed on a legal pad. Many debaters, myself included, had small yellow stickies with pre-prepared arguments you could stick on your flow to facilitate prepping for your next speech. Suits were required attire. Many debaters carried briefcases. Many debaters, again throwing myself in this category, spoke in this belabored, slow style where the end of sentences tuned down in pitch, so it had a very oratorical style. I seem to remember this style emulated a debater in the mid-nineties from Chicago. I'm probably not explaining it well but your coach probably knows what I mean. 

Cross Examination

CX delved into the spreading, card-intensive style long, long before I started debating. I doubt much has changed stylistically, because there's not much to grow out, except to get faster and more technical.

There was definitely more disparity between big, urban and suburban-area schools and everybody else. Big schools had big teams who could treat their teams like a card factory. They also had more cash to access good resources. In the 90s there was a lot less information freely available on the internet. If you wanted access to books or academic journals, you had to find them at a library or pay for access to databases. Most news outlets did not publish online and when they did, it was limited content. If you had to get the most up-to-date news stories you needed access to Lexis-Nexis. Lexis-Nexis (and it's primary competitor, Westlaw) provides a timely database of media publications, judicial opinions and other legal resources. Few teams had access to Lexis because it is very, very expensive. Many debaters had access codes "borrowed" (I mean stolen) from law firms (a parent might work for the firm and give it to their child) or college libraries. If you had a Lexis code, you probably shared it with your friends. Lexis access was key. In the early 2000s more media outlets began publishing online and the search engines began refining their search engines to provide useful access to those stories. So now I would be surprised if any teams still use Lexis, given the cost.

Large, urban and suburban schools almost always spread and used the everybody-dies-in-one-thousand-simultaneous-nuclear-war type impacts. Kritiks were very common although not everybody liked them. Performative contradictions started to appear in 1998 or 1999 in high school. Most of the kritik and PC arguments were born in college and handed to high school teams. Many large schools had part time coaches who were local college debaters who taught their high school teams these arguments, in addition to what was learned at camp. Those of us without connections learned from camps or from losing to those arguments. Smaller teams were definitely at a disadvantage because they couldn't cut cards at the same production level and didn't have the part time coaches to feed them the newest arguments. Money also played a big part in it. It was expensive to maintain all those tubs of arguments.

Schools in less urban areas were not always at the same level. It was not uncommon to see schools from rural or small towns come in and debate at a normal speaking pace, argue far less extreme impacts, have no idea what a kritik was and argue even then-ancient arguments like justification and significance. You had to be really careful about getting their coaches as judges. I remember debating in 1999 against a very good team from another large school in front of a judge from somewhere in south Texas and while I accurately assessed him, the other team didn't. So my cold fusion aff might not have been taken seriously by the judge but when I argued the disad impacts were too extreme and unrealistic, we won the day with the judge quoting me on the ballot that the impacts were too extreme to be taken seriously. LOL

Most aff cases were straight forward. Inherency was a short part of the aff but was rarely ever disputed. Significance usually wasn't presented and only rural teams ever tried to attack it. Then there was a brief plan description, then off to the advantages and solvency. Negs usually ran T with a combinations of disads and/or kritiks. CPs were not terribly common. The most common kritiks I remember seeing were Foucault, statism, Heidegger and Social Ecology, although I am sure I am forgetting several. The advantages and/or solvency were usually attacked about half the time, depending on how kooky the plan. It was uncommon to see multiple CPs, kritik affs and some of the other "alternative" positions that seem more common these days. Since my school had one team, we had to pick our battles so we would run squirrelly affs with huge T blocks in the 2AC. I usually had a basic neg pattern we always ran because I could develop it intensely instead of trying to keep all my disads and CPs up to date.

Most teams carried 2-4 tubs of evidence with cards either printed on or taped on full size sheets of paper. These were organized by manila folders or the ever-loved expando file folder. You had to use a dolly to carry your tubs. If somebody was running a case you had never heard of, you couldn't just get online and look for opposing evidence before the round. You used what you brought. We carried three tubs although in the course of a year we would probably only use half to a full tub because we ran a standardized neg position.

Although CX was more technical than LD, it was also more relaxed. CX debaters normally did not wear suits, often just slacks and a dress shirt for men and correspondingly slacks or a skirt with a shirt for the ladies. Every once in a while a debater would be caught wearing a hat during a round (I was one of those). Judges might leave during CX or talk to somebody in the round. Paper would be everywhere and each round ended with an exchange of stacks of paper. Judges 99.999999% of the time disclosed their decision orally. I suspect little of this has changed.

Judges at both the novice and varsity levels were usually coaches or college debaters. Even novice debaters are too fast and too technical for the volunteering parent. However, sometimes novice rounds got the parents and even on rare occasion you would get it at the varsity level. In DFW it was rare to see a stock issues-only judge but sometimes you would get judges who wouldn't hear a kritik or were hard-pressed to vote on it. Most judges by 1997 or 1998 accepted kritiks were here to stay and got on board, even if they didn't want to. Occasionally an out-of-area judge would show up and be a stock issues judge. Many judges were tabula rasa and some had specific voting styles. Some judges claimed to be tab but weren't even close. I assume over the past decade-plus even the more rural teams have accepted kritiks into their lives.

Thanks for sharing this stroll down memory lane. For more of my rambling thoughts, check out the "More About Me" section.