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    On Topic Writing - John Meany, Claremont McKenna College

Class and contest debate preparation (idea brainstorming, subject research, argument briefing, speaking practice) is based on the specific language of a set of debate topics. The importance of debate topics cannot be underestimated. They establish the issues in controversy. They motivate students to explore the world. They direct library, Internet, and personal reading. They introduce students to new ideas; students use them to spark their own intellectual creativity and argument innovations. And, as students quickly realize from their experiences in challenging debates, the particular words selected for a debate topic may carefully distinguish the arguments that are available for the proposition or opposition teams.

Debate tournament hosts, league officials, teachers, and student practice leaders recognize that it is important to write appropriately worded topics. Badly worded topics generally result in bad debates. Because the topic is interpreted by the proposition as a statement of proof (that is, a claim that the proposition team will attempt to show is more likely to be true than false), an entire debate may collapse due to confusing, vague, or awkward wording. Most people, then, would probably agree that it is a good idea to avoid badly worded topics. But what are the guidelines for a well-worded topic for debate?

First, a topic author should consider the purpose of a topic statement.

It ought to be designed to promote serious discussion and argument clash. It should provoke important and challenging questions. It ought to be a subject that is controversial or encourages an examination of obvious difference. In other words, the subject should promote debate. A topic should also be an issue for which students could draw conclusions. Debates do not merely create an opportunity to open an issue for discussion but they also produce a definitive result, a conclusion that an opinion on an issue may be better than other opinions on the matter. In this way, a debate topic should allow students to identify and determine concluding arguments for its side of the topic.

Topics should be interesting; they should appeal to different students. They should focus the discussion. They must be in the form of a simple declarative sentence. They should help students create powerful arguments explaining the world they know. Topics may be about the issues faced by middle school students each day, e.g., “Schools should require uniforms,” “Cell phones should not be permitted at school,” or “Peer pressure does more good than harm.” Debate topics should teach students to advance sophisticated arguments about the subjects they learn at school: “The United States should significantly increase space exploration,” „Schools should ban animal dissection, or “The United States should pay reparations for slavery.” In addition, topics should provide opportunities for new learning, a chance for students to develop research skills and understand a complex world: “The United States is winning the war on terror,” “NAFTA should be extended throughout the Americas,” or “Congress should pass the Clear Skies Initiative.”

A topic author should consider many issues. Is enough research material for debating the topic statement? Is the information presented in a way to engage students? Is it accessible? Does the research avoid technical or difficult language so that students from different grades (the MSPDP permits students from the fifth to the eighth grade to participate in competitions) could use it? In other words, a topic author should probably do some of the work that is expected of a debater confronting a particular topic. Some exploratory examination of the research is required before a final decision can be made to use a topic.

In addition to these general guidelines, here is a list of some popular problems with debate topics, as well as recommendations as to how to avoid them.

1. Avoid “cutesy” wording.
A motion for debate ought to be written for the purpose of introducing a debate. Motions should not be composed for the purpose of making the person the topic to appear particularly witty or clever. Do that on your own time. Please avoid this sort of topic: “The public education system should start doing its own homework” or “The United States should unplug the electric chair.” It is easy enough to use topics that directly address issues of public education and capital punishment, such as, “The No Child Left Behind Act does more good than harm” or “Abolish the death penalty!”

2. Avoid multiple proofs by the proposition team.
It is difficult to make one proof in a debate. It is unfair to require that the proposition team prove several issues simultaneously. Poorly worded topics of this kind include “Standardized testing is fair and necessary,” or “Columbus Day is the worst national holiday.” The first topic makes the proposition team prove that standardized testing is both fair and needed. The proposition team arguing the second motion would have to compare Columbus Day to each of a half dozen other national holidays. This is too much work to have to accomplish in a brief debate.

3. Avoid extremist language.
“Always,” “all,” “never,” and other unconditional words or expressions place too high a burden or proof on the proposition team. Not only must the team establish its proof but it must be one for which there are no exceptions, even an extraordinarily rare case. Examples include “The Federal Government‚s power comes at the expense of all the states” or “The time for any negotiations for peace in the Middle East has passed.” These topics raise important issues but better wording might be “The Federal Government should not surrender its authority to states” or “The United Nations should establish negotiations for Middle East peace.”

4. Avoid false dichotomies.
In a false dichotomy, a debate teams are presented with two choices, when in fact there are more than two choices. For example, "If today is not Tuesday, it must be Wednesday." The fact that it is not Tuesday does not mean that it is Wednesday. The speaker would have to make an argument to show that it is Wednesday. Examples of false dichotomies include: “Public schools should give up freedom for safety” or “An oppressive government is better than no government.” The listed topic areas are not bad areas for debate but the topic wording could certainly be improved. It is, once again, possible to transform these topics for meaningful debate: “Public schools should increase student surveillance” or “In this case, the United States should reduce free speech rights.”

5. Avoid awkward or confusing expressions.
These are actual examples of topics used in intercollegiate debate competition. When announced, they were greeted with calls of “Shame!” This House believes that we cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold the nation hostile and our allies hostile.” “This House would rock mob style.” “Title IX is a bridge too far.” “Nero’s encore demands a response.” Huh???

Topic authors need to carefully examine each topic; they also need to consider a tournament topic set. It is important that the topics are balanced and diverse when considering all 4 or 5 topics for a league tournament. In particular, a topic author, league official, or tournament host (the person or committee making the final decision on the topic list) should evaluate the topics to ensure that students debate some familiar issues, as well as more challenging and lesser-known matters. Of course, it is important that topics have little or no argument overlap. It is often the case that topic language will change but arguments will not. For example, it is possible that the different motions, “The United States is winning the war on terror,” and “Saudi Arabia is more an enemy than an ally of the United States” may produce many proposition and opposition arguments in common, as both topics would focus on terrorism and Middle East policy.

Like most serious educational tasks, topic writing should involve the efforts of several people. It is a good idea to have trusted colleagues review topics before a final topic announcement. The preparation work should be accomplished over time. Patience is a virtue (but the statement, “Patience is a virtue,” should never be a topic.) Topic construction should include time for some preliminary research and review. The more care is devoted to topic writing, the more opportunities debaters will have to subsequently, rigorously, and meaningfully examine and debate the substantive details of important issues.
 

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