Research in Public Forum Debate

Teams should not overwhelm their case with evidence; rather, they should select the best evidence to represent their claims.

- NFL Guide to Public Forum Debate

Public Forum distinguishes itself from other debate formats, particularly Policy, in that it discourages the use of heavy amounts of evidence. Supposedly, the framers of the event wanted debaters to develop their own arguments instead of repeating or otherwise paraphrasing the arguments of others. Whatever the rationale, it is still an expectation we have to deal with. I bring this guideline up not because I want to encourage debaters to blindly adhere to it, but because I want them to follow its letter while ignoring its intent. In other words, when entering a debate round, a debater should be overprepared. They should have much more evidence and topical knowledge than they actually need.

When the framers set out to make Public Forum accessible to anyone, they did not just eliminate the specialization and jargon from Policy and LD. They also eliminated the heavy workload required to stay minimally competitive in those events. My challenge to all debaters is to turn this on its head. Do not settle for the minimum! Collecting enough knowledge to engage in a casual conversation might win rounds, but it will not win tournaments. Debaters should work to become an expert on every topic, and research is the only way they can get there.

Prior to Research

The ideal researcher in Public Forum should be doing two things: acquiring and documenting knowledge. Once the resolution for a month is released, debaters should spend whatever spare time they have doing these things. But before starting research, debaters should do a few things to prepare. First, closely probe the resolution for potential areas of clash. For example, let us use the January 2010 resolution: President Obama's plan for increasing troops in Afghanistan is in the United States' best interest. What we want to do is break the resolution down into coherent segments. This is best done by phrasing the things we want to investigate in the form of questions, like so:

1) What is Obama’s troop plan?

2) Why are we increasing troops?

3) What are the United States’ best interests?

…and so forth.

Never take any part of the resolution for granted. There are many implied areas of clash built into each resolution, and debaters need to closely scrutinize the wording to consider every possibility. That done, use these questions as a starting point for research. Always research both pro and con arguments simultaneously. I cannot emphasize this enough. If a debater only focuses on researching one side at a time, they will subconsciously shunt really good sources off to the side and forget where they found them later.

The Acquisition Process

Acquiring research is easier than ever thanks to the wonders of the Internet. Unsurprisingly, Google is almost always the first place to head when searching for evidence. When using Google, try to narrow down searches by using specific keywords and specifying certain date ranges. Debaters can also increase the number of high quality sources by using the Google Scholar function, thereby automatically eliminating the chaff. Similarly, searching Google Books will allow for limited access to print publications; since one cannot copy or paste text, take screenshots and then paste those screenshots to a word document.

If looking for simple sources of information, Google News is a fantastic news aggregator and can yield thousands of articles on any given topic in current events. Debaters can also set up Google News Alerts for specific topics. Doing so will have Google automatically email any new articles and updates on specific keywords, which is very handy for topics on current events. Another good tip is to search by file type. Narrowing searches to .doc and .pdf is a good idea as they tend to bring up a lot of well-warranted reports from various organizations.

Besides Google, try and search any online periodicals and databases that are available. Ask school librarians and see if the library has access to any (be sure to take note of them). Also, find a nearby college or university and see if they offer public access to their print and online materials. Often times such institutions will do this in some limited form or another, and it is an extremely valuable way to broaden the number of publications available.

Keep in mind that when doing research ALWAYS strive for quality. Just because one can find a published work that makes a particular argument does not necessarily mean that argument is good or credible. Bad sources do exist. Unqualified authors are probably the number one source of bad evidence to avoid. Joe Schmoe might say some pretty cool things, but if he has no relevant field experience or journalistic credentials, it is probably best to avoid him. The same goes for blogs and discussion forum posts. They are usually written by common people who possess little or no expertise on the subject they write about. There are some exceptions, of course--blogs written by topical experts on a specific subject are certainly a good source of information.

Debaters should also avoid poorly-warranted evidence. Anyone who makes many claims but does not back those claims up with reasoning probably does not know what they are talking about. An article that asserts that the world will end in 2012 but fails to offer warrants to support that statement probably will not win many debates. Preemptively avoiding such materials in the initial search for research allows for avoidance of major flaws in documentation.

Good sources, on the other hand, consist of well-written, highly-warranted material found in legitimate publications. Such material is understandable, fluidly conveyed, and free of field-specific jargon. It should isolate specific reasoning for its claims and provide appropriate analysis. The best way to make sure one is obtaining quality arguments is to use a hierarchy of sources. I have arranged a hierarchy as follows:

- Books

- Peer-reviewed scholarly journals

- Government documents

- Online journals

- Major newspapers and media outlets

- Expert-written blogs

The more sources a competitor has from the top of this hierarchy, the stronger the arguments they draw from them will be.

Some aspects of the resolution might seem easy to research. It is not very hard to Google Obama’s troop plan. However, we want to be comprehensive. Do not just grab one news article and scan for the overall numbers. Debaters want to know every little detail; not just an overall number of troops, but the kind of troops, the locations where those troops would be based, their combat missions, the expenses and logistics involved--whatever can be thought of. The more knowledge acquired, the better.

The Documentation Process

While acquiring research, debaters should simultaneously be documenting it. I recommend using a very simple, flexible evidence collection method. It is fairly similar to what we use in Policy Debate, but with a slight twist. First, take the original source and copy/paste a portion of the text into a word document, underlining the text relevant to the argument a competitor wishes to articulate. (Do not copy the entire article; that is a waste of paper.) Then add a tag above it--a quick sentence summarizing the card, plus an MLA format citation with author qualifications. Finally, underneath the original source paraphrase its arguments. This should differ from the tag in that it should be substantially longer and more comprehensive. It should also be more communicable than the original source. (For example, replace big words with more common ones; use substitutes for jargon.)

Debaters now have two forms of the argument on the same page. One is a card, the other is an analytic. Both work equally well. When constructing cases, debaters can then draw from both pools to create a balance of evidence and analytics so as to satisfy the expectation I discussed in the beginning. If a debater does read an analytic that they drew from an author, they should still cite it to make it clear that they are using someone else’s ideas.

The final step of documentation is writing frontlines. If competitors have a lot of evidence after they are done with research, that is phenomenal, but they cannot really maximize it unless they organize it. Once cases are all set to go, anticipate what one thinks will be common responses to them and prepare blocks to those responses. Debaters want to pre-script the debate as much as possible so that nothing catches them off guard. It is far more efficient to read off answers that were prepared ahead of time than it is to rattle off a few awkward responses impromptu style. And of course, do not just fortify one’s own case, but start working on frontlines that answer cases one thinks opponents might run.