The Adult in the Room: Teams’ Responsibility to Educate Judges

Jordyn Rubman I 10/18/23

One of the worst feelings in speech and debate is walking into a room with a judge that tells you they are completely new to the activity. The knowledge that no matter how long you have been competing, your knowledge of topics or category, or even your commitment, you could still very well lose because the adult in the room, the person who can decide your success in the activity your have dedicated your high school career to, doesn’t know what they’re doing. While competitors often use the excuse of being “judge screwed” to remove themselves from responsibility of losing a round, the actual issue goes far beyond the blame shifting of teenagers.

Students can’t compete without training, so why can judges judge without it? Competitors spend hours, days, weeks, months, even years honing their craft and they deserve to be judged fairly on their actual capabilities not just the perception of someone who knows nothing about the activity. Uneducated judges are more likely to vote based on physical appearance, unconscious biases, and overall prejudice. 

Why does this matter? It’s just one round or one tournament in a high school activity, after all. Well, to so many students around the world it is much more than that. It is their space to be themselves, to get up and present skills which they have worked very hard developing. That single round could be the difference between a student being able to get up on stage in front of their peers and receive an award for their hard work, or not. It could be the difference between going home feeling on top of the world or feeling the lowest of the low. It could be the difference between a student continuing their passion and growing as a competitor or quitting because of too many losses. Judges are supposed to be the adults in the room with the power to decide the outcomes of rounds, and they should be provided resources to use that power in the most fair way possible. 

None of this is to say that new judges shouldn’t be accepted, in fact quite the opposite. New judges should be welcomed, but welcomed with training and opportunities to become a well educated impartial authority to make the speech and debate space truly fair. 

What benefits can teams get from educating their judges? How could they go about that teaching? 

Not only can teams having better educated judges support a better speech and debate community as a whole, but it can also have specific benefits. In particular, avoidance of fines. Some tournaments will fine teams for incompetent judging, and at least in my experience, no team wants to handle those fees unless they absolutely have to. Additionally, bringing judges into the team community can build a stronger team by adding more adults into the activity fold, taking some of the burdens off of competitors and coaches. Parents can assist in fundraising, tournament management and team connection, and having a strong parent network helps build an overall stronger team. 

One solution is team based judge training. This is something my team, Freehold Township Speech and Debate in New Jersey, does every year with both new and returning judges. Every member of the team is required to bring at least one potential judge to an hour-long virtual meeting where the student coaches go over details for each category and what judging looks like for those categories. Another idea is teams specifically sending judges NSDA or other forensics league resources on judging so the judges do not have to look for it themselves, because let’s face it, they probably will not go out of their way. Lastly is for organizations such as Equality in Forensics and other non-profit groups to provide judging education as well as competitor training, to make the resources overall more accessible.

Judges are one of the key backbones of speech and debate, and so a strong judging community is a strong speech and debate community. No one deserves to be genuinely “judge screwed”, so let’s keep it to the excuses.