Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Case for Using Nontraditional Judges in Forensic Contests

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Case for Using Nontraditional Judges in Forensic Contests

Article excerpt

The forensics community should reintroduce the use of nontraditional judges in forensics tournaments. Diversifying the judging pool, while challenging tournament directors, will improve the educational value of forensics. The addition of nontraditional judges also will strengthen public support of the activity, and help forensics increase cultural diversity. This essay will build the case for using more nontraditional judges in forensic contests. I will discuss three benefits of increased use of nontraditional judges and consider some workability issues connected with their use.


We may define a nontraditional forensic judge as a person with either limited training in contest judging or limited current experience in judging. Authors sometimes describe judges with limited experience as lay judges. Lay judges typically did not participate in forensics while students. People with limited current experience may include competitively inactive former competitors or forensics teachers. The common characteristic of both groups is their relative unfamiliarity with the nuances of current forensic practices. They may understand the structures of forensics contests but are not familiar with how situational norms affect actual practice.

The issue of judging qualifications in forensic contests is neither recent nor trivial. Cox and Honse (1991) describe the long running discussion, particularly in the debate community, regarding the necessity of using trained listeners to judge debates. This discussion has centered on two questions: determining the goals of contest speaking; and identifying the necessary qualifications of a judge to achieve those goals.

Most observers agree that contests include both educational and competitive aims. Students engage in contest speaking to improve their skills in areas like research, analysis and communication. Simultaneously, they are also competing against each other in pursuit of competitively driven outcomes, such as awards and other recognition. The role of competition is to provide an experiential learning framework for students to test and improve their learning skills. Competitive and educational goals in forensics often conflict. Competition sometimes causes people to short-cut appropriate educational behavior while pursuing competitive goals. This tension between competitive and educational goals underscores the important roles played by contest judges.

Bartanen (in press) identifies three functions of the contest judge: educator, referee, and trustee of the activity. As an educator, the judge must help students learn research, analysis and communication skills by providing competent and appropriate comments about the content of their speeches or arguments. The educational function requires the judge to understand and apply the fundamentals of debate or individual events and to co-gently identify areas needing improvement. As a referee, the judge must appropriately apply contest rules and render a fair and impartial decision. This referee function requires the judge to understand both the structural (contest rules) and situational (nuances of competitive speaking and debating) elements of competition. As a trustee, the judge is responsible for maintaining the ethical and aesthetic standards of the activity. The judge must represent the larger community and apply aesthetic, ethical and rational standards that reinforce the utility of forensics as rational discourse. The judge, in other words, insures that debaters and speakers employ (in Wallace's use of the term) "good reasons."

Educators disagree about the necessary qualifications of people to fulfill these roles. Many educators believe that people trained in competitive forensics are the best contest judges. Robert Gass (1988), for example, advocates the use of trained judges who can promote high educational standards. Other critics (cited by Cox and Honse) oppose nontraditional judges because they believe, usually based on anecdotal evidence, that those judges evaluate contest winners randomly or only on contestants' delivery skills. …

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