Saturday, 31 August 2013

Why Israel outperforms the Netherlands

This post has been created after a very enjoyable and thought-provoking conversation with WUDC/EUDC-finalist Alon van Dam. All opinions and misrepresentations are my own.

Israel and The Netherlands are two of the giants of ESL debate. From 2002 to 2013, a team from each of these countries has spoken in the ESL final of EUDC (except for 2010, where only The Netherlands was represented by a team from Groningen). But even though the Netherlands has won the competition more recently (2012 was for the Netherlands, while Israel took the title in 2011), we now see a gradual shift towards more Israeli success. There are consistently more Israeli teams in the break: So consistently, that betting on more Israeli teams in the break would net you almost no return in the EUDC betting pool. Moreover, while some old and proud Dutch institutions such as UCU and Bonaparte were not present at Manchester EUDC, Israel was represented by 9 institutions. To top it off, 5 Israeli teams reached the quarters versus 2 Dutch teams.

The Dutch have amazing advantages for fostering debate; travel in the Netherlands is extremely cheap (or even free) for students, a lot of debating societies practice 45 minutes away from each other and for less than 100 euros we can travel to the UK and regularly compete and learn from the strongest speakers in Europe. In contrast, Israel has to almost completely rely on people and knowledge within its own circuit. Given that difference, you might imagine that The Netherlands would dominate the ESL circuit even more than they do know!

With those burning questions, it was luck that Alon van Dam from RRIS was in The Netherlands to visit family and friends. He was able to give some invaluable insights into debating in Israel; insights that we may use here to make debating even better...

A compelling duty to judge

I don't think that I have ever visited a Dutch competition were people didn't complain about the judges. Sometimes, this was unfounded - there have been some competitions were 2 experienced Dutch judges adjudicated nearly every room. Regrettably, in a lot of other competitions the good judges flocked around the top rooms and the other rooms were judged by novice judges. The majority of societies have problems fulfilling N-1, and usually fulfill them by sending freshers or late sign-ups. Rotation around the tab is often limited, and the CA-team perches in the best rooms, leading the strongest independent judges to continuously have to judge middle and lower rooms. Judging breaks can be conservative, and the symbolic promotion to chair in the outround is rarely given to judges who weren't in the CA-team. While I admire the effort that Dutch CA-teams and judges put in making a competition great, there are still many things we could do better.
(Full disclosure: Last year, I judged at Roosevelt Open, Leiden Open and Nationals. I spoke at Cicero and UCU, and wasn't present at other competitions as I was judging or speaking abroad, or visiting family or my girlfriend. As registration officer for Leiden I also failed to provide an adequate number of judges to DTU and BP Rotterdam. In Leiden a rule exists on how we will break up teams if competitions press us for N-1, and I think we'd happily oblige if competitions would pressure us)

In Israel, the norm to judge is really important. Many older debaters and world-class judges such as Anat and Michael Shapira, Yoni Cohen-Idov, Omer and Sella Nevo, etc. still judge at a very large amount of competitions, even though many of them are less active in debating or have to balance debate and demanding jobs. Furthermore, there is a very high norm against competing in a tournament you have already won. So while in The Netherlands some speakers regularly compete in tournaments they may have won once or twice already, in Israel most active speakers will come back next year at the same competition to judge.

More interestingly, Israeli debate competitions have build in numerous incentives to encourage younger debaters to judge regularly. Many competitions have a team cap for institutions that can only be increased when institutions send judges. And not just any judge; Israeli judges are ranked as 'novice', 'experienced', or 'break-level'. As an institution you should send not only novice judges, but also experienced judges if you want to send more teams. The consequence is that Israeli institutions encourage their freshers to not only speak, but also judge.

Moreover, strong Israeli judges are promoted to CA-teams at a more rapid speed than the Netherlands. Dutch Nationals last year received a lot of bad rep, even within its own CA-team, about a number of the people selected to be part of that team. This would be far less common on the Israeli debate scene.
Also, Israeli CA-teams put far more emphasis on rotating judges, even the CA-team, around the tab, and take care to promote strong judges to out-rounds and chairing the finals.

One of the strongest gestures of the Manchester EUDC CA-team was that they judged little to no outrounds, as they felt they could trust the judging pool they had at their disposal. Similarly, I loved the way that the Roosevelt Open handled their judging break last year, placing people who had judged strongly on the semi-final panels, even if this was their first time judging. This could be a fantastic boost to the morale of people who come and judge at competitions; they feel like judging well will be recognized, and it incentivizes people to care about judging.

Creating such a strong culture of respect for judging and desire to continue judging during and after ones speaking career is superbly important for developing a debate scene. Younger people can get fantastic feedback (I loved the Novice competition I attended, where every round multiple WUDC/EUDC-breaking judges gave me feedback) and people who reach their platform as a speaker usually develop themselves further after they judged a few competitions.

A very active debating league with many tournaments

This part mirrors recommendations I have made earlier here and here.

The amount of Israeli competitions are incredible. There are about 15 active Israeli debating societies, and the majority of them organise 2 or more competitions in one year. Compare this to The Netherlands, where 8 open competitions, 1 novice competition and 2 veteran competitions were organised last year, with only Leiden organising more than 1 tournament (I am not counting Eloquentia, as this is a format totally unlike competitive debate). Competitions cost about 8-10 euros to attend and are fully catered.
Added to the amount of competitions that they organise, the Israeli debate scene also takes pride in their yearly pro-am and novice competitions. Novices is one of the best-judged competitions per year, and world champions actively train their freshers into amazing speakers so they can shine at their pro-am tournament.

The benefits are obvious: Israeli speakers rank up far more debate rounds in a year than Dutch speakers, will thus familiarise themselves with more motions and have more opportunities to practice their strategy. There is also more opportunity to judge, so judging doesn't feel as such a sacrifice to your speaking career.

Of course, having more active societies means that its easier to organise competitions, and I have heard that many societies have difficulty booking rooms at their uni. I maintain, however, that following the Leiden Novices model of booking rooms during the opening times of a uni building, asking people to bring their own food and having a final in a bar means that you can run a competition with almost no preparation necessary, at which people can still have loads of fun. We could perhaps make the running of these competitions more attractive by labelling them as "Mini's" (to differentiate them from their "Debattoernooi" or "Open" counterparts) and ranking the tabs of different Mini's so that we have our own Dutch Debating Competition with a winner at the end of the year.


Of course, the Israeli debating scene is not perfect. They too have to actively work to prevent problems of inclusion, for instance. But there are two tricks to the Israeli debating scene that we could easily master: more attention to superb judging in all rooms of a competition, and more opportunities to debate as a whole.
If we learn those two lessons and link them to our unique benefits, our proximity to each other and the UK and our burgeoning Schools league, we should be able to reverse the trend in no time and continue Dutch hegemony at the top of ESL debate.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Thoughts on Female Inclusivity in Dutch Debating

I am heavily indebted for this post to Bionda Merckens, Karin Merckens and Gigi Gil, with whom I
Kathrine Schwitzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon
shared several conversations on this topic while at Euros and before; Rebecca Meredith for compiling her report on sexism in debating; the people who compiled the statistics for male and female participation at Euros; and the many excellent contributions made by various people at the EUDC Women's Forum this year.
In many ways I am just the messenger, not the author of this article.

Last March in Glasgow two female debaters were heckled and booed in a final by members of the audience simply for the sake of their gender. The offenders did not make any attempt at an apology afterwards.
Two years before, a male speaker in an outround of a Dutch competition made a sexist remark at the start of his speech, for which he immediatedly apologized afterwards. While these examples highlight a different approach towards offensive gendered remarks, and in some ways we can hope that the Dutch circuit is a safe haven for female participants, we are far from perfect yet.

If you'd ask me on the spot if the Dutch circuit was free from sexism, my honest reply would be "I don't know". We have never attempted to compile a report such as this shocking compilation of responses gathered by Rebecca Meredith, Matt Hezell and Clara Spera. We have never had an equity complaint lodged at a Dutch competition, mostly because we have never had an equity officer at a Dutch national competition. The only thing I can go by is anecdote; and I have plenty of anecdotes of (older) male debaters harassing female freshers and (hopefully) unintended chauvinistic remarks. I have heard admissions of some girls that they found themselves unwelcome in male-dominated societies. Obviously, as I am blessed with male privilege, I am not privy to all of these remarks. And also, regrettably, these stories are similar to stories I have heard from non-debate friends. But the fact that there remains persistent misogynism in wider society doesn't excuse us from not challenging it as much as possible.

Sexism, however, is only one symptom of a much wider problem we are now paying attention to on the international circuit; the problem of not being inclusive. Sexism, just like other more entrenched and persistent social conceptions, such as gendered expectations and the acceptance of sexist language, is one of the factors that may contribute to less female debaters existing and participating in our community, and participating with less pleasure than they could've.

The main purpose of this article, for me, is to attract debate about inclusivity in Dutch debating. Yet there are still a lot of (influential) people in Dutch debate who don't believe that we have an inclusivity problem. So we may need data that supports my claim that Dutch debating can be more inclusive. Luckily, that is what I have compiled.

Ratio of Male and Female participation rates in national Dutch competitions

I have compiled data of all national Dutch university competitions in the 2011/2012 and 2012/2013 academic years. As this data should portray a picture of Dutch debating, I have not collected data on any competition at which international teams were present (e.g. UCU, Leiden and Roosevelt). Nor have I collected data on competitions that weren't open to all (the Mace and the Masters).
The data has been compiled in roughly the same manner as the data that has been compiled for the EUDC gender breakdown. This means that I have went with the assumption that a boy's name means a boy, and vice versa. In cases of doubt (names such as Anne, Kim or Renee) I have tried to track down the person on Facebook to confirm his/her sex. In the cases of a dummy, this speaker has been omitted if no name was given, or ranked only once if this dummy spoke by his/herself.
I have colour-coded all the tabs so as to give a good oversight, but will only be publishing the results as to protect people's privacy.

I suggest that we treat any result where the participation of one gender is less than 40% as worrying, as this would indicate that the other gender is represented by more than 3/5ths, and this is a sufficiently high bar that the result, when randomised, would happen very infrequently.
Moreover, statistics like these need to be interpreted by social research that examines causes, not just figures. Plenty of data and research suggests that lower female participation rates are due to (gendered) social barriers or active sexism, in both fields of sport and labour. Even if, as some data from CBS suggests, women are less inclined to spend time and money on hobbies, are less politically engaged and read less news media, the causations for those statistics may be gendered preconceptions; it also may mean that if those are the causes for fewer female participation, we should seek to "sell" our activity in a way that may overcome these initial barriers.

The Data

TournamentNumbers MaleNumbers FemaleTotal NumbersPercentage MalePercentage FemalePercentage Total
Kalliope 201340165671,43%28,57%100,00%
NK Debatteren 2013683210068,00%32,00%100,00%
DTU 201348247266,67%33,33%100,00%
BP-toernooi 201347257265,28%34,72%100,00%
Leiden Novices 201241226365,08%34,92%100,00%
Cicero Toernooi 201246287462,16%37,84%100,00%
NK debatteren 2012835313661,03%38,97%100,00%
DTU 201266309668,75%31,25%100,00%
BDT 201246348057,50%42,50%100,00%
BP-toernooi 201248328060,00%40,00%100,00%
Leiden Novices 201137205764,91%35,09%100,00%
Cicero Toernooi 201137256259,68%40,32%100,00%
Total 2012/201329014743766,36%33,64%100,00%
Total 2011/201231719451162,04%37,96%100,00%


Out of the 12 tournaments, only 3 had a higher female participation rate than 40%, and at no tournaments did more women than men compete. This indicates a structural lack of female competitors.
Over the course of the two seasons ranked, female participation actually slightly decreased, both over the two years as well as near the end of each years.

This dataset is limited by no currently existing data on participating judges or organizers. Numbers from EUDC seem to suggest that for the Netherlands our participation rate is evened out somewhat by a higher ratio of female-to-male judges.
However, even if it were the case that there are more female than male judges, this may mean that more women are hesitant to speak. Given that we give most praise to speakers and speakers are at the centre of our activity, this may already be cause for concern.

Furthermore, we may need information on how many female versus male speakers there are on the school circuit, to see when a gender gap arises. We also may need data on the amount of male and female members of the debating societies in the Netherlands, to see if this gap is created due to women being hesitant to attend competitions or due to failing recruitment policies.

This dataset also doesn't rank how well female speakers do vis-a-vis male speakers. Anecdotally, I noticed while compiling this report that there are often more men in the top 20, as well as at the bottom of the tab. This remark has also been made by someone else in a discussion on the Irish Debating FB-group on a discussion of participation rates in Ireland.
Compiling data on average speaks for men and women may be a useful further research to note if there is a potential bias in evaluating speeches given by women, or a lack of training efforts aimed at women.

Obviously, we don't only have a problem with representation of women; anecdotally, ethnic and religious minorities are also vastly underrepresented. The underrepresentation of women may well be worse, however, as in contrast to those minorities, women currently make up the majority of university students. This is not to scapegoat these other issues, and I do believe we should earnestly try to tackle problems of discrimination and racial bias as well. Curently a survey is circling Facebook asking people to report any incidences of discrimination they may have encountered. I wholeheartedly recommend anyone who ever had the misfortune to be victim of discrimination on the circuit to report this. The compilers will allow you complete anonymity.
Collecting data on racial issues is however more complicated than the tab analysis I have just done, as you can't just go by names or FB profile photo's: it would require individuals to self-identify as an ethnic or religious minority, and thus would require a data gathering project over a longer period of time.

Suggestions to address this issue

As can be followed from the discussion, we don't have enough information yet to determine the exact causes of lower female participation in the Netherlands. However, by speculating on a few likely causes we may come to some useful suggestions. Of course, suggestions from the wider community are more than welcome. Here are three easy fixes:

If the problem is sexism in a broad sense, we may need an equity team
Scratch that: even if there is no sexism problem, we still need an equity team. Equity is about making individuals feel safe and have a place where they can go with their concerns. It is a fantastically important safeguard for all kind of vicious behaviour, and I wonder why we haven't had any before.
Karin Merckens will be equity officer at the Roosevelt Open next October, and is already drafting a comprehensive policy for that competition. She has said that she is willing to share this document with other competitions in hope to make it a standard equity policy for the Netherlands.  Jennie Hope, Women's Officer for the UK debate circuit, has also drafted a standardised equity policy that she hopes to release soon. I hope more competitions in the Netherlands will follow and appoint an equity officer.

Police unfriendliness and nastiness within the societies
This recommendation may be especially helpful to female freshers, who for various reasons seem to be less likely to exist or more likely to drop out, but should be good advice as a whole. The first competitions in the Netherlands start after two months; before that, the atmosphere within societies can be a deal-breaker. Providing a friendly environment, and explicitly ensuring that there is someone within the society that people can go to for pastoral support is crucial.
I am personally pushing for a gentleman's agreement in our society that older debaters try not to actively hit on freshers during the first term. The power dynamics at play when an older member tries to "have his/her way" with a new member can be revolting and deeply unfair.

Increase female visibility in societies
Try to have female members at your recruitment stands, on your open evenings and during your novice workshops. Think about how you may want to sell debate; a German debating society noted that when they changed the description of debate from a "competitive activity" to a "problem-solving activity", female interest sparked. (MDR volume 9, p.16)
Linked to this is that you may want to try gently pushing your female speakers to attend competitions. In the fall term there are plenty of friendly one-day competitions such as Cicero and Leiden Novices, as well as two-day competitions at Roosevelt and UCU that may require a bit more effort for freshers to want to go to.


Preliminary data suggests that we suffer from a lack of female participation in the Dutch circuit. This means that we are missing out on great speakers, judges and human beings. The Dutch circuit, similar to other circuits such as Germany, the UK, Ireland as well as the international circuit, may want to look at ways to overcome this problem and increase female participation as a whole.

Friday, 16 August 2013

On coffee and breaks

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology you can read this blog while I am waiting in the
corridors of Schiphol to board a plane to London, likely reading a crumbled and dog-eared Economist, clutching my old crumpled bag, listening to some soft American crooner with noise-blocking in-ear phones and drinking an overpriced cup of coffee.

Growing up among the biggest coffee nuts in the world you may be surprised that I don't drink the stuff all of the time. While other people don't survive until they've had their first two cuppa's before breakfast, there are days or weeks in which I don't taste any at all. At my parents' place I don't take coffee unless it's offered or my parents ask me to make some; almost always and exclusively after dinner, and if we are all home, in the morning between 10 and 11. The reason I don't drink it in bucketloads has nothing to do with me not enjoying the taste or flavour; coffee beans are among the most delightful dark aromas you can spread in your house, and beat out any perfume you can think of, and the taste is earthy, nutty and warming (although cold coffee tastes like the armpits of Satan). It is because coffee for me is a ritual, it is the moment where I can ease down and have chats and be a bit pensive.

The thing I love most about people is that we have rituals, little endearing quirks or moments that we keep coming back to and that give us solace, or confidence, or that we don't even notice about ourselves unless someone else points it out. It is a highly quirky, maybe irrational, but so understandable thing to do. For me a ritual that gives me a quiet mind is especially fantastic, as I almost never understand rituals and my mind is definitely almost never quiet.

For a while now I have been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Seven ways to practice for Euros with your partner

In just 4 days more than 400 students from all over Europe will gather in Manchester to discuss the great debates of our time, with some of them being rewarded for being very good at it, and all of us being rewarded for having listened to and partied with smart minds.
Of course, there are people who will go to Euros to just have a great time and who want to sample the Curry Mile, visit Manchester’s two football temples or enjoy a night out on Canal Street. But for those who don’t want to take part but who want to have a shot at winning I have combined my love for lists and debate, and I have written down some tips on what helped me to prepare for Euros last year.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Why I welcome the NSA reading my Facebook feed, yet have very high privacy settings

Edward Snowden did the right thing in exposing to the world that the NSA can currently find out
what everyone in the world Instagrammed for breakfast and who we are sending sexts to during office hours. It is an enormous amount of government power that the NSA assumes (legally assumes, even) and we probably should have a say in whether we the people like this breach of our confidentiality.

That said, I'd like to side myself on the “in favour of wire-tapping” part of this debate and try and argue that ultimately these intelligency agencies do a fine and necessary job in protecting my safety. I mainly do this because the most eloquent and well-thought responses against the NSA’s spy network (let’s call a spade a spade) boil down to people being afraid of transgressions that a good due process could pick up on, or a rather lazy and unnuanced claim that we “just” have a right to privacy. This claim’s lazy because users often don’t realize that the right to privacy can have two very different meanings, and the one they have in mind isn’t one they should be concerned with when it details PRISM.


Sunday, 11 August 2013

Five ideas for debating in The Netherlands

As I am now definitely part of the “old crowd” on the Dutch debating scene, I think it ought to be
time for me to sit myself down on the sofa of self-appointed wisdom, and give some general suggestions, ideas and inspirations for the coming debating season. I think our circuit is incredibly fun and inclusive, and serves as a great addition to one’s (student) life. Nonetheless, there are always things that could be done better, and that is a discussion that we should not neglect. I personally would love it if this circuit remained internationally competitive, and that the people we educate remain among the strongest, funniest and thought-provoking students around the world. Here are 5 tips that could help us on that path.

A mission statement of sorts

At the beginning of this summer I had a beautiful, simple idea about a story. I wanted to write about big concepts and big words, use novel literary techniques and all in the service of a simple idea: a stay-at-home-dad who was happy but frustrated with life. I had reasons why he was happy and I had reasons why he was frustrated. Naturally, some of these reasons were flimsy or sounded alien to anybody who actually was a dad, or stayed at home, or both. But I had a story and I got to writing.

I produced seven different openings on the first day and discarded them all. Blaming my rather cramped and smelly student house, the next day I took my laptop out to a park and tried again. I wrote a total of twelve words that way, but did abuse the free wifi to read twelve BuzzFeed articles as well. On day three I changed the total approach of the story, gender-swapped most of the roles and tried to make the entire piece dialogue-only. That evening I read aloud what I had written and realised, sadly, that it sounded like an excerpt of "The Room". At the end of the week I thought that the story was hard to write as I had tried to write it in English instead of Dutch, which is my natural tongue. A hilarious two hours followed, in which I spend more time looking up words in the Dutch dictionary than actually writing. I am now a poor excuse for a bilingual person, and I still have not written a story.
Then I realised that the reason that the story on paper was nothing like the literary genius that swirled around in my head was that the last time I wrote a story from start to finish was when I penned a one-page epic about time travel and dinosaurs. I was six at the time. Having realized this, I vowed to follow the advise popularized by Malcom Gladwell and spend 10,000 hours writing so I could become great at putting thoughts on paper.

This blog is an exercise for me to write about things that interest me. For those of you who know me, this means that I will write overly long exposition pieces on debating, opinion rants on the going-ons of politics or short commmentaries next to links to better-written articles. Perhaps there will be the odd attempt at fiction every now and then too. I am starting this blog for two simple reasons. Firstly, I want to get better at writing well, and writing in English. Secondly, specifically my posts on debating will be written as I want to share some of my thoughts or half-formed opinion about this game, and hope that these can be of help or inspiration to other people doing debate. I am writing this as a blog instead of a private journal so that I can welcome the scares, motivation and frustrations that come with writing for a (perhaps imaginary) audience.

I welcome feedback, criticism and discussion on this blog. I also welcome people who ask me to write about topics that strike their fancy. One of the worst parts about writing, for me, is to find something to write about and not get distracted. In contrast I love researching and rambling about topics once I've found them.

The blog's title is an allusion to how many minutes you are allowed to speak in a debate competition before the judge stops paying attention to you. It is also the minimum time I force myself to write every day. It is hopefully the minimum (but not maximum) time that readers are prepared to give my ramblings.