Persisting: What Are Small Schools and How Can They Thrive?

By Jasmine Stidham

Teacher and Coach at Harvard-Westlake and Assistant Coach at Dartmouth College

“Hard work beats talent, when talent doesn’t work hard.” -Tim Notke

            The above quote is one of my absolute favorite mantras. If you are someone who debates with a chip on your shoulder, or are typically considered an underdog in your field, then you are familiar with the task of having to outwork your well-resourced opponents. This is especially relevant in the context of small schools. Debate is permeated by a small-versus-big-school divide; it is a consistent source of tension within the community, and there is no silver bullet that can rectify such tension. There is a debate over what constitutes a “small” versus “big” school. When these discussions take place, usually online, there is never a concrete definition or criteria offered to delineate how a school might be classified. This article is not designed to start a war over whether or not certain schools are big or small, but it is necessary to briefly outline some of the factors we ought to consider when making such determinations. 

            Debating for a small school is challenging for various reasons. You typically do not receive much support for debate from your school’s administration, and funding is even more difficult to come by. I remember when I was in high school, we had to raise funds by hosting “De-bake Sales” which usually meant I spent the week baking cookies and brownies instead of prepping. Small schools are also at a disadvantage in terms of coaching resources. When I think of a small school, I picture a team who does not have any formal or specialized coaching outside of their debate teacher. These teams have to rely on external resources such as Open Evidence, the wiki, prep-sharing via Reddit, and other online sources to discuss strategy. Nowadays, there are countless debate-related websites and forums that students use to ask questions and share resources, which is awesome. However, we all know that those online resources can never fully substitute for face-to-face coaching with someone who interacts with you regularly and understands your strategies.  

            Before I delve into some of these factors, I feel that it is necessary for me to preempt the inevitable “gotcha!” moment that many people are waiting to capitalize on. Yes, I work for an incredibly privileged, and well-funded private school. You got me there. The Harvard-Westlake team is well-aware of this privilege, and we do our best to provide valuable resources to the community. This article is not being written from the perspective of a Harvard-Westlake debater. Unlike the students I coach, I did not have the same debate opportunities that they do. I debated at a tiny high school that no one has ever heard of in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. I was not even aware of the TOC’s existence. We did not have any outside coaching, no one to cut our cards, no rich families to fund the team, and certainly no national circuit travel. I never came close to getting a bid in high school, but I still turned out okay. In college I ended up at yet another tiny institution, the University of Central Oklahoma. College policy debate does not emphasize the small-versus-big-school divide as much as the high school community tends to, but if there was ever a debate over where UCO belongs… it would likely fall in the “tiny” category. This is all to say that before you decide to cast aside the remainder of this article because I work for a big school, please consider that I have a very different background than the students I coach. Despite what you may believe, I deeply care about the survival of small schools and resource disparities in debate. The remainder of this article will outline the factors we ought to consider in the big-versus-small-school debate and conclude with a series of pro-tips for small school debaters. 


Factor #1: School funding

            This is perhaps the most obvious factor. If a school allocates a significant level of funding for the debate team, chances are that the school is not considered “small.” Most schools do not want to designate sufficient funding to debate because it is extremely expensive and does not bring in money, compared to other activities like sports. If you attend a school where you do not have to constantly fundraise or beg your school to cover entry costs, you are in a much better position than most schools. 


Factor #2: School support

            Having administrative support for a team is also relevant. Some administrations might be willing to allow a debate team to exist, but additional support is minimal. This could include a refusal to hire a debate teacher, have debate classes, or permit national circuit travel. Certain administrations can be exceptionally hostile to debate if they perceive it as being too political or left-leaning. This can be observed in conservative states and regions where progressive ideals are treated with disdain. When a school administration backs and encourages a debate team, it is typically a positive sign that debate is a sustainable activity at that particular school. 


Factor #3: Coaching

            This factor is one of the most germane issues when discussing resource disparities. If you attend a school that has a designated, and experienced debate coach to travel with you, then you have an immense advantage over most teams in the country. If you can afford to hire a private coach on your own dime, that is even more advantageous. Someone who attends a small school does not have the ability to hire their own coach because it is usually not economically viable. A small school debater is someone who does not have a school-funded coach or the capacity to hire a private coach, in my opinion. Coaching should also be evaluated in terms of the size of a given team, which I discuss below.


Factor #4: Size of team

            The scope and size of a debate program can reveal where it falls on the big vs. small spectrum. If a team only has a few serious debaters who cut cards or travel, then we usually conclude that team is closer to the “small” side. On the flip side, if a team has a massive program across several divisions or formats, we would likely associate that as being a “big” school. When an individual team can support that many students in terms of funding and resources, it is a good sign they face fewer disparities. However, the size of a team should not be viewed in a vacuum. Sometimes there are schools with large programs and many debaters, but the ratio of coach-to-student is imbalanced. 


Factor #5: Socioeconomic demographic of team

            The socioeconomic makeup of a team can say quite a bit about its classification. Wealthy private schools can often devote more resources to debate because they are not wedded to the same budgetary restrictions as some public schools. Students who attend such private schools usually have the ability to pay for national circuit travel and debate camp each summer, which correlates to higher levels of success compared to those who cannot. There are public schools, however, that also have a predominantly wealthy and privileged student demographic. We should keep in mind that not every student who attends a wealthy private school comes from a wealthy family, as there are many students who receive financial aid and scholarships. 


What do we do with these factors?

            The list I provided is not exhaustive. I am sure there are other factors we ought to consider, and I encourage others to discuss those. These individual factors should not be viewed in isolation, as there are various permutations one could make to argue where a certain school should be categorized. Additionally, this is not to say that every “big” school is successful, and every “small” school is doomed. We all know how these disparities can shape tournament results, but we have empirically witnessed teams from the tiniest of schools absolutely demolish teams from the biggest of schools. The next section intends to provide small school debaters with several useful tips they can implement throughout the season. Happy debating!



Pro-tip #1: Debate smarter, not harder

            This is a lot easier said than done, but when you debate for a smaller team you have to recognize your resource limitations early on and establish a plan to maximize your time. You do not have the luxury to cut a million positions or write 80 distinct case hits, so your preparation needs to be structured differently. Here are a few strategies I used when I needed to prep smarter:

a.    Become an expert in something: if there is one thing the majority of small school kids know, it’s that you need to specialize in a position that can be read against most teams. This could be a Kritik, a specific T argument, the terror disad, etc. It doesn’t matter what the argument is; it just needs to be something can apply to most of the field. This is why I give a lecture at camp every summer that explains why everyone needsto be able to go for a K. A few kids usually frown because they believe K’s are gross and cheating, but at somepoint you will be in a bid round where you are neg against a new aff and you have nothing to say. We have all been there. The plan is so narrow, it links to nothing, your generics do not apply, and all hope is lost. You know what will save you? Ole reliable, aka the security K, feminist IR, settler colonialism, the death K, etc. Even if you are someone who loathes Kritiks, trust me when I say you need to make K one of your favorite letters if you want to be consistently successful and threatening to your opponents. Aside from Kritiks, you can specialize in other arguments, too. Pick your favorite, most applicable T argument on the topic and practice it until you can give a 2NR in your sleep. T is a position that I think all small school debaters should take advantage of because it doesn’t require a bulk of evidence to win debates. You do not need a coach to cut you a 500-page file to get good at going for generic T arguments. 

b.   Get good at generics:Just as you should become an expert in something, you should prioritize getting good at generics. Yes, they are generic in the sense that everyone else has predicted them and the big schools will have cards to answer them, but they are also the most accessible arguments. Generics are strategic because they allow you to cover the majority of affs at a tournament without having to cut a million case negs. If you can block these out, practice going for them, and then edit your blocks to read against specific teams, you are in a great position. When I was in high school, I typically had three 2NR strategies my senior year: The States CP + Politics, some weird T argument, or the Cap K. Occasionally I would go for a specific DA if I had the time to prep it out, but that was only afterI made sure my generics were prepped and ready to go. So, do not be scared of generics. Do not run away from reading the core topic DA just because big schools will know they exist. Some of the best small school teams in policy and LD wreck big schools on the most predictable arguments solely because they are betterat them and have blocked out every possible answer. 

c.    Read a sustainable and narrow aff: When you are choosing an aff to write, you need to select an aff using the following criteria: 

a.    Can I read this throughout the year? Remember, you go to a small school, which means you physically do not have the time to cut new affs for every tournament or each bid round. You need to choose an aff that is sustainable and can be read for most of the season. Most of your time will be spent doing neg work against different affs to ensure you have something to say, which means you must write an aff that won’t require cutting a ton of updates.

b.   Is there something unique or tricky that makes it strategic? When I say tricky or unique, please do not confuse this with being a one-and-done aff you can read in a few debates and then toss into the Dropbox cemetery. You want to find an area that is sustainable, narrow, and has a strategic angle to deal with neg offense. For example, maybe there is a uniqueness trick to the aff that can thump most neg disads. Or perhaps you choose an agent that makes most neg counterplans not competitive. 

c.    How does it interact with the core neg arguments? You want to make sure you write an aff that has built-in offense/defense to answer core neg generics. Do not write something so narrow that you have nothing in the 1AC to use in the 2AC when answering the primary topic DA. Think through what the main neg arguments are for your given topic and find an aff that will have strategic angles to deal with those.


Pro-tip #2: Cull, cull, cull!

            Since you (presumably) do not have a coach or enough teammates to cut evidence, you need to utilize other means to update your files. If applicable, you should download files from Open Evidence and compile the evidence relevant to your topic. You should absolutely use the wiki to your advantage to cull evidence from open source. After each tournament, you should go through the wiki and download all of the speech documents you can find. Next, you should sort and compile those documents into specific folders and select the best evidence to integrate into your own files. There is nothing wrong with reading evidence from open source, but make sure you remember where you found the evidence. For example, I judged several debates this past season where teams would read evidence I cut without realizing it, and would insist it said something that it did not. To be clear, I truly do not care if someone reads Harvard-Westlake cards in front of me. I understand that people are just trying their best with evidence they are often handed right before a debate, usually from a coach or teammate. It is inevitable. But it is incredibly awkward when a debater is attempting to explain a piece of evidence in a way that is not reflective of what the card actually says. I have also judged debates where teams will read cards that come from their opponent’s team, and sometimes that can get messy. Not for ethical reasons, but usually because the opponent will know more about the evidence than they do. So, you should definitely use the wiki and open source to your advantage. Just make sure you keep tabs on where the evidence came from and leave notes to remind yourself when and when not to read certain cards. 


Pro-tip #3: Draft an efficient hit list 

            As we have established above, small schools do not have time to cut a case neg for every team in a tournament pool. This means you need to prioritize certain teams and arguments over others. Before every tournament, you should do the following:

a.    Start with the top:make a list of the best teams, try to focus on the top 10-15. Go through their affs to see what you need to beat them. Write a specific to-do list for these teams to determine if your generics will cover those affs, or if you need something different. It is important to start with the best teams because obviously those debates will naturally be more difficult. If you do not have anything to read against the #3 team in the pool, you will not have a good time. 

b.   Analyze the middle:go through the rest of the pool and make lists of which affs are being read. Using Excel sheets or Google sheets is the most efficient way to do this. Your goal is to get a general idea of where to spend your pre-tournament prep time. If you end up noticing that a significant percentage of the pool is reading a similar aff, then you know you’ll need to devote more time to that case neg. Additionally, you should take note of which schools make up most of the entry list. We all know some schools bring a ton of teams. Focus on negs to those affs since there is a higher chance you will debate them at some point.

c.    Accept limitations:Recognize that you won’t have time to cut answers to everything. Prioritize the best, most threatening positions and teams, and understand that there might be something you cannot cover. That is okay and inevitable. But, if you do things right, you will have core generics in your arsenal to read against the affs you may have missed.           


Pro-tip #4: Be your own opponent

            One of the huge disadvantages of being on a small school is that you do not have enough teammates to practice against, or a coach to do drills with you. It makes it difficult to test out new positions, warm-up before tournaments, and receive important feedback. This was something I experienced in both high school and college. My partner and I wanted to get as much practice as possible but struggled to find others who were willing to debate us. Instead of using that as an excuse to not practice at all, we became our own opponents. Here are a couple ways you too can become your own opponent:

a.    Cross-ex yourself, or your partner (if you have one):one of the best ways to see if you are ready to read a new position is to have a cross-ex over it. If you have a partner, make them CX you over your 1AC for an unlimited amount of time until you get your answers right. If you don’t have a partner, cross-ex yourself! Yes, I fully realize how weird this sounds, but I promise it works. I would go through my own arguments/files and would write out what I thought the best questions were. Then I would write out answers to all of those questions so that I internalized the perfect answer. Is this next-level awkward? Absolutely. Did it help? You bet.

b.   You know how to beat yourself:due to the nature of switch-side and having to think through responses to our own positions, we are sometimes our best opponents. You probably know more about the flaws within your own arguments than other teams. Do not be afraid to capitalize on this. For example, when I was a 2N in college and I was writing 2NC K blocks, I would practice by writing out what I thought the best 2AC looked like. I would go through other teams’ documents, find the best cards that answered our position, and then I made myself give 2NCs against those 2ACs. To help my partner, he would have me write really difficult 1NCs so he could practice giving efficient 2ACs. 

HW Debate