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Guidelines for Controversial Area Papers


(by Gordon Stables. Originally drafted June 2006; Revised October 2007)

The Background of Topic Areas

Writing a topic paper can appear daunting, but is manageable if approached in several steps. The first part of the process takes place when someone decides that there is an issue that might make a valuable intercollegiate debate topic. The topic selection committee commissions a number of areas each year that might be valuable options, but these are designed to only ensure that some options exist. Each topic selection is improved by the addition of areas identified by the community.

In the last few years the writing process has been divided into two distinct papers: an area paper due in early March and a wording paper due in Mid-May. This process has helped lower the entry barrier for community development of papers and has reduced the burden on any single author. At the same time, the topic selection committee has also worked to produce wording options consistent with the topic area selected by community vote.

As much as these trends have improved the topic writing process, we are occasionally left with the problem of an area paper that is very conceptually broad, perhaps too broad to produce a range of expectations surrounding the upcoming topic. This may, in part, be due to the very nature of writing an ‘area’ paper. The general procedure has encouraged writing on a subject, such as a nation (like China) or a branch of government (the Supreme Court). In the interests of helping develop a process that is both accessible and predictable, beginning with the 2007-2008 process the chair of the topic selection committee has encouraged that the concept of ‘area’ papers be slightly adjusted toward individual controversies or controversial areas.

Why select controversies?

There is a tremendous amount of information discussion about the ‘best’ topics. It may be impossible to develop a consensus on such criteria, but it is not uncommon for some of the discussion about better topics to describe their coherence and the presence of a rich body of literature. It may be understood that some of the ‘better’ topics possess a vibrant dispute among interested parties. These ‘controversies’ may be understood as the specific theme of a topic. Anyone who has explained the topic to someone from outside the debate community may also recognize these themes as those brief summaries of the debate topic.

Asking for a central controversy in each ‘area’ paper can allow the community to vote on each area with a greater confidence. The last two topics, which featured extensive work by individual authors, provide some clear examples. Instead of listing the ‘ China’ topic on the area ballot, we might have instead listed the controversy of trying to produce economic policy changes by the Chinese government. Alternately, the ‘court’ topic could have been listed as ‘reverse major Supreme Court cases.’ In both cases the precision of the specific wording is not a necessity. The next stage of the process will be tasked with that specific responsibility. The primary challenge for each author of a controversial area paper is to identify that policy concern.

This also keeps our process consistent with the mandate of the CEDA constitution (Article 2), which describes the goals of debate including to “promote the value of argumentative discourse as a means of producing reasoned, measured, cooperative solutions to contemporary problems of social and political significance.”



The Elements of a Controversial Area Paper

A fully developed paper should include:

Mainstream (i.e., debatable) options for policy change - The central task of these papers is to identify the most mainstream or central proposals for change within a given controversial area. This is often understood as identifying the few "middle of the road" affirmatives with evidence and cites for solvency advocates. These are the central issues at work in the larger controversy. The identification and citation of important authors can help guide the development of the topic wording and allow a common subject of community debate.

The paper may also identify the central literature based arguments available to the negative, i.e., what are the major argumentative assets for opponents of change? For both sides, authors should consider traditional policy and critical literature that is relevant to this controversy. Solid work in this element is essential to ensuring that later wording options reflect the central argumentative controversies. In this approach authors can outline the primary types of arguments that would allow both affirmative and negative teams a reasonable body of literature to draw upon. It is impossible to predict exactly what arguments will develop, but authors can at least help anticipate some of the major types of arguments (and their answers) that teams should be encouraged to research.

Unique educational opportunities - There are obviously argumentative strategies for both sides common to most topics, these papers should be primarily concerned with the unique opportunities provided by this controversy. The job of the topic selection process is not to produce a single type of arguments, but rather to help provide the playing field for arguments developed by each squad and team. These considerations may include the last time such areas were debated and how earlier topics overlapped (if at all) with these areas.

Potential directions for wording papers – These controversial area papers are encouraged to include specific wording recommendations. The greatest value that authors can provide is preliminary analysis of the specific elements of this controversy. Is there a debate about the best level of governmental response? Is there a general direction that new policies should follow? Are there certain agencies or interested parties that define the terms in specific and meaningful ways? Authors should to try to outline the primary dimensions of this controversy, but should try to not provide more than five general types of proposed resolutions. The wording process can help identify the most precise phrase in a given context, but we need these essays to develop a larger context with some thematic coherence.

Recommendation of the author – It is of tremendous importance that each author treats their task as part of a due diligence on behalf of the larger community. It is important that interested parties work on these papers, but each author should also consider that there may be specific historical moments where some topics are better or worse suited for the intercollegiate community. This concern was voiced in the fall of 2001, when there was tremendous interest in selecting a topic that dealt with terrorism for 2002-2003. At that time, however, it was felt that the necessary literature might be ‘too ripe,’ that is not sufficiently explored in scholarly detail, to allow for the best possible topic. This concern was also raised in this last topic cycle, when some argued that there should be additional time to let the congressional debate on immigration policy settle before it was considered. An author of a paper develops additional insight into a controversy and the community would benefit from this moment of evaluation. Accordingly, we would ask that authors provide their recommendation of the topic’s inclusion on the upcoming ballot. Options for this recommendation include: strongly support, support with reservations, no opinion, oppose with reservation, strongly oppose.

Final Thoughts

Writing topic papers at any stage is a process fraught with a tremendous amount of hard work and little thanks. The nature of the process ensures that every topic but one will be rejected each year. That seemingly cold fact should not dissuade potential authors. It is the process of identifying, comparing and ultimately voting for a specific area that helps to keep this process valuable. I mention this only to encourage people to work on these papers, but not to invest so much of themselves that it is difficult to handle the selection of another paper. For this process to work at its best, we need a number of committed community members to write these papers each year. They need not be longer than 10-15 pages if they follow these guidelines. Even if they are not selected, each author can share in the comfort that they are providing a valuable service to the community and that each controversial area may be considered in following years.

Thanks and please let me know if you have questions or suggestions.

Gordon Stables - Chair, CEDA Topic Selection Committee