The above posts correctly describe the form of policy debate, but I will try to describe how debate feels, at least on a high school level. There are few things that I must clarify first, though. For all those non-debaters out there, A and aff are short for affirmative, N and neg are short for negative, C is short for constructive, and R is short for rebuttal. Therefore, the 1AC is the first affirmative constructive and the 2NR is the second negative rebuttal. Also, most rounds take place in classrooms at the school that is hosting the tournament. There are two teams, each with two people, and one judge, except for in later rounds when there are typically three. The judge has complete power over which team wins and is often not very qualified. There are usually not spectators, unless the round is rather late in the tournament. Most debates start out with the affirmative reading eight minutes of reasons why the status quo is bad, a proposed plan of action relating to the resolution to solve for the harms of the status quo, and reasons that that plan will work. The 2004-2005 high school policy debate resolution is: Resolved: That the United States federal government should establish a foreign policy substantially increasing its support of United Nations peacekeeping operations. Under this resolution, an example plan might be to send peacekeepers to the peacekeeping operation in the Congo. For a better idea of what a case looks like, see the 2001-2002 Debate Topic node. This is also a good time to note that 1AC not only stands for the eight minute speech, but also the particular case presented since most teams read the same case every round. Common arguments presented by the neg in the 1NC include the disad, the kritik, topicality, and the counterplan.
Now that the basics are covered, I shall try to convey what debate as an activity means. Sure, it’s educational; I’ve learned more about weapons of mass destruction, mental health, the ocean, and peacekeeping operations than I ever thought I would back in eighth grade, but debate is so much more than that. I’ve made great friends sitting around for hours between rounds in the school cafeteria. Those friends soon turn into bitter enemies after a particularly fierce round at just the next tournament. There is also no comparable joy to that of destroying a team that is supposedly better. There is no greater frustration than that of losing to a much worse team.
Oh, the frustration. Debate may seem like the place for logical argumentation, but that is not always the case. Sometimes in local tournaments you will get lucky; you will get a judge who is now in college and did fairly well debating in high school to judge you and the round will go fine. But more often than not you will get some parent to judge you. They try their best, but they know nothing of the activity. Speed reading no longer applies and debate jargon goes out the window. The affirmative will almost always win and the negative can only hope to speak prettier. To these judges, if a=b and b=c, then a != c. They are lay judges. A debate round just does not feel right without being able to speed read, or spread, through evidence.
I get a natural high from the speed in debate. I may be eighteen and have never driven a car over forty miles per hour, but I fulfill my need for speed with debate. When I am reading thousands of words per minute, the adrenaline flows. I know that the judge and everyone else in the room can barely comprehend me and that is only because they have spent years listening to such reading, but that does not matter to any of us. What matters is that we each get a chance to speed and throw down arguments all over the flow.
The debate personality is not to be taken lightly either. No matter what a debater’s record is, that debater is the best. Unfortunately, to two people, the judge always made the wrong decision. Nobody ever loses a debate. Of course only two people leave with a first place trophy, but to all of that team’s bested opponents, they should have lost long ago.
Debate is an indescribable amalgam of fragile alliances, eagerness, elation, bitter disappointment, high paced word battles, and learning. No other activity can compare to debate as far as I’m concerned, no matter how hard academic challenge tries. Plus, nothing makes a person look sexier than carrying around a giant, fourteen gallon Rubbermaid tub full of evidence.