Vote No on SVP/MVP for the NFA

In case you haven’t heard, the NFA is considering some pretty drastic event changes. You can read the text of the proposal here. I wasn’t going to weigh in on this one, but the more I thought about it, the sillier this thing sounded, and the more cause for consternation I found. I do not believe adoption of an SVP/MVP regime would benefit the activity. This is best understood when evaluating the idea in terms of educational value and operational risk. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it’s also the heartbeat of poorly explained ideas, so buckle in – this is a long one.

EDUCATION

If there’s one thing I agree with in the proposal, it’s that the purpose of forensics is education. The argument presented is that we need to look at tangible learning outcomes. To be frank, evaluating the proposal in that light was difficult in a world where tangible learning outcomes were not defined, and the projected educational value of the new construct was never weighed against empirical data. Indeed, the proposal’s criticism of the current event construction never articulates the alleged educational deficiencies present therein.

That being said, I think the case can still be made that the current event construction is far more valuable than an SVP/MVP split.

The SVP/MVP approach distinguishes performance type based on the number of characters portrayed. On a very surface level, this may seem an easy distinction to draw. In fact, the proposal attempts to convey just how easy it is by presenting what they believe is a representative sampling of the student body’s ability to categorize material based on the number of characters presented. Ignoring momentarily that a handful of students who can count is hardly representative of anything at all, ease of distinction in material does not necessarily translate to educational value FOR THE STUDENTS, nor is any argument provided for why it would.

On the other hand, the current distinction provides a far more robust learning experience. The proposal argues that the world of literature has become too fluid, making distinctions between Prose and DI pieces far too blurry. What the proposal misses is the author intent of the piece. In prose, the material performed is intended to be read, whereas in DI, the material performed was written for just such a purpose. That’s not a hard call to make, no matter how fluid media transmission becomes in our world.

To illustrate this, let’s take a look at the examples provided in the proposal text:

Q: “If an author were to read her/his short story on television, or even if a student were to read a short story into YouTube, and then transcribe that text, is that text now prose or drama?”

A: Prose. Video is used in such cases as a promotion of text written to be read.

Q: “If a student were to write a text, is it only the convention of placing a name and a colon at the beginning (e.g. “CARL:”) that changes it from prose to drama?”

A: A colon does not a playwright make. If such syntax were to be used in a book, intended to be read, it would be prose. If the syntax were used to instruct performance, it’s drama.

We could go through a hundred examples, but it doesn’t really matter. We’re never going to have a concrete set of guidelines for making these kinds of judgment calls. The proposal admits as much, saying, “As judges, we often write, “this might be better as a Crit (Persuasion, Inform, ADS),” or “this poetry is very narrative, it almost sounds like prose,” on ballots.”

To be fair, this difference may seem far vaguer than counting characters, but it also holds much more educational weight – particularly when one considers what goes into getting the piece into a round.

When attempting to cut a piece of material that was intended to be read, the student must study story arc, character interaction, and language. While some prose pieces are short stories, others still are novels which require significant truncation to be used in round. The type of storytelling that goes into rearranging a longer story (the idea of the “supertext” in the proposal) is a unique challenge that provides a distinctive learning experience.

Today, as a communications professional, I use this particular set of skills all the time. I may not be holding a black book anymore, but our firm’s standard educational presentations are frequently rearranged to apply to a given audience, and with each reformatting, considerations for flow of story, tone of delivery, and cohesiveness of ideas are tantamount.

When attempting to cut a piece of material that was intended to be performed, very different considerations are in play. Here, the focus is about adapting the literature for performance in a very different venue. Students must focus on character study, attention to physicality, envisioning and making real an alternate environment, and reliance on non-verbal communication elements to convey what is lost in the absence of stage, costume, makeup and prop. Here, it is the ability to transcend traditional performance constructs that is most notable.

Again, I’ve found these skills to be incredibly useful. The character I play in a business meeting with C-Suite executives is dramatically different from the tone I take with a new, inexperienced investor – even when the material is the same. My stage will change, but the script remains, and my performance still needs to hit hard. The tools of character development I picked up in DI have contributed greatly to my ability to deliver in diverse settings.

It is these processes that provide sizeable educational opportunities for students. I fail to see how counting characters provides a better educational option. It certainly would not have been as valuable for me.

Outside of the unique lessons learned in the process of preparing these events, it has also been suggested that the current event construction already adheres to a set of community norms. The idea is that Prose pieces are intended to tell stories, whereas DI is more about character construction. This was certainly my experience in the events, both as competitor and spectator. Really, if you think about it, this description is a more concise reflection of the very different processes that go into putting the event together. What’s more – these standards of performance have evolved naturally over time, fueled by passionate and innovative performances from the student populous. In an activity that’s about the students, this should be considered preferable to definitions contrived to address what seems to be a non-existent problem.

However, the proposal isolates this argument as false, first stating, “We do not think that judges rank a contestant lower in Prose because they develop a “character,” any more than they would rank a contestant lower in DI because their “character” told a “story.””

The problem is… I did get ballots like that. I had teammates and peers at other schools who got ballots like that. The assertion that it doesn’t happen is just untrue. And as we’ve already covered, the proposal itself indicates that judge reflections on material suitability are common place.

In other words, subjective judge commentary on the appropriateness of material for a given event is a status quo issue, and as the Q&A section indicates, it is expected that this problem would not be alleviated under an SVP/MVP regime, making it a largely moot point. If we are concerned about this community norm being part of a “hidden code,” the solution is pretty simple: put it in the event descriptions.

Generally speaking, the proposal does not sufficiently explain the potential increase in educational value under an SVP/MVP regime, while summarily dismissing the educational value unique to the DI/Prose constructs. If we’re looking to embrace event definitions that provide the richest educational experience, this proposal should be rejected. I understand that forensics must stay true to its educational purposes, and be able to defend the educational value provided to students. That being said, if I can come up with a defense of the current event construction in a short span of time, I have a hard time believing that a body filled with some of the brightest minds in communication – minds that have dedicated their lives to this activity and seen firsthand the impact it can have on a student – would somehow be unable to generate a far more thorough defense themselves.

OPERATIONAL CONCERNS

While the activity is educational in nature, it would be naïve to not consider the operational impacts of these changes, as well. Counting characters might make material selection a tiny bit easier (maybe), but it could make running nationals a nightmare. If you’ve judged a round of DI in the past five years, odds are you’ve noted that the vast majority of the pieces are monologues, and would qualify as SVP. If you’ve judged a round of Prose in the same timeframe, you’d probably say the same was true there. Even when multiple “voices” are there, it’s rarely a fully developed character; typically it’s more of an impression conveyed by the narrator.

While true MVP pieces certainly exist, they are far and away outnumbered by SVP pieces. What will that do to the entry skew at nationals? What happens the bulk of the prior DI entries are now in the same group as the already massive Prose pool? What happens when that break becomes next to impossible?

To be entirely fair, I don’t have data on that note, but neither does anyone else. IF the NFA were to even consider the proposal, it should not be until after data on the subject is collected. Poll NFA participants at nationals. Ask them how they’d classify their pieces. I don’t think you’ll be happy with the results, and what that means for the functionality of an SVP/MVP regime.

For teams that compete at both AFA and NFA, there are other complications. While recognizing that the NFA community is not necessarily beholden to the performance standards of similar communities, in this instance, the complications of crossover are pronounced. This isn’t about one tournament having an extra event or one less; it’s about having to rearrange entire performances. For those of you who never had the distinct displeasure of having to recoach a duet for performance as a duo in high school, it’s never as simple or easy as it sounds.

Further, the issue of AFA leg qualification is a much bigger problem than is being acknowledged. In addressing the question of whether SVP/MVP placements at tournaments would count towards their AFA qualifications, the proposal simply says, “That is up to the AFA-NIET committee to decide.”

Here’s the thing – if I’m running a tournament, and I want to make sure it appeals to the broader IE community, I want it to satisfy multiple needs. If I only offer SVP and MVP, and the AFA decides (rightfully so) that this doesn’t help students to secure legs, attendance at my tournament would likely suffer. As a result, in this theoretical world, I’m probably only going to offer DI and Prose, especially since it will qualify students for SVP and MVP anyway.

This means, for the most part, students will get their first taste of the SVP/MVP construct AT NATIONALS. Not only does this have major implications in terms of student preparation, but odds are the judging pool would be just as ill-prepared. The end result would be a largely frustrating time for competitors and judges alike. As an activity that wants to ensure students have a positive learning experience, that’s not a good thing.

It has been suggested that this idea be tried out on a probationary basis. In theory, that’s a fair idea. The problem is execution. It’s one thing to have a singular event or two running as probationary. However, the only way to effectively evaluate the SVP/MVP approach would be to see how they operate in a world where they do not conflict with Prose and DI. Unfortunately, that means a test which does not run the risk of garnering the negative impacts listed above is not possible.

And let’s think about what this means for Duo. The proposal indicated that part of instituting the SVP/MVP regime might be limiting students to one Duo entry. In speaking with Duo competitors past and present, not a single one of them was ok with that tradeoff. In fact, the reaction to that limitation has been even fiercer than that to the SVP/MVP construct itself. If this activity is FOR the students, perhaps we ought to ask the students what THEY want. And more than just a handful of them.

CONCLUSION

Absent educational deficiencies in the current event construction, and absent any compelling justification for why the SVP/MVP regime would be more educational, and in light of these operational concerns, I believe it’s clear that this proposal should be rejected. Using a net-benefits decision making paradigm, if there is no pervasive, pronounced harm in the status quo, and a proposed change would introduce risks that are probable and significant, the action is ill-advised. That certainly seems to be the case here.

I hope this proposal is rejected, but more than anything, I hope the community really engages in a healthy debate on the subject. It was disheartening to see this information was not initially widely distributed by leadership at the NFA. When we’re talking about a change as major as this, we need a chorus of voices bringing perspective to the table. Silence is not really an option.

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