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A Word or Two on Criteria

posted Mar 25, 2012, 11:58 AM by Anthony Severin   [ updated Apr 9, 2012, 2:26 PM ]

(the following is based on my experience judging this season, and my use of the words “many” or “often” indicates only the relatively fair number of teams and rounds that I've judged)

In my judging philosophy, I explicitly mention that although I will vote on criteria, I don't like them in policy debate. I have judged a fair amount of rounds this season, and, on the whole, they've been very good debates. But, without fail, every single round I judged had a criterion. I'm okay with that-- I understand the rationale behind running arguments that the judge says he/she doesn't like if you think it is vital to do so. I have done so with topicality, for instance, when the affirmative had a particularly squirrelly case. That said, the purpose of this post is not to argue that criteria are bad. I write this to ask debaters to take criteria seriously.

You're doing it wrong.

The problem here is that the criterion is often ignored by the teams that bring them up. This problem is only compounded when the negative fails to address the criterion or brings up a counter-criterion, without any comparative analysis. Thus, after giving me something that I've explicitly mentioned I don't like, teams go on to completely ignore it during weighing and analysis, thus forcing me to attempt to apply something I don't like to something that wasn't analyzed in the debate round. 

This isn't just an issue for judges like myself. Parent judges, community judges, and yes, even alumni are sometimes left wondering how the debaters expect them to apply a certain criterion. I judged a round recently where the affirmative's second advantage didn't have a thing to do with the affirmative's own criterion. I don't know how you can do that without having a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of a criterion.


A criterion is a weighing mechanism which determines which of the arguments should be considered on the judge's ballot; that is, if you win the criterion, only arguments that impact your criterion are considered. For example, if you have a criterion of justice, you should not have an advantage of saved money – it's not an issue under your criterion. What this means is that the criterion is not merely a rhetorical device with which we draw the judge's attention. The criterion effectively eliminates arguments which would otherwise be valid. 

Why is this? Well, there are a couple of reasons. First, the everyday word "criteria" literally means "a standard" by which something may be judged. A standard is something that must be met-- not something that should be met-- something that must be met for either team to win the round. Second, this is, historically, what the word "criterion" has meant in debate. Next to the value, the criterion is probably the most well known part of most LD cases. That's because criteria were designed to narrow the field of arguments in value debate. Instead of debating everything possible that falls under some value, let's limit it to a certain set to make things manageable. That was the original basis for the criteria's existence. That never changed, until debaters began to move criteria into policy a few years ago. Thus the original meaning, both in English and in common practice is "standard." A criterion is the point of focus.

Coming back to the point

During my second year of debate, I learned about criteria. I had two cases that year, and each had a criterion.... which I virtually never referenced outside of the 1AC and 2AR. Now, I realize the folly of what I was doing. I was using the word “criterion” without really meaning “criterion.” I was trying to talk about the “focus of our case,” but was using an argument that eliminated other potential areas of focus. Similarly, virtually every time I see a criterion used in a policy round, the debaters are really just trying to say “the focus of our case is X.” I urge you to use the words correctly and accurately. You'll have better debates and less confusion.

Perhaps more importantly, criteria do not exist to be ignored until the phrase “we've upheld our criterion” in the 2AR; if you feel you must run them, they should be an active part of weighing arguments throughout the round. This will clear up tremendous amounts of confusion for judges of all types, and may actually win you more rounds because your criterion is now an integral part of the judge's argument evaluation process.

In Short

There are a few things that I ask debaters to do:

First: if your judge says he doesn't like criteria, please heed his words. There is little that kills more credibility than seeing debaters writing meticulously on stickies while I'm giving my philosophy, only to hear them do the exact opposite. This isn't just limited to me, criteria, or arguments in general. If your judge asks for a slow round, give them a slow round. If your judge asks you to clap twice spin around and sit down, do it. Even though I recognize that, at times, it's necessary to use arguments that the judge may not like, I doubt I'm alone in wishing debaters would heed the judge's philosophy more 

Second: if you must run a criterion, please ensure it's actually a criterion. A criterion is not just an area of focus; it is the point of focus. Refer back to it throughout the round and tell the judge when arguments and disadvantages don't impact to it. You'll be using it properly and everyone will be clear on what you mean. For that matter, it might even help you win a few rounds if you use it to eliminate some of the negative's disadvantages.

Finally, regardless of your viewpoint on criteria, I urge you to take them seriously during your next round or when coaching your teams. The judge should be perfectly clear on how he or she should evaluate the arguments before the 2AR.

Enjoy this fine spring weather! Feel free to comment below in my new comment system, or shoot me an email at .