The Right Way to File

by Mark Royce

Many extempers become slaves to their tubs, rather than letting the files serve them.

The file boxes perennially transported by extemporaneous speakers to tournaments across the country perform a variety of functions.  The most important, obviously, is the assistance they provide to the competitor’s memory: facts, figures, dates, locations, and other very precise pieces of information are quickly accessible in an organized system, such that no precious prep time need be wasted in their retrieval.  Furthermore, most extempers either modify an inherited set of tubs or design their own, which teaches them to organize foreign and domestic issues in meaningful categories.  All the countries in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, would be grouped together, as would intertwined economic issues back home.  I might also add in jest that traversing the country with such ponderous luggage as extemp tubs teaches patience and improves physical stamina, while providing a constant reminder of how technologically antiquated the NFL’s procedures are.  But there is another role which extemp files frequently play that they certainly should not, and the purpose of this article is to warn of the dangers of relating to the tubs in this manner.

Do not the files often assume a kind of idolatrous affection in the minds of those who maintain them?  Do not many extempers, usually of at least intermediate skill, lavish a sort of narcissistic attention on their tubs, taking care to highlight in a favorite color, to ensure that each folder contains a certain number of articles, or to resolve to file for a certain number of hours each day?  Granted, such habits may be the honest manifestations of the quest for excellence: order, method, clarity, and daily attention to the headlines are essential; and a committed extemper is by all means entitled to customize the portable library on which he perpetually relies.  But extempers, as a whole, devote too much time and attention to the files, striving to meet some self-imposed standard of aesthetic perfection as librarians rather than remaining focused on winning tournaments as public speakers.

I think it can be demonstrated, with relative certainty, that victory does not usually lie in the size, scope, weight, or beauty of one’s file system.  If the gymnasium full of competitors at any recent Nationals were magically emptied, and all that remained were the competitors’ tubs, I highly doubt that their mere appearance could foretell which of their owners would survive to the final round, and which would be down after the first cut.  Any decent competitor has a well-organized file system that conforms both to NFL rules and to normal standards of grace and utility; no one fails to read and highlight the Economist, Washington Post, or New York Times; and the same issues, in tubs across the land, are generally organized in a very similar way.  Continuing our thought experiment, let us imagine that our competitors at Nationals suddenly had all their tubs confiscated, and were told that they would be forced to prepare all their speeches from memory alone.  Drastic as this change would be, it would affect all in equal measure, and therefore are we prepared to assert that it would actually affect the outcome?  Would not the same fluent, humorous, informed, graceful, and interesting speakers prevail to the elimination rounds, and the less talented presenters be overcome in the same manner as otherwise?  Surely a symphony rests more on the musicians than on their instruments, and a sculpture more on the artist than on his tools.  Relatively little of the content of a seven minute extemp speech is a direct importation from the files.  The artistic material (introduction, jokes, philosophic quotations) is normally memorized beforehand, and most of even the purely empirical data is harvested from the mind.  The files themselves contribute the nine or ten necessary sources and the statistical information useful or necessary in certain subjects, but relatively little else.  The content of the speech, to which the files have made only a minor addition, is then of course subject to the delivery skills of the performer, on which all public rhetoric ultimately stands or falls.  The files are thus a relatively unimportant component of what constitutes a successful speech, and with this fact established I shall proceed with several policies that will enable students to get the most out of their tubs without devoting them undue time and energy.

Extemp pedagogy frequently exaggerates the importance of file maintenance.  Practice speeches demand a coach’s direct attention, and the elements of rhetorical style can be difficult to teach in the abstract.  The fallback activity, therefore, is tub upkeep.  A particular extemper will be assigned to print certain newspapers each afternoon, and the team as a whole must uphold a daily filing quota.  They might be instructed by their coach to file 50 articles each day, to file for two hours each day, or to comply with some other equally artificial standard.  Such requirements, obviously, serve as a means of verifying the students’ activities and, if necessary, punishing noncompliance; but as pathways to greatness they rest upon two deeply flawed ideas.  First, such thinking assumes that filing necessarily produces knowledge, which it does not.  A reluctant extemper might print, read, and highlight twenty articles from the national media without comprehending any of it, and a lot of what passes for critical reading out there in extemp land is really little more than data processing.  The remedy for this self-defeating grind is to conceive your task to be more one of daily study than daily filing: read, to the extent possible, at your own pace, and never forget the uselessness of merely throwing one’s tired eyes over the page.  The second flaw in a file-driven extemp curriculum is the belief that filing wins competitions, a connection on which we have already cast serious doubt.  It is almost self-evident that rhetorical ability is what judges tend to reward the most, and thus madness alone could justify a regimen, amazingly common, in which extempers file for two hours after school each day but seldom or ever deliver practice speeches.  Another common error is to assume that all entries, regardless of their obscurity, must boast at least several recent articles, an aesthetic preference which wrongly assumes all subjects to be of historical moment.  A filing system should resemble a dictionary or phonebook: all possible entries are recorded since they all could suddenly become important, but in practice only select ones are used.  An international extemper thus allocates space for all the world’s countries, even though most of them, at any given time, do not make the headlines.  There is such a thing, for sure, as going behind the sound bites and reaching for deeper analyses and interpretations, but ultimately the important news finds its way to you.

What then is the right way to file?  The answer is to not file, and I obviously mean that in a figurative sense.  Extempers should concentrate on putting things in their minds rather than in their tubs.  Read deeply, critically, contemplatively; think through causes and effects in a logical way; and memorize introductions, quotations, and other useful artistic material.  The best of the news should be placed in the tubs, the best of the tubs should be placed in the mind, and the best of the mind should be placed in the speech.  An organized, efficient, and comprehensive file system is essential.  But extempers often place too much emphasis on maintaining great tubs, when they should instead concentrate on delivering great speeches.

[1] Mark Royce was the NFL runner-up in International Extemp in 2002, the third-place finisher the year before, and a two-time South Carolina state champion.  He also won Wake Forest in 2001.  Royce taught extemp at Montgomery Bell Academy while earning his B.A. in European studies at Vanderbilt University, and thrice ran draw at the MBA Extemp Round Robin.  He just completed his M.A. in international affairs at American University, and currently works on Senator McCain’s Presidential campaign in Arlington, Virginia.

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