State Oral Interp is done for another year. I some of South Dakota's smartest, gutsiest high school students perform William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" (Bryan knew trickle-down economics was bunk in 1896), Karel Čapek's R.U.R., and Jake Barton's "I Dreamed I Was a Video Game" (Asteroids as a metaphor for life—I totally get that). Fine work, kids.

I also had time to get down to the Meridian Bridge... twice! The first trip was a morning run at 6 a.m.—not the best time for pictures. I returned during lunch today, when it was a little brighter and warmer:

Meridian Bridge, Yankton South Dakota, December 1, 2012

A man walks back from Nebraska on the Meridian Bridge, Yankton, South Dakota, December 1, 2012.

A sunny Saturday, 60°F, looking east on the Missouri River from the Meridian Bridge, Yankton, South Dakota, December 1, 2012.

A sunny Saturday, 60°F, looking east on the Missouri River from the Meridian Bridge, Yankton, South Dakota, December 1, 2012.

And then this evening, I found Charlie's Pizza (tonight's pick: the Hepburn!) made just a bit more awesome by discovering that the Griswolds have moved in next door.

Ah, Yankton. Always a good time.

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So how about that speech by Bill Clinton last night?

You can read the transcript, but the prepared text was 3,136 words. The speech Clinton delivered was 5,895 words. You need to watch the video.

You could listen to the audio on your drive to work... if you commute from Madison to Sioux Falls or Spearfish to Rapid City. But you won't see the fire in his eyes, the force in his face and hands. Clinton gave a full-body speech. You need to watch the video.

Twelve years ago I hated Bill Clinton. I cheered his exit from the White House. Had Twitter existed then, I'd have been responding to all his policy talk with the same whining South Dakota Senate Majority Leader Russell Olson was whining during the former President's speech last night:

Clinton lied to his wife and our congress and everyone in this country! Is this the best Obama can find as a credit reference [Sen. Russell Olson, Tweet, September 5, 2012].

Twelve years ago, I'd have gone there with Russ because, like Russ now, I couldn't grapple with a real policy debate. I'd cling to the personal and sloganly because it was much easier than confronting the success of Clinton's policies... and it is much easier for Russ and other Republicans now than confronting the power of Clinton's rebuttal of everything the GOP said at its convention last week.

Much is being made of the length of Clinton's speech, even by his biggest backers. But Clinton had a lot to say. It was important that he say it. It takes time to untangle the many tricky lines Romney and Ryan and Rush have spun. And you know, Clinton was President. If a former President wants to speak to his own party's convention, not to mention the nation, 50 minutes doesn't seem like all that much time to yield to the former leader of the free world... especially when he's that darn good at speaking.

Should I have the pleasure of teaching speech again, I will cite Bill Clinton's 2012 nominating speech for President Barack Obama as an exemplar of good speechmaking. Even when the political issues of this moment are forgotten (which, for high school kids, was five minutes ago), I will point to his hands, his eyes, his mix of quips and policy details, his constant sense of the urgency of reaching his audience, and his tremendous crescendo at the conclusion as examples of good speechcraft.

And I will tell my speech students that above all, like Bill Clinton, you have to own your speech:

If Clinton sounded sincere in his delivery, consider this as a novel possibility for why: He really believed the arguments he was making. And he was stating them in language that felt natural to him. With just a couple exceptions, you could pick just about any speech at random at either Tampa or Charlotte to find examples of the way many politicians do not own their own speeches. The consultant-driven lines — suburban women between 35 and 40 want you to say this — stand out like neon. So do the swollen, rhythmic passages that looked good on a speechwriter's laptop but obviously do not sound anything like the politician delivering the lines. Clinton gets plenty of speechwriter help and staff input on his speeches. But he never ends up being herded by the help into saying something that he doesn't actually think or that doesn't sound like the way he would put it [John F. Harris and Jonathan Martin, "How Bill Clinton Does It," Politico, September 6, 2012].

Say what you mean; mean what you say. Don't cheat on your wife ...but when you're making a speech, be like Bill.

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Alas, poor December 2011 USD graduates. They hit the books, each incur about $20,000 in debt to get their degrees, and whom do they get to honor them at their commencement? Congresswoman Kristi Noem, an insecure anti-intellectual who thinks they should have stayed home and taken online courses.

Noem's address Saturday to USD's 474 December graduates epitomized her ongoing insult to higher education. First, Noem refers to the 21-year process it has taken her to bring her own college diploma within reach. She still doesn't have it... and she continues to play dumb about it:

I have my fingers crossed because I've turned in my final paper and if it does well, I'm going to graduate with you in 2011 as well [Rep. Kristi Noem, commencement address, University of South Dakota, 2011.12.17, as quoted in David Lias, "Noem Tells USD Grads to Prepare for Life's Changes," Yankton Press and Dakotan, 2011.12.19].

Reporter Lias apparently declines to note the shrug and cheerleader giggle that almost had to accompany that line.

Is Kristi Noem really so stupid that she doesn't know if her final paper is good enough to pass? She's a 40-year-old Congresswoman, a former legislator and businesswoman. I would think she would have the confidence and self-awareness to assess the quality of her own undergraduate writing assignments... unless maybe she had spokesboy Joshua Shields write them for her.

Noem burbles on:

Boy, am I proud of you.... There are so many hurdles that keep you from getting a good, quality education, and you guys stepped through it [Noem via Lias, 2011].

A commencement address is the sort of oratory one practices and polishes. It is not an off-the-cuff chat with voters. "Boy" and "guys" are not marks of great oratory. If Noem had thought through her remarks, she also would have recognized before hitting the stage that "it" cannot refer to "hurdles."

I think you are a unique generation. You don't know of a world without the internet. If you wanted to know something or question something your professor told you over the years, all you had to do is Google it. This makes you much more perceptive ... you can tell a fake when you see it — you know when a deal is just too good to be true [Noem via Lias, 2011].

Note the dig at academia: professors are not to be trusted; they are to be questioned and fact-checked by diligent Googling. (Someone, please, get me a copy of Noem's final paper: I want to read all the citations of Wikipedia.)

After reviewing several commencement speeches online, Noem decided to crown her speech with the profound wisdom of Conan O'Brien. Oh, the insecurity: instead of citing a statesman or philosopher, our Congresswoman tries to show she's one of the cool kids.

I don't have a full transcript of her speech, so I can't tell just how much of O'Brien's 2011 speech at Dartmouth she quoted, but she appears to have borrowed from O'Brien at length. She probably didn't notice that her lengthy quotation included this passage

...[W]hether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality [Conan O'Brien, quoted by Noem via Lias, 2011].

Conviction and true originality. If only our Congresswoman could have mustered those qualities for our newest graduates.

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Good morning from Pierre! I'm in our glittering state capital to judge the South Dakota State Oral Interpretation Festival. I just heard Jennifer Jones on SDPB describe this weekend's event as the equivalent of the state championship/ She said students would be competing for the title of best oral interpreter in the state...

...to which I must say, "If only!" If you check the official schedule on the South Dakota High School Activities Association website, you will find the event is diligently labeled a "festival," not a "tournament" (like State Debate and State Basketball) or a "competition" (like State Dance and State Cheer). All of those other events crown "champions." When those shows are done, some diligent and lucky debaters and basketball players and dancers and cheerleaders walk away with trophies that say "First Place—State Champion."

The State Interp Festival crowns no champions. As I judge today and tomorrow, I will rank no students. I will rate students "Superior" or "Excellent". On the off chance that a student grabs his crotch and shouts "F--- you!", I may rate a student "Good". If at least two of us three judges on each panel give a student (or, in Duet and Readers Theater, a team of students) a "Superior" rating, that student receives a "Superior" award. Conceivably, if every student in a round hits his or her marks, every student may receive a Superior award.* In a "Festival," we celebrate all participants and their art.

A State Superior is a prestigious award. I pursued State Superiors avidly when I was a Madison Bulldog interper and one-act player. I drove my Montrose students enthusiastically to bring home such recognition (and they did so, 22 times in five years).

But we were never able to call those awards "State Championships." Even the team awards do not designate a champion school: Class AA schools that earn at least four individual Superiors and Class A and B schools that earn at least two individual Superiors receive "Team Excellence" plaques. As with individuals, every school participating in this august event could conceivably earn enough medals to be deemed a Team of Excellence. When my Montrose interpers earned Team Excellence awards, we counted individual Superiors and judge ballots to see if we really did outrank other schools. But even the year that Montrose was the only Class B school to win State Superiors in all seven events, we could not officially claim to be "State Champions."

I always chafed under this odd exception to the competitive spirit that guides the state events in nearly every other SDHSAA event. Many oral interp coaches have long resisted ranking students, worrying that competition might drive kids away from the event. I always found competitive spirit fired my interpers up and drove them to perform better. In Class B District contests and Class A Region contests, we do rank students, and we do name team champions. That competition and ranking don't stop kids from trying to qualify for State.

State Interp is a fine event, and I've always been thrilled to attend, twice as a competitor, five times as a coach, and now for my fourth time as a judge. I love getting to hear the best speakers in the state. I love getting to write critiques for these hard-working students to commend their efforts and offer advice for even better speech performance.

But as much fun as I will have today here at the Ramkota and tomorrow at Pierre Riggs High School, I'd have just that much more fun if I faced the awesome challenge of identifying the absolute best performances of the day. Naming state champions would make State Interp even more exciting for competitors and the public alike.

*Update 09:45 CST: Always pay attention at the judges' meeting! I just learned that the rules for rating students have changed! This year, we judges can give Superiors to no more than half of the entrants in any given event. If there are an odd number of entrants, we have to round our maximum down. The Displaced Plainsman, here at State Interp his capacity as speech coach, indicates disgruntlement among the coaching ranks is afoot!

5 comments
Donus D. Roberts, First Ten-Diamond NFL Coach

Donus D. Roberts, First Ten-Diamond NFL Coach

I'm in Watertown judging Northern Quals, the toughest speech and debate tournament kids from Madison and other South Dakota towns north of I-90 ever compete in. Watching great debate in Watertown reminds me of the speech legend who roams freely among the Arrows here.

Donus D. Roberts, longtime Watertown debate coach and giant of the National Forensic League, has earned an unprecedented national honor. This year, Roberts---ddr, as he signs his ballots and is known throughout the speech world---earned his tenth Diamond award for coaching speech and debate.

"Tenth Diamond" likely means nothing to folks not at this weekend's tournament. Let me put that in perspective. Speech coaches earn points based on student performance. For every speech a student makes in competition or in community service projects, a coach may earn some fraction of a point. In eight years of coaching interp and debate, my students earned me 2284.2 points and my first coaching diamond. (Thanks, kids!)

Donus D. Roberts has been involved as a coach and judge in South Dakota debate for over fifty years. Three generations of Watertown debaters and extempers and orators and interpers have earned him 30,596.4 points. Assume average student performance (though ddr has rarely coached students to merely average performance), and it would take over 80,000 student speeches to rack up that many points. On top of that, Roberts has earned those points in a district where he has shared points with six or seven assistant coaches at a time.

Roberts is an icon of excellence in speech education in South Dakota and across the nation. At this summer's national tournament in Dallas (where he will be joined by the talented South Dakota kids who today will win the right to travel and compete at that august contest), Roberts will receive formal recognition of his unparalleled achievement. If you bump into Donus, feel free to say, "Wow!"... and definitely say, "Thank you for your service to South Dakota."

2 comments

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