The trial of judging

When I blogged about the Doodles 4 Google earlier this week, I reflected on how difficult it would have been to select the finalists out of so many good entries. Today I felt in a similarly difficult situation trying to judge which was the best speech at a Toastmasters division contest.

This is the contest where I would have been a contestant if I hadn’t been disqualified due to a previous lapse in membership. Since I was no longer competing, I was asked to serve as judge. Somewhat reluctantly, I agreed.

I don’t know whether the people who make the best judges are those who are confident in their opinions, or those who tend to second guess themselves, but I definitely fall into the second category. At least since I was only one of several judges, I knew that the combined scores from the other judges would tend to override poor judgment on my part.

Each judging sheet included, on the back, not only an explanation of the criteria for judging speeches, but also a judge’s code of ethics. “Judges will consciously avoid bias of any kind … They will demonstrate the utmost objectivity.” A separate sheet in my folder listed barriers to objectivity and how to be objective.

One of these is to avoid being influenced by having heard a particular speech before, by judging it as if it’s the first time you’ve heard it. The challenge for me was that one of the speakers had competed at the same area contest I did, because they combined areas (we competed in the same room and at the same time but not against each other, but not even the judges knew who was from which area).

I not only had heard his speech, I had expected to be competing against him today – until I learned that I was disqualified. I thought his speech – both the content and the delivery – was excellent, and I was sure I had no chance winning against him.

Now instead I was judging his speech, and that of a man I had never heard before. I tried to put my previous impressions out of my mind, but you simply can’t hear something a second time in the same way as the first time. You notice things you didn’t notice before, and you don’t have the same feelings evoked because you already know what had previously been unexpected.

I can’t help remembering how the speech impacted me emotionally the first time (both in terms of the message conveyed in the speech, and my mental comparison of my performance to his). I try to set that aside, and just focus on its impact on me this time. But it doesn’t have the same impact, because I know what’s coming even as I try to hear it as though I didn’t.

It would be easier, perhaps, if there were more than two speakers. (There were three contestants for Table Topics, but only the two for prepared speeches – the third, myself, having been disqualified.) Another judge commented that it would be better if there were four. There are four areas in the division, but apparently not enough people want to participate in the contests. (If there had been a second place winner from my area, that person would have competed today.)

I also try to decide how much to let my impression of the two speaker’s voices affect me. Voice is a significant aspect of the speech, counting for 10% of the total for each speech. Both speakers have good vocal variety. Both also have something in their voice that for some reason irritates me.

The two voices are very different, and irritate me to two different ways. I can’t even put into words quite what it is in either case. They’re not unpleasant voices – I think both voices sound better than my own. But one reminds me somehow of an actor putting on a show, and while speech is a kind of performance, it somehow makes it hard for me to think of the speaker as genuine.

The other comes from another country, and while he speaks excellent English, there is a trace of an accent. I don’t think the accent is what bothers me, but rather something else in his inflection. Of course, I know from studying Spanish (which I believe is his native language), there is more to sounding like a native speaker than the formation of phonemes. Languages also differ in how heavily the accented syllables are stressed, the range of pitch in normal speech, and the rhythm and pacing.

I try to correct for whatever ways I feel positively or negatively affected by criteria that are not relevant to judging. But what if I overcorrect? I wonder if the other judges feel as unsure. I wonder if I should not have agreed to be a judge.

When the winners are announced, I feel better. Our division is sending two excellent speakers to compete at the division level. And I am very glad that I do not have to be a judge at that contest.

One Response to The trial of judging

  1. modestypress says:

    When I was a teacher, I found “grading,” difficult for similar reasons. What is good and what is bad?

    In science and math, one at least can fall back on empirical criteria. An math question is usually obviously correct or not. A scientific question also usually has an “objective” answer of right or wrong. However, even here, any “grading” system easily slides into surprisingly subjective problems.

    When evaluating a musical performance, for example, how does one evaluate “good” from “bad?” If one performer hits a wrong note or plays at the wrong tempo, that usually seems obvious. When two performers both meet basic technical requirements, we start getting into very confusing ground of interpretations, similar to the issues you raise about the speakers’ voices.

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