Debating Resources for the World since 1994

[DEBATE CENTRAL NOTE: While this paper was written to help new graduatre assistants learn how to handle travel assignments for college competition, we believe this is also very useful to new coaches at any level.]

Graduate Student Travel: It's Not Just A Job, It's An Adventure

A Paper For Presentation At The Southern States Communication Association Convention Tampa, 1991

Steven G. Woods
Then: Florida State University 2715-G Pecan ct. Tallahassee FL 32303 904-3859947

When a student becomes a graduate assistant with a forensics program they enter a grey area or twilight zone. It is a position that is ambiguous because it is a role where one is still a student but also where one is in a position of responsibility with duties similar to that of a faculty level coach. One of the main complications that arises from this schizophrenic existence is the tournament travel associated with forensics. As an essential element of the activity, a graduate student must but balance the role of student with the demands of travel or face burn out and personal academic disaster. This paper will discuss travel from the perspective of the graduate assistant in hopes of providing some ideas and advice on how to integrate tournament travel into a program of graduate study.

The most obvious starting point is a discussion of expectations. The best possible case being where the graduate student(s) meets with the director before the season and have a talk about the program's expectations, the graduate student's role, and a realistic travel schedule as far into the future as possible. Usually at least one semesters travel can be planned and a general idea about the second half of a season can be formulated. In these initial meetings with the director a clear picture how much total team travel that will occur will emerge and a schedule of weekends and dates can be developed.

Every program will be different due to budget limitations, team size, staff size, and emphasis on a"regional"or"national"schedule of travel. Obviously, the greater number of assistants the lighter the responsibilities of travel for each, and a rotation can be set up around class and test schedules. First year assistants should also try and travel with the director or more experienced assistants the first few times. Not that travel requires skills and abilities they do not already possess, but the responsibilities and pressures are different than those of an undergraduate competitor. It just makes the transition smoother to be able to observe and assist for the first few tournaments rather than going it alone.

Part of this discussion with the program director should include a general discussion on general expectations of the role of the assistant. It is the assistant's responsibility as much as the directores to clearly lay down the priority of academics. A graduate student cannot pass their classes if they are not there to attend them. Often many graduate classes meet just once a week, and if those days are Mondays, or even Tuesdays, travel can easily interfere. Many of these conflicts can be avoided by trying to schedule classes that meet in the middle of the week. Often travel takes up a window from Thursday to Tuesday. If at all possible the assistant should try and avoid classes that meet on Mondays and Fridays, and even if the assistant is able to attend tournaments and not miss those days, fatigue does become a factor. It is extremely difficult to get back in town at.6 A.M. Monday morning and spend the day in class.

However, it is practically impossible to finish the required amount of hours for a gradhate degree and not have classes that meet on days the assistant wants to avoid. It then comes back to the matter of priorities. Obviously someone assisting with a forensics program has a vital interest in the activity and a strong desire to be active. But there also needs to be a realization made that the first priority of a graduate assistant is graduate school. Graduate assistantships are not career extenders for competitors. They are positions for persons pursuing an advanced degree in graduate school to assist with a program. Even though graduate assistants can be vitally important to a program's operation, they must not forget that they are students themselves.

There are several good reasons to prioritize academics for the assistant. First off is pragmatic, if assistants do not get the required grades, they are not assisting anymore. Graduate school is not a cakewalk and many students will find out that for the first time they may have to read the book(s) assigned for the class. Even the assistant that took the position more for forensics than academics needs to realize that the academic performance is the standard by which they will be judged in the future. A winning team does not show up on a transcript but a series of B minuses will.

A second reason that both the director and assistant would want to emphasize academics is the message sent to both the undergraduates and University administration. Assistants need to be a role model for the undergraduates and set the pace for grades. It is hard to emphasize academics in a program if the leaders are not leading by example. In addition, the administration is looking at the success or failure of an assistant by their ability to compete academically, not at tournaments. It would be hard to get and maintain support if academically forensics assistants perform consistently mediocre or worse academically. It is important to justify their existence in the classroom first, then in the activity. What this means that the assistant cannot expect to travel every possible weekend and not suffer academically. It takes up too much time and energy to be gone frequently on weekends. Planning a travel schedule must take this into account. If possible, have class syllabus' available and try to avoid travel near tests or major papers. Be aware that the end of the semester is always a period of extreme time demands for course work. Assistants should talk with instructors before travel schedules are made to get their reactions to the possibility of days being missed. Each instructor will have a different policy on missing classes that needs to be understood and accounted for. It is important to remember that an instructor will see the absences as the responsibility of the assistant, and not due to university activities. While this discussion may seem stifling to an assistant who wishes to travel, it is offered in the hope of avoiding the problems, not cataloging them. Often instructors are very lenient or sympathetic when it comes to forensic assistants, but it is just as likely they will have no understanding of the activity or its time demands. The perception will exist that no one forced the assistant to choose to work with forensics. The absences and time demands are voluntarily brought upon the assistant. An assistant should not have the attitude that they will come into a program and start off being everything to everybody. They need to be a student for themselves first, then worry about being a coach or chauffeur for someone else.

When it does come time to travel, ideally a new assistant should"buddy-up"with the director or an experienced assistant and go through the process. For the undergraduate it is as eavsy as not oversleeping the departure time and not forgetting their files. For the staff it involves much planning and preparation.

The first place to start is the tournament calendar to find travel dates, then as the travel weekend approaches the tournament invitation becomes important. The exact dates for the tournament should be written down, make sure to determine if its Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Saturday, Sunday, Monday. Then by looking at a map the time it will take to travel to the tournament should be figured out. I have found that with speed limits, pit-stops, etc., that a good rough estimate is about two hours for every hundred miles. Even if you make better time than that usually, remember this is forensics time where not everyone has to go the bathroom or eat at the same time. I would also recommend not speeding, since it is (depending on the university) official state business. I have known people who have had to write apologies to the governor of the state after being caught speeding in a state vehicle. It is also embarrassing with a van full of forensicators. That travel time should then be added to the calendar. If the trip is close to eight hours or longer, it is best to try and schedule at least one good nights rest before competition. Unfortunately, that luxury does not exist for the return trip. When a time frame is worked out for number of days the tournament requires, at least one week in advance the competitors should be asked when they have class conflicts and the earliest time they can leave on the departure date. This may not always be possible due to time constraints on travel and may require that the time and date be set by the staff and announced in advance so that the students not able to go because of conflicts can notify the staff before the tournament entry modification deadline is passed.

In an ideal world, the competitors that say they want to go to a tournament will. In an ideal world the staff can know a team entry before the Wednesday before the tournament. In an ideal world tournament directors would not have to. patiently wait by their phones on the last day to enter and await entries. In the world of forensics this is not so. If it is possible to return an entry by mail well in advance, by all means do so. Once the tournament has been chosen, the entry should be sent off as soon as possible. Of course, we are all- aware of the extenuating circumstances that usually arise. The best that can be hoped for is that by deadline time the entry is called in. It is always better to let the director know that the school is coming in some form and modify the entry than wait until the last minute.

Even before an official entry is made to a tournament, it is a good idea to go ahead and get the hotel reservations. Since these can be canceled without penalty upto'a certain date, it is better to over book than be caught short. This is the one area where delay will be punished by incredible inconvenience and possibly expense. Ideally it is best to try and get the tournament hotel because of special rates packages and much of the tournament business goes on there (registration, postings, etc.). If the team budget requires some other arrangements it is still best not to delay. Often hotels are in clusters and it may be possible to book one that is close to the designated tournament hotel.

When booking rooms the assistant should check how long the room will be held. If the team is to arrive past a reservation deadline, arrangements should be made to make sure the rooms are held. The assistant should also carry the hotel phone number on the trip as well as asking for directions on how to get there. The whole aspect of directions can become very important at 3 A.M. Make sure that you get directions for the route that you are taking into town. And don't be embarrassed You are a visitor, that is why you are in a hotel, they will be happy to help. you cannot just assume that it will be close to the school, especially if you are not sure how to find the school in the first place. There should be confirmation of the room rates andit should be written down. It may also be a good idea to get the schools name put on the register as well as the sponsor so that people can contact the team easier.

As soon as possible travel arrangements should be made. There is a lot of variance between schools as to how this works, be it motor pool or rental, but in general the reservation process is thee same. Make sure the total travel dates are covered and the vehicle is the approphate size. It is always better to have too much room than not enough. Remember teams are not just transporting people but files, luggage, visual aids, etc. This translates into vans with certain number passenger ratings in reality not handling that number of passengers. Make sure that the rate is confirmed and recorded.

If a team is lucky enough to be flying, remember the earlier the booking the cheaper. There is also a risk of being penalized for unused tickets, so make the director has a concrete idea on participants before purchasing. Flying also increases the complexity of on site transportation, deadlines for check in, extra fees for extra luggage and other demands on time and resources.

Having arranged tournament entries, transportation and lodging, make sure the paperwork to pay for it all is in order. Again there is tremendous variation in how a budget is handled from program to program. In general, if assistants are responsible for coming up with a trip budget they should write out all the expenses confirmed and expected. Create a separate entry for each expense and then total. For example"Hotel, 3 rooms @ $40 x 4 nights = $480, Van $25 x s days - $125"Usually. you \ be concerned with Hotel, Transportation, Fees, and (depending on program) Food. Do not forget to figure gasoline costs for the trip if not done by credit card. Also there are taxes (not everything will be tax exempt, nor will everyone extend that status to schools) which can be easily forgotten and add up quickly, toll roads and parking costs. In other words watch out for the miscellaneous costs. Appendix A contains an example of a cost estimate sheet. Make sure the appropriate paperwork is submitted on time or be prepared not to leave town when you expected, if at all.

In general when planning a tournament trip, try to do everything as far in advance as possible and overestimate rather than underestimate travel needs. As to budget and money it is better to try and be as close as possible. There is no reason to leave town with more money than you know you are going to need. van and hotel reservations can be altered easily with no penalty, but trying to deal with budget paperwork is not worth recklessly overestimating.

Once all the logistics of transportation and lodging have been taken care of as the time draws nearer to leave make sure and plan an efficient route. Often this means not taking the most direct route on the map but the easiest. It is a good policy to try and stick to larger interstates with larger vehicles. Driving a van is already complicated enough without having to worry about two-lane roads late at night and complicated turns and directions. Usually average speeds are better on interstates so it makes up for any extra mileage they may involve over smaller roads. Be sure the assistant has a map even if the route seem simple enough to remember. It can be handy to determine the location of towns along the way for gas and food stops. It also is handy in case the route is forgotten. The embarrassment of consulting a map or stopping for directions when in doubt is always less than the embarrassment of actually being lost.

One handy little item is a trip information sheet to be given out to the team in advance of leaving. This sheet should include dates of departure and return along with times, actual tournament dates, hotel and phone number, and tournament particulars (time limits if different, event flight groupings, number of rounds lsee Appendix B]). One should be posted in the squad room in plain view for those that remain in town or lose theirs. Usually these are not important for anything other than general interest, but some competitors do like to pass the information on how to be reached to parents. It is also handy if those that remain in town need to get in touch or send information to those who are traveling.

One final thought on preparation before leaving town is to rest before leaving. Tournament schedules usually are not conducive to getting lots of sleep, and the first few days it won't matter, but about that seventh hour on a twelve hour ride home it will, especially after judging rounds since 8 A.M. Try and pack lightly, the competitors will have space demandszor their files and supplies, so don't use up what is essentially their room. Fortunately the expectations for critics dress codes are a little more relaxed than for competitors. So pack to be comfortable, but don't overdo it. Try to coordinate common use items, like only one iron going on the trip instead of eight. Finally include identification and all the materials needed for the tournament like the invite, directions, and map.

While my experience has been that time for departure is usually interpreted as the time to show up, there are several things that can be done to expedite leaving quickly. Easiest is just to set the departure time a half hour to hour earlier than it needs to be. With any luck you will leave when you actually were supposed to. Again leading by example will help here. If the director expects the van to leave at seven in the morning and the assistant shows up at 7:20, don't expect the team to be prompt. It is helpful to let people know that they should eat before they leave or if you plan on getting something on the road as well. Try to give as much information as possible about itinerary, estimated length of trip, expected stops, etc. These are things you may want to include on your trip information sheets.

Protocol for the road is pretty simple: the driver rules. While this may seem somewhat undemocratic, it basically boils down- to safety. If the driver is happy they are more likely to be alert. That means choice of radio station, temperature control, and who sits where if it comes down to it. Frankly, if the driver has to be somewhat of a jerk, then so be it. Since they are the ones most responsible for the immediate safety of the passengers they are entitled to a little indulgence.

Another safety precaution that should be taken is someone that is awake staying up with the driver riding"shotgun."This means that the person occupying the seat closest the driver stays awake with the driver. Usually this can done by a student, as they don't have the responsibility of driving, this is one way that they can contribute to the travel part of the trip. This should not be overlooked, as in most cases everyone is awake all at one time, till it gets late when people need to be awake the most. The best thing to do is try to plan out a rotation of drivers and shotguns and let the ones on the next shift have priority for sleeping.4

Our team travels on at least four to five twenty two hour van rides a year. On trips like this coaching staff become extremely valuable just as relief drivers. If a good rotation is set up, no one ever has to drive in an unsafe state. Try to rotate at least every four hours. Late at night it may have to be more frequent. In any case the driver feels that they are not capable of safely operating the vehicle due to fatigue they should pull over whether it fits the rotation schedule or not. Make plenty of stops on long trips, about every one and half to two hours, even if it cuts into making good time. The shotgun should ask the driver frequently if they are doing alright or if they need anything.

Even though no one ever thanks the staff for getting them to and from a tournament safely, it is about the most important thing they do. It is one of the things that must be approached in a serious and non-flippant manner. While it is not one of the most fun aspects of travel, it is unavoidable.

From a coaching perspective, time in the van is hard to utilize due to space and other limitations like lighting. One of the most productive things to do while traveling is just to talk about arguments and cases, or practice speeches. The time in the van has no set limits on speech time so often quite in depth discussion can occur. Younger competitors may learn quite a bit from these discussions. Given most speech teams it does not take much to get the conversation going about some aspect of competition. Essentially the time becomes one of a mini-theory workshop. Even though cards may not be getting cut and pasted or extemp files indexed, the general and thorough nature of such discussions is productive. This is extremely important on long trips. As there is so little space on a van to be comfortable and rest it really does take a conscious effort by the team to be aware that some people have priority when it comes to the prig rest spots. It is inconvenient to some, but in the long r. un, any measure that increases the safety of the trip overrides considerations of fairness.

Depending on the schedule, upon arrival the team proceeds to either the tournament or the hotel. When arriving at the hotel, get checked in and make sure the reservations are all right. Each hotel will have a different procedure about payment,and what check-out entails. Be sure that time is budgeted for this when leaving on the last day. For some teams it works just to hand out room keys and let the students work out their own room assignments, for others it helps to have the staff indicate the arrangements.. It is better to start off with some idea of arrangements the first few trips and then eventually let the students develop their own procedures. Traditionally due the fatigue of travel, staff should get their preferences first. In other words if someone is going to get a bed to themselves, assistants should not be shy in claiming it (they should remember that twelve hour drive home if they feel guilty).

Try to make the at tournament experience as simple as possible for the students. Getting to and from home is the staffs responsibility, competing is theirs. Let them know departure times for the tournament, and try to drop them off as close as possible to the appropriate buildings on campus before you park. Try to be prompt for meal times at the tournament and keep in mind ways to save time.

Our squad incorporates a six hour sleep rule on tournament nights, and makes some effort to see that its followed. More experienced competitors find that to be successful being rested is as important as being well researched. Start the policy from the first tournament and stick with it. We also have a rule about visitors in rooms not from our school not being allowed to stay past a certain point. We have never been asked to enforce it, but we let our students know its there so that they can come to us if its late and they really need to get some sleep but someone else has some friends over.

Staff should call the students in the morning to make sure they are awake even if they have made their own wake up calls. After a while this may not be necessary as they get the routine down, but again, its better to start with the practice than have to institute it later. Also, see if the students want to wake up earlier so that they can get a breakfast other than coffee and donuts at the tournament.

The tournament site is the one part of the trip where the students should be pampered and allowed their way. Staff should only intervene when this"[Noterepressive tolerance"breaks down. This is a term that one of my former coaches-directors used about the travel experience. Most often the students want what you want: to stop and eat, go the bathroom, etc. When that consensus breaks down, however, then is time for intervention. If eight students want to eat at eight different .places then staff can supersede. But usually one of the students will make a suggestion you would have made, and at that point agree with them and do it. Staff can use the registration time as a chance to find their way to campus without the team so that they can get them there without getting lost when it is time to compete. These are just little things, and may not be noticed, but are important overall. Try to take as much of the stress of the travel off the students as possible during the tournament. Let them focus on their rounds, staff can worry about the parking .

On the trip, depending on your program, it may be necessary to keep all team receipts. I have found that centralizing them helps to keep track of them, and so I keep a"receipt sacker in the van. After a meal I pass it around to collect receipts. Also, staff should know if the receipts need to be recorded in some particular way (our gas receipts need to be dated for example). The hardest part of receipts is just remembering them, as they take no extra time to deal with. Again, just get in the habit early and make itsart of the travel ritual.

Different teams also have different ways of dealing with the funds that are taken on trips. Some have a team credit card, or University card for gas, others may deal only in cash. On most trips amounts will be over $500, so staff and directors may want to consider travelers checks. Make sure staff do keep track of the funds, and keep them secure. It may be possible to utilize the hotel safe instead of carrying the money at all times.

When it is time to depart the tournament, and unfortunately the penalty of doing well means leaving late, take time to get everything reloaded well. This means making sure people get out what they will want on the trip home and packing everything else away as compactly as possible. Set up the rotation of drivers for the trip home and get the second shift people comfortable and asleep. This can be difficult right after a tournament because everyone is still pumped up or going over ballots, but remind everyone about the trip still to come.

While getting back into town can be very late, staff are not through yet. our team tries to follow a policy where people meet at one central point to leave, and are then dropped off at that point to go home. Still, many times special arrangements must be made to pick up people, or drop them off. Ideally everyone shows up at one place and leaves from one place. Logistics may dictate that this is not possible due to a lack of long term parking or location of departure. At the minimum staff should try not to get in the habit of picking students up to start the trip. Make them get a ride from friends or tote their luggage across campus. Upon returning staff can be more generous and return students to their residences, as at four a.m. it may be difficult to get a roommate to pick someone up, or going across campus that late may not be advisable.

This can get to be a drawn out process so make sure staff are aware of the time it takes. Even after the students have departed staff have the vehicle to worry about. The best situation is to have their vehicle parked where they drop off the van. If this is not possible, make sure they have made arrangements with a friend or have cab money. It may be possible to take the vehicle home upon arriving home and returning it the next day (or later in the morning) when they can get a ride. Make sure that the time frame that the vehicle was reserved is not overextended. In planning, if it is not an extra days expense, try to allow this buffer time so that staff don't have to worry about returning the van late at night.

There are some pitfalls to be aware of when traveling. The best thing to do if staff are caught in a situation that they are not prepared for is first off call their director and inform them of the problem (assuming they are not already on the trip). Work out the problem with their help. Most often these problems will take the form of money shortages, a vehicle breakdown, or miscalculated hotel expenses. In these cases if staff have their own credit card I would suggest that they inform their director before they use it and get some sort of €tofficial@' authorization.

More serious problems would warrant staff following appropriate procedures above and beyond the letter. If their is an accident or other mishap try to over document the details. Remember that the university bureaucracy is just as bad as the insurance and legal bureaucracy.

Be aware of the weather in travel. It may not be a frequent concern in the Southeast, but there may be cases where roads are to hazardous to travel. In such cases a missed class or extra expense does not outweigh the risk of travel. Again, the director should be notified immediately. If there is doubt as to condition of the roads, contact the state highway patrol and check.

Another factor that may cause concern is a drastic misestimate of time of travel. This becomes a concern when it starts to become clear that participation in the tournament may be affected by a late arrival. Make sure that the tournament director is aware of the situation. There is not much that can be done but proceed at legal speeds and catalog the information for next year. It may be necessary to have the team change along the way so that you can proceed directly to the tournament on arrival.

One final pitfall I would like to mention is that of studying on trips. While it seems that
there is plenty of spare time on trips, it can still be very difficult to study. It is difficult to find a time period that is uninterrupted, even if it is spare time. On a trip staff's duties and responsibilities are not just the time frame of the tournament schedule but from the point they pick up the vehicle till you drop it off. Eventually the tradeoff between the space and hassle that my books took up outweighed the benefit of bringing them. It is better for staff to get their studying done before they leave than counting on doing it while gone.

There are educational opportunities that should be exploited on trips when possible. I have found time to go to the libraries of the schools I have visited. This allows me to look for materials not available at my home campus. There are also opportunities to network with people who have similar research interests. There are also educational opportunities available in rounds by hearing new information on a topic that you are working on. Often times I am not stealing a citation for my squad but for a paper I am working on. Assistants should be aware of the opportunities outside their textbooks.

Tournament travel is one of the experiences of being an assistant that can be a teaching and enriching one. Long and arduous van trips often become the way that a team becomes a team. Furthermore, I have left out all the fun things that happen during travel, as I am confident that no one needs help on how to proceed in those areas.

The assistant needs to remember that they are still a student and that if they have questions about procedures to talk with the director. Ultimately the director of the program has the final word, and that is what should be followed. This paper is offered merely as a general guideline and a way to encourage discussion about graduate student duties.

Balance academics and travel so that if one is out of proportion, it is academics. Make sure there is anopen atmosphere between the director and staff and that they keep the director updated on their status in the classroom. If it comes up that there is an unexpected project or test that interferes with a travel weekend, try to work it out where an assistant can take a different weekend, or get departure times adjusted. By taking care of the details travel can be a smooth process that is not disruptive. The key is to plan in advance and make the needed adjustments in schedule beforehand.

Appendix A
Sample Budget Estimate Sheet
Person to who cash advance check will be made out to: SS#
Tournament/Host School:
Tournament Dates
Travel Dates
Names of Undergrads attending
Staff attending
Cost Estimate
Motel rooms @ $ X Nights =
Food coaches X $ X days =
students X $ X days =
Entry Fees $ X teams =
Judging Fees $ X judges =
Miss (tolls, etc.) =

Appendix B
Sample Tournament Info Sheet
The Big Time Debate Tournament
University of Students,. Long Van Trip, KS.
Dates: Thurs. Feb 20 - Tues. Feb 25
Depart: 10:00 A.M. Squad room (mini-van)
Coaches: Dweezil
Teams: Pat and Joe Jim and Mike
Hotel: Cheap Inn of Long Van Trip (913) 555-1234
Tournament: pre-lims Sat and Sun, elims (starting Double octs) Mon NOTE: ONLY 5 MINUTES PREP! 8 prelims.
P.S. Weather forecast says cold so pack warm. I'll bring an iron if anyone needs to use it. 22 hour van trip so bring a pillow.