Being chosen to chair a committee is an honor and a privilege, but it undoubtedly can be a daunting task, especially for a first time chair. Beyond the sheer workload of preparing all necessary materials for delegates, chairs also carry the burden of maintaining a high quality of debate. Despite the fact that the nature of debate during the conference may seem like something completely outside of the control of the chair, there are certain things than be done preemptively in order to heighten the quality of debate for committee sessions.
Among those preemptive actions is putting effort into the quality of the background guide in order to shape the course of debate throughout the conference. Though there is no way to guarantee that all delegates will take the time to read the background guide, it is a fair assumption to say that the majority will research ahead of time at least a bit, and that process begins with the background guide.
Chairs tend to fall into the same traps when it comes to writing background guides; these documents are traditionally 50+ pages of rambling historical background that fail to include a clearly outlined set of goals for the committee. As most successful delegates know, being well versed in the ancient history of one’s assigned country will not translate into an ability to engage effectively in debate.
So, how can a chair break away from the inefficiency of the traditional background guide? Here are a few places to start.
1. Make a game plan.
The worst possible way to begin the lengthy process of writing a background guide is as follows: open a new document, and begin writing a general description of the topic as you understand it, in no particular order or established organization system. To avoid producing a rambling, over-simplified description of the topic, it is absolutely essential to begin by making a list of subtopics, or subcategories, that need to be covered in the guide. Subcategories can include things like history of the issue, past actions, bloc positions, or questions to consider. Always include citations or a bibliography at the conclusion of the topic guide.
Writing background guides is a process that requires time management and organization skills. Consider physically planning out tasks by using website or apps like Monday.com, Smartsheet, or Trello. This will help with organization and time budgeting in order to meet the submission deadline and allow delegates sufficient preparation time. A well organized background guide will better specialize the preparation and research of delegates, thus making for a smoother, more productive set of committee sessions.
2. Feel free to experiment: try a narrative approach.
It really is quite simple: interesting background guides will spark more interesting debate, and, inversely, boring background guides will yield boring debate. A good way to avoid a mundane background guide is to experiment with different structures and styles.
One approach is to write the background guides like a story. After all, the series of events leading up to the current world issue is a story: so tell it like one!
The transformation of an objective, historical account of a political topic into an easier understood storyline of events is more simple than many may assume. First, begin by establishing the necessary components for contextualization: a clear setting, a time period, important characters (nations, organizations, non-state actors, military commanders, and public officials in this case). Next, introduce the conflict, and evaluate the sources/reasoning of conflict. Writing in a chronological order will naturally fit the narrative form. Conclude by instating urgency why must something be done about this? What could be the consequences if this issue is not solved? What has already occurred due to this issue, and why are those solutions inadequate?
Using a combination of “hard facts” (statistics, graphs, maps) and narrative-style explications will not only make delegates more interested in reading the guide, but it will also ensure that the information is accessible to delegates of various experience levels.
3. Use (and cite) reliable sources.
Though it may seem painfully obvious, the sources used to write a background guide are of utmost importance. When searching for academic sources to use, be sure to consider the authorship and how it may shape the content of the source. Always ask questions like, how educated is the individual that wrote this piece? What is their background, how might that shape their perspective on the topic? What is the reputation of this source? Does this source have a pre-established political leaning, or a precedent for one? Never take information for granted; evaluate everything with a critical eye and take every source with a grain of salt.
Beyond the reliability of sources, it is always beneficial to use a great variety rather than relying on one or two articles to inform the entire background guide. Utilizing a more diversified portfolio of information will aid in eliminating any traces of bias, misinformation, or editorialization for the background guide. Keep in mind that factuality, historical accuracy, and unbiasedness are the top priorities here.
4. Cut to the chase.
Above all else, a background guide must be one thing: concise. That doesn’t necessarily mean short; but it does mean that redundancy must be avoided at all costs and focus is key. It can be easy to get distracted and travel down a rabbit hole of subsidiary topics and tangential issues, but going overboard in indulging those subsidiary topics will confuse delegates and distract from the central goals of committee.
Remember that a background guide is only the starting point for research: it can, and should, leave room for further reading. Any attempt to make a background guide fully exhaustive is ultimately futile.
So, do what you can, and do it well: provide an in-depth, substantive account of the topic and the committee, and leave the rest to the delegates.