In the world of competitive debate, preparation is necessary, but predictions are often wrong. The Western Debate Team competes throughout the Pacific Northwest almost every other weekend during fall and winter quarter and must be prepared for anything.
“You can’t have any real expectations,” junior, philosophy major and debate team member Kenny Torre said.
In some cases, members are given a handful of subjects the debate topics will be chosen from. In other instances, they aren’t given topics. Twenty minutes before the round starts, debaters are told the topics and must prepare quickly.
Senior Grace McDonough, majoring in business management and communication studies, has become quite familiar with this process.
“Sometimes it’s a topic we didn’t really prepare for, so, ‘Alright, everyone on the computer, lets go.’”
These topics span domestic and international issues such as genetically modified organism labeling and education. Competitors must be prepared for the unexpected. Torre learned this early in his debate career.
While participating in a national tournament at Linfield College during his freshman year, Torre and his team member were given the resolution “this house should punish Sri Lanka.”
This question was understandably confusing for the debaters and forced them to think on the fly. “What does ‘this house’ mean?” he wondered. “What do they mean ‘to punish?’”
Despite being caught off-guard, the debaters were able to gather themselves and applied “this house” to the U.S. and argued against manipulating developing countries, such as Sri Lanka.
Western’s team has performed admirably in recent years, finishing fifth nationally in 2014 and has ranked in the top 20 through the last 14 years, Western Director of Forensics Steve Woods said.
More recently in March, two of Western’s first year debaters placed 3rd and 5th as best novice speakers at the National Parliamentary Debate Association’s national tournament in Kansas City.
Through March 20th and 22nd, two senior debaters — Torre and Lee Bartlett — represented Western in the National Parliamentary Tournament of Excellence. The tournament is known for its exclusiveness — only schools who are consistently in the top tier of debaters are allowed in. Out of 777 teams across the country, only 64 are allowed to complete. Torre and Bartlett placed 32 at the tournament.
But for the members of debate team, competitive achievements are not at the top of the list, McDonough said.
Torre said he enjoys the people who are involved in debating more than the activity itself, and described his fellow members as a second family.
McDonough echoed her fellow member’s sentiments.
“In particular, the actual rounds aren’t really where I gain my memories,” she said. “A lot of my favorite moments of debate are just being with the team and interacting with the other teams at tournaments. It’s a really tight-knit community.”
For freshman Tristan Moore, the debate team presented an opportunity to connect with new people in an unfamiliar environment.
“[Being involved with the team] was huge in being able to feel integrated and make friends from here at Western and other schools,” he said.
While team members are busy balancing the demanding debate schedule and their schoolwork, they make sure to have fun during their free time.
During the season, Torre and his roommates host parties for other debate members.
Nintendo is a favorite at their place, including “Mario Kart” and “Super Smash Bros.” In general, these get-togethers let them relax and socialize outside the competitive debate environment.
While balancing debate and schoolwork presents a challenge, team members noticed the competition helps them academically.
McDonough has found what she has learned in debate to be helpful for identifying important points in a given topic.
“You’re able to pick out the key information from research that’s going to be vital to whatever paper or project you’re doing,” she said.
Moore said debating current events has helped him become a more critical thinker in general.
“You just learn so much about so much from it,” he said. “You can always apply it to all of your classes.”
While the debate team is led by members of the Department of Communication Studies, Woods believes that bringing together students from a number of different educational backgrounds presents a positive experience for the group.
For that reason, his door is always open to anyone. Members are majors in everything from creative writing to chemistry. Woods embraces the diversity of backgrounds.
“It’s that community of learners that ends up being a really important aspect of whether they’re going to be successful or not. We don’t want to assume any one person knows everything, so let’s take advantage of a variety of people knowing a variety of things,” Woods said.
Despite the competitive atmosphere in the debate team, it is clear this group is about much more than the world of claims, cross-examinations and fallacies. Beyond the back and forth with opponents, close friendships have been created and skills have been acquired that should help these participants for years to come.