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A debatable future

By Austen Hufford, Digital News Editor
Published March 26, 2013

EVANSTON, Ill. — In a terraced lecture hall at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Business sophomore Ellis Allen looks around the room at his teammate LSA sophomore Alex Pappas and their two competitors from Concordia College. They’re competing in the first round of the Owen L. Coon Memorial Debates last February. Allen — wearing a lavender button down, khaki pants and sneakers — seems relaxed and lighthearted. He smiles and casually asks the room “Ready?”

LSA sophomore William Morgan speaks during the Owen L. Coon Memorial Debates in Evanston, Ill on February 10. (Austen Hufford/Daily)

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He looks at his laptop, takes a deep breath and starts his timer.

Allen begins speaking at a furious rate, his manner completely changed: He’s intense and stressed. Some words are heard —“anthropological,” “economy,” “prices,”— but his diction is so fast that his sentences are literally incomprehensible to the average ears. His head shakes back and forth as his eyes move across the laptop screen. He takes only ragged, gasping breaths. Everyone else frantically takes notes, straining to hear every word. For the next nine minutes he continues like this until four timers go off within milliseconds of each other. He stops.

This is collegiate debate.

The Reward

Even though it dates back to 1890, the University Debate Team has never won a national championship. The competitors, the coaches and University administrators want this to change. Their goal is for one of the University’s three debate pairs to win the 67th National Debate Tournament being held at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah the weekend of March 30.

After 123 years, the 2013 tournament may finally be the team’s chance to win it all. The team as a whole is ranked second in the latest national debate tournament varsity rankings and has two pairings in the top 16. The University is one of six colleges to have three pairs go to the national tournament.

Aaron Kall, director of the University’s debate team, said winning the national championship is the “end goal” every year.

“We want nothing more than to be able to say that we were the first debate team to win the national championship for the University of Michigan,“ Kall said.

The debate team was a student club from the mid-1980s until 2002 when it was brought under University Student Affairs. Since then it has expanded both in size and achievement. It now has about 24 students and three full-time coaches. The team is entirely self-funded through a summer high-school debate camp and alumni donations.

Laura Blake Jones, the University's associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students, believes the team will soon achieve their goal.

“In March, while we might be cheering our basketball team in terms of a national competition, we could also be cheering the debate team as they look at perhaps winning a national championship,” Jones said. “I can feel it. If it’s not this year it will be sometime soon; we certainly got the talent on the team, and our time is coming.”

Unlike the clearly defined rules of basketball, collegiate debate is filled with more traditions and customs than inscribed regulations.

The Rules

Collegiate debates are fought between four people — two per team from each school — and last up to two hours. Each person is given nine minutes for a “constructive” speech, three minutes for the competing team’s questions and six minutes for a rebuttal speech. Teams are also given a short amount of “prep time,” during which both teams are allowed to pause the debate in order to prepare.

For each school year, a large overarching resolution about federal government policy is chosen to be the subject of the year’s debates. For the 2012 to 2013 school year, students are debating on whether or not the federal government should encourage various types of energy production.

The topic of specific debates, however, is determined completely by the team going first. They usually present an argument — an “affirmative” in debate lingo — on a specific aspect of the broad resolution. For example, this year’s teams have called for more offshore drilling on the East Coast or subsidies favoring a specific type of nuclear energy. Regardless of the first team’s topic, the opposing team must debate against it.

Choosing the topic for each debate is one the most important strategic decision of a debate pair. Some pairs use the same affirmative for the entire competitive season while others change it up every tournament or even every debate. Topics are decided depending on the opponents’ strengths, new original research or even the judge’s supposed preference.

The team going first generally informs their opponents about the debate topic up to an hour before it, leaving just enough time to quickly go over already collected research. This is not a rule, and sometimes — especially in the case of a newly created topic — teams may not inform the competition until the debate starts.