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?”
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.
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.
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.
Except for the strict time limits, there are few other formal rules, Kevin Hirn, LSA junior and debate team member said. During a debate itself, teams are expected to freely share presented evidence. This is not a rule; it’s a custom that is never broken for fear of offending an omnipotent judge and becoming the ridicule of the debate community.
Similarly, competitors can say and argue almost anything in their allotted time; it is up to the opposing side to discredit the statements. Copious amounts of research are paramount to compete in collegiate debate in order to fight this phenomenon.
For the University’s team, having a lot of high-quality research is viewed as the key to their national ambitions.
“In some sense, your last debate of the year starts in the preseason because so much of the process for debate now is based on policy research and preparation that you do long before the tournament actually starts,” Allen said.
The most active debaters frequently spend hours a day researching, practicing and theorizing. Many are given research assignments during weekly debate meetings or spend time just reading up on the latest research.
Book excerpts, scientific journals and government studies are all cited during debates, but they’re also commonly challenged by the opponents for being misleading or biased. Having good quality evidence is essential for preventing the challenging side from discrediting it, Kall said.
Time is always the limiting factor for debate preparation because the amount of research is essentially limitless.
In the weeks approaching a big tournament like Coon Memorial, some of the most dedicated debaters do all of their homework on Mondays in order to devote the rest of the week to debate research.
In the four-hour ride to Northwestern, the three vans transporting the team made sure to have portable WiFi hotspots to keep research going on the road.
The Internet and portable tech has caused debate research to change in recent years. Evidence is no longer carried around in large bins or physically shared between team members. Instead, it is stored in large Microsoft Word files that are broken down by topic and is viewed and edited by all the team members.
With a simple mouse click, evidence collected by the University’s entire team can now be discovered and used quickly during debates.
Before a section of a debate starts, USB flash drives with the evidence to be used in that section are exchanged between teams. Recently, teams, including the University’s, have started uploading all evidence used to a debate website at the end of tournaments. The vast majority of evidence collected is never used during an actual debate. Kall said the University uploads its research because it creates higher-quality debates and helps new programs ‘catch up’ with the better ones.
Because of the amount of research in today’s debates, competitors have sped up their rate of discourse, University debate alum Neil Wolf said.
Wolf said the high rate of diction — which he witnessed for the first time during the Northwestern debate — is much faster than when he debated in the 1970’s.
“I think the high rate of speech is a natural outgrowth of … the infusion of information technology,” Wolf said. “So, although I don’t understand much of what they are saying, they do, and that’s all that matters.”
Most University debaters think the high rate, which can be in excess of 400 words per minute, is beneficial given their time constraints.
Debaters frequently wake up early to practice speaking drills, such as reading a book from back-to-front aloud with a pen in the mouth, so that their vocal cords are ready to go for the early-morning tournaments.
The speed, though incomprehensible to a layperson, is mostly understandable, debaters claim, by other debaters and the judge. They view it as just a normal part of debate.
Back at Northwestern, the speaking stops after about two hours, and the judge takes 15 minutes to decide the winner.
He gives the win to Allen and Pappas. Though they are satisfied with their win, they are already preparing for the three debates later that day and four the next.
Though they eventually lost in the quarterfinals, the team’s performance solidified Michigan’s top ranking for the national debate tournament because of the competition’s prestige.
Fast forward to March 27: six University students, along with 10 coaches and alumni assistants, fly out to Utah to prepare for the start of Friday’s national tournament. Along with the students already mentioned, LSA freshman Cam Colella, LSA sophomore William Morgan, LSA senior Kyle Deming and LSA junior Kevin Hirn will also compete.
For Pappas and Allen, who are going into the tournament with a top-10 ranking, expectations are high.
“If we work hard, I think we’ll do well,” Pappas said.
Allen nodded. “Yeah, we’re in the hunt.”