Why I Love Debate

One of my favorite classes in high school, and perhaps my single favorite class, was debate. We studied, and practiced, what’s more precisely called “forensic policy debate.” (This is more commonly an extra-curricular competitive activity, rather than a class, but Milan hasn’t had a debate team in years.) Much like my major in college, debate was something I took, essentially, on a whim, and then found I loved. I probably spent more time on it—deliberately, and gladly—than on most of my other classes combined, even when I wasn’t taking the class. I tried to keep up with recent developments even after my last semester of it, and though I’ve let that lapse I hope to resume my familiarity, and perhaps even involvement, with the field when I have some more time. But debate seems like the most unlikely academic subject for me to enjoy, let alone find so delightful. Today (largely as background for some later posts) I’d like to examine the subject, why it’s a seemingly-unlikely fit for me, and perhaps why I find it so fascinating.

Debate is unlike every other class I’ve ever had, even in format alone. In my first semester, we had a few weeks of background, then a few weeks in the library to research, and then we started having debates. This is the academic equivalent of tossing the student into the deep end of the pool to learn how to swim after only a cursory theoretical explanation of how swimming works. Future semesters were similar, but replaced the initial background classes with a few lectures on more advanced theoretical topics throughout the semester.

Each debate is between two teams of two speakers each, and follows a set format. (The Wikipedia article, while somewhat disorganized, confusing, etc., explains the format and much more about the topic than I’ll cover here.) Each team is assigned to be either “affirmative” (to “affirm” the year’s resolution, generally by offering a plan that implements it and would solve some real-world problem) or “negative” (opposing the affirmative). Except for the opening speech, the “first affirmative constructive” (which is almost always written completely in advance), each speaker must prepare a several-minute (preferably coherent) speech responding to his or her opponents’ arguments on the fly, from his or her prepared materials.

My preferred positions were—are—second affirmative and second negative. As second negative, traditionally, I wouldn’t have to respond to the claims of the affirmatives’ case, but rather would attack their plan more directly, showing its disadvantages, workability problems, or even philosophical difficulties. (Later in my career, I tended to speak as first negative, so I could challenge topicality and other procedural issues in addition to these off-case arguments, or even propose a counterplan when the affirmative’s criticisms of the status quo warranted that route.) A second negative usually speaks as first affirmative when arguing from the other side, since the first affirmative often comes up with the plan and is the one who has to respond to the second negative’s criticisms first, but while I often wrote the case and plan I didn’t enjoy reading it and then watching my partner miss the (to-me-apparently) obvious responses to the negative arguments.

Debate doesn’t fit my profile of “things I would like.” While it had three things going for it—the passion of my favorite high school teacher, open-ended research and organization, and politics (though I think my interest in politics developed initially because of debate)—it had two major apparent disadvantages: public speaking and quick thinking. I’ve had major stage fright for years (extending to almost any situation where I think of myself as “performing,” often including visiting friends), and have avoided public speaking of pretty much any kind since middle school—except for debate and quiz bowl. Similarly, I find most sports, video games, and the like very difficult, and driving extremely stressful, sometimes have trouble in social situations, and avoid IRC because I often have trouble processing several channels of information quickly. And then there are the mere annoyances, such as the difficulty of correcting misrepresentations of my position. (As a negative, I would be more than willing—eager, in fact—to trade the “negative block,” which some consider the negatives’ greatest advantage, for the chance to speak last.)

But then why do I like, or even love, debate? First, once I get past the stage fright, I enjoy performing, so long as I know what I’m doing and don’t do something (like fumbling my lines if I were acting in a play) that would cause me to panic all over again, I like public speaking, or at least the sort of public argumentation I have to do in policy debate. Second, while I do have to think on my feet in debate, I only have to really listen to one person at a time—who has to clearly relate his or her points to any relevant points in previous speeches to have them accepted—and I never have to speak without any preparation. Even if I’ve run out of “prep time,” I can prepare my speech during my opponents’ speeches. And I’m used to working under pressure with little preparation. Third, most of what I love about debate isn’t about the debate round itself, but rather the preparation for it and the community around the “academic sport.” Much like I loved choir rehearsals but always got somewhat panicky at performances, in debate I can tolerate (or perhaps even like somewhat) actual debating, but love a leisurely conversation or argument about some obscure topic in debate theory, or simply the process of preparing a clever or conscientious brief. And fourth, the pressure of limited speaking time give an extra edge to the experience that a “paper war” (an ongoing debate conducted via newspaper columns or scholarly papers) lacks.

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