The people I immediately know are going to quit the team come to the first meeting and ask, “Can I join the debate club?”
I don’t say this to be pretentious, to draw insignificant distinctions between a “club” and a “team.” I don’t want to make the cliché claim that debate chooses you, not the other way around. Yet, in my year as a policy debater and team captain, I have seen prospective member after member leave following their first meeting, realizing that the effort required for the team isn’t worth an extra line on a college application. Still, the nature of competitive debate teams, especially policy debate teams, is often underscored by the caricature of the nerd, cast off as an additional club that the top students join. Though it’s true that many elite colleges love debaters, it’s rarely asked why.
We, as a team, don’t sit around in a circle on the floor of our coach’s office sharing our opinions on redundant controversial issues, like teen pregnancy or gun rights. Instead, our debates each year are centered upon one resolution, that “The United Stated Federal Government should substantially ____,” the blank changed annually. Between consecutive years, one will be a domestic policy action and the next will engage foreign policy. For example, from October to March, I debated the 2015-16 resolution: “The United States Federal Government should substantially curtail its domestic surveillance.” Next year, we will debate an international relations resolution: “The United States Federal Government should substantially increase its economic and/or diplomatic engagement with the People’s Republic of China.”
We compete in pairs, and every duo will argue as the affirmative (supporting the resolution) and negative (negating the resolution) at least once per tournament. Affirmative teams typically have one case for the year, persuading the judge that the USFG doing one specific plan within a broad topic is a good idea. This past year, my partner and I argued that video surveillance as conducted by an ambiguous, hidden camera leads to the hyper-sexualized nature of public space and a distrust of authority in general. (Think Handmaid’s Tale and “the Eyes.”) This does not mean that one’s negative argument must be the inverse of their affirmative case. Negative arguments can be much more versatile, including disadvantages (general ripple effects that the affirmative plan would cause, worsening the status quo), case solvency turns (why one specific affirmative case is a bad idea), kritiks (testing the philosophical assumptions that a case makes), or procedural theory (that the affirmative does not abide by the rules of debate.)
Every round has four constructive speeches, each lasting eight minutes; four rebuttal speeches, each lasting five; and only eight minutes of preparation time allotted to each duo. Constructive speeches are typically comprised of reading several pieces of carded evidence, while rebuttals are more about argument expansion and impact calculus. As speeches are so short, especially while trying to flesh out an entire plan or giving several reasons why a plan is a bad idea, speed-reading (“spreading”) is commonplace. Debaters will recite their cases, and sometimes rebuttals, at paces far quicker than what is comprehensible to an untrained ear, yet spreading is perfectly clear to those in the activity. Local tournaments may only be three rounds long and pairs debate one side the first round, the other side the next, with the third up to chance. City and state championships, as well as national tournaments, may last upwards of eight rounds, depending on the size of the competition and how far you advance into elimination matches.
Policy debate attracts many types of people, yet those who stay with it have many core descriptors in common: an insatiable competitive spirit, a diligent adherence to research, and a sense of community within an arguably intense activity. Though we don’t argue things like which presidential candidate is best, debate has altogether made me much more politically engaged. Debaters learn the importance of addressing arguments effectively and succinctly, remaining calm under pressure, and thinking quickly. Some may call us crazy for it, but there is a certain environment created from students waking up at 5 A.M., screaming for hours about public policy. Though debate does not often garner support as widespread as other competitive activities, those involved understand why it is special.