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Driven to Debate

Story by
Nancy Joseph

As a UW freshman, Michael Howard was eager to join the debate team. His high school had no team, and he was prepared to make up for lost time. But when he inquired about debate at the Student Activities Office, the news was not good. “I was told there was no team,” recalls Howard, “but that I could start one.”

Most freshmen would have shrugged and moved on to other interests. Not Howard. He put up fliers, sent emails, and talked up the idea of debate. Soon he had a group of students interested in participating and the support of a faculty advisor, Communication Professor Gerry Philipsen. But the team still needed a coach.

Coaches Christi Siver (third from left) and Mary Lynn Veden (third from right) with members of the 2005-06 Speech and Debate Society.

Coaches Christi Siver (third from left) and Mary Lynn Veden (third from right) with members of the 2005-06 Speech and Debate Society. Media credit: Mary Levin

Enter Christi Siver, a graduate student in political science, who heard about 
Howard’s efforts and was intrigued. With years of debate experience behind her, she agreed to lead the team. Four years later, she continues to serve as coach (with Mary Lynn Veden now serving as co-coach). The UW’s Speech and Debate Society currently has 15 members.

“I had some distance from debate after college and thought I’d moved on,” says Siver. “Then I came to the UW and got involved with the debate students and was just so impressed. They work so hard for everything they do. And they do it because they really love it.”

A Parliamentary Approach 

The team’s primary focus is Parliamentary debate, a format that requires breadth of knowledge and quick thinking. In each round of a tournament, two two-member teams are presented a resolution and have 20 minutes to prepare their case. One team supports the resolution; the other presents opposition arguments. Each team then defends its position, followed by a final rebuttal to summarize key points. Every tournament round involves a different resolution—anything from increasing funding for the rebuilding of New Orleans to banning pay day loans—and students may compete in up to ten rounds, depending on how well they perform. Being able to shift gears quickly is a must.

“You don’t have any idea going into the tournament what the topics will be,” says Siver. “You have to be a generalist who can think on your feet. You can’t pre-script it.”

How do students prepare when topics are unknown ahead of time? For starters, they do a lot of reading. Howard, now enrolled in the UW School of Law, would read The New York Times and other newspapers daily, as well as magazines like The Economist and Harper’s. In addition, the debate team meets for two hours twice each week. Team members research specific topics and write case briefs to be discussed at the meetings. 

“The goal is not just a collection of information but strategic thinking about how we would use that information in a debate round,” says Siver. “We talk about the topics and do practice debates on them. The students are both preparing content and developing their argumentation skills.”

For Rebecca Reh, a neurobiology major with an interest in government and politics, the need to keep up with current events was part of debate’s appeal. “We write case briefs every week to keep up with the issues, but it’s something everyone should do anyway to stay informed,” she says. Reh encouraged several friends to join the team, but they balked at the work involved. “I get caught up in it, so I don’t see it as work most of the time, insists Reh, with one caveat: “The world changes so fast that it does drive me insane sometimes.” 

Chris Berk (left) and Paul Drutman prepare for a  tournament round.

Chris Berk (left) and Paul Drutman prepare for a tournament round. Media credit: Christi Siver

All that preparation comes in handy during tournaments. With just 20 minutes to prepare a case, students huddle with the coaches, reviewing case briefs and strategizing. “Debate partners are still talking frantically back and forth as they head to the [debate] room,” says Reh. “I always get really nervous at that point, even though this is my third year doing this.”

With debaters participating in multiple rounds at a tournament, the experience can be both exhilarating and exhausting. “Before each round, you get an adrenalin rush,” says Howard. “The elimination rounds get increasingly tense. By the semi-final round you’re exhausted, but you’re debating a very good team and you’ve got to hold it together. I had a partner who would nap between rounds. My thing was to drink a lot of caffeine.”

Running on Empty

This year the team participated in a dozen tournaments, including two national tournaments held in Oregon. Entering as the 44th seed, the team moved up to 32nd. That still leaves plenty of room for improvement, but it’s a noteworthy achievement given the team’s non-existent budget. 

Unlike many universities—including most in this region—the UW has no permanent funding for debate. Other debate programs offer academic courses, paid coaches, and a travel budget; at the UW, debaters earn no academic credit for their work, the coaches volunteer their time, and participants must dig deep into their own pockets to cover travel expenses.

"An important part of being competitive at the national level is being there, getting that national exposure," says Siver. "We don't have the funds to travel out of the region. To get to nationals in Oregon, we had to go down as nomads, in my car."

"An important part of being competitive at the national level is being there, getting that national exposure. We don't have the funds to travel out of the region."

Gerry Philipsen puts the importance of funding in perspective. “Some teams pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into debate each year,” he says. “That we ranked 32nd this year, when there’s no way we are 32nd in funding, is impressive. If we had a modest level of funding, we could be a national power every year.”

A UW Tradition

Philipsen, a former debater himself, displays a poster from the 1922-23 UW Women’s Varsity Debate Team on the wall of his office. In those days, debate—introduced at the UW in 1889—was thriving on campus. In the 1930s, debate was renamed “Public Discussion,” with the focus on discussing issues in public performances rather than debating them in a traditional manner. Competitive debate returned in the 1950s, and by the 1960s it was so popular that nearly 50 students were competing in a single tournament.

How did such a popular program disappear? Blame it on University-wide budget woes. In the 1970s, reduced funding weakened the program, which eventually disintegrated. It was resurrected in the 1980s but disbanded again in the mid-90s due to a lack of permanent funding.

Since Howard revived debate four years ago, the team has been once again searching for funding. If the program were based in a single department, securing funding might be easier. But debate’s broad reach — attracting science students like Reh as well as pre-law students like Howard — is also its appeal.

“Learning to present and defend an argument is one of the most important and fundamental skills a person can possess,” says Reh. “No matter what you do in life, if you can defend your own views with poise and persistence, you are ahead. You might end up presenting a case in court, writing a scientific grant, or pitching a new idea to your supervisor, but your ability to persuade will always be the key to your success.”