Campus Observer

Topic of Debate

Seattle U’s team of debaters among the best in the world

by Tina Potterf

2009_fall_debate_main

Meet the debaters—members of the award-winning Seattle University Debate team (top row, l-r): Sophia Sanders, Michael Flores and Jessica Bernard (front row, l-r): Ben Watts, Mathew Lane, Alex Steinkruger and Chase Parker.

Photo courtesy of Sophia Sanders


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No matter the topic—politics, foreign affairs, policy reform—or the formidability of the competition, Seattle University’s debate team always brings its A-game. Case in point: Earlier this year, a team representing SU placed in the top five among the best debaters from the United States and abroad competing at a national tournament. And at the World Universities Debating Championship, in Cork, Ireland, SU’s debaters took seventh place in an international field of some 300 competitors. (SU was the top team from North America, besting Harvard and Oxford.)

The debate program is venerable, dating back to the early 1900s. While it may not have the high profile of other SU programs and activities, or garner the turnout of athletic events, those involved with debate are passionate about it. Such is the case with Sophia Sanders, a junior who has been involved with SU debate since her freshman year. She credits her experience in debate while in high school with her decision to attend college.

“I really just fell in love with it and found it helps me with my academic work and challenges me to think about current events,” says Sanders, who is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities for Teaching at Matteo Ricci College. “I love being able to challenge myself; [debate is] one of the few activities that does this.”

The debate team, which operates through the Communication department, typically consists of 12 to 15 students who participate at regional tournaments and, depending on their success at that level, advance to the national and international stages of competition. SU’s team uses the British Parliamentary style, a common form of academic debate. Debate coach Ross Merritt describes it as a style in which the teams are given limited prep time as they learn of their topics 15 minutes prior to the start of the first round. In this format, judges focus on the substance of the speech, such as how it addresses the core controversy; its breadth and depth; and the manner in which the argument is delivered.

“At SU, we compete in a style of debate that emphasizes building well-rounded speakers capable of engaging any public audience,” says Merritt.

Across the board, debate allows you to use all areas of expertise. The amount of information in the debate room is like taking another class.
—Sophia Sanders, junior

To prepare for a debate, which typically covers a wide range of topics, students meet twice a week to run through tournament practice and complete rounds, and then critique and break down the components of the arguments. Students also submit writing assignments each week that are shared with teammates so everyone is up to speed on the news headlines. But the preparation doesn’t stop there. College debaters often turn to publications such as The Economist, Sanders says, and read various newspapers and online news sites including BBC.com for current events.

Sanders’ strength as a debater is in international subjects, she says.

“Across the board, debate allows you to use all areas of expertise,” Sanders says. “The amount of information in the debate room is like taking another class.”

Recent graduate James Kilcup, ’09, was involved in debate all four years at Seattle University. Like Sanders, Kilcup began debating in high school as a way to explore ideas and viewpoints outside of the confines of a syllabus and to explore topics he might not otherwise engage with.

“I have always been a curious person and someone who likes ideas and hearing different sides to an issue,” says Kilcup. “At Seattle University I enjoyed the exchange of ideas and getting to meet people who are curious and like to talk about different subjects.”

While preparation and a strong knowledge base are important to a convincing and successful debate, it’s tough to predict which topics will come up. But Kilcup offers a few tips to tackle a debate—with erudition rather than trepidation—and come out winning: be open-minded and show confidence. In other words, never let ’em see you sweat. And be ready to challenge your own viewpoints.

Chances are, “you will be assigned to a side, when in a debate, that you may disagree with. You have to prepare yourself for taking on a mentality that is different from your own,” Kilcup says. “You need to be prepared to completely set aside your personal views. What you thought you knew before may not be helpful to you. Debate forces you to think.”

Debate has presented a world of opportunities for Kilcup and, perhaps most importantly, he says, enhanced his education.

“Debate has taken the mission statement and contributed to it and complemented the rest of my education. …Debate has put me in positions where I have talked to people from all different parts of the world,” says Kilcup, who will take a year off before attending graduate school. “We have won some awards, but the most important thing is that my education has been profoundly enriched by the experiences I had, the people I have met and the places I have been exposed to.”

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