First Diversity Recruitment and
Retention in Debate Ideafest
Edited by Gordon R. Mitchell
University of Pittsburgh
Published by Office of the Dean
University of Pittsburgh
Ideafest convened at
June 10-11, 1997
IMPACT Coalition (NY)
and Parliamentary Project (CA)
Will Baker & John Meany
Will Baker: Before we begin, I'd like to step here up front and offer three perspectives. My wife, who is much smarter than me, gave me these. First, I think it is wise to take the perspective of pessimistic optimists. This means that the administration will at first say "no," but then they will come around later on. Second, as good as we are at being advocates, we also need to be mobilizers and managers. We need to synthesize portable packages. Third, we need to think of debate teams versus what? We need to envision beyond debate. You could win six national championships and it wouldn't matter at all if you got shot. Debate is nice, but it's just not real. It's a mechanism to other ends. If we lose sight of this, nothing's going to get done. Now let me turn it over to John and I'll come back later to talk more specifically about IMPACT.
John Meany: I'm a big supporter of policy debate, but I think it's insufficient for the task we have in front of us. We need a large and diverse intercollegiate debate population. Melissa Wade was right. The Urban Debate League in Atlanta is great, but most intercollegiate environments don't cut it. The translation of policy debate to high school administrators is very difficult. That's why I emphasize parliamentary debating in our program.
* Parliamentary debate at Claremont
Parliamentary debate is the most popular format of debate in the world, practiced in 40-50 countries. It's growing enormously in the U.S. West, with 50-150 teams added during the last two years. There are a number of reasons that explain the surge in interest for the parliamentary format. One has to do with the structure of the event. Parliamentary debating is largely extemporaneous, allowing one hour for preparation, with lay and specialized judges. There are few rules, but unlike policy, few conventions as well. How does one explain the recent increase in participation in parliamentary debating? First, there are few entry barriers. Second, it's possible to conduct an entire tournament in a single day. The direct and indirect costs of participation are lowered. Third, coaches can participate, sustain a family, and continue participation in debate. You can also use people with no background to coach and judge. There is much less strain organizationally. We use a model of an eight tournament league. There is a $12 entry fee, and we were able to send eight or more teams to one tournament for the cost of one national policy tournament. Traditionally, Claremont had 4-6 NDT teams. Now, we have 35 teams, 24 travel nationally, and 10 travel internationally. We also bring in many more under-represented students than in the past.
* Non-competitive debate at Claremont
In addition to the parliamentary part of our program, we have a non-competitive program dealing with public debate and discussion. We have flexible formats; we identify the population to be served and then structure the debate accordingly. We have a program on cable TV that carries the debates. We have mentoring for at-risk students. There are public debates around the Claremont area, as well as guest lectures. With the topics, we try to encourage the attendance of people who are not usually drawn to debates. For example, we've done debates on the meaning of the Million Man March, representations of women in the art, and African-Americans in the media. The programs have been attended by groups not traditionally served by debate. Before we started the program, we would occasionally have public debates, but usually just one debate per semester. Now we have over 40 students involved in non-competitive debate. Some go on to careers in social and political activism.
Tuna Snider: I'm concerned about splitting squads, having part of the team devoted to parliamentary and the other part of the squad devoted to non-competitive debate. Is it possible to do both?
John Meany: Interestingly, so far, we haven't had students select policy debate. Out of eighty students, zero have selected policy debate.
Will Baker: It really depends on how you spin it. Some debaters doing policy debate could be convinced to do public forum debating.
Tuna Snider: How do you deal with Melissa's argument that the high school students in Atlanta already have eloquence; that what they really need is research and critical thinking?
Will Baker: We also serve the high school and middle school audiences, and many of them agree that there needs to be a research emphasis. However, I think it's important to point out that many competitors in parliamentary debate have a heavy research emphasis. For example, kritiks are very valuable on general parliamentary topics. Look at critical race theory. The same thing can be done by giving people the topic in advance of the tournament.
Shawn Whalen: [question to John Meany] 114 students sounds mind-boggling. How do you coach all of them, and what is the reaction in terms of satisfaction?
John Meany: Most of the students that are involved do not choose parliamentary debate because it's an easier alternative than policy. They are already involved in intensive research. We have a much stronger focus on skill development, involved in multiple settings. This kind of flexibility is de-emphasized in policy debate.
Laura Heider: Is there a problem regarding demographic inequality within the national parliamentary circuit?
John Meany: Many people of color select parliamentary debate because they "feel comfortable" in that community. It's better in parliamentary than in NDT, but no, it's not satisfactory.
Will Baker: We are asking the wrong questions, usually. Usually, we ask why or why not they are not here. We don't ask, "What can we do to invite them?" The model of just putting up signs and seeing who comes is not enough. People see those signs and think, "Oh, it's just another meeting of white folks." At Rochester, they put out posters with red, yellow, and green colors, and tripled the turnout [of African-Americans]. I got out of debate for awhile. I got back in because I saw some frightening statistics. 55% of African-Americans and Latinos don't finish college degrees. 82% of those living in poverty do not finish [college degrees]. Debate is a way to get them back. I am incredibly energized by Betty and Melissa, and we should go back to our respective communities with this energy.
* The IMPACT Coalition
I was doing a speed drill with an NYU debater; this debater kept stuttering, and she burst into tears. Eventually, this debater went on to win five speaker awards and reach the elims of novice nationals, even with dyslexia. It turned out that that this debater had been memorizing cards. This debater reached the quarters of JV nationals and cleared at CEDA nationals. Early on, her partner thought she was really good, but dumped her because she thought that as a team, they would never go anywhere, because she wouldn't be strong in rounds against other women. The bottom line is that we don't know how many debaters we have overlooked and lost this way. We need networking; we need examples. A big part of it is workplace dynamics. I have all the resumes of current and former debaters on file. I can help them find work and develop a career. Debate is part network-building and part time management. There are a bunch of people in New York City who are interested in debate, but you have to respect their time when you invite them to participate. I thought that when I started, school administrators would jump at the opportunity to support debate, but I was incorrect. I showed them the IMPACT [business] cards, some said they liked the idea, but didn't do much. I went back and showed them my U.N. [business] cards, and they said they could use a couple of interns! The bottom line is that there is a need to give a pitch in terms of what people want.
Tuna Snider: The reception of other schools to the IMPACT cartel has been very encouraging.
Will Baker: Tuna has led the charge here. His students have sat down and committed resources. Instead of trophies, he has given money. The Vermont students engage the IMPACT students. The ultimate point is that we want to get where these schools can get their own teams.
Chris Wheatley: How do you find the task of running a full-diversity program in an English-only format?
Will Baker: We have discussed a Spanish-only competition, but since English is important in the community, we've felt that it's important to teach English; that it's a disservice to steer the students away [from English].