Proceedings of the

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


Emory University

Atlanta, GA

June 10-11, 1997


Pittsburgh (PA) and Louisville (KY) Activism

Gordon Mitchell and Ede Warner


Gordon Mitchell: This has really been an inspiring day.  Melissa and Bill should be commended for putting this conference together.  More than an ideafest, it is also a powerful springboard.  I know I will leave this conference more energized than ever and excited to pursue the ideas we've been discussing.  I want to take this time to call for more meetings of this kind, with people gathered together to talk and plan ways to extend the potential and reach of the debate activity.  Conferences such as this one are an ideal setting for this sort of interchange, but I think that similar meetings can also take place at debate tournaments, if the schedule is set up to permit it.  That's why I want to make a plea for six round intercollegiate policy tournaments.  The Robinson Crusoe effect is far too common in our activity on the collegiate level, where teams build little islands to house their respective debate shops.  This effect occurs when debaters and coaches rise at 6 a.m. in their hotel rooms, travel to campus for four debates that last until 10 p.m., then eat dinner and return to the hotel.  There is very little space in this type of schedule for reflection on how to take the arguments to wider spheres of deliberation, i.e. collective thinking in a broader contextual register about how debate fits into the world beyond speaker points, link turns and elimination round seeding.  Each person (and team) tends to operate on an island, making connections and hooking up with other folks outside of contest rounds only rarely.  What I want to do in the rest of this talk is to describe how what we've been doing at Pittsburgh is in some ways a response to this.  After this, I'll end up by putting some issues on the table for discussion.

* Activist Debate Network: collegiate program

The Activist Debate Network (ADN) is an organization that is run under the umbrella of the William Pitt Debating Union (WPDU) at the University of Pittsburgh.  The ADN operates alongside a traditional intercollegiate policy team that has been prominent on the national circuit for over eighty years.  While the WPDU has continued its commitment to the highest-levels of intercollegiate policy competition in the last three years (clearing teams at the NDT, CEDA Nationals, Chicago and Towson Novice Nationals), the ADN has brought a flurry of new debating activity to Pittsburgh that complements traditional contest-round competition.  The ADN is activist because what we try to do is to go beyond traditional debate pedagogy.  We emphasize debaters' roles as actors in and beyond contest rounds, and  aim to make debate practice more relevant in the public sphere.  It's a network, because it's not a team in strict sense; the organization includes more than just students--it also includes community groups, media representatives, politicians, and interested citizens.  The common bond that brings these people together is belief in the power of public argument to educate and emancipate.  In teaching and coaching, we de-emphasize the technical.  We don't start out with the stock issues and counterplan theory; instead we jump right into topics and work outward, developing theoretical concepts later when helpful.  The aim is to build up experience and develop expertise in public advocacy; to refine and amplify the public voices of students, and bring students into public conversations with interlocutors inside and outside the university.  The format is designed to maximize participation, and we tend to draw students who have other obligations that prevent them from traveling on long weekends and don't have much experience.

In the college program, we've had 8 public debates since 1995, using a variety of formats, engaging a number of different kinds of audiences, and addressing controversial topics such as university unionization, affirmative action, terrorism policy, and police accountability.  To give an idea of the process in action, it would be useful to discuss our most recent effort to organize a series of debates on the issue of police accountability in Pittsburgh.  You may have heard about the Jonny Gammage case.  Jonny was a 31-year old Black man pulled over by white police officers right outside Pittsburgh for a questionable traffic stop.  After being pushed to the ground and having a night stick held against the back of his neck for over two minutes, Jonny died of asphyxiation.  This case galvanized a groundswell of protest in the city against police brutality, and a citizen group pushed for the establishment of an independent review board to field citizen complaints about police behavior.  This proposal touched off a heated controversy regarding the appropriateness and effectiveness of such a board for dealing with the problem of police brutality in Pittsburgh.  At our organizational meeting early in the second semester, students involved in the ADN met and selected this topic for debate.  We gave out initial research assignments, asking some students to canvass the library for materials, while assigning other students to contact organizations and individuals involved in the controversy for their viewpoints on the debate.  After approximately two weeks of research, we met to begin drafting individual pro and con speeches.  Incorporating the evidence they had gathered, students worked on crafting arguments, using evidence, and polishing their delivery skills.  At the next session one week later, we held a practice debate in which students further worked on their speaking and began learning the concepts of refutation and cross examination.  After a series of further practice sessions, we scheduled our first public debate, where the students debated with each other for an audience made up mostly university students and professors.  Following this first public debate, we then solicited outside advocates to join us in debating the same topic in a more ambitious debate for a wider audience including members of the general public.  We secured commitments from two members of city council, the president of the local police union, and a representative of a local citizen action group to participate in the public debate.  We used a three-on-three format in which one student was placed as an advocate on each side of the resolution, and three other students assembled as a panel of questioners that queried the advocates following each opening speech.  The local media was very enthusiastic about the debate.  The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette gave us space to advertise the debate two weeks prior to the event, and then devoted a full page of coverage to the debate in the Sunday paper following the debate.  In Pittsburgh newsweekly published a partial transcript of the debate, and the Pittsburgh Tribune Review ran a story on the debate the day after it occurred.  Two local television stations also attended the debate, with WPXI-TV even making the debate their lead story on their 11 p.m. newscast. 

In retrospect, there were roughly three positive aspects of this event.  First, it provided a forum for students to confront "real world" public advocates in a debate about a pressing and salient local topic.  This provided an occasion for the students to hone their public advocacy skills in a meaningful political context.  It should be pointed out that not all students participating in the debate were of the same political persuasion or even favored establishment of the citizen police review board.  There was one student debating each side of the question (joining two other outside advocates for each side), and the three person panel of student questioners featured representation along a broad spectrum of political views (ranging from conservative to radical).  Debate activism in the public sphere does not automatically mean special-interest, partisan public advocacy campaigns; I have been trying to dispel this illusion by designing projects in Pittsburgh that clear spaces for students to cultivate and express their own political opinions (whatever they may be), all the while building on their abilities to amplify these opinions in wider spheres of public deliberation. Second, the event served as a forum in which the entire community, not just the university population, could participate in a robust and informative discussion about an important and timely issue.  Third, the debate served as an organizing venue for the social movements pressing their agendas in the public sphere.  With an audience of over 100 people convened to hear the arguments, partisan activists had an opportunity to canvass for petition signatures and network with other groups sympathetic to their cause.  Next year, we plan to launch a series of national public debates on environmental justice, partnering with the United Church of Christ and numerous other universities, community groups and corporations to promote robust, wide-open and constructive dialogue in affected communities across the country.  In addition, we will also be organizing a slate of local debates in Pittsburgh dealing with salient public issues such as the recent proposals to deregulate the electric industry and raise the sales tax to fund new stadium construction.

* Activist Debate Network: high school program

When I debated at the high school level in Pittsburgh in the early 1980s, there was a thriving policy debate circuit.  However, in recent years, participation in Pittsburgh high school debate has declined precipitously, and in large part, this drop in interest is due to growing disenchantment with policy debate.  The goal of the ADN at the high school level is to restore enthusiasm for debate and increase participation.  More specifically, we are seeking to expand the ADN network to include high schools currently without debate programs, particularly those schools in the Pittsburgh public school system.  In pursuit of this goal, we have started modestly, focusing on one Pittsburgh city school, Langley High School.  Last year, we visited Langley for two two-week segments, once in the Fall and once in the Spring, linking up with 9th and 11th, and 12th grade English classes.

In the Fall, we embarked on a project which dovetailed with our work on the college debate topic dealing with environmental cleanup.  Our affirmative case called for federal support for cleanup of so-called "brownfields" sites, i.e. abandoned lots littered with pollution from vacated industry.  We introduced the debate process to the students with an initial demonstration debate on brownfields, then spent a week working through basic debate concepts (argument, evidence, plan, advantage disadvantage), and assisting with the research effort.  Our pedagogical philosophy was to build up understanding and exuberance for debate in a step-by-step fashion.  First, we asked the students to simply make an argument, then find a piece of evidence to support the argument, then combine arguments together to form a speech, then refute a classmates' speech, and finally, conduct a debate.  At the end of the two-week period, we arranged a field trip for the students to attend a national conference on brownfields held in the David Lawrence Convention Center in downtown Pittsburgh.  This conference, called "Brownfields '96," featured speeches by prominent figures in the policy debate such as EPA Director Carol Browner and HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros.  We arranged for the EPA to pay for the field trip and scheduled meetings with U.S. Representative Bill Coyne, and Bo Mills, EPA's Region III Director, so the students could present their argument briefs and ask questions about brownfields policy.  The field trip provided a channel for the students to connect their research and debating to actors directly involved in the controversy they were studying, and also presented the brownfields policy-makers with fresh perspectives on the issue by members of affected populations.

* Concluding remarks

I would like to end by tossing out some general ideas that I hope will provoke some critical reflection and discussion.  Initially, when contemplating the notion of debate outreach, I would like to suggest the importance of taking a reflexive turn and problematizing the very concept of policy debate itself.  The features of policy debate seem stable and comfortable when the activity remains confined to a hard core of participants traveling to tournaments on the elite national circuit.  However, you start to see strains and weaknesses in the format and assumptions when you begin to push policy debate beyond the hard core.  One of the greatest benefits of outreach is that veterans of policy debate might be able to learn from the experience by seeing debate in a new light, interrogating assumptions that have been calcified because they have been taken for granted for so many years.  In this light, I would like to toss out three general propositions for your consideration.

First, in order to broaden the participatory base of intercollegiate debate, it may be necessary to invent new forms of debating in college programs.  Specialized policy debates with finely-calibrated plan inclusive counterplans and esoteric intrinsicness battles can be enthralling, but they also court triviality.  It isn't wise to do a bunch of outreach on the high school level, but then fail to transform college debate in a way that makes intercollegiate debating an attractive activity for newcomers.  We don't want to shut the door on those who get excited about the general debate process in high school, but then look to continue in college but find the Robinson Crusoe effect stultifying.  One way to address this dilemma might be to think seriously about coupling high school outreach with creation of new opportunities for debate in college programs.  This kind of initiative would have the most traction if the prestigious college debate teams that concentrate exclusively on policy debate consider expanding their range of debating activities to include, for example, parliamentary or public debating.

Second, it is possible to go beyond thinking of debate as a remedial tool to redress educational inequities to start seeing debate as a political activity that has the potential to empower students and teachers to change the underlying conditions that cause inequities among schools and communities in the first place.  In this task, the public advocacy skills learned by debaters can be extremely potent.  The ability to present ideas forcefully and persuasively in public is an incredibly powerful tool, that becomes even more powerful when coupled with the research and critical thinking acumen that comes with intensive debate preparation.  I believe that a crucial element of this transformative pedagogy is public advocacy, making debate practice directly relevant to actors which are studied during research, and making the topics researched relevant to the lives of students and coaches.

In this vein, public debates represent sites of social learning where the spirit of civic engagement can flourish, ideas can be shared, and the momentum of social movements can be stoked.  Unlike one-way communication engineered by mass media news outlets and public opinion polling, the interaction that occurs in public debates is a unique form of dialectical communication.  Dynamic, back-and-forth exchange pushes issues beyond shallow lines of sound-byte development.  The drama of debate draws in interested audiences, creating the possibility that dialogue will spill outward beyond the immediate debate venue and into communities, schools, universities and other civic groups.  Furthermore, because public debates are flexible, students and teachers can creatively tailor formats and topics to fit local needs, as well as experiment with new forms of debating.

Third, entering wider public spheres of deliberation is a risky endeavor.  Many actors outside the immediate debate community find the debate process very attractive, and this makes it easier to organize and promote public debates.  But the political effects of debate are not automatically emancipatory or progressive.  The debater's instinct is that more discussion always good.  This is a nice principle, but when you're talking about on-the-ground social change, it depends on type of discussion that debate enables.  Institutions use debate as a legitimating tool.  They can point to their participation as evidence of commitment to the community, as proof of their democratic pedigree.  The danger is that if your goal is to use debate as a tool to challenge corrupt or regressive institutions, the possibility exists that you can make them stronger.  We have heard this warning from Charles Lee, of the United Church of Christ.  As a partner in our project to organize a series of national public debates on environmental justice, Mr. Lee emphasized the importance of coupling public debate initiatives with the aggressive pursuit of partnerships with grassroots activists and members of affected populations.

At a recent dinner held in his honor, Brent Farrand (Debate Coach of Newark High School of Science) gave a brilliant and moving speech that touched on many of the themes discussed at this Ideafest.  Looking back on his own career, Farrand offer a poignant charge for the future.  "Perhaps the time has come for each of us to consider choosing a road that travels to other places than just between practice rounds and tournament sites," Farrand reflected; "Through some admittedly dark times when each of us felt like voices in the wilderness, we cradled, protected, refined and polished this gem of education.  It is time now to carry it out into the world and share it."  I agree with that.

Ede Warner: 20 years ago, I started debating at Hammond High School.  We always seemed to come in second.  Our coach discouraged us from saying that we didn't win because we were black, so we always invented other rationales for losing.  When I watched the Therrell debate video, it was empowering.  Those debaters have swagger.  They have the confidence to say "we got screwed."  This was different from my experience.  I wound up in Sioux Falls, SD, working as a funeral director.  My friends said "you're mighty white."  In 1990, I got back into debate, and when I looked around, I saw that it was the same as 1981, when I left the activity: there weren't any faces like mine.  Then I hooked up with George Ziegelmueller's Urban Debate League, and coached Detroit inner-city teams to success.  This gave me hope, and learning about what Melissa Wade has been doing gave me energy.  Then Tim Hynes at the University of Louisville said that the school was losing its debate program, but that there was a black initiative at the school, and that if I came, we could get it all back.  George Ziegelmueller, my thesis advisor, said don't go without your dissertation being done, but I went anyway.  Of the 40 units of scholarship given out since I've been at Louisville, 11 have gone to women and people of color.  Since that time, we've had black speakers among the top twenty at the NDT, and an all-black team cleared at the NDT.

* The Jefferson County Debate Club

     Tim Hynes of the University of Louisville started the Jefferson County Debate Club back in the 1980s.  The Lieutenant Governor dropped a 1/2 million dollar endowment on the program.  At that time, there were one day tournaments on Saturdays, and the program wasn't really going anywhere.  I went to the coaches, and said, "Let's do a week-long institute."  They said that was too long.  So I had $11,000 to spend on a two-day coaches workshop.  That was just too much money.  I didn't want to administer the tournaments, but with this excess money, it made sense to bring tournaments under the program endowment.  So we went to two-day tournaments.  There was a huge backlash, because football games were played on Friday nights.  My response was to ask "Do football players say they can't play because there's a debate tournament on Saturday?"  So you can see that there were many challenges in building this league.  Eventually, we went to a short-term solution of an all-county team as a kind of quick fix.  We plan to hire a coach with real experience to come in an coach.  We haven't worked out all the plans in practice, but it looks like it will work, since 90% of the regional tournaments accept hybrid teams. 

Will Baker: I was wondering if anyone had ideas about how to change the reward structure so high school teachers want to participate?

Gordon Mitchell: At Pittsburgh, Tom Kane has been running an excellent program for years that gives high school teachers college credit for teaching classes dealing with argumentation and debate in the high schools.  Since this credit can be used for professional advancement, it's a very popular program.

Melissa Wade: We do this at Emory, too.  One other issue I'd like to follow-up on, reacting to Ede's comments about the difficulty of building a community among high school programs.  In the Urban Debate League here in Atlanta, the leadership has insisted that there be community.  When something goes wrong, people get a "visit in the night" from the powers that be, who explain the importance of a supportive community structure.

George Ziegelmueller: You've got to take the long-term view.  You're not going to revolutionize things overnight.  What I'm most pleased about with the Detroit Debate League is that the students and teachers have started debating, even with little or no experience.  It's not reasonable to expect national-circuit competition right away, especially if you want to run a broad-based program.  You need to have progressive levels, to gradate the options for participation.

Tuna Snider: I'm very disturbed about resources.  Targeting all of a team's resources toward six debaters is bullshit.  It's an offense to the people discussing these issues in this room.  It's important to keep in mind the number of students that you're helping, and how much you're helping them.  It's not how high, but how many and how far.

Rob Tucker: If the goal is to include the maximum number of people, you shouldn't be surprised when the top level of NDT is not integrated.  There is a tradeoff.

Melissa Wade: After researching this for fifteen years, one thing that I've learned is that you have to have role models.  Shannara was so proud to reach the octas at CEDA nationals, not because of the trophy, but because by doing it, she has succeeded in making it easier for someone else to do in the future.  These are not all the options available, though.  Every program has something to offer.  Some are going to be more bombastic, some are going to be more behind-the-scenes.

Les Lynn: Speaking as a high school teacher, I'd like to return to the point that Ede made about asking for high school teacher volunteers.  Teachers must be paid.  It's hard to communicate that to a room with so many people who are philanthropic and altruistic.  It just seems impossible to build a league solely with volunteers.  It's not so much the money; it's a matter of respect.  If you're building a debate league, you've got to allocate resources.  I believe in an approach where the colleges are involved, training the high schools to do it themselves, rather than bringing debate to the high schools.  If you train the high schools to do it themselves, the teachers are closer to the students; they are professionals who work with the students directly.  I started teaching at Whitney Young High School two years ago, and I tried to get the administration to recognize debate.  It's important to have a debate team that's organic to the high school, something fully legitimate within the high school, not something where you are taking the kids out of the high schools.

Ede Warner: I believe the main object is to get as many students to participate as possible.  When I lecture to African-Americans, I like to say: You can get some of this stuff (scholarships, etc.), too.  Shanara and Kenya were in my lab at one summer workshop, and when the rest the rest of the lab was cutting up, they kept working.  They saw it as a way out.

Shawn Whalen: I think the key is the high school debate coach.  All the Emory debaters have been instilled with the teaching ethic. 

Melissa Wade: Some programs are institutionalized.  For example, in Texas, debate is required.  We're involved in a fight every 3-4 years, when the school board decides they want to cut debate.  It seems inherent in education.  We need to understand that education itself needs to be overhauled.  I liked Will's comment that we need to pay more attention to marketing ourselves.  We don't exploit alumni as much as we could.

Karla Leeper: Texas is sold on debate, but there's a big problem--retention.  We get some teams up and running, but then the coaches get robbed by bigger schools.  We need to communicate what teachers do academically--why it is beneficial, academically, to do debate.  We need to communicate that what we do is important and why others should do it for their students.  One phrase keeps coming back today, and that's self-esteem.  I don't think I'm going out on a limb to say that there are people alive today who wouldn't be alive without debate.

George Ziegelmueller: One thing that inspired us all today was the idealism.  Young high school teachers need to know that in addition to critical thinking and research, [this idealism] is what keeps us all in it. 

Paula Nettles: I've been a cockeyed optimist all my life.  But now I'm going into a retirement/sabbatical because it feels like I've been doing two full-time jobs for 20 years.  If people like me are getting out now, I don't know what's going to happen next.

Beth Breger: When I was first researching in this area, I went to Atlanta and was bowled over.  Then I went to Detroit, and was bowled over again.  The board members at the Open Society Institute fear that there's a risk of giving too much money, that somehow money will lessen the goodwill and effort that you folks are putting forth.  So that's a question we face--how will the money help beyond your own goodwill.

Melissa Wade: I've made copies of a speech by Brent Farrand from the Newark School system.  He got the debate budget there in the $300,000 range, with no college support.  He just found a superintendent and converted him.  The activism in this speech is exactly what we need to do.