These last few months have created an unprecedented challenge to the ways in which our community approaches competitive debate. It has forced many of us to rethink how we approach both the classroom as well as the tournament atmosphere. As this school year concludes and after attending the NDCA conference over the weekend, it is clear that much of the following debate season will contain many of the same harsh realities as online tournaments are likely to become the norm for the foreseeable future. But this is not the first time our community has faced serious challenges to how we think about the structure of our activity. As we have seen in tournaments like the eTOC, the ability for students to adapt to the circumstances in front of us suggests that the online model of debate is sustainable and offers new opportunities for innovation and argument development. It is important that summer institutes embrace these changes in the ways that they approach debate pedagogy.
Not to show my age, but this moment in time reminds me a lot of the transition to paperless debate while I was the Assistant Director at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. I remember having serious doubts about the quality of debate or the ease of the transition because I never had to debate off of a laptop and could not understand how to even construct a speech. I found pulling evidence from files and compiling a speech document extraordinarily difficult. To my surprise, almost all of our debaters could do in seconds what would take me minutes.
I had similar reservations about the efficacy of online debate and the scalability of the format. However, at the end of the eTOC my concerns about internet reliability, cheating, and experiences of the students seemed largely unfounded. Our teams seemed to be engaged as if there was little to no difference between this tournament and any other tournament during the season outside of a few tech issues. And while it took a little getting used to, our increased reliance on online platforms like Slack provided a means of maintaining online communication to check in on students at the beginning of the day and coach during the day. In many ways, this shared digital space for communication was preferable to trying to run from room to room with a limited amount of time to talk to each individual team and provided us with a framework that we will continue to utilize when in-person tournaments resume. In addition to my own teams, the teams that I had the opportunity to judge seemed just as engaged as they would have been if we were debating in person. I can comfortably say that there was little discernable difference in the quality of the arguments or the behavior of the students.
In many ways the resilience that I saw in the students encouraged me to shape and change the ways in which I approach the classroom. While I have always been a fan of a traditional lecture model for teaching, it was clear that this model would not transition well after a few sessions in early March. As many of us can attest, the shelter-in-place restrictions have forced teachers to change several aspects of how we approach curriculum planning. The very real restrictions of a virtual setting have created conditions that reward instructional strategies that flip the classroom and penalize lecture-based methods. Most if not all summer debate institutes have transitioned to an online format, but it is important that we pay careful attention to what that adaptation looks like pedagogically. If camps maintain a more traditional format, we as a community of teachers, competitors, and parents have to seriously question the value that those camps can provide our students.
Even if high schools are open for in-person classes in the fall, it is unlikely that we will see many tournaments that follow a more traditional format. While I do not expect this to be permanent, it is important that we lean into this new reality to the best of our ability and not forget about all the lessons that we have learned about digital debate that we have learned over the last couple of months. While there is no substitute for an in-person tournament, the digital platforms for debate still provide many of the same benefits. Some may be tempted to take a “wait and see” approach and choose to limit the amount that their teams compete in these digital spaces. While these concerns are not without merit, we would be doing our students a disservice if we simply choose to take advantage of this unique opportunity in front of us. In that similar vein, this summer should reveal a great deal about the quality of education provided by summer institutes across the country and how they design their curriculum to meet the needs of the students.
After some discussion, my team made the decision to compete at the 2020 eTOC (Electronic Tournament of Champions) in Gold Public Forum Debate. In retrospect, that decision was both wise and beneficial. Like many coaches, I was a bit skeptical when it comes to online tournaments. I’ve been a coach for nearly twenty years, so it is safe to say that there are few activities I love more than attending an in-person speech and debate tournament. I was worried that something would go wrong with the technology at the eTOC. I was worried that the experience would seem tedious, and it would not be worth the time we spent in preparation for it. In the end, I was persuaded by my students that we needed to compete. I am very lucky to teach students who not only love speech and debate, but are flexible and not intimidated by new situations involving technology. As usual, my students were right. The online format provided extremely educational rounds that the competitors and judges enjoyed from the safety of their own homes. One of my students, in particular, noted that he felt more rested, and in general, healthier throughout his tournament experience, as he was able to eat healthy food (at tournaments we are often limited to the “junk” food that is sold by the tournament concessions stand), wake up at a reasonable hour because we didn’t have to travel to the tournament, and get emotional support not only from his teammates and coach in between rounds, but also his family members.
As many states have already made the decision to transition to online tournaments, and as the Texas Forensic Association is currently making the decision as to whether its Fall season will be completely online, competing in the eTOC definitely benefited my students, as they became accustomed to the online format for a competitive debate tournament. The more exposure students can get to this format, the more comfortable and prepared they will be if the TFA season starts online in August. The students who have had more opportunities to practice online will have a leg up on their competition.
So, consider me a convert. I enjoyed my experience at the eTOC and I look forward to working at UTNIF online, and if the competitive speech and debate season goes online this Fall, I know that I will be prepared to help my students transition to this format. Thankfully, for many of my students (those who competed at the eTOC and those that attend UTNIF this Summer), their first online tournament in August (if that is their only way to compete) will not be their first time competing online. Debate camp has always been important for the growth and development of students as they progress in their debate careers. However, now more than ever debaters will need the skills, knowledge and experience they get at the UTNIF Online to feel confident and prepared for competitions in the regular season as we navigate this new normal.
Each year, the most challenging aspect of improving debate success for the following season is maintaining a strong summer routine. There are a million things to do during the summer, people are exhausted from schoolwork, and the quarantine situation has many feeling especially down. Typically, summer camps provide much of the structure for bridging the long gap between end of season championships and season openers, but given quarantine, even more self-motivation will be needed than normal.
A few things might seem obvious, almost obligatory – daily speaking drills, researching the topic area with specific arguments in mind, and giving practice speeches. While these crucial activities have become a staple at every debate camp across the nation for a reason, in my experience coaching debate, the two most important qualities of the most successful debaters have been: 1) thinking about debate constantly and 2) learning to get enjoyment out of the activity. One of the most important elements of debate camp has always been the social aspect. Meeting debaters from across the state or even country who share similar goals, having lots of fun getting to know each other, and talking about debate with peers at every moment of the day.
All of this seems challenging in an online format, but I think we can help facilitate as close to an in-person camp experience as possible. Maintaining some level of structure with regular lectures, intra-lab discussions with lab leaders, and group chats with peers will go a long way to get you into that “thinking about debate all the time” mindset. Technology will help you connect with other debaters across the state and foment novel discussions about the topic, critical thinking skills only achievable through group coordination, and build relationships that will become stronger throughout the year as tournaments begin again that will last a lifetime.