Debater finds low-key team a healthier one

The VC Debate team poses for a friendly photo. Courtesy of Vassar Debate

Formal debate, at least at the collegiate level, was something I had always assumed would be endlessly competitive, time-consuming, over-structured and just generally harsh. Understandably, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to participating in Vassar Debate, but I decided to hope for the best and give it a try. After a month and a half of biweekly debate meetings and one tournament, I can confidently say that Vassar Debate is entirely unlike what I had assumed.

When I started attending debate practices, I quickly discovered that Vassar’s generally casual attitude also permeates the debate team. The team’s budget is relatively low compared to others, the team has no faculty coach, and the general focus is on debating for its own sake and to enjoy improving, rather than to eke out as many points as possible. It has unlimited spots and accepts beginners In short, Vassar Debate is chill. Throughout practices, I noticed its nature, but didn’t fully grasp its importance until I attended my first tournament with the Vassar team.

I missed the first tournament of the year, so this October’s North American University Debate Championship (NAUDC) was my first collegiate debate competition. We arrived in the mid-afternoon, just in time to sign in and hear all the introductions. Hundreds of students sat in teams of two in a fairly large auditorium, all simultaneously tired by their journeys and energetic for the convention. It was like the first day at summer camp or a new school, except that the short duration (one weekend) of the competition meant nobody cared much to socialize past small talk. Merely minutes after laying out the general rules, the first topic was revealed, and the first debate began.

Debate requires many skills, but all of them are useless if you don’t know the rules of the relevant debate style. My team of two, a novice to the rules of college debate (me) and a novice to the rules of all debate (my teammate), didn’t have good odds against people who know it inside and out. We agreed we would try our best, but it would be okay if we didn’t do well. As predicted, we started with consistent 4s (the lowest possible score), but rose steadily to a 1 (the highest possible score) in our final debate. Through six rapid-fire rounds of fierce competition, we all learned an incredible amount, and developed significantly as debaters.

When we weren’t debating, the Vassar team swapped life stories en route to the competition, and spent half an hour trying in vain to figure out how to get into our Airbnb. My teammate and I stayed up until 4 a.m. on the first night, knowing full well we’d have to wake up at 6:45 a.m., and we did better the second day than the first. When the debates were done, we didn’t dwell on them, and just focused on meeting people from other schools and getting to know each other.

The fact that makes all of the above strange is that formal debate, more often than not, is anything but relaxed. For many of the debaters I met at NAUDC, and know from before and debate can be unrelentingly stressful. Debaters will stay up late during tournaments like we did, but only ever to get some final preparation in. Some schools are known to unofficially recruit prolific high school debaters to the school, and accept only experienced debaters. In the most extreme cases, schools will spend thousands of dollars to fly dozens of novice debaters across the country for tournaments.Hopefully, all these schools have healthy debate cultures, but I personally feel that if I had been shortlisted for the purpose of debate and had lots of school funds invested into my debating, I would feel a lot more pressure to succeed. Under all the pressure that’s placed on most debaters, they tend to chase victory so much that they lose the spark that makes all those hours of speeches and preparation worth it in the first place. Without that energy, that excitement, it’s all stuffy speeches and meaningless points, and the reason why so few people tend to be interested in debate becomes apparent.

Vassar’s debate club and its culture aren’t conventional, but that only serves to make its debate experience better. Amidst nonchalant shrugs and untarnished smiles, I heard a lot of jokes at the tournament from nearly everyone along the lines of “Call me Wendy’s, I got the 4 for 4!” (To reiterate, a 4 is the lowest possible score you can get). On my part, when I look back, I don’t remember losses or frustration. I remember trading jokes as we waited for results. I remember being introduced to Chipotle. I remember jokes in the van and devouring a family size Cheetos packet as we watched the sunset driving home. I look for a tournament, arduous and nerve-racking like any other, but instead I find a weekend road trip punctuated with friendly rounds of a sport I love.

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