The plan made in the first coach meeting this fall at the Huber House was that I would judge in three regional tournaments. On these pages I will be reporting and reflecting on my tournament and judging experiences. I will probably be guilty of some squirreling here, but mostly I expect to be developing my understanding of debating.
The Binghamton tournament was my second debate tournament and my first American debate tournament.
During the two preceding weeks I had attended interesting classes on Persuasion by Alfred Snider (Tuna), Public Speaking by David Register, and a lecture on principled arguments by Stephen Boyle. I had observed several practice debates at the Huber House with feedback from Bojana Skrt and Stephen Boyle. I’m interested in how feedback is given and I made careful notes on that after each debate. I was not worried about my judging task in Binghamton as I had done it in the IDAS (International Debate Academy of Slovenia) tournament in fall 2009. I knew that judging would be hard work but as I had been able to contribute at IDAS, I was expecting the same to happen in Binghamton. I did not expect any problems.
That’s usually when it hits you. You feel that you can do it, but then suddenly everything is different. I judged six practice debates in the tournament. I felt dysfunctional. I was not able to follow the arguments and when giving my ranking to the chairing judge (who always makes the final decision), I found myself repeating my focus on delivery. I knew that that was bad. In debate evaluation, the focus should be on the arguments. Delivery style is considered secondary. This is because, as I had learned in Tuna’s persuasion class, debate requires central route processing, which means that arguments are the result of an elaboration process which involves critical thinking. I seemed to use the peripheral route as I focussed on the quality of the delivery.
Not good. I kept wondering why it was so difficult for me to get the arguments now. I had not felt stupid at IDAS. What had happened during the past year? Was I losing my mental faculties? Have I become fossilized in my superficial language instructor’s approach? All of those are probably true but in addition, this was a language test. The majority of the speeches were delivered so fast that I started to wonder why the qualities of good public speaking are not applicable to debate competition speeches. It seems that speaking fast is the status quo in debate competitions in the US and in international competitions. I was informed that even non-native English speakers tend to speak quickly when they get more advanced in debate. If you want to test your English listening skills, go to YouTube and watch & listen to some WUDC speeches. Notice that in one debate you listen to eight speeches.
I discussed my problem with all my mentors, Tuna, Bojana and David. As for now, I have made the following conclusions:
1) Naturally I, as an EFL teacher in a Finnish context, am not used to following such quick delivery in English. I can understand the flow of speech but I cannot focus. I need to develop my listening skills in English and I want to.
2) I also need to work on focussing on the arguments. This is what I came here to learn – so no problem there.
3) I was not the audience in the competition debates. The assumed audience is a pool of experienced judges with trained listening skills. The speakers were fulfilling their task.
4) A speech in a debate tournament has many features in common with any good public speech (e.g. the delivery of clear main points/arguments, good structure, signposting) with the exception of the amount of information delivered per minute. I would here like to refer to some research on speech perception and information processing but at the moment I don’t have it. I’ll be looking for it – let me know if you find something!
5) Part of the problem may be due to culture shock. Perhaps I did not get some of the arguments because I come from a different culture? Speakers make assumptions of the listeners’ knowledge of the premise of their argument. Debating the motion “THW ban pro-profit universities”, the concept pro-profit was not defined until in the first extension speech. I understood each word but did not know that pro-profit universities are always online universities. In international debating, definitions are extremely important.
There may be something else, but the above probably summarise my main concerns. I have solved my problem for now. I am still eager to learn about debating and I believe that it is a great tool to practice academic/professional competences. When teaching English not just as a foreign language but as a lingua franca, a language used in intercultural communication, I will discuss the above in the light of what is good communication. To me, in all spheres of life, the basic definition, the starting point at least, would be: Good communication evolves from all participants’ effort to understand each other. It is not about winning. It is about constructing mutual understanding.
I am eager to see the University of Tampere Debate Society and other Finnish debate societies to take part in international competitions. The World Universities Debating Championship (WUDC) is the world’s largest debating tournament, and one of the largest annual international student events in the world. It is tough but rewarding. Tuna comforted some novices after Binghamton: “… and if debate hurts, it’s OK.” I liked that. It hurt me but it’s OK. The way I look at debate tournaments now is that they are cultural artifacts (thank you David for discussing this concept) with rules and regulations created by the debate community. Competitive debate is an intellectual sport, a kind of Formula race where the winner is the one who drives fastest but stays on track. It gives a feeling of power and in fact, most motions deal with power. One thing is clear:
Language is power!