With ”here” I mean physically here in Burlington. This has to do with my job of teaching English as a foreign language to university students with advanced English skills. Oral communication classes may easily give the silent student a chance to remain silent. Some six years ago I started using debating as an exercise form. I had no experience in formal debating myself. It was not done at school when I went there and as far as I know it is still not part of the Finnish school curricula. I do know that there are more and more schools in Finland where debating is practised, but it’s still not known everywhere. I’m not quite sure when I came across formal debating myself. I do remember that some seven years ago our Language Center had an exchange lecturer from the University of Porto who talked about it. That was the first time I heard about competitive debating, which did not sound appealing at all. After the lecturer’s visit from Portugal, my colleague Mary started saying every once in a while that we should start a debate society at our university. I always agreed although I could not think how I could be of help, because I knew nothing about debating. Still, Mary had a hunch that since then has been followed.
When I started using debating as an empowering exercise form in classes, I did it the way I do things: action first. I went online, found a lot of Australian sites, took the instructions from this one: http://www.actdu.org.au/archives/actein_site/basicskills.html
and applied the instructions by negotiating with the students. Some students hated the whole thing and I had to come up with good arguments why they should be doing it. There was conflict, because I was not the expert and they saw right through me. I didn’t give up. I searched more, found Professor Alfred Snider’s resources in the World Debate Institute at the University of Vermont, clarified my arguments and nowadays the majority of my students accept the fact that you can learn to communicate through guided advanced practice. Debating is demanding but once you get a feeling that you can do it, you have the skills and confidence to succeed in your academic and professional life – and all that in a foreign language!
My native-speaker colleagues Mary, Nancy and Robert have all been using debating as an exercise form for who knows how long (they won’t remember, I’m sure). The reason why I went to IDAS 2009 in Slovenia and why I am here in Vermont as a Fulbright Mid-Career Professional Development grantee is the fact that I had to find out about debating – my colleagues already knew.
IDAS 2009 was an eye-opener; I saw a world that I instantly wanted all Finnish university students to know about. They, too, should have the opportunity to be intellectually challenged in the way I saw international debating did. After the intercultural experience in Ormoz and Ljubljana, I was full of steam, but I knew I would not be able to start a debate society on my own. In January 2010 this problem was solved when Karen Nelson, an exchange student from the University of Vermont and a student of Professor Alfred Snider (i.e. Tuna), walked into my office at the Language Center. Karen was just as eager to start things as I was, and Karen knew what to do. We worked together all spring, got a good number of students interested and so the UTA Debate Society was established. We found out that the University of Helsinki already had their Debating Society and they kindly came to give a show debate at our university to help us recruit members. Karen came back to Vermont in May, I’m here now and the UTA Debate Society is in the hands of Pekka, the chair, and Jenni, the vice-chair with the lecturers, Nancy, Robert and Mary co-operating with them. Recruiting new students is going on. I wish them all good luck with it!
Tuna is flying to Finland to give a workshop to the Finnish language center teachers and another one for the students. Things will start happening! Debating is about to rock Finland!