Kathleen McCoy: UAA's debating success doesn't come without sweat

Kathleen McCoy

It seems like such a Cinderella story -- how UAA's Seawolf debate team comes home from national and international competitions ranked at or above Harvard, Yale or Cambridge. And last spring, when they faced two from Stanford in an exhibition debate in front of an overflow crowd, the event had Big Time sizzle.

Another exhibition debate is planned for next spring, coach Steve Johnson says, with yet another marquee school. (Think East Coast ivy on red brick.) The Seawolves have debated already this fall at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Claremont College and Yale.

But the fairy tale is a myth, he says; if there is any Cinderella in UAA's story, it's the time spent scrubbing the floor, not dancing at the ball.

For three hours on any Tuesday evening (or Friday morning) in Humanities 142, an ordinary classroom with florescent lights, desks by the row and a small podium at the front. Eight debaters -- women and men -- argue whether religious education should be withheld from children until they turn 18. Upstairs in a cluttered conference room, eight more wrestle with whether race should be removed from university admissions.

These are the sweaty gym sessions where UAA debaters train. They use British Parliamentary style, with four teams of two. One side (with opening and closing teams) represents the "government" and one side the "opposition." The "prime minister" opens the debate, defining the motion and delivering his team's reasons for support. The opposition leader rebuts, giving reasons to refuse the motion. The battle ensues.

The sessions have a scrappy, boxing-match feel. Competitors carry their smart phone timers to the podium as they work against the clock -- usually seven minutes -- to build an undeniable case or refute an opponent's. Words and whole phrases ping and ricochet as the speaker weaves logic and persuasion into convincing argument.

But the speaker doesn't own the floor. The opposing side can rise and ask to make a "point of information" right in the middle of a full-throttle speech; the speaker can deny with a wave of a hand that means "Sit down!" or, alternatively, win points by dealing with the opponent's point effectively.

The "judge" in the back of the room, Johnson or assistant coach Amie Stanley, prepare blunt critiques delivered immediately after the practice ends. Tall and lean, with crisp, penetrating eyes, Johnson typically fills a single sheet with microscopic notes, diagramming arguments, noting dropped points, or -- most critically -- missed opportunities to clash over the motion.

This is only one part of the floor scrubbing. Another are the position papers the team writes and stockpiles for background in debates. At a recent work session, they named topics they want a better grip on; their list was wildly divergent, including:

Obamacare and corporate reaction to it

Democracy in transition

Government default--processes and outcomes

Quotas for women in politics

North Korea

Digital copyright

The workload is intense and Johnson is used to high rates of attrition -- both from the work and the humiliation that accompanies acquiring skills under fire. No one warms the bench. "You've got to be up there, adrenalin surging, scared as hell," he says. "You fall on your face a lot before you learn what to do to avoid it."

But those who stay--a core group of about 25--are true thrill seekers, "happy being uncomfortable," he says.

The thin charm of fairy tale is lost on Johnson. Yes, it's great being number two in the nation and number nine in the world, but that will come and go at the whim of judges and the current experience level in the team.

No, "debate is all about permission to encounter ideas open-mindedly," he says, to set aside one's biases and explore the argument thoroughly. "At its best, debate should teach that the most meaningful sign of respect is the willingness to engage an argument on its own terms."

When it works - when background and proficiency click, "you're totally hooked." Johnson says. "It feels like your brain is absolutely on fire, but in a really good way. There's an immediacy and a presence in that moment that you don't achieve anywhere else."

Brett Frazier was a freshman dropout at UAA. When he returned, he joined the debate team and caught fire under Johnson's coaching. He was on the duo that debated Stanford, and closed out his undergraduate years by winning tuition for graduate school as a Truman Scholar.

Of his Seawolf debate days, Frazier says, "I was never so happy working so hard."


Watch the Seawolf debaters argue an issue inspired by a current New York City controversy, whether "The State of Alaska should restrict the size of sugary drinks to help curb obesity," at 7 p.m., Nov. 8, in Room 307 of the UAA/APU Consortium Library.


Kathleen McCoy is an electronic media specialist at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and other online media.



Kathleen McCoy
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