Members of the Willamette University Debate Union traveled to Clemson University in South Carolina to compete in the United States University Debating Championship (USUDC) the weekend of April 13, 2019. The following week, another group of debaters traveled to Panama City, Panama, to compete in the Pan American Universities Debating Championship (UDC).
Both tournaments featured the British Parliamentary debate format. In this style of debate, rounds are comprised of four teams of two debaters. The teams are given a motion, or a position to argue for or against, and after a brief preparation period, each of the eight speakers are given seven minutes to argue their points. Then, judges rank teams from first to fourth place. If they score well enough in regular rounds, teams may “break,” or qualify for finals rounds.
According to The Newsstand, Clemson University’s newspaper, the USUDC is one of the largest collegiate debate tournaments in the world, second only to the World Championship Tournament. Over 750 students from around 150 teams came to Clemson to compete in the USUDC this year. Robert Trapp, Civic Communication and Media (CCM) professor and director of the Debate Union, said students don’t have to qualify for this competition.
“Willamette University’s policies are that teams must do well during the regular season and must have a very strong work ethic” to be able to travel to competitions like these, Trapp said.
Willamette sent two teams to Clemson: one was comprised of Quinlyn Manfull (‘19) and Bethany Abbate (‘22), and the other of Natalie Lyell (‘20) and Cassidy Brennan (‘21).
Manfull pointed out that the USUDC was far different from the regional competitions the team had attended during its regular season.
“Tournaments in our region feature the same 30-ish teams with the same judges and often similar topics to debate,” she said. “Having the opportunity to travel across the country and to different countries ensures we are better able to grow in the activity, meet more people who have different experiences with the activity and represent the Northwest.”
Brennan said she and her partner Lyell didn’t “break” to advance to finals rounds, “but we did manage to score [in first]… in multiple rounds, which was pretty exciting to see at such a high level of competition.”
Later that week, Lyell and Brennan, as well as Claire Mathews-Lingen (‘21), Bryce Henshaw (‘21), Rachael Burch (‘19) and Katrina Miller (‘22) traveled south for the Pan American UDC. This was a competition among teams from North, Central and South America, and debates were held in both English and Spanish.
“Debating at the international level was a steep learning curve,” said Mathews-Lingen, “just because there are different things that come up in the way of the worldview of other debaters while you are in the round.”
This is not the first time Willamette’s Debate Union has traveled to compete in highly competitive tournaments, and it won’t be the last. Willamette teams have competed at tournaments at Cornell, The University of Vermont and Regis University in Denver, CO. According to Manfull, last year Willamette was “the only recognized school to have a team in the final round at both Eastern Regionals at George Washington University and Western Regionals at Pacific Lutheran University.” This summer, Willamette will send teams to compete in the China Open at Shanghai Technological University.
Despite their success, several Willamette debaters mentioned there are problems surrounding debate, at both Willamette and in general.
Manfull said, “Willamette Debate has gone through more than a couple changes and challenges over the past few years. From losing our assistant coach to cutting pay for student leaders, there have been administrative and logistic hurdles we have had to jump through to keep the activity off the ground and competitive.”
She also added that as a debater in competition, you can be asked “to speak for groups that you yourself do not align with, and to trivialize issues to things you can solve cleanly in seven-minute speeches.”
Lyell made a similar point. “This activity expects you to be able to take assaults against your personhood and construct logical and clear rebuttals against them… Debaters who don’t belong to underrepresented groups experience this trend much less and are therefore given an advantage over others.”
“When done carefully,” Manfull said, “debate still has the capacity to be a space of empowerment and knowledge-making. I think a lot of that work is happening, but it’s not being done enough or fast enough to ensure equity or comfort.”
“As a team moving forward,” added Brennan, “we take responsibility for this trend, and continue to work very consciously to try and reverse these tendencies in our own team and in the activity as a whole. Only once we do that can the Willamette University Debate Union have a strong future here at WU.”