Seniors Teach New Lessons, Build a Program

By: 

Four years ago, the Indiana University varsity policy debate team’s season ended unremarkably. The aspiring program was filled with recruited freshmen and walk-ons who learned more lessons from their opponents than they taught in their first season together. The team followed in the footsteps of a long Hoosier tradition of not qualifying to the National Debate Tournament, the 67th such hosting of the prestigious end-of-the-year national championship. With little senior leadership and guidance and the always infamous Little 500 festivities and summer distractions on the horizon, the young individuals who comprised the team had a choice: Choose to maintain the habits of stagnation where a program accepts mediocrity as a norm, as satisfactory, if not an inevitable consequent of debating at Indiana; or choose a new path forward. Indiana had previously only qualified to the NDT once in the tournaments’ 67-year history. The certainty of the past hung like a cloud over the future. What was the likelihood of success for a rag-tag group of “non-elite” debaters from the Midwest producing a program that can compete against the nation’s best? At this fork in the road, one that must have felt inconspicuous at the time, these 2014 Hoosier students chose well. They turned away from the ghost of Indiana’s past to grind out a new path for our program.

Last weekend, NDT Director Sarah Partlow-Lefevre announced the names of our two attending teams, comprised of three graduating Indiana seniors, as two-time qualifying NDT participants at the tournaments awards banquet. When their names were announced, the 500 NDT participants and observers rose in robust applause in celebration of our students’ achievements; a community recognizing our team’s commitment and veracious competitiveness. Our Hoosier debaters competed well at the tournament. They took ballots off of top-10 ranked debate teams, they pushed their opponents to razor-thin decisions. Both teams were a single win away from breaking into elimination debates. They made debate better through their preparation and commitment. Banquet cheers may be ephemeral but they echo loud in our memory, their sentiments resonate for our program, for our students and for future generations of Hoosier debaters. We have gone from being a footnote in debate’s history to a team with a full trophy case.  We went from being unranked to having a season-long placement within the top-50, an honor these seniors will carry with them for the rest of their lives. For Indiana University, a new era of Indiana debate has now begun.

Team-wide success in debate requires a long-term vision of strategy that is implemented in tactical deployments at tournaments, in the “trenches” of debate’s argumentative battlefield. When outsiders often imagine debate rounds, they envision a world where brilliant debater’s deliver innovative arguments in the moment. These flashes of eloquent narratives, rapid fire claims, counterclaims and data all seem alien to average everyday discourse. Debaters are often assumed to have natural and endowed debate qualities above the “norm” of society. The premise is false. It assumes debaters are not rigorously trained and prepared. Consistent success at tournaments is dependent on programmatic commitment to incremental improvement in argument preparation and delivery. Debaters who have clear “natural” strengths will also have weaknesses that well-rounded opponents will use to take advantage. Think of this as a basic problem in any competitive environment. If a Basketball team is great at perimeter offense but terrible in the paint, their opponents will force the team to play near the basket. Opponents shift their arguments to gain a competitive edge. Challengers with more depth and strengths use their experience to win a higher percentage of rounds.

Over the last four years, while students and faculty on the Bloomington campus went about their day—some may have overheard the echoes of heated argumentation, shouts, and laughter spilling down the SPEA hallways from the “squad room” located in room #324. The quant closet of an office space was often abuzz with activity as it transformed into the team’s war room, a home base for research collaboration, strategy sessions, practice debates and speech redoes. Our Hoosier Debaters spent their precious weekends, late nights, weekdays, pre-fall semester and summer breaks working in this room. They dedicated their time to high school outreach, summer debate institutes, and peer mentorship.

As we turn a page and begin a new journey heading into the 2017-2018 season, our young returning debaters have already taken up the baton. Practice debates and strategy sessions have already been scheduled. With their debate careers ending, our seniors have transitioned from top team talent to full-time mentors and teachers. Their experience and education over the course of hundreds of debates, hours of practices logged, and thousands of pages of evidence produced is now being transferred into lessons that can be taught to IU debate’s future. The debate team’s work is never done, our opponents will not let us relax, we cannot let up on the gas. Our seniors have helped build a sustainable culture, a squad with a winning attitude and a bright future. From starting as a team who only learned from our opponents after suffering many, many, many, defeats we have been welcomed with applause as peers in the community. We now have the wins as proof that Indiana Debate can beat anyone any given weekend.

To our seniors, Bee Smale, Ari Hoffman, and Kegan Ferguson Indiana University owes each of you a great debt of gratitude. Your willingness to take a chance on us has built a program that will sustain itself for a new generation. The shadow of Hoosier’s past has been lifted, the phoenix of the new-era of Indiana Debate has risen from the ashes. Each of you played integral roles in making us into who we are, and for that you can be irretrievably proud.