Speech and Debate team dives into virtual season with OCHOIE tournament

Danielle Mullan

The Speech and Debate team began their competition season this weekend, showing off their quick communication abilities—and their ability to do so virtually.

The college’s presence in the national debate circuit has had a profound resurgence over the past four years, ushering in more resources and national recognition for the relatively small team. The team’s president, Luisa Gunn ’21 experienced this expansion first hand and noted that the growth in number of team members has been important in their increasing success.

However, beyond strictly having a larger team, Gunn and Yordanos Mengistu ’22, one of the team’s vice presidents, attribute the team’s recent success to the supportive community established by its members. 

“Especially in debate, you just can’t do it on your own…We see success as ‘If I win, you win,’ that type of mentality,” Mengistu explained.

While this support system has come naturally to the team, Gunn explained how such a strong bond partially came out of circumstance. Because most of the college’s team members did not participate in Speech and Debate in high school, they start out at a disadvantage compared to their competitors at other colleges who have.

“[This] requires older teammates to step up and be peer mentors and assist in that learning curve, especially in this part of the season when we have novices who are learning the ropes,” Gunn said. “We step in a lot and try to help them and be good role models for our team members. And to promote responsible competition and competitiveness as well as the team aspect, hanging out together, having meetings before tournament nights, and doing work together.”

Gunn also noted that many students on the team consider Speech and Debate to to be “their niche on campus” because of the supportive community, the team dynamic and the relationship with the team’s coaches.

Thus the tight-knit community coped together after the cancellation of last year’s National Forensics Association Nationals due to COVID-19. 

“March was really hurtful. We were all getting ready for the national tournament, which is really what you work for the entire year…That kind of really brought the mood down, but we still had weekly meetings, we were holding on to the hope that we would at least have an online tournament,” Mengistu said.

The 2019-2020 season ultimately finished with a limited online tournament.

This year, the team will compete in remote tournaments. According to Gunn, some aspects of Speech and Debate, such as speed, transfer well to the virtual platform.

“Speed is a big thing, and people read evidence very fast…that is a weird thing to think about transitioning to online. Because the video-audio connection can be a little strange for a lot of people. Amazingly, it works,” Gunn explained.

However, as the team has attended more remote conferences, the pitfalls of remote speaking have started to manifest. At last weekend’s tournament, hosted by Western Kentucky University, Gunn observed one unusual part of a virtual competition: being able to see their competitor’s face while speaking.

Normally, in the debate section of the tournament, Gunn explained that competitors look at the judge and are unable to see their opponent’s face. With Zoom, competitors can see everyone, including their opponent.

“I notice that it really becomes very blatant when someone is making faces during one of your speeches,” Gunn said.

Moving forward, Gunn said she hopes to create new community guidelines in these conferences about the issue.

“We want to make a statement to the community about how harmful [face-making] can be…It seems to be a pervading thing that happens in debate anyway, but when you’re not perpendicular to your opponent and looking at it, it can harm your confidence and your ability to speak clearly,” Gunn said.

One of the coaches, Scott Placke, wrote in an email that the team’s awards won in their first tournament were “really gratifying,” especially in light of the virtual setting.

“I feel like our awards demonstrate that we were on the right track to deciphering the calendar,” Placket wrote.

Despite this technical distraction, the Speech and Debate team now faces what they hope will be another successful season. With a few tournaments already under their belt, the team will host the annual OCHOIE tournament over this weekend.