Guests on the May 6, 2013 Informania radio show were senior Seawolves debaters (and participants in national and international competitions) Matthieu Ostrander and Matt Fox. Matt Fox, a graduating senior, shared the steps he took from Cabin Fever Debates to international debater. Matthieu Ostrander, now a sophmore, began debating for the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) as a freshman, and quickly rose to international debate team competitor. These accomplished members of UAA’s Seawolf Debate Program talked about the debate program, the academic debate style, strategies for debate success, experiences from debate travels, and examples of controversial topics that they have been tasked with while debating at international competitions.
Getting Started in Debate at UAA
All University of Alaska Anchorage students are welcome to attend Seawolf Debate practices. Practices are Tuesdays from 5:30-8:30 and Fridays from 9:30-12:30 in room 266 of the ADM/Humanities building. The students that end up traveling on the competitive debate teams prove their ability to debate competitively while participating at practices. According to Matt and Matthieu, it is necessary for debaters to create a written brief about the topics that they debate. Sources they have used to build their brief on a topic include the Council on Foreign Affairs, the Economist, and Wikipedia (although they acknowledge it is not the best scholarly source; it is a good place for background information). Deb the Librarian also mentioned CQ Researcher and Opposing Viewpoints Online as potentially useful sources for debaters that are available through the Consortium Library.
When it comes to debating, it is likely that there will be challenges and losses along the way. Debaters learn to overcome the floundering moments (like debating a topic related to Sesame Street, when you have never seen Sesame Street (true!)) These become strength-building exercises. To succeed in debate it is necessary to see the failures and challenges as the essential learning experiences they are.
British Parliamentary Debate
The UAA Seawolf Debate students participate in an academic debate, based on British Parliamentary style. When participating in national and international competitions in British Parliamentary style debate, competitors are typically given their topics fifteen minutes prior to the debate. Debaters are given seven minutes to make their case. After one minute a bell rings, alerting the debater that the opposing team has the opportunity to request Points of Information (POI) during the next five minutes. The bell then rings again at six minutes, alerting the debater that there is one minute left, and no more POIs can be presented by the opponents. Matt shared that it is good practice to take up to two Points of Information from the opponents during your presentation. It allows you to hear the opposition’s arguments and deal with them at that point, versus learning their opposing strategies later in the debate. The judges also look favorably on teams that take POIs from their opponents. Debaters tend to take the POIs when they have said something controversial (a hot button), and they can deal with the opposition then instead of later; or when they have that moment of pause when they are thinking of the next point to make.
In some competitions, there are more than one team debating each side of an issue. It seems like it might be better to go first, but debaters appreciate the opportunity to wait to take their turn, and listen to the opposing teams. This gives them additional time to think about strategy, and then argue a stronger case for or against their topic. Typically in competition, every team gets the opportunity to debate in each different order. These orders are selected by computer. There was one competition that Matt and Matthieu attended that allowed the higher ranked teams to select their preference, but these UAA debaters find the computer generated assignments preferable.
When asked about debate strategies, Matt and Matthieu gave an example, and then summed up the strategy. There are different levels of thinking about a topic, from impacts that are global to national to local to personal. There are also the theories and philosophies associated with particular topics. The fact that debaters can open their minds to argue a point they may or may not agree with is an impressive exercise in critical thinking. Although traditionally, the debate topics have tended to be more liberal, their is an effort to include more conservative topics in the debate competition. Whether the topic is arguing against the Pope as ruling Catholic Authority, or that a certain religion is to blame for a war, the debaters need to think of it in terms of academic debate, using the best of their critical thinking skills to do so.
The Seawolf Debate Program also offers UAA students the opportunity to help with the Middle School Public Debate Competition. Matthieu spoke favorably about this experience, and the benefit of involvement for UAA students and middle school participants alike.
It was also mentioned during the show that there are states exploring the requirement of debate as part of elementary and secondary education. The opportunity to develop critical thinking and communication skills that allow a person to see both sides of a controversial topic; and participate in respectful, engaged communication on difficult topics is a skill worth developing!
The UAA Seawolves Debate Program, directed by Communication and Discourse Studies Professor, Steve Johnson, is leading the way to popularizing critical debate in Anchorage. In doing so, the community has also been encouraged to think about the topics being debated; audience members asked to question their own beliefs on these topics; and encouraged to look at the other perspectives, in a safe, respectful, educational venue. For this critical thinking, community building endeavor, Steve Johnson deserves a big thank you. The Seawolf Debate Program is popularizing critical debate; and in a day when media is continually streaming turmoil and world problems, the popularization of productive critical discourse deserves to be celebrated.
Informania is repeated on Thursdays from 5:00pm-6:00pm. This interview will also be available online at www.kruaradio.org as a live-streamed program or podcast through QuickTime.