Members of the Debate Society don’t leave the Hardy House during the week before a competition.
That would be too much like high school.
“(In college) the structure of debate is mostly the same, but people work harder and are a lot better,” said one of the society’s A-Team members, Weinberg senior John Warden.
One of Warden’s coaches, Luke Hill , said that during the week of a tournament, members of the society show up in the morning, occasionally take breaks for class and all but sleep at 1809 Chicago Ave. The effort seems to have paid off.
The team was recently crowned the best in the nation, taking first place in the Henry Clay Invitational at the University of Kentucky Oct. 4-5. The invitational was the first major national tournament of the academic year and the second-largest of the quarter. But even though Northwestern is ranked first for now, Hill, who is in his first year of coaching college-level debate, said the team is more focused on the official results that come out at the end of the season.
“We’re definitely one of the most competitive teams in the country,” he said. “The season’s a long time and that’s just a ranking.”
The team consists of six pairs of debaters and receives one topic per year, which they assess from affirmative and negative standpoints. The pairs then try to predict opponents’ arguments based on research they do during the course of the season. This year’s topic: removing agricultural subsidies.
The success garners strong institutional support from the School of Communication, which covers the team’s travel expenses and coaches’ salaries, Hill said.
“People come to NU with the idea that it’s an environment that will allow them to compete in and win a national championship,” he said. “When you come in with an idea like that, the psychology of winning builds on itself, helping to recruit some of the top debaters in the country and building a culture that’s committed to winning.”
However, preparing for tournaments requires an “extreme” amount of commitment for students involved, making the transition to the Debate Society from high school sometimes difficult, Hill said.
“NU’s team is so competitive and so focused on winning national championships every year that it’s not always the match for people,” he said.
Weinberg sophomore Joe Spanier, who joined the team before quitting in January of his freshman year, was one of these people.
“I didn’t get along with the people and at one point I was just like, ‘Why am I here?'” Spanier said.
The problem was that coaches only seemed to care about seeing the A-Team win, with little regard to helping the lower teams improve, he said.
“It kind of sucks when you’re not that team and you’re willing to work, but you’re just not good enough,” he said. “They’re just not going to go out of their way to go and do that for you.”
Even Warden, one of NU’s top debaters, admitted adjusting to debate life isn’t easy.
“The biggest transition was going from being at the top to being at the bottom,” said Warden. For instance, when preparing for tournaments, debaters are still expected to keep up with their classes, Hill said. Most team members travel to three or four tournaments a quarter, but coaches will not allow teams to attend big tournaments if they aren’t doing well in class. According to Hill, the Debate Society employs an academic eligibility system similar to that of NU athletics so if a debater drops a midterm, Hill knows.
This might partly explain why team members take traveling into consideration when scheduling classes.
“We all try to take classes that don’t meet on Monday and Friday so we miss as few as possible,” Warden said. “Right before tournaments we’ll put off school for a little bit, but when we get back from tournaments we spend a whole bunch of time on school. It’s kind of a constant see-saw back and forth.”
And although occasionally Warden will step back and watch sports or hang out with his friends, there usually isn’t time, he said.
“A lot of the stuff we do isn’t required stuff; it’s more that we choose to do it,” he said. “There are times during a season or during a week when you have to take a break but then you think, ‘Wait, if I don’t do this, I’ll lose to someone,’ and that thought will make you come back to work.”