Debate Society adds Harvard trophy to this year’s stack

Jillian Sandler

With strong performances in recent competitions and high rankings in the most recent coaches’ poll, the success of the Northwestern Debate Society this year has been indisputable.

Weinberg seniors Matt Fisher and Stephanie Spies won the team’s most recent competition at Harvard University last week. They defeated a team from the University of Oklahoma in the final round.

In the Oct. 9 debate coaches’ poll, Fisher and Spies were ranked the fourth best team in the nation, and Weinberg junior Ryan Beiermeister and Weinberg freshman Layne Kirshon were ranked eighth. NU is the only school with two pairings ranked in the top ten.

Besides Fisher and Spies, two other pairings also advanced far in the Harvard competition. Beiermeister and Kirshon advanced to the semi-final round, and the team of Weinberg senior Mary Gregg and Weinberg sophomore Peyton Lee advanced to the quarter finals.

“Not only was it a prestigious tournament we had not won in several years, but we had all put in an extreme amount of work before the tournament, and it was extremely satisfying to see that all the effort paid off in the end,” Spies said.

During competitions, students participate in policy debate, a two-on-two format that focuses on public policy questions. Each team debates an equal number of times on both the affirmative and negative side. After the preliminary rounds, the teams are ranked and put in an elimination bracket.

This year’s debate topic is immigration, specifically how visa policy should be determined. Even with the pre-determined topic, however, every competition is unique, said NU Debate Society program coordinator Luke Hill.

“Every debate is a little bit different because every team puts their own spin on it,” Hill said.

The debaters started preparing for competition three weeks before the start of classes at “Rogers House,” the annual preseason work session during which the team researches and holds practice sessions. During the season, the team meets on Wednesday nights, and members spend an additional 10 to 20 hours per week preparing by giving practice speeches and watching videos of themselves and their opponents.

“It’s really a collaborative effort; everyone benefits from the knowledge and work of everyone else,” Gregg said.

The work is not done once the debate begins, however. The competitors need to be constantly on their toes for the duration of the argument.

“Debate tournaments are grueling three-day tests of your physical and mental strength,” Spies said. “We have to maintain extreme focus on the arguments at hand and think quickly on our feet, as sometimes our competitors catch us off guard.”

Debaters perform better when they do not have any personal ties to the argument, Fisher said.

“I think that one has to have a certain degree of detachment from the argument in order to be a successful debater,” he said. “If you are too personally invested in your own argument, you may not see certain shortcomings in your own point of view.”

Earlier this year, NU teams placed in the finals of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas tournament, the semifinals of the Georgia State University tournament in Atlanta and the Gonzaga University tournament in Spokane, Wash. In addition, Spies and Fisher placed second at the University of Kentucky Round Robin, losing only one debate at the event.

Hill said the society’s competitions against Harvard, Emory University and the University of California, Berkeley were the best and closest debates this season. He added that NU will likely have to face off against these teams again if they hope to bring home their 14th championship at the National Debate Tournament (NDT), hosted at the University of Texas at Dallas in March.

Later in the season, the team will travel to tournaments at Wake Forest University, the University of Southern California, Dartmouth College, California State University, Fullerton, the University of Georgia and the University of Kentucky.

Hill said he hopes the team will be able to build upon the success they have already experienced this season.

“Overall, it is a very successful and deep team that has started the year on a good note,” Hill said. “We expect great things from the team in the coming tournaments and at the NDT.”

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