Debate club tournaments grow community

Grace Williams, Staff Writer

First-year student Emma Wu adjusted the angle of her camera one final time before logging onto the Zoom meeting. She shifted back and forth in her seat as the screen loaded, knowing the task at hand. For the first time as a Westmont student, Wu competed as a finalist during the Westmont Debate Tournament Finals on March 27.

Both Wu and Debate Club President Hans Khoe reflected on the recent Westmont debate tournament as well as the experience of debating during the pandemic. Coming into the debate with some experience at the high school level, Wu said the topic of the debate — should the government use phone location data for COVID-19 tracking — was not surprising, given the circumstances. “My initial reaction to the topic was unsurprised. I knew it’d probably be about COVID-19 due to the circumstances we’ve been in,” Wu said. “As for the stance I was taking, I took the negative stance and said that we shouldn’t use phone location data for COVID-19 tracking. I’ve held a more conservative stance throughout my life, so being the negative was like being my normal self.”

Coming into the tournament, Wu stuck to a consistent plan to prepare by anticipating her opponent’s argument and using on-the-spot wit to get her through the round. “The research process was similar to how I always prepared for debates. I just found general claims that supported my side, and backed that up with more specific evidence. My specific process during the debate is trying to accurately represent my points and my opponent’s arguments. I use my prepared notes, but, when speaking, I usually go off the top of my head and hope for the best.”

Reflecting on the tournament and club in general, Khoe said he was grateful for the community the debate club has created as well as the benefits he believes members get from joining. “I’ve noticed that debaters who have practiced with us and go to at least one tournament always come out better. Some debaters who had no confidence before trying debate have become some of the best debaters I’ve ever coached. That translates to confidence that manifests in our everyday experiences around the classroom or generally in life.”

Khoe also noted how debate has been cultivating community, despite the pandemic.“There’s something about camaraderie, too. Once tournaments are over, we go for a team dinner. While we do talk about non-debate topics, much of the conversation still surrounds who we went against and what we took away from each round. That’s the kind of energy that’s kept me hooked to debate since high school, and I’m glad others are learning to enjoy the tough arguments and learning opportunities that come from debating.”

As president of the debate club, Khoe had scheduled the debate to occur in person before the pandemic began in 2020. “I was really excited to have the tournament last year; we were ramping up for it when [COVID-19] hit. All that meant for the tournament was that we’d push it back a year, but I know the debate board and I were bummed that we couldn’t put it on,” stated Khoe. “While this year wasn’t ideal because of the online format, we still managed to put on a respectable tournament. Hopefully next year we can have an in-person tournament as we had originally planned.”

Though he admitted the online format of the debate tournament took away from the competition, Khoe also acknowledged the benefits of this novel setup. “The process is somewhat easier than planning an in-person debate. The only room we had to reserve was one on Zoom [and] Doug Conrad was very helpful with setting that up. We shifted to having an audience for only the final rounds and preliminary speeches/debates were judged by the debate board,” Khoe said. “One concern we had was attention span. As we all know, Zoom fatigue is real, and debate loses some of its flare when the debaters are sitting behind cameras. Thankfully, we were able to make it work by adding more cross-examination periods and shortening the length of the debate as a whole.” 

Unable to attend the awards ceremony due to a prior commitment, Wu reflected on finding out she had won her debate and the accompanying $100 prize, as well as her plans for the future. “Learning that I won was really exciting … Looking forward, I’d definitely be interested in looking into the debate club for next year, but it all depends on the academic course load.”

When speaking on the debate and overall student involvement, Khoe explained how he hopes that both participants and spectators gain a new perspective on the topics that will spur them on to explore the merits of their actions and put the pitfalls of different sides into perspective.

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