If you’re reading this website, you probably don’t need to be convinced of the value of debate generally, and are likely supportive of debate in college as well. However, many people are unaware of the particular value of college novice debate. Many people ask me, “why bother supporting novice debate or starting a college novice program at my institution?” (Generally they ask a little more nicely than that, but the sentiment remains.)
First, college novice debate has significant pedagogical value. Given the rising cost of interscholastic policy debate at the high school level, many schools have eliminated or dramatically decreased the size of their debate programs, meaning that the vast majority of high school students are unable to access the benefits of debate. College novice programs can check back against that issue and allow coaches to teach argumentation and research skills to those most in need—the students who have never before had the opportunity to learn them at all. Those students then go on to be successful in many different areas, from military service to chemical engineers to lawyers to debate coaches themselves, based in at least some part on the skills they acquired from college debate. Novice debate also allows your varsity and JV debaters to have leadership opportunities on your squad—your more experienced debaters can help coach your younger debaters, which allows them to become more familiar with arguments by teaching them to others. If college debate has pedagogical value, college novice debate maximizes that value.
Secondly, college novice debate is an opportunity for program promotion and development. 16 two-person teams will get first round bids. The majority of varsity-level national tournaments will be won by those same 16 teams. If your program doesn’t make the list, you need another way to promote yourself to your institution. Novice debate allows you to point both to pedagogical successes (numbers of students you teach/coach/travel) and to competitive successes (coaching teams into elimination rounds, winning tournaments and speaker awards). Many institutions are also reticent to spend upwards of $50,000 on travelling 4-6 students; novice debate allows you to get more “bang for the buck”. Certainly your travel budget may slightly increase but you are able to point to a much larger group of students who have access to debate. Given that financial constraints have caused the demise of many debate programs over the past 10 years, an ability to justify our (admittedly very large) travel budgets through number of students served is certainly worth the effort of fielding novice teams.
Finally, coaching novice debate is incredibly rewarding. Of course, coaching debate is often rewarding, but the thing about coaching teams with significant experience is that all you really need to do is help them cut evidence, wind them up, and point them towards the door; they already possess the requisite skills needed to be successful. While they may need practice in honing those skills, you’re not necessary to their acquisition. When you are coaching college novices, you’re coaching bright young adults who can grasp concepts fairly quickly; so you get to see them have one “aha!” moment after another. Many times, you can see your debaters go from not understanding an idea or concept at all to entirely grasping it in less than a minute; watching debate “click” for your students is an incredible feeling that nothing else can really replicate.
I am proud to be serving as the president of the American Debate Association and one of the reasons for my strong commitment to this organization is its love for and support of college novice debate. It is my hope that college novice debate continues to grow, and the ADA will support it wherever it exists.
Danielle O’Gorman is the Director of Debate at the United States Naval Academy and President of the American Debate Association.