Climbing the ladder

St. John’s Debate Society has gone from a relative unknown on the debate circuit to second in the Northeast in just a year.

After competing at regional, national and even international conferences, through the devotion of its dedicated members and their hard work, the Debate Society, which was established in the fall of 2007, also ranks amongst the Top 150 Debate Societies in the world.

The Debate Society offers students the opportunity to cultivate and refine argumentation, oration and critical thinking skills.

One of the team’s two advisors, Professor Jaime Wright, attributed the team’s successes to their diligent practice and engagement.

“Members of the St. John’s Debate Society are a self-selecting breed,” said Wright.”They can engage as much or as little as they choose.”

Co-advisor Professor Steve Llano added, “Students can come in knowing nothing about debate and get all the training they need to do well. I think one of the major reasons we are doing so well is that we have an open team structure. What this means is that experienced members of the team as well as myself feel it is our obligation to provide teaching to those who don’t know how to debate.”

Members learn and hone their skills by attending practices, going to tournaments, doing research, and working with each other.

“Over the next few years, we hope to see those levels of mutual encouragement and participation increase,” said Wright. “With those increases will come higher levels of achievement and competition.”

Complementing their high rankings are the overall improvements the team has experienced over the course of the last year.

Professor Wright noted that one of the biggest improvements is that team members are more willing to help each other.

Senior Alia Bellwood believes, “The team’s improvement is evident in not just the awards won and our regional placement but most especially in the testaments of the students involved.”

Wright spoke about the experience the team can pass on to new members.

“Since the team is only in its third year, we collectively have more experience to pass on to other members as the team gets older,” said Wright.

“I think this year’s focus on everyone sharing knowledge through student lectures and writing more briefs on current topics has really benefited our progress.”

Wright added, “One of the best ways to learn a skill or craft is to teach it – and this semester, there has been quite a bit of inter-team teaching.”

Llano spoke about how debating can help impact other areas of a student’s life.

Llano said, “We feel that although you must prepare for the tournament, the tournament is preparation for the challenges of argumentation and rhetoric facing you in your future life.

So everything comes down to practice – practice not just as in training, but practice as in a daily, lived art that is a part of you and you concentrate on it because you feel it makes you a better person.”

Directing the team are junior Korey Pace and sophomore Mohammed Saad al Qasim. Korey and Saad help the team’s members with ideas for research, organization of that research and are responsible for subsequently distributing that information to the members.

Senior Shreshth Jain is in charge of scheduling and recording team-teaching sessions in which one of the debaters lectures about a debate-related topic or presents different practical ways to engage elements of debate-ranging from brainstorming and construction of arguments to philosophical theories applicable across many varying topics.

Bellwood broke down the team’s prepatory dynamic into three parts: “Team, Partnership and Individual,” she said.

“The entire team pushes each debater at practices and provides general and specific feedback to help each speaker improve.
Partnerships often meet together to discuss prep time management and debate techniques that are unique to their partnership.
Individuals must conduct their own research and stay well-informed.”

Sophomore Alisha Siqueira said the Debate Society has seen an increase in recruitment.

“The team has grown exponentially over the past few years and this year we have some pretty amazing freshman teams,” said Siqueira.

In preparation for conferences, the teams put together briefs, which consist of information about current international topics. In addition, the members attend two weekly practices, at which there are often two debates held simultaneously or a teaching session about a topic offered by one of the team members.

Furthermore, they research and work with their partners and fellow debaters in practice scrimmages, focusing on specific elements of the debate which include theory, structure and idea germination that need work.

Members know what areas to focus on based on previous judges’ feedback, suggestions from their team members and their own individual experiences at tournaments past.

Up next for the debaters is the US Universities Debating Championship. USU 2010 will be hosted at Regis University this April in Denver, Colo., and teams will be brought to represent St. John’s University.

Also, there is a public debate scheduled in the Belson Moot Courtroom on Monday, March 29 at 7p.m. with the Irish Times National Champions who are coming here from Ireland for a tour of the United States.

All St. John’s students are encouraged and welcome to attend a debate meeting at any point during the school year. Each week, the Debate Society holds on-campus public debates on current social and political issues ranging from those on campus to around the world.

The Society holds meetings every Monday and Thursday in Room 304A in St. John Hall. Anyone is welcome to join the team regardless of what their major is or how much experience they have.