Policy Debate Team Makes Big Forensics Impact
The re-energized Policy Debate Team during a
leisure moment at West Point, NY Today, among the college crowd, the word “forensics” typically evokes visions of crime scene investigations. But in earlier times forensics was well known as the art of argumentation and formal debate. While there is evidence of formal debating going on at Mass Aggie as early as 1892, the Forensics Society officially began on campus in 1909 and later was renamed the Debate Union. The group was hugely popular and highly successful as it argued its way to national recognition, often being ranked in the top ten in the 1970s and 1980s.
For undocumented reasons—though many individuals point to budget cuts and staffing difficulties following the departure of a longtime director—the Debate Union fell out of the student activities picture by the late 1980s. But in 2000, five students banded together to breathe new life into the program.
It wasn’t easy, but by some small miracle—and some support from the Department of Political Science, the tireless efforts of Jessica Hoffman ’07 (legal studies), and the volunteer coaching staff of graduate students Jillian Marty, Casey Stevens and Melinda Tarsi—the reincarnated Policy Debate Team has managed to stay alive. Focusing first on rebuilding structure, the team created a plan to invigorate student interest and started honing members’ forensic skills through practice and traveling to some tournaments. This year the debate team has seen an incredible turnaround and is making some big waves, most recently at the University of Rochester Brad Smith Debate Tournament.
Colin Downes ’09 (English, philosophy) won first-place speaker in the junior varsity division. Topping 39 others for the title, he achieved in his first tournament a feat that takes many debaters at least four or five attempts to accomplish. Some never do. On his way to the championship, he beat nationally ranked junior varsity debaters from the University of Oklahoma, Emory, Cornell, Vermont, Florida, and the U.S. Military Academy, scoring an impressive 170.5 out of 180 points and a total ranking of 7, which means he was ranked as the best speaker in five out of six rounds.
Danny Urankar '08 (political science) and Zach Rocco '11 (English) won two rounds against Kings College and the University of Vermont, with no less than 28.5, out of 30, speaker points in each round. The Charlotte Chase '11 (political science)/Spike Nowak '10 (political science, economics) team won two difficult rounds against Fordham and the University of Vermont and received high speaker points as well.
The 17th ranked Azeen Khanmalek ’10 (political science)/Brendan Lehan ’10 (political science) team narrowly missed breaking into the final rounds of the novice division. David Borst ’08 (political science) and Robert Cancellieri ’08 (political science) received the first “double-30” in UMass Amherst debate history, each achieving a perfect speaking score of 30 in a contentious round against Emory. Nick Bush '11 (journalism) and Colin Downes went 3-3 in junior varsity, making them the 11th seed in the division.
The Policy Debate Team is competitive but, more important, it is especially interested in improving students’ abilities to analyze critically and speak effectively. Training is key to success. Former debaters point to skills learned as being invaluable in building their careers and self-confidence. Attention to detail, notetaking, public speaking, writing skills, the ability to think on one’s feet and see many sides—pros and cons—of an argument are skills that also make debaters stronger students.
The debate program at UMass Amherst has incredible growth potential, but it needs more student participation as well as financial support like those highly celebrated teams of UMass Amherst’s not-so-ancient history when, from the 1960s forward, the team traveled all over the country, even across the seas to Oxford University, and was affiliated with Delta Sigma Rho-Tau Kappa Alpha, the national honor fraternity for forensics.
Students attended UMass specifically to participate in the program. Many received scholarships to do so and all received academic credit. Audiences were huge. By 1970 the team appeared before 25,000 spectators, and made their first television appearance. Typically, they attended at least 15 tournaments a year—although by the 1971-72 season they appeared before 34 assemblies. In summer 1980, a UMass Amherst team member was one of 11 intercollegiate debaters selected to represent the U.S. on a forensics tour in Japan. In 1983 the team won the National Novice Championship. 1984 marked the 12th consecutive year the team qualified for the National Tournament.
In the Debate Union’s heyday, the team hosted five intercollegiate tournaments on campus annually. They also sponsored two extremely popular conferences for high school students from across New England and New York. Recognition awards were presented each year at a banquet, an alumni association with a biannual newsletter was organized, and several individual members received “first in the nation” rankings.
A Director of Debate with up to four teaching associates or assistants ran the Debate Union, initially out of the Department of Speech (when there was such a thing) and then the Department of Communication Studies. Alumni were generous with their financial support. Several banded together to land a grant from the Gulf Oil Foundation. Robert Gunness ’32, then president of Standard Oil Company of Indiana, was singled out in an annual report as a “gracious financial backer” of the program even though he hadn’t been a debater as an undergraduate.
Certainly, the Policy Debate Team dreams of such glory days. But in the meantime, team chair Colin Downes says, “We’re extremely satisfied with how we’ve done this semester. This is the first year we’ve had more than 6 members. John Hird, chair of the political science department has been wonderful, starting an ‘argumentation and debate’ class (taught by Casey Stevens) and helping us get office space and supplies. Most of the schools we compete against are elite, private institutions with large budgets and dedicated coaching staffs who hold salaried positions. Their teams cart around Rubbermaid tubs on dollies filled with evidence and analysis—and most of our competition gets full course credit just for debating. Considering that we started basically from scratch and have none of those things, we feel pretty good.”
January 29, 2008