The Tufts Debate Society, the only official student-run competitive debate team at Tufts, is coming off a strong semester in which it hosted a tournament and competed at the World Universities Debating Championship. According to senior Noah Kirsch, the team’s president, the team’s membership and skill have grown considerably in just a few short years.
“When I was a freshman three years ago, we had about seven active members and a very limited tryout process,” Kirsch said. “Today, after our most competitive tryouts ever, we have almost 30 members, and are now ranked as one of the top 20 debate teams in the country.”
According to Vice President Drew Latimer, the team saw its largest first-year class ever this past fall. First-year Nihaarika Sharma was one of these new members.
After attending a number of general interest meetings for various student organizations, she elected to participate in the debate team despite entering college with the intention of continuing her Model U.N. experience from high school.
“What got me interested was the fact that … debate was the most focused on reasoning and your logic and critical thinking, which I thought was important in general,” Sharma said.
Although everyone is welcome to try out and join the team, certain majors are more prevalent.
“I’d say most people on the team do something in philosophy or social sciences,” Latimer said.
According to Sharma, practices are held every Tuesday and Thursday. Members of the team are encouraged to bring potential debate topics to practices. Latimer explained that many of these stem from current events.
“Every individual thinks about topics that are interesting to them and does research, and then before a debate round they present the topic, give a little bit of background information [and] both teams are able to ask questions,” Latimer said.
Sharma attests that these practices are critical in gaining experience for the actual debates.
“The more [practices] you go to, the better you get,” Sharma said. “[The instructors] give us tips on different topics we might run into and how you can structure arguments in that situation, and after that you just do a practice round.”
Debate tournaments are held at universities around the country. Tournament attendance is flexible, allowing students to choose how active they would like to be on the team.
“There are basically tournaments going on every weekend,” Sharma said. “You choose which ones you want to go to … based on what’s convenient for you.”
This winter, Kirsch and Latimer also participated in the World Universities Debating Championship (WUDC), which is the largest intercollegiate debate tournament in the world. The tournament has been held since 1981 and has been hosted by cities across the globe.
“Last year, we sent a team to Chennai, India, and we ended as one of the top … American teams present, which we were really excited about,” Kirsch told the Daily in an email.
This year, the WUDC was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In order to select the students who would attend the tournament, the team had interested students try out.
“Basically we did a mock debate, and [last year’s president, Kate Epstein (A ’14)] selected the two people she thought would be best able to represent Tufts well at the event,” Latimer said.
Latimer noted that they had the opportunity to compete against international teams, including one from Oxford, as well as other teams from the area, like the Amherst College Debate Society.
“We had a really fun time, we did really well, had some good debates,” Latimer said. “It was really cool because there were teams from around the world.”
Both Kirsch and Latimer had to prepare more extensively for this tournament since it was held in the British parliamentary debate format, which weighs factual evidence over rhetoric, unlike the American parliamentary format to which they are accustomed.
“WUDC is an unbelievable experience, because you’re talking about some of the world’s most engaging and controversial topics … and often with people who have radically different backgrounds and worldviews,” Kirsch told the Daily in an email.
This past October, Tufts hosted its own tournament. According to Sharma, novices were assigned to judge novice rounds, whereas the more seasoned debaters judged the varsity rounds.
“[Participating teams] debated, and everyone from the Tufts team had to be a judge,” Sharma said. “Before the tournament itself we were shown a couple of practice runs, and we had to judge and they calibrated us based on that … so that way they knew whether we were good judges or not.”
Latimer said that this year’s tournament drew one of the biggest turnouts in its short history.
We’ve been hosting a tournament for, I think, five or six years now,” Latimer said. “This was probably the largest we’ve had … we had about 60 teams from like 15 different universities.”
A pair of competitors from Brandeis ultimately won the tournament.
According to Sharma, succeeding in debate tournaments takes much more than preparation.
“It’s really just a lot of improvisation, because you don’t know the topic beforehand if you are on the opposition team,” Sharma said. “When you can pull it off, it’s just amazing.”
Following its successful performances in the fall and at WUDC over the winter, the Debate Society will look to carry its momentum well into the spring semester.