Debate is no laughing matter, but it can be fun, too
By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
It was an opportunity to practice for their next competition, showcase what they do for a campus audience and maybe even entice some of their fellow students to join their quick-witted group.
It also was a chance for four members of the Speech and Debate team at Grand Canyon University to have a little fun.
In the midst of debating 15 serious political topics Wednesday night as fictional United States senators representing the country’s four largest parties, the team members tried out some one-liners that had the Ethington Theatre audience hooting and roaring.
“Obviously, we take our jobs very seriously, but we try to work in humor when we can and make things more fun,” said Taylor Alandzes, who was billed as a Democrat from California. “I think this was more interesting because we had a larger forum that we’re used to, so we got to crack a couple of jokes and, of course, we do it to each other, so that’s great.
“A lot of what you saw tonight,” she added, “was just a free-for-all.”
Tweaking their opponents
The debaters’ job was to take on the persona of the senator they were playing, no matter what their own political beliefs are. All four tackled those roles with the ferocity of a linebacker in the Super Bowl.
Alandzes, for example, seemed to take particular delight in suggesting, during a debate over bipartisan cooperation, that “bi” means two, “as in us and the Republicans. It’s up to us to create a dialogue.” That drew the predictable outrage from the Libertarian and Green Party “senators” who had complained about their under-representation in political forums.
And Matthew Calderwood, who played a Republican from Texas and was wearing a United States flag tie for extra emphasis, dropped in this quip during the segment about gun control: “You can’t spell guns without the U and the S.”
“Humor adds a lot of pathos to the room – more individuals feel connected to us as speakers, which is definitely something we don’t discount when we travel,” he said afterward. “When it is acceptable as a rhetorical tool, it can help you engage with the audience.”
Different from competition
The ability to achieve that engagement is what makes debaters so remarkable. The foursome got the topics a little more than an hour before they went onstage, which actually is luxurious compared to the 20 minutes they normally get in competition. And yet they were able to rattle off arguments and rebuttals as if they actually were that senator – and they knew when it was time to be serious, too.
“When we’re in actual tournaments we do get to crack jokes, but there are topic areas where that’s just not possible – you saw that tonight, too,” said Ashley Hoftiezer, who embraced the role of a Libertarian from Colorado. “A lot of what you learn from speech and debate is thinking off the cuff and thinking really fast and injecting humor or injecting something really fast to maybe change someone’s opinion.”
Speech and Debate practice sessions typically include exercises where team members are given a topic and have to write arguments both pro and con. The fourth debater Wednesday night – Grace Laidlaw, playing a Green Party representative from Hawaii – praised the coaching staff for the drills it conceives to prepare the team for each event.
“Having those drills repeatedly allows us to think on our feet,” she said. “Even if we don’t agree with an argument, we need to be able to address it and acknowledge its existence. I also think that speech and debate is able to boost your confidence because when you’re able to speak on your feet you feel like you can do more as an individual when you enter into society.”
Learning by doing
But are those skills natural, learned or a little of both? A lot of students could recite facts, statistics and opinions about the topics covered Wednesday – Social Security, North Korea, DACA, health care, the environment, Net Neutrality, to name a few – but how many could do it under pressure?
“I think it’s kind of both,” Alandzes said. “You definitely have a certain skill set when you enter debate, but it’s also something that’s drilled into you as you practice. I’ve been here for four years now, and I didn’t have this level of thinking on your feet when I first came in.”
Said Calderwood, “A lot of us who are involved in the speech and debate community weren’t great speakers when we first started. The type of drills, the type of practices that we do, it’s more of who wants to be committed to becoming a better speaker. And that commitment, as long as you have it, is something where you can always refine your skills. There are individuals who start from really strange, odd places where they just don’t feel comfortable in front of audiences, and they can get to places where they can get to the podium next to us.”
Looking for new debating blood
In a way, Wednesday night was what Hoftiezer called a “reprieve.” Instead of debating a single topic for an hour, as they often do in competition, they raced through the 15 topics in two hours.
“That’s pretty insane because it teaches you to be really concise and know your material well but also be able to relate it to people in the audience,” she said.
That was another goal Wednesday – to show what debating is all about and attract some new teammates.
“Any student who watched tonight and enjoyed it might think, ‘Oh, I wish I was on the debate team.’” Laidlaw said. “They might want to audition and try out for next year.”
Michael Dvorak, the team’s director, certainly would welcome that. If what happened Wednesday is any indication, he’ll be getting a few additions.
“I saw a lot of audience reaction from people who really were galvanized by what they heard,” he said.
It’s a lot of hard work, of course. But when they say it’s fun, they’re not kidding.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.