When doctoral student Adam Key decided to reestablish Sam Houston State University’s debate team after a four-year absence, he went to an unlikely source.
“We recruited six additional students using Facebook,” he said.
“There was no budget and I had to dip into my savings. Our faculty adviser, (College of Humanities and Social Sciences) Dean John de Castro, told me he thought we’d do one or two tournaments that semester. We went to eight the first year, plus nationals. Many of the other schools on the circuit were helpful and either waived or reduced fees for us.”
Through the non-traditional method, Key and his team found non-traditional results,winning eight national titles since the team’s rebirth and a lot of academic respect.
After traveling internationally and taking more spots in the nation’s list of top 10 debaters than any other school, SHSU’s debaters will show off their skills on their home turf, hosting the first national tournament on the SHSU campus in April.
Among the debaters, Tim Sears, Cody Stevens, and Steven Perry are in the top 10 in “varsity division,” and Steve Sears is ranked No. 1. In the “professional division,” Jeremy Coffman, Robert Trevino and Key are ranked in the top 10. SHSU’s “team division,” in which Fabiola Sanchez and Stacy Hood debate as a pair, is also first in the nation.
In academic debates, topics can range from pop culture to economics or politics. Teams are given 30 minutes to prepare, so during practice, Key gives them only 15 to prepare them for the pressure of a tournament.
“Tournaments are a hectic environment. Between helping other members prep and walking totheir competition rooms, students rarely have the full 30 minutes,” Key said. “Learning to prep quickly is useful. On one occasion, I was able to prep an entire case with a student on an elevator ride. He won the round on a 3-0 decision.”
Academic debates work like a courtroom trial. A team will either have the “affirmative” or prosecutorial burden of providing proof, or the “negative,” which is like the defense, according to Key. Each team will have opportunities throughout a tournament to be on both sides.
Debaters are expected to handle all sorts of topics from all sorts of angles. They may be required to argue for something they don’t support.
One year, Key’s team had to figure out a way to support a hypothetical withdrawal of AIDS research funding. It was the year of the earthquake in Haiti, and they usedthat as an example of another way the funds could be spent.
“We argued to divert funding to help people, like in natural disasters,” Key said. “We figured that was the best way to do that.”
The fresh perspective worked, and they won.
The ability to think quickly and “outside of the box” is among the skills that debaters acquire through competition that are useful in the real world, according to de Castro said.
“There’s some evidence that people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of dying,” he said. “This is wonderful training for future careers; it gives them a feeling of confidence. If you’re in a job you constantly make presentations. Debate teaches how to disagree in a genteel and respectful manner.”
“Debate also teaches critical thinking: What is the opponent saying or not saying? How do you find the flaws?” Key added. “It teaches people to see both sides of things.”
Though the SHSU team is well seasoned, freshman debaters often come in with strongly defined political identities and have a hard time arguing another viewpoint.
“By the time they leave, they can appreciate both sides of the fence,” Key said.
While it is well known that the skills acquired through debate are useful to lawyers in a courtroom, or in politics, Key said that many of SHSU’s debaters have gone on to jobs in public service.
“Most debaters at Sam Houston become teachers, not lawyers,” he said. “One graduate went on to work for the United Nations.”
SHSU’s team faces challenges outside of their debate forum, largely involving money. That the team is able to do so well on such a small budget and no full-time coach speaks very highly of the students’ skills, de Castro said.
Traditionally, lawyers who have learned these skills and gone on to high-paying jobs will make donations to help their alma mater’s debate team carry on the tradition; since that isn’t the case with Sam, the budget is small, according to Key.
“Teams with larger budgets can bring larger squads. Universities like Union and LSU-Shreveport often bring more than 20 or 25 students,” Key said. “It's hard for our team, who regularly travel as a group of 12, to compete with that. Larger budgets also enable us to afford to travel the day before, rather than leaving at 4 a.m., driving eight hours, and then competing the same day.
“It also enables us to scholarship our students. Between travel, practice, and classes, students really have no time to work other jobs,” he said. “I could list several bright competitors over the past few years who simply could not afford not to work. And, of course, my co-coach and I would like a paycheck too as we've been doing this as volunteers the entire time.”
De Castro added that most universities have a hired debate coach.
“It would be nice to give it some permanency,” he said. “If the current coaches had to leave, we don’t have anyone to replace them and we wouldn’t have a team. I think Sam Houston debate should be a permanent fixture just like the football team. One of the things I really like about debate is the ability to celebrate achievement of an intellectual character.”
De Castro said he is looking forward to attending Sam’s first national tournament to hear interesting topics discussed and enjoy the “fireworks” during the cross-examination portion.
The debates will be held in many classrooms all over campus from April 12-15 in the Lee Drain Building, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences Building, and Academic Buildings I and IV.
Debates will be open to the public.
For more information on SHSU’s debate team, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.