The Rochester Review, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York, USA
University of 

University of Rochester


By Sally Parker

Huddle: Ryan Pitterson '97, Stephanie Rickard '99, Curtis Sturdivant '98, and Louise Vella '97.

"Oh, Sam, it's going to be really snug."

Nursing major Joanna Otterson '99 has just finished counting how many of her teammates will be traveling to an end-of-semester tourney at Binghamton University tomorrow. It's apparent that two vans aren't going to hold 26 students, their personal luggage, and--because these are debaters--several tubs full of paper briefs buttressing the arguments they'll be making.

Otterson chides debate coach Sam Nelson for underestimating the turnout. He runs a mental count of his own, at each name stabbing the air with his index finger, and grins sheepishly. They'll have to rent more vans.

Not to worry. Overcrowding is a welcome problem for the Yellowjacket debaters, born of the success the team has enjoyed since Nelson came on board five years ago. Now ranked eighth in the nation, the squad just keeps getting bigger and better. This year, some 60 undergraduates represent the University in the forensic equivalent of the athletes' NCAA: the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA for short), the largest debating organization in the country with nearly 300 participating colleges and universities.

It's late on a crisp Friday afternoon, the day before the semester's final meet. The problem of the vans now under control, Nelson is seated, stopwatch in hand, in the middle of Morey Hall room 402. He is acting as judge in a practice session with four novice debaters (they're called novices until after they'd had a year of debating under their belts).

"Time," he announces.

"Time? Are you serious?"

"Yes, that was eight minutes."

"Really? OK. . . ."

"Remember, you should all have your own timers."

Appearing not a little winded as the stopwatch cuts him short, freshman Akash Desai has just sprinted through an eight-minute "negative constructive," an outline of his argument against the resolution under debate. He will have to talk even faster and stick more to the point in tomorrow's match, the coach warns him.

At issue this afternoon, as it has been for some months now: "That the United States federal government should increase regulations requiring industries to decrease substantially the domestic production and/or emissions of environmental pollutants."

"It's the longest resolution that we've had in 10 years," Nelson notes, making it clear that he didn't pick it. (CEDA specifies the resolution to be used at all tournaments during a given year.)

In order to win, he explains, affirmative debaters must defend a "significant, typical, and representative case" demonstrating the resolution--all the while fighting off countless negative attacks by their opponents. Research strategy, then, lies not only in fortifying your own arguments but also in anticipating a host of reactions and coming up with effective counterattacks.

Veterans like Otterson--who labels and color-codes her fact-filled accordion folders with military precision--typically prepare 10 responses to any potential point their opponents might make.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor with her partner, Stephanie Rickard (they work in two-person teams), Otterson watches Desai and the other novices practice, meanwhile flipping through her papers and jotting summaries on Post-It notes attached to the sheets of citations and quotes. Every scrap holds a key point she must make in her speech.

Desai's partner, Phil Segaloff, moves to the podium. Riding a single wave of breath, his words tumble out one on top of another. Some judges prefer a lightning-fast delivery, the coach explains: The more words debaters use within the allotted time, the more in-depth and sophisticated their argument is perceived to be. Other judges, however, favor a slower, more persuasive style, Nelson adds, "so we like to train our students to do both."

Nelson doesn't bother to keep the grin off his face while Segaloff delivers his argument. These debaters are not without a sense of humor: Segaloff is arguing, somewhat improbably, that a grassroots "anti-pollution" movement afoot is actually just seeking a way to keep prison inmates from smoking while incarcerated. Nelson explains that when a team is on the negative, they need poke just one significant hole in the affirmative side's position. The argument can be as straightforward or off-the-wall as they like, so long as it can be logically proved.

Taking a more mainstream approach, Otterson and Rickard plan to argue that development around the perimeters of national parks destroys the environment within the parks. Another student will set forth the dangers of medical-waste incinerators.

"Usually a debater doesn't want to advance a straight-up-the-middle affirmative case, or everybody will be ready for it," Nelson notes. "But, at the same time, you don't want to advance a case that is so far out that no one will believe it proves anything about the resolution.

"You have to walk a tightrope between the farfetched and the mainstream. Ideally, you want to pick a case that most judges will think is reasonable but that most opponents won't be prepared to argue."

During the novices' practice round, Matt Schonholz and Jonathan White present their "road map," debaters' slang for outlining the arguments they plan to make.

Listening closely, Desai and Segaloff are making a strategic decision about which of Schonholz and White's arguments to address. During a prep time, they decide which of their own counter-arguments are the strongest; Nelson advises them on picking the best two.

"It's kind of like a game," Nelson explains. "Debate is not just about public speaking. Even more important, it's about critical thinking and decision making. Good debaters are able to as- sess their own arguments and recognize which ones are doing well and which ones aren't, and then they concentrate on the ones where they're strongest."

Debaters also put that critical thinking to work in the classroom, he points out. Students are always amazed at how it helps them to focus on test questions and term papers, he notes, citing one of his debaters who just told him he that he'd aced his political science test because it was "just like a debate round."

Desai and Segaloff decide to argue that the affirmative team has not proved every word in the resolution. They decide Desai will provide the negative rebuttal. When he finishes, he listens closely as Nelson gives him some feedback.

"In the beginning you focused on one argument," Nelson tells him, "and in the end you were talking about all of them" --Desai nods--"and you don't have to do that. You don't have to go all over the map."

"Yeah, OK," he says.

"And you don't have to talk for the whole five minutes," Nelson reminds him. "So just stay focused."

Intercollegiate debate demands focus in more ways than one, students say, and also "incredible amounts" of discipline. Most of them devote 10 hours a week to researching case evidence and practicing their delivery. But those 10 hours can stretch out before a big tournament: Last year during the week before nationals, Otterson remembers, she put in some 20 hours just doing research.

Added to this, debaters spend 16 weekends a year, plus spring break, putting all that research to use in arguing at tournaments. Pursuing a wide range of majors, team members juggle coursework, labs, jobs, and sports-team practices (Rickard, for example, divides her allegiance between debate and crew).

All that hard work comes with rewards. The University's eighth-place CEDA ranking caps a five-year climb from nowhere. Although debate has a long and honorable history at Rochester (the first forensic society, in fact, was formed two days before the institution opened its doors on November 5, 1850), it had fallen on hard times in recent years.

When Nelson took the helm in 1992, the team, unranked and coachless, consisted of only a handful of devoted enthusiasts. Today, the squad is fully four times larger than the average at other institutions, Nelson reports. While other schools typically send three or four 2-person teams to a tournament, Rochester can show up with 17 or more.

And, in contrast to the traditional white-male ranks of debate teams elsewhere, the Rochester squad is known for its diversity: More women and people of color debate for Rochester than for any other debate team in the country.

Typical of the University's atypical debaters is political-science major Louise Vella '97, a single mother of three who returned to school two years ago to complete her degree. Last year the team honored Vella with its Martin Messinger Award, named after the 1949 alumnus whose generous financial support has allowed debate to thrive.

As the team grows, so too its kudos. Among recent honors: Novices Deepak Gupta '99 and Chris Rutledge '99 teamed to win tournaments last fall at both Harvard and Queens College. And at last spring's novice national championships, three of the final eight teams hailed from Rochester, while three of the top 10 individual-speaker awards went to Yellowjacket debaters.

His students credit Nelson's nonstop enthusiasm and 'round-the-clock availability for much of their success. Regarded as one of the top coaches in the nation, Nelson, who is also assistant professor of English, earlier taught and coached at Vermont and Syracuse, among other schools. This year he has two assistant coaches helping out at a variety of levels: Elaine Maag and Isaac Castillo, both former national debating all-stars who are working toward public-policy master's degrees at Rochester.

Finished with the practice, the novice debaters pull their papers together. Nelson walks over to the teacher's desk they have been using as a lectern and asks to see the flow charts on which they record the arguments and rebuttals used in the debate. They're still learning how to manage them, and Nelson wants to review their handiwork.

"Excellent. Superb," he says of the first chart he picks up. Then he glances over the other one. It's a mess.

"See me after class," Nelson jokes, and everyone snickers. "Especially, what's this thing here? A note to your mother?" He laughs and hands the sheet back. "Do like your partner, man."

As they begin filing out of the room, Nelson offers a last reminder.

"Remember, 4:30 we're pulling out-- that's a.m.," he emphasizes, "behind the library."

"Will there be any breakfast?" a student asks.

"Yeah," Nelson replies with a chuckle. "We'll have a nice breakfast prepared for you."

Whether it was the practice or the "nice breakfast," Nelson's charges did him proud at the next day's meet. Otterson, the sophomore nursing student, took top individual-speaker honors in the junior varsity division, and three JV teams advanced to the elimination rounds. Among Nelson's novices, Ahmed Kassim took second-place individual-speaker honors, and four novice teams also got all the way to the elimination rounds.

The success of his freshman and sophomore debaters, Coach Nelson happily predicts, argues well for the future of a team that is already a standout. And then he ducks his head and looks around, as if for someone brash enough to advance the negative on that one.

Sally Parker is assistant director of University Public Relations.

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Last updated 3-26-1997      (jc)