Debate Union: Travel & Quilted Trophies?

I sat down with sophomore Miriam Kohn, linguistics major and vice president of the U of R Debate Union. She shared with me her experience in the club so far.


Debate team is my primary time commitment. Some weeks, it’s probably even more than my classes!

I wandered into the debate office by accident. My high school didn’t have a debate team, so it was something that was completely unfamiliar to me. I kind of thought, “maybe I should do this in college,” but then I thought, “maybe I’m going to get way too into it,” and, surprise… that’s what happened!

Overall, it’s a very positive experience, so I stick around. I work hard at debate. I’m a hard-working person in general. I enjoy reading things like Foucault. It’s probably hyperbolic to say I spend more time on it than my classes, but I certainly do spend a lot of time on it.

None of my trophies are shiny

Miriam Debate clubI was in the novice bracket last year. I was a real novice, unlike a lot of people on the circuit who walk in [with high school experience].

There are three formats of debate; Rochester does two. With one of them, Policy, you don’t have novice eligibility if you do it in high school. The format I do primarily is British Parliamentary, or Worlds. You get a lot of people who take the novice eligibility [for Worlds], who are really not novices. They could have done four years of high school British Parliamentary.

I’ve had a fair amount of success on the circuit with my partner; we won the novice bracket of regionals, novice finals at North American championships, and we were semi-finalists at Northwest regionals. They didn’t have trophies for the novices. I wanted hardware! There was one trophy which I took home from my first tournament freshman year, at SUNY Binghamton. That was a quilted trophy; not so shiny.

Traveling debate

We travel a lot of places, primarily up and down the Northeast. That’s where a lot of the most competitive tournaments are. Nationals for USU, that’s United States Universities, are in Alaska this year. We were just up in Toronto, on Mel weekend, because the University of Toronto debating society at Hart House always hosts a big, really well respected tournament there. They actually hosted North Americans last year.  We also we went to Europe last year!

The rule is the team won’t send you anywhere it can’t afford. If you get chosen to go, then the team pays your way, The team pays your transportation, your hotel fees, and your tournament entry fees. It includes a few meals a day. That way debate’s not just an activity for those who can afford it.

It’s free to join

We have a really, really big alumni base. There are lots of lawyers and doctors; a lot of them tend to do pretty well and they help support us. We also get very generous support from the school. It used to be the students’ association, now we’re part of the athletic department. We get more money, more support, and more infrastructures. It’s free travel; you just have to make it clear that you actually care.

To be chosen to travel to the most competitive tournaments you have to put in the time. There are some that everyone gets traveled to, like the one on Halloween weekend. And there are some of them that everyone wants to go to, like Europe, and Florida. We sent some folks to Miami for the Pan-American championships, for those, you have to work harder.

Pinky and The Brain

We joke around all the time, all the time: I think “irreverent” would have to be the first adjective I’d go with to describe us.

We give each other stupid nicknames, and there are lots of running jokes. For example, two of the assistant coaches have been trying to convince my partner and myself that we should go for Halloween to this tournament we’re having as Pinky and The Brain. Apparently I’m Pinky. I mean, I would like to take over the world, but that’s a separate issue!

It’s really a very relaxed atmosphere; debate draws in a nice crowd of people. The coaches are wonderful. They work very hard to make the program accessible to everyone. They’re willing to help anyone out that cares to get help from them. That sets the tone as very welcoming.

Whether it’s trying to take over the world, or discussing the latest hot-button issues, the Debate Union is among the U of R’s strongest student organizations, with meetings on Monday and Thursday nights at 7:00.

Debate Union Earns High Marks in Season Opener

University of Rochester Debate – The University of Rochester Debate Union started the year off with a bang.  The team traveled to Binghamton University for the East Region Season Opener last weekend. Half of Rochester’s 12 teams advanced to elimination debates.

The U of R’s top performance was turned in by the veteran team of Alyssa Schwartz (Junior) and Vijay Kasschau (Senior). Schwartz and Kasschau were a nearly perfect in preliminary debates, finishing with a record of 5 wins and 1 loss. They advanced through two elimination rounds when they finally lost on a split decision to the City University of New York. In addition to taking home the third place trophy, Kasschau was named the tournament’s 4th best speaker and Schwartz was 2nd speaker.  Freshman Zach Taylor was also honored for his superior speaking, taking home the 8th place trophy in the Junior Varsity Division.

Director of Forensics, Ken Johnson, summed up the Binghamton opener by stating, “This was one of our best first tournaments in a couple of years. Everybody won debates. We clearly have lots of work in front of us, but it is nice to have early success.”

Even though the debate season is underway, there is still plenty of time for students to join the team.  To join, students simply need to attend a debate meeting in Morey 100 at 7:00pm on Monday or Thursday.  They can also email the Director of Forensics at No experience is required to be on the debate team – it is open to every undergraduate at the University of Rochester.

The team has a busy fall semester, with tournaments at Toronto, West Point, Harvard, and Vermont on the schedule, available here.

Rochester Teams with Awards:


Nina Datlof (Sophmore) & Alap Patel(Freshman) (9th)

Novice Policy:

Cody Monday (Soph)/Swing (17th)

Junior Varsity Policy:

Joshua Rose (Fresh) & Zachary Taylor (Fresh) (9th)

Varsity Policy:

Vinit Akolkar (Junior) & George Weddington (Senior) (5th)
Ben Batha (Junior) & Kevin Diamond (Senior) (5th)
Vijay Kasschau (Senior) & Alyssa Schwartz (Junior) (3rd)

Article courtesy of Ken Johnson, director of Forensics and lecturer in the Department of English. The team photo, taken in spring 2011, also is courtesy of Ken Johnson.