Vanderbilt Debate overcomes COVID-19 challenges to break new ground in civic engagement
Original story by Kathryn Royster, College of Arts and Science News
One year ago, Sahil “Sael” Soni ’21, a chemistry and economics double major, had just returned from a blue-ribbon performance in Vanderbilt Debate’s first-ever international competition. He was looking forward to finishing the 2019-2020 season on a high note, as were his teammates. For the last 30 years, Vanderbilt Debate has been a national leader, and the 2019-2020 season was shaping up to be one of the best yet. The students were eagerly anticipating their appearance at the upcoming U.S. nationals.
Then COVID-19 struck. National debate organizations cancelled their end-of-season competitions, and Debate’s seniors missed out on the customary end-of-year recognition for their stellar records of achievement. Director of Debate and Communication Studies lecturer John Koch began to wonder if he’d picked the worst possible year to make significant changes to the organization: besides adding international competitions to the group’s schedule, he’d added a new format to their repertoire.
Previously, Vanderbilt Debate focused exclusively on British Parliamentary style, where four-person teams debate a topic assigned just minutes before the debate takes place. Starting with the 2019-2020 season, however, the group also participated in civil debates. This format gives teams months to research a timely, real-world issue such as climate change or immigration. Judges are typically professionals in a related field, and students either present their ideas directly to a panel of judges or debate with other teams.
Far from being a drawback, however, Koch’s addition of civil debate opened the door to two of Debate’s most interesting competitions yet: the Schuman Challenge and the Intercollegiate Advocacy and Dialogue competition, both held virtually in October 2020. The Schuman Challenge, hosted by the European Union’s delegation to the United States, required students to research how the U.S.-E.U. partnership should respond to China’s alternative models of government. Vanderbilt chose to address the issue by focusing on relations with Huawei, a China-based technology company that is currently not allowed to operate in the U.S. but does business in Europe. . . .