Can you spot a debater?

I have to admit up front that I have a set of biases when it comes to debate. My older sister was a debater throughout her high school career. Despite all of the time and effort she put in to research, I feel as though she actually owes all of her debating success to me, the annoying younger sister who constantly tried her patience and allowed her to unknowingly develop a stronger rhetorical skill set.  If not for me and all of the informal practice argumentation I gave her, I doubt she would have excelled so readily in the competitive forensics arena. But, I will save the rest of my contributions to her success for my therapist, or for another blog.

The other bias I hold is a far more positive one. You can spot a debater a mile away! Teaching in a college classroom allows you to encounter a diverse set of students. Having been in academia and the collegiate classroom for over fifteen years now, I have developed a rather keen sense of the types of skills that students need to succeed in higher education. I will forgo the stroll down memory lane that recounting this list invariably produces and instead focus on the topic at hand: why debaters are identifiable as such. It is usually by the end of the second or third week of class that I can systematically point them out. How do I have this magical power you may ask? It isn’t really me, but rather the type of student that rigorous policy debate invariably produces.

While the characteristic pen spinning is usually a telltale sign, a skill no doubt honed by countless late nights perfecting a craft, this isn’t the primary giveaway. And, it isn’t the use of a flow sheet to take notes either, yet note taking ability in a fast-paced environment is something that debaters do indeed excel at in the classroom. Is it the auctioneer speed that typically characterizes their speech? Not so much, although as a fast speaker I always appreciate not only the rate at which debaters speak, but also their ability to cut out all of the inconsequential words that we include in normal discourse.

It is so much more than just a set of behaviors. The type of student that debate produces is the kind that you want in your class. It is the blatant curiosity that debate helps breed that sets the debaters apart from the other students. It is the ability to conduct research, develop informed arguments, and consider the multitude of sides to any given issue. It is the attention to detail and the anticipation of what comes next that distinguishes them from others. In the context of academia, these are clear assets. Debaters have honed the ability to compare and evaluate perspectives, engage in critical thinking, and examine the underlying assumptions embedded in theoretical approaches. They are never afraid to participate in the classroom and ask pointed questions…questions that make me think. And for that, I am grateful; grateful for the time they invested at the podium, in the library, and in the competitive arena, and grateful that they bring those skills with them as they embark on their path to higher education.

Danielle Lavin-Loucks, PhD

Valparaiso University

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