Debate teams Zoom to national championships

RIce Debaters and Coaches

Hosting meetings and giving presentations via Zoom during the pandemic has been tough enough for many of us. But Rice students in the George R. Brown Forensics Society have now won national debate competitions over Zoom — and in three different categories.

The team pulled a hat trick of first-place trophies during the National Parliamentary Debate Association (NPDA) 2021 Championship March 6-8 in three categories: overall season sweepstakes, open (varsity) division season sweepstakes and overall tournament sweepstakes.

Years of training paid off for four seniors in particular: Amy Lin and Joel Abraham were named runner-up national champions while Annie Chen and Maddy Scannell reached the quarterfinals of the highly competitive tournament. All four also received overall debate speaker awards: Chen for fourth place, Lin for fifth place, Scannell for ninth and Abraham for 12th.

Rice’s renowned forensics program has earned national championships and rankings in both speech and debate since its founding in 1984. Director David Worth has been at its helm since 2002, joined by Associate Director Shannon LaBove in 2017.

But this is the first time Worth, a longtime debater and coach himself, has gone a full calendar year without physically travelling to a tournament in person since 1984. Instead, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, every speech and debate tournament this past academic year has been conducted online. And with many Rice students studying remotely, debate partners found themselves working together from their homes in St. Louis and Atlanta, for example, rather than the basement of Sewall Hall where the forensics society is housed.

It’s a tribute to the strength of Rice’s program and the hard work of the students, he said, that the team was able to achieve such a winning streak under such less than ideal circumstances.

“Just the normal process of debating wore me out,” Worth said of the typically 12-hour-long tournament days over long weekends — not to mention the hours of travel time on the road. “Imagine: We all have Zoom fatigue, but these students are in a competitive Zoom world. I am in awe of them.”

Personally transformative

Forensics students train and compete for years to reach national-level tournaments, often starting much earlier than their freshman year of college. That’s especially true at Rice, where Worth said it’s common for a substantial part of the incoming freshman class to have prior experience in speech, debate, model United Nations or similar programs in high school.

“It’s correlated with successful students,” Worth said.

When he and LaBove recruit students for the Rice team, they warn them: This isn’t your high school debate club, but the high level of commitment is rewarded with a high level of returns.

“Our goal is to put you in a national final round by your senior year,” Worth said.

The forensics society enjoys strong institutional support, said Worth, thanks to its winning reputation and the fact that it draws students from across schools: Hanszen College senior Lin, for instance, is double majoring in computation and applied mathematics and the study of women, gender and sexuality. Martel College senior Chen is double majoring in philosophy and political science.

The program also boasts intense alumni support, Worth said. That’s due in part to the deep bonding between students during years spent training and traveling together — not to mention the character strengths that come from learning to passionately argue a position.

“It’s personally transformative,” Worth said. “I think any debater you asked anywhere would say that.”

Worth was able to draw on that support this year when he reached out to former Owls and asked them to send the team good-luck notes of encouragement before the nationals. Worth — who’s so deeply embedded with the forensics alumni community he regularly attends former students’ weddings — received letters of support from graduates as far back as the 1990s.

Jason Barton ’19 and Sonia Torres ’19 were national runners-up their senior year at the National Parliamentary Tournament of Excellence (NPTE) in Reno, Nevada — the first debate team from Rice to reach the finals of the competition, which features the top 24 ranked teams in the nation. Two teams of then-sophomores also qualified for the tournament: Lin and Abraham, Chen and Scannell. The latter team finished eighth — quite the feat for a pair of sophomores, and an example of Rice forensics culture in action.

“Jason and Sonia told me their senior year that they wanted to do what their seniors had done for them, which was build them a ramp to success — and that's what they did,” Worth said. “These four seniors were Jason and Sonia's protegees in a sense.”

Back-to-back wins

Going into this year’s NPTE, held online March 12-14, Rice had its largest-ever entry for the event, including the No. 1-ranked team of Chen and Scannell. Lin and Abraham ranked No. 4, while juniors Krithika Shamanna and Jacob Tate ranked No. 8.

In the end, Lin and Abraham took third place overall and Chen and Scannell took ninth place. The four seniors were also honored with overall debate speaker awards from the NPTE: Lin in second place, Chen in fifth, Scannell in sixth and Abraham in eighth. Shamanna and Tate’s team took sixth place overall, positioning them to continue the work of their senior teammates who’ll be graduating this May.

Debate tournament season may be over, but there’s one more round of competitions ahead before graduation: the nationals run for speech, made up of four tournaments. Rice has one of Texas’ two entries to the Interstate Oratorical Contest, the nation’s oldest speaking contest focusing on persuasive speaking, and the Owls will be represented by Duncan College senior Lauren Palladino.

Also still to come are Pi Kappa Delta, the National Speech Tournament and the National Forensic Association National Tournament, each with their own distinct competitive contexts and varying challenges — not counting the online setting. Once again, despite this added layer of pressure, Worth expects the team to perform well.

After all, bringing home back-to-back awards from the NPDA and the NPTE is no small feat. To describe Rice’s victories this year, Worth uses a basketball analogy appropriate to debate’s March Madness-style nature, complete with brackets, rankings and fierce back-to-back tournaments each spring: “Imagine if you could win the NCAA Tournament and the NIT.”

But winning is only part of the picture, Worth said.

“Shannon and I have tried to build a culture of success, trust and excellence — and the students have worked extremely hard over the years — but primarily ours is a philosophy that’s built on a culture of development,” he said. “The winning is a great benefit, but we try to center the work and the development of our students’ intellectual abilities.”