Figures of Speech: Debate Society

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Members of the debate team rejoice in their victories after a debate tournament (James Gallison/The Campus).

By Jerrica Davy

While the Middlebury girls’ soccer team makes it to Nationals and our football team wins NESCACs, Middlebury’s Debate Society has been quietly forging its own path of success. Coming up on its 100-year anniversary, the team has seen an unprecedented level of achievement, competing in tournaments around the country and the world, and for the first time in their history, they are ranked 15th in the country and 57th in the world — out of over 300 teams.

Middlebury and other college teams across the nation compete according to the American Parliamentary Debate Association’s (APDA) style. They participate in a type of debate known as Parliamentary Debate, which APDA’s website describes as “an off-topic, ex- temporaneous form of competitive debate … the format pits two two-person teams against each other in a contest of argument, wit and rhetoric which roughly simulates debate in a House of Parliament.”

This means that the Middlebury team pairs its debaters up, and they compete together almost every weekend from September to April.

“On a weekly basis, we go to Yale and other tournaments in the Northeast. This year, we competed in England and Malaysia,” Debate Society President James Callison ’17.5 said. “And we’re going to Greece next year.”

For a long time, Debate’s membership remained around 10. As you can imagine, this makes weekly trips difficult, considering they like to take about 8 people, or 4 pairs, to each conference. But times are changing.

Debate Team Captain Frank Wyer ’15 attributes their recent success to the new first- years and sophomore Febs, who have tripled the team size from 10 to 30 and have made Middlebury the largest team in the NESCACs.

“This is the biggest team we’ve ever had, and freshmen have definitely driven the success of the team,” Wyer said.

For the first time in their history, a team of two speakers, President Callison and Nate Rifkin ’15, placed 1st at a meet at Mt. Holyoke, and are ranked 18th as a pair in national rank- ings. Most remarkably, Noah Liebmiller ’17.5 sits as the top-ranked Novice debater in the nation, in effect Middlebury’s Rookie of the Year. Last weekend, Debate Society competed at Yale, with several individuals and teams placing in the Top 20 in final rankings.

Indeed, it seems that the Debate Society’s success has snuck under our noses and almost under theirs as well. Many of its members have never participated in a debate before coming to the College, and have to start from scratch.

“You have to sort of jump in,” Elana Feldman ’17.5 said. “We really encourage people to go to tournaments and just start speaking.”

And though jumping right in, Debate agrees, is the best way to get someone good at the skill, the new school year has also brought changes to their training.

“In years past, we predominantly didn’t really focus on training. But we’ve started to focus more on training novices and making sure everyone has a good foundation,” President Callison said.

“We do exercises that help us with argument building, arguments that help us rhetorically, how we speak. We also do practice rounds, just to get into it,” Feldman said.

Going forward, Middlebury Debate Society would like to continue its success, mainly by doing what has worked this year, as well as adding on a few things. One of its main goals for the future is getting more people to join and remain big players for the team. The time commitment can be a bit overwhelming, and some members remain on the fringes.