February 05, 2008

Debaters capture prestigious wins over top teams

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. — When the director of the debate program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Todd Graham, called from the San Diego area on Monday to report on his team's success, his tone was neutral.

As he spoke, his pride and excitement were evident in what he said. "We won both tournaments." Pause. "That's a really big deal." Pause. "We've had people coming by our hotel room telling us what a good job we did. In fact, we were just told that one school has never won both tournaments before."

In this case, it isn't even just one school. It's one pair of students representing that school. Kevin Calderwood, a sophomore in political science from Chesterfield, Mo., and Kyle Dennis, a senior in business from Blue Springs, Mo., won an invitational round-robin style tournament at Point Loma Nazarene University. Then the duo followed it up by winning an open debate tournament – the Sunset Cliffs Classic – that same weekend.

The PLNU tournaments, Graham said, are the second most prestigious in the world of competitive parliamentary-style debate. Only nationals can claim to top this exclusive debate competition.

To compete at the round-robin invitational, teams submitted applications months in advance, Graham said. PLNU selected the top 18 teams, plus two from community colleges.

"It is a big, big, big deal," Graham said. "Teams, coaches, schools talk about this tournament all year long, and spend all that time preparing for it."

So why is it such a big, big, big deal? Partly because of the judges, Graham said. PNLU selects judges with loads of debate experience – coaches and former coaches – and experts in the debate topic who are not necessarily experienced with debate. Debate topics are presented as statements. Teams know which side of the debate they are on before the topic is announced. They either defend the statement or attack it, depending on which side of the debate they represent – not according to personal feeling.

This topic was, "The United States should end its economic embargo of Cuba." Calderwood and Dennis, on the government side of the debate, defended the statement. The judges, Graham said, included a Navy Seal, a Navy Seal trainer and two Southern California political candidates, one Republican and one Democratic.

The SIUC team was undefeated throughout the entire round-robin tournament – against elite competition, Graham noted. Besides SIUC, teams came from Creighton University, Loyola University-Chicago, Western Kentucky University, Texas Tech University, University of California-Berkeley and the University of California-San Diego, among others. Just to give an idea of how good some of these other teams are – and why Graham refers to them as "elite" – Creighton was in the final round of nationals last year, and so was Berkeley (there are two nationals, each representing a different form of debate), and Texas Tech is currently ranked No. 1 with Western Kentucky as No. 2 in the national rankings.

Other topics the teams debated included: "Federal control of education does more harm than good," "Losing Afghanistan is a greater threat than losing Iraq," and "The Senate should reject the current economic stimulus package." Teams have to come to the debate prepared for any topic from current events. That means they must have already researched… well, everything. And they have to know how to access accurate and relevant information quickly in the limited time they have to prepare before engaging in the debate.

The Calderwood-Dennis team beat more than 80 teams to win the open tournament that same weekend. Besides the top 20 schools already present for the round-robin invitational, teams came from Temple University, Oregon State University, University of California-Los Angeles, University of Colorado and the United States Air Force Academy, among others. Calderwood and Dennis beat Creighton in the final round, scoring a unanimous 5-0 victory.

"I cannot underscore how big this is," Graham wrote in an e-mail sent minutes before the team boarded the plane to return home. "Other than a very strong showing at nationals, this is as good as it gets."