Professor of theatre, director of UVM's world-recognized Lawrence Debate Union
- By Megan Morley Thomas
At the high point of their 2012 season, UVM's Lawrence Debate Union was ranked seventh in the world by the International Debate Education Association, just behind Cambridge, Oxford, and Yale and ahead of the likes of the London School of Economics, Harvard and Stanford. This success is thanks in large part to the debate union's director Professor Alfred “Tuna” Snider, an international icon in the field.
Winning is sweet, no doubt, but Snider democratizes debate. The prize is in what the students gain, the people they become. What is important, Snider says, is “building the citizens of the future and in doing that, the world of the future… the kind of skills you develop through debate are twenty-first-century success skills. Wherever you go, whatever you do, you’re going to have to take information and shape it into messages that influence people. You have to be able to critically analyze ideas, arguments, and positions.”
That is Snider’s pitch and it’s echoed by alumni like Charles Morton ’87, a partner at the law firm Venable who also has a faculty appointment at Johns Hopkins University. “Not a day goes by that I don’t rely on a lesson I learned in debate,” Morton says. “In my practice of law, in teaching — it framed my view of the world and helped to empower me as someone who can compete successfully.”
Carrying on UVM's debate tradition in a modern world
Snider points out that debate is a long tradition at UVM — the debate program formed in 1899. And for his commitment to that tradition, Snider has also shaped the way forward for a newer style of competitive debate known as the worlds format, an approach that he believes better prepares them for more “real-life” situations.
In worlds, teams learn the topic only fifteen minutes prior to the start of the debate. After that they can talk only to their partner, no coaches, and have no access to the internet. It requires that debaters be broadly informed and able to think fast on their feet to develop a convincing argument they will deliver in a seven-minute speech.
Snider is a man of gentle heart and he brings a unique sensibility to the UVM's debate program where everyone is welcome at the table. He's even done debate training in 38 countries — a service he does not charge for.
“I think we’re about promoting debate everywhere for everyone,” Snider says. “Close to home, far away — that’s what we do.” And he also inspires.
“Tuna was a phenomenal mentor for me,” says Laura Ellingson ’91, associate professor of communication and women’s and gender studies at Santa Clara University in California. “He taught me how to put together an argument, how to think on my feet — I learned extraordinary research skills from him.” Beyond that, Ellingson drew something deeper from Snider’s faith in her when she was diagnosed with cancer shortly after joining UVM debate. “He’s an amazing man,” she says. “He just kept saying, ‘I believe in you,’ over and over. I have such deep affection and gratitude for his support mentoring me as a debater and as a human being.”