The Good Fight
Tuna Snider furthers UVM's proud legacy of argument
- By Lee Ann Cox
"I’ve seen extraordinarily crazy debates about ridiculous stuff,” laughs junior Stefanie Doucette, last season’s policy squad captain. “Serious arguments that people actually get very into.” And she’s talking about what debaters do when they’re just hanging out, an inclination their other friends don’t always appreciate, “Will you guys stop arguing, just please stop talking,” apparently a common refrain among the uninitiated. But that’s what UVM debaters do — and do exceptionally well — thanks in large part to the university’s Lawrence Debate Union director of thirty years, Professor Alfred “Tuna” Snider, an international icon in the field. At the high point of their 2011–2012 season, UVM 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, all in an elite top thirty among hundreds of competing institutions.
Winning is sweet, no doubt, but Snider both proselytizes and democratizes debate. For him, trophies and point tallies are not the prize. It is students and what they 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.”
Despite his vigorous passion for the mission of debate, Snider is anything but a Type A personality. He is a man of gentle heart and he brings a unique sensibility to the LDU. At UVM it is not about an intellectual elite. It’s more of a big family — with lots of spirited arguing and hand banging — but everyone is welcome at the table.
That sense of camaraderie and inclusion extends beyond the current team of debaters, to the long legacy of debate at the university, making students feel part of a powerful continuum. Snider keeps the history alive, beginning public events by faithfully thanking those who made it possible. The program, then known as the Green and Gold Debate Society, was founded in 1899 by three students, including Edwin W. Lawrence, Class of 1901. “He went on to be a very successful lawyer-banker-railroad tycoon,” says Snider, “and he attributed the fact that he was rich, successful, and happy to what he learned debating.” To offer the same experience for future students, Lawrence created a sizeable endowment that currently generates about $80,000 a year to cover the basic budget, which is supplemented by alumni donations and funding from the Student Government Association.
Another character in the tale of UVM debate history is famed coach Robert Huber, who held the position here for thirty-eight years. Unofficially, but ubiquitously, the building at 475 Main Street that houses the debate coaching offices and practice space is called Huber House and the university’s debate tournament is named in his honor as well.
It was Huber who was here when Lawrence reached out with his donation, also securing an endowment for the Edwin Lawrence Professor of Forensics, the chair that Snider has held for three decades. If it sounds to the modern ear as if he’s prepping people for CSI, forensics refers to the public delivery of rhetorical argumentation — Snider’s academic expertise is personal and social influence. He is a scholar of persuasion. Snider puts that talent to work in many ways, but following tradition, he’s begun thinking of his predecessor’s parting wisdom.
“If you’re going to be here for a while you need to pave the way for the next person. You have to create structures,” Snider says recalling Huber’s words. “He had created the structure of the endowment, which made my life wonderful and so I committed myself to raising money.” Snider had a $1 million goal, but he barely got to test his powers of persuasion when an alumnus made a bequest for the full amount.
So now he’s doubled the mission to $2 million. “One of our jobs is to produce great alumni,” Snider says, which he believes the LDU has done and that it explains their propensity to give. Debaters tend to be successful and therefore have not only the means but also the strong connection and loyalty that generates that desire. And much of that is directly attributable to Snider.
“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.”
For all of his commitment to history and 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 develops students’ ability to improvise than the traditional policy format, where they debate the same issue all year. It 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, though written materials are permitted. 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.
Topics run the spectrum including economics, ecology, the military, technology, social policy, criminal justice, sports. “You want some of everything,” says Snider, who helped create the “holy secret” of motions for the final debate last season in Oregon. But he notes that it would be a foolish debater who went in without a solid understanding of unfolding events in Syria and the Eurozone.
“You need to read the news constantly,” he says. The occasional curve ball can come — a favorite Snider recalls is a motion granting independence to Abkhazia, which could be a bit troublesome if you’ve never heard of it.
One thing that’s noted universally: everyone remembers stumbling through that first speech which was maybe only a few minutes long, if that. No one is judgmental. New people want to come to practices and just watch but the goal is to push them into the fray. “And once we get them to a debate tournament,” Snider says, “they’re ours.” Because it’s really fun.
“Like any competitive activity, it’s extremely addicting,” says last year’s LDU co-president Paul Gross ’12, who was named sixth of the top ten worlds format debaters in the U.S. National Championship in April. Even in practice debates (of which there are three or more a week all year), the adrenaline is palpable.
Debaters crowd in the long, narrow Huber House meeting room with trophy-lined walls and a portrait of the legendary coach, their backpacks slung to the floor. The debates are styled after the British Parliamentary system; so, on one spring evening, a motion reads, “This house would not allow those wrongly accused of being gay to sue for defamation.” The teams, two pairs on each side, half arguing for the government, half for the opposition, separate and move into action for fifteen minutes of formulating their best cases, lobbing ideas and arguments for the best means of attack: “Your right to free speech ends where my reputation begins”… “The goal of government is not to change society but to protect citizens.”
The time passes in a flash, and the first speaker begins, addressing the adjudicator and “the house” at large with established formality, but the room is rowdy. Between the first and sixth minutes of a rapid-fire, impassioned speech anyone on the opposing side can stand up to offer a Point of Information, essentially a question or attack on the speaker’s argument — but at the risk of being waved into silence.
In both worlds and policy formats, during some point in a tournament every debater will be arguing for both the affirmative and the negative. Asked whats it’s like to take a side you personally oppose, Gross, a political science and philosophy major from the Washington, D.C. area, says he finds that almost more fun, recalling a conversation with an attorney who told him being in court was like boxing with your brain.
“It’s like you get to embody this person that you wouldn’t otherwise be and it’s just purely an intellectual exercise. It’s just a game at that point. It’s who can make the best argument, and I find that really engaging.” But he allows that it not only helps him evaluate his own positions more critically in his private life, he is also more likely to be thoughtful in taking others’ opinions into account.
Someone once suggested that “every debater is Tuna Snider’s debater.” That estimate gives the man a laugh. “I do feel that way. I want to help them all — even from Cornell,” Snider says. He jokes about the Ivy because the Cornell debate director was once his assistant coach. “I taught him what he knows.” But Snider’s service is no joke. He says he’s done debate training now in thirty-eight countries, not charging except for help with travel expenses. He spends more than a hundred days a year traveling, with much of it dedicated to promoting debate in places such as Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and China.
“We’re not getting everywhere but we’re just about,” says Snider. “Amazing countries have vibrant debate scenes now. Bangladesh — one of the poorest, most crowded countries in the world with almost no natural resources, and debate is solid there. They are serious because everybody sees it as a way to get ahead. (They think) ‘I need not just to speak English, I need to speak English well and be able to persuade people.’ And the other thing is, it doesn’t cost any money. I could go out under a tree and have a debate. So they teach each other.”
Different countries have different reasons for seeking out debate. For South Koreans, according to Snider, it’s a means to get in top English or American schools. In Latin America, it’s people who are concerned about the future of democracy. In former communist countries, it’s about trying to get critical discourse accepted. In China, he says, there were initial problems. “The party was very suspicious about debating and now it’s growing explosively there,” says Snider. “I think the University of Vermont did a lot of the groundwork.”
But much of Snider’s time on the road is spent with UVM students — again with a nod to old Mr. Lawrence — who get to be a part of that international experience with the advent of the new worlds debate format. “I’ve gotten to travel the world for free. I’ve been to Serbia, Slovenia, South Africa, the Philippines, Botswana…,” says Jessica Bullock ’12, the other LDU co-president who was seventh of the top ten American debaters (Drew Adamczyk, now a junior, was ninth, making UVM the only school to have three students in the top ten).
Bullock has also been coaching Spanish debate here for the last two years, with at least two teams, some novice, debating in both English and Spanish. Cornell hosted the first Spanish language tournament ever in the Northeast last year, Bullock says, and UVM made it to the semifinals against teams from Colombia and Venezuela. “For us to make it to the semifinals against native speakers,” she says, “I was very proud.”
All of it, including the way international debate cuts across cultures — the influence of machismo in Latin America when debating women’s rights or political history debating capitalism versus socialism with someone from Eastern Europe — “It’s eye-opening for a girl who came from rural Vermont,” Bullock says.
An English major, Bullock has taken a position with Teach for America in Baltimore for the next two years with an eye toward educational policy and maybe law school. Meanwhile she’ll be teaching elementary school, with hopes of introducing the youngest students to debate, something fun like, “This house believes cats should be on leashes.”
She’ll be sticking by her coach’s credo: “I think we’re about promoting debate everywhere for everyone,” Snider says. “Close to home, far away — that’s what we do.”