UVM's debate legacy thrives.
|On a late-October afternoon, Professor Alfred Tuna Snider, mentor
of UVM debaters for nearly the past twenty years, paces between
his office and the conference room across the hall. Sniders intensity
and eagerness to get on with the work of todays practice debates
are shared and multiplied many times over by the students arriving
or already at work in the Tudor house facing the Green at 475
Senior Greta Lockwood and first-year student Jaime Robertson pore over mountains of evidence cards preparing for the days session. The conference room where they sit the center of UVMs Lawrence Debate Union universe is crammed with backpacks and plastic tubs overflowing with papers of supporting evidence for future debates; and, in the many plaques and trophies won by UVM teams over the years, there is ample evidence of success in debates past. Hovering over the proceedings, immortalized in oil paint, is the austere eminence of Edwin W. Lawrence 01. It was a century ago that Lawrence enlisted two classmates one of whom was his brother, Robert (1899) to enliven the campus by launching debate at UVM. Later in his life, by endowing the forensics professorship that Snider holds, he would ensure that debate at the university would remain lively for years.
Lockwoods debate partner, Aaron Fishbone, arrives, clutching the all-important stopwatch. A slim, dark-haired sophomore, Fishbone is operating on a few hours of sleep after staying up all night doing research. He is a promising debater, earlier this year ranked with his former partner, Peter Winfield, as third among novice debate teams in the United States. Fishbone quickly gets down to work. A pen tucked between his lips, he sifts through his folders and passes Lockwood new pieces of evidence.
Little more than a month ago, at the beginning of the semester, students were assigned individual research projects pertinent to the topic they will debate through May: Resolved: That the U.S. Federal Government should adopt a policy of constructive engagement, including the immediate removal of all or nearly all economic sanctions with the government(s) of one or more of the following nation-states: Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Syria and North Korea. Only a few weeks later, squad members had compiled hundreds of pages of research; for the next several months they will continue to scour texts and articles on foreign policy and search the Internet for updates.
As the practice debate begins, Lockwood stands to take the first affirmative argument. She ties her blonde hair in a knot at the nape of her neck, leans over her notes and rattles off facts and evidence like an auctioneer on her tenth cup of coffee. For the uninitiated, its possible to understand maybe one out of every eight or nine words. Students verbally dispatch evidence like machine guns firing, defend their arguments during cross-examination, and attempt to crumble the foundation of their opponents case. Though UVM debaters can slow it down to a more accessible style for a general audience, listening to a contemporary policy debate is something like watching a video on fast forward. One quickly understands the accent on pace when Snider says, Debate is the high-speed communication skill of the future.
These students, and their many teammates who make up the LDU circa 1999, are the latest in a strong tradition of debate at UVM. An unwavering spirit of community and of changing the world through discourse is a consistent thread among generations of campus debaters.
When the squad relocated two years ago from Pomeroy Hall to 475 Main, Snider dubbed the new home Huber House in honor of Dr. Robert Huber, who led the squad to national dominance (including a national championship in 1950). Past and present squad members attest that debate is, or was, an anchor and their most profound college experience.
Today, the LDU offices are almost always buzzing with activity planned and informal meetings, practice debates, speed drills, training and, always, enthusiastic conversation. Huber House is a place where eating a large turkey sandwich can, and recently did, provoke a heated discussion, an impromptu debate, on whether eating meat is an inherently aggressive act. Says Snider, These students thrive on the intellectual thrill of debate.
Fishbone and Lockwood face a pair of new partners in the afternoons practice debate. Anthony Pagan of Bronx, New York and Jaime Robertson of Little Rock, Arkansas, both debated during their high school years, but today they struggle to get in sync as a team. They have crossed wires somewhere about the arguments they will run today, terse words have been exchanged, and they sit with several chairs between them. But as they prep for their first argument, they begin to gel as a team, eventually putting chairs and hurt feelings aside, conferring on and selecting citations from their arsenal of facts.
Working out communication with your partner is part of the learning process, says Snider, who expects to see occasional rough spots. Experienced debate students and alumni attest that forging those partnerships helped them to develop trust, accept constructive criticism, and work for the good of the whole team. And although, like in any family, there are occasional spats, there is a much richer sense of community.
We have a reputation for being unique, says Justin Parmett 99, who was top speaker at the 1999 Eastern Regional Tournament and is among eight alumni who coach part time. Were a family, with a spirit of cooperation and bonding I havent observed in other teams.
At the core of that bond is Tuna Snider. A top debater as a Brown University student and National Coach of the Year in 1993, Snider is among the worlds most widely published debate theorists. His manner is warm, avuncular and intensely energetic, and his passions are woven deeply into the fabric of the LDU. Snider teaches one of the universitys most popular courses, The Rhetoric of Reggae, which examines reggae music as a rhetorical and social movement by tracing its origins from the African diaspora through Jamaican history. He is co-founder of the Vermont Reggae Festival, and has hosted a Reggae Lunch every Wednesday for fifteen years on WRUV-90.1 FM in addition to being the campus stations faculty advisor.
Clearly, Sniders students and debate squad revere him. The bright stripes of red, yellow, and green in the Jamaican flag that hangs behind his desk reappear in caps and beads worn by past and present students in the copious photos adorning the office walls. A steady stream of students wanders into his office, huddles with him on the buildings front porch, or calls out questions from the tiny room that houses their copy machine, mailboxes, and a computer. Snider manages to keep up with two or three conversations at once while typing at his computer keyboard, and occasionally sticks his head in to see how the practice debate is progressing.
At the moment, the progress is a bit of a struggle. As second negative, Robertsons job is to address and invalidate the arguments made by Lockwood and Fishbone. Frustrated, she pushes her hair out of her eyes and says she doesnt fully understand the oppositions arguments.
I think you do understand them, says Pagan. You just think that you dont. Fishbone and Lockwood nod agreement. Robertson takes a deep breath, gathers herself, and delivers a clear and convincing argument. Meanwhile, the hum of voices in the building grows louder as students and coaches arrive and prepare to depart for a weekend of tournaments at Harvard and West Point.
Tournaments are grueling two- or three-day events where students debate in as many as six ninety-minute rounds until their team is eliminated or wins. The squad generally arrives at competition venues by 7 a.m. and debates until about 9 p.m. Coaches strategize with members of the teams between rounds, and, like athletic trainers, make sure students remember to drink plenty of water.
While universities with larger debate budgets recruit and offer scholarships to top high school debaters, Snider operates by the motto, We train them ourselves. Recruitment consists of posters tacked up around campus and word-of-mouth. But the LDU is among the largest collegiate debate teams and boasts a nearly equal male-to-female ratio; at most colleges, men dominate debate.
We dont have the financial resources to send students to as many tournaments as wed like to, Snider explains. When the squad hits the road, it is strictly no-frills travel a daily food allowance of $10 (a rate that hasnt budged since 1981) and sleeping six to a room in motels. More money would be great, Snider admits with a shrug, but we manage.
That may be an understatement Snider is renowned for his ability to train inexperienced students, and LDU members and the squad as a whole regularly win top national and regional honors. At West Point, Pagan and Robertson make it to the semi-finals, and Robertson is ranked tenth among the competitions speakers. At a recent seventeen-school competition in Rochester, New York, varsity debaters Helen Morgan and Sarah Snider (Tunas daughter) won the tournament. The pair are currently ranked seventeenth nationally. Were making big strides as a team, says Pagan.
More important than winning, coaches remind the team frequently, is learning from the practice and the competition. The lessons dont pertain just to debate but serve as a strong complement to the overall academic experience at UVM. Keeping up with class commitments and digesting all this policy information might seem overwhelming, but debate students agree that the organizational and research skills they hone through debate actually make their coursework easier.
Debate gives you such an educational edge coming into college, says Pagan. Through debate, he was already familiar with several authors and texts hes now studying in a political science course. Debate creates better-informed, articulate students, adds Snider, equipped with critical thinking skills and confidence that employers seek. Rhetoric requires that students explore all sides of complex issues; as a result, they learn to understand and respect diverse points of view. More simply, debate is a conduit to communication. It gives you a chance to tell someone how you feel, Pagan says.
Part of my job, says Snider, is helping students to realize that when you stand up and speak up, you can make a difference. You can become a powerful agent for social change. The squads political ideology, which varies according to the views of generations of its members, today leans decidedly to the left. But Snider maintains an ecumenical environment where every individual and opinion is valued, and where a dreadlocked socialist and the president of the UVM Young Republicans Club can and have debated side by side.
The gospel of debate runs deep at Huber House and spreading the word is another key part of the work of the Lawrence Debate Union.
Snider sees passivity and cognitive laziness as a contemporary epidemic. People become overwhelmed by information, throw up their hands and say, Let the experts decide, he says, shaking his head. The antidote to that way of thinking is debate.
As the LDUs outreach coordinator, Pagan works with Snider to strengthen debate in Vermont middle and high schools. Debate practically disappeared in most New England schools about twenty years ago due to budget cuts and a back-to-basics movement. Planting the seeds for new debate teams, the LDU visits schools and invites teachers and students throughout Vermont to attend workshops held on campus.
The LDU also reaches out through methods more in sync with the technological zeitgeist of the millennium. Flashpoint, the LDUs weekly televised debate on social and civic issues, recently celebrated its 208th episode on Burlingtons public-access cable channel. The LDU website at http://debate.uvm.edu is a gateway to an almost overwhelming number of local, regional, and national debate topics and organizations. Snider says the Web site is the biggest and busiest in the world, with an average of three thousand visitors per day in seventy-five countries.
Next on the agenda for the Vermont squad: They will pioneer the worlds first online telepresence debate in December, allowing viewers around the globe and judges in three countries to watch a live debate between UVM and Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. (The teams will see each other via their computer screens.) February will mark the worlds first transatlantic debate, which will pit the Vermont squad against London members of the English Speaking Union, an organization that coordinates public-speaking activities in more than 65 countries. Negotiations are under way for a telepresence debate in Asia, and efforts are ongoing to re-establish a debate relationship with the former Yugoslavia that had included exchanges between the countries debaters.
Closer to home, under the aegis of the New York Urban Debate League, Snider regularly brings the Vermont squad into New Yorks worst classrooms and is hopes to branch out to Bostons schools. He brings inner-city students directly to the UVM campus in his role as director of the universitys World Debate Institute, the largest summer educational program in the United States for college debaters. Last summers session the seventeenth hosted students from thirty-five states and seven nations, the nations top coaches, new coaches, and debate strategists.
Anthony Pagan was a high school junior in the Bronx when he was introduced to debate through the New York Urban Debate League. By the next year, he was the leagues top speaker. Before the art of persuasion became part of his life, Pagan says, I never dreamed I would set foot on a college campus, or stand up in front of a room of people and talk about foreign policy. But instilling the drive to accomplish more than you thought you could is an experience that resonates among generations of LDU members. The only limits to your education are the limits you impose upon yourself, Pagan says.
Kids like Pagan, Snider says, have something to say, and they love getting the chance to say it. Witnessing them finding their own voices has been one of the most powerful experiences in my life.
Letters from past debate team members
The LDU is a family that took care of each other and struggled together to foster an environment where everyone achieved success. I arrived at UVM with a lot of attitude and baggage. Debate helped me to become a better, more compassionate person. I learned that my life isnt the most important thing the struggle for social justice and to make a positive change in this world is the most important thing.
Maxwell Schnurer 95, completing his doctorate and coaching debate at the University of Pittsburgh
Debate is one of the most intellectually challenging things I have ever done. There were times when I worked so hard to absorb information that my head ached. While in college, I was a chemistry major, and though a marriage of science and debate may seem strange, it has served me well. Interpretation of data, both my own and that which is published by others, is essential in science.
Karen McCullough 90, post-doctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health
Among the things that debate taught me is to make my voice heard. I try to model my teaching along the lines of Tunas coaching, encouraging students to really engage the material on a personal level and stand up for their ideas while being open to the ideas of others.
Laura Ellingson 91, doctoral student in health communication at the University of South Florida
When you research an issue, you get to the point where you think you know the truth. You dig some more, and realize its more complicated, and that theres a learning process of discovering many truths to get to the reality. I didnt realize it at the time, but the research and study of complex policy issues inherent to debate had a great deal in common with sociology.
Nicholas Danigelis 68, professor of sociology at UVM