Helen Morgan-Parmett could be forgiven if the thought, “What was I thinking?” crossed her mind as her phone buzzed for an interview she’d agreed to for 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 4. For Morgan-Parmett, and millions of fellow Americans, it had been a fitful night followed by an unsettled morning post-election.
But the faculty member in the Department of Theatre and Dance dutifully picked up and focused on the topic at hand — the current state of student debate at UVM. Morgan-Parmett is the Edwin W. Lawrence Professor of Forensics and director of the Lawrence Debate Union. In both roles, the Class of 2000 alumna succeeded her mentor in debate, Professor Alfred “Tuna” Snider, who passed away in 2015.
The morning of November 4 begged a question, admittedly a bit of a softball: What is the place of collegiate debate as our nation argues over vote counts, struggles through a pandemic, and confronts systemic racism?
“I think that we need more debate is the short answer. Debate is key to training people to think critically and to advocate for themselves and for others,” Morgan-Parmett says. “It teaches informational literacy, where your sources are coming from and the potential biases they might have — what is a good source and what is a poor source. The most important skills it teaches, though, are being able to compare arguments, being able to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of points of view, which engenders better decision-making. They’re the sort of crucial skills we need for our democracy right now.”
That said, it’s particularly good news that the Lawrence Debate Union (LDU) is alive and well, thriving even, in the challenging circumstances of fall semester 2020. Last week, UVM was preparing to host The Huber Debates, an online forensics tournament that would bring together student debaters from nearly fifty schools, many of them international — Pakistan, India, Palestine, Ireland, Jamaica and Peru among the countries represented.
Senior Hannah Lefevre, president of LDU, notes that though international events have long been an important part of the UVM debate experience, free online competitions during the pandemic have extended the reach, both geographically and economically. Schools that could not have afforded travel or registration fees for in-person debates are now taking part. (UVM is unusual in being able to offer debate competitions that are free, thanks to the Lawrence endowment, and creating wider opportunity is key to the program’s mission.)
Closer to home, LDU has increased participation in civic and public debates, which turn the focus from competition to enriching discourse on societal issues. Morgan-Parmett says, “It isn’t just about this exercise with students winning trophies, but it really is about trying to train students to be leaders of our communities — not just in the future, but right now, connecting them with folks who are doing the work.”
Shifting to remote learning last March presented the silver lining of a head start on connecting student debaters online, and the UVM team remained connected throughout the summer. Though the team lost a significant number of seniors to 2020 graduation, the roster is strong this year with ten students returning and fifteen new debaters.
UVM’s debate tradition runs deep, extending back through Tuna Snider to 38-year-coach Robert Huber to Edwin Lawrence himself, a Class of 1901 alumnus who helped found UVM’s first debate team and later created the endowment that has helped build Vermont debate into a perennial national power. As Morgan-Parmett looked to connect with other schools for online practices and competitions, the logical first stop was fellow coaches with UVM connections at the University of Rochester, Bard College and Cornell. “The University of Vermont is a seed to the global debate community,” Morgan-Parmett says, then adds, with a laugh, “Our tentacles are everywhere.”
On-campus education this semester has been key to keeping the ranks of debaters strong at UVM. Some practices and meetings are online, others are in-person, masked and socially distanced, which have proven to be a critical opportunity for connection. Though both coach Morgan-Parmett and debater Lefevre look forward to a return to travel for international tournaments and the electricity of live, in-person debate, they’re grateful for what remains in this moment. “Cultivating community” is a major objective of student debate, Lefevre notes. “Although it’s hard for us to gather in person, we’re still able to support each other and lean on each other as we all navigate the drastic change that COVID-19 has made in our daily routines.”