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Can Cutting Cards Carve into Our Personal Lives: An Analysis of Debate Research on Personal Advocacy

Kristin Chisholm Dybvig

Arizona State University

Joel O. Iverson

Arizona State University


While past research on academic debate discusses how research techniques and skills used by debaters improved critical thinking and aided in debaters' selection of career choices, no research has addressed the impact on debaters' worldviews. Through exposure to a variety of issues, such as the impact of globalization, debaters are exposed to new areas of knowledge. This paper examines the impact of researching debate topics on debaters' personal advocacy.

Recent discussion on the college debat listserves has focused on the benefits of intercollegiate debate. This conversation is not new nor is it likely to go away. One of the primary criticisms of policy debate is that the skills learned are not readily translated into real world public speaking skills. The issues include delivery rate, conversational style, reliance upon evidence and time demands placed upon debaters due to research burdens.

There are several differences between parliamentary debate and policy debate as currently practiced in the United States. Parliamentary debate is done at a slow rate of delivery. Policy debate on the other hand, is characterized by a rapid rate of delivery. Parliamentary debate uses a different topic for each round, while policy debate focuses on one topic for an entire year. One substantial difference between the two types of debate is the nature of proof involved in each one. Policy debate is focused on outside research, where parliamentary debate uses common knowledge based arguments and no citation of outside research (Venette, 1998).

Addressing all of these differences is beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, we focus upon the research process involved in the more research intensive forms of debate: National Debate Tournament (NDT) and Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) style debate. We have surmised that research has several beneficial effects on debaters. Research creates an in-depth analysis of issues that takes students beyond their initial presuppositions and allows them to truly evaluate all sides of an issue. Not only is the research involved in debate a training ground for skills, but it also acts as a motivation to act on particular issues. It is our contention that debate not only gives us the tools that we need to be active in the public sphere, but it also empowers some debaters with the impetus to act in the public sphere.

We examine the role of research by analyzing the arguments regarding the role of debate for critical thinking as well as the role debate has begun to play in activism. Specifically, we closely examine the analysis of Mitchell (1998) regarding the empowerment of debaters and the role of research in academic debate. Next, we provide analysis of the role research plays in developing personal opinions and action based upon examples from our collective debate experiences (Clandinin & Connelly, 1994) and conversations in situ. Finally, we offer some potential pathways for future conversations and investigations into the role of research in policy and parliamentary debate.

Mitchell (1998) provides a thorough examination of the pedagogical implication for academic debate. Although Mitchell acknowledges that debate provides preparation for participation in democracy, limiting debate to a laboratory where students practice their skill for future participation is criticized. Mitchell contends:

For students and teachers of argumentation, the heightened salience of this question should signal the danger that critical thinking and oral advocacy skills alone may not be sufficient for citizens to assert their voices in public deliberation. (p. 45)

Mitchell contends that the laboratory style setting creates barriers to other spheres, creates a "sense of detachment" and causes debaters to see research from the role of spectators. Mitchell further calls for "argumentative agency [which] involves the capacity to contextualize and employ the skills and strategies of argumentative discourse in fields of social action, especially wider spheres of public deliberation" (p. 45). Although we agree with Mitchell that debate can be an even greater instrument of empowerment for students, we are more interested in examining the impact of the intermediary step of research. In each of Mitchell's examples of debaters finding creative avenues for agency, there had to be a motivation to act. It is our contention that the research conducted for competition is a major catalyst to propel their action, change their opinions, and to provide a greater depth of understanding of the issues involved.

The level of research involved in debate creates an in-depth understanding of issues. The level of research conducted during a year of debate is quite extensive. Goodman (1993) references a Chronicle of Higher Education article that estimated "the level and extent of research required of the average college debater for each topic is equivalent to the amount of research required for a Master's Thesis (cited in Mitchell, 1998, p. 55). With this extensive quantity of research, debaters attain a high level of investigation and (presumably) understanding of a topic. As a result of this level of understanding, debaters become knowledgeable citizens who are further empowered to make informed opinions and energized to take action.

Research helps to educate students (and coaches) about the state of the world. Without the guidance of a debate topic, how many students would do in-depth research on female genital mutilation in Africa, or United Nations sanctions on Iraq? The competitive nature of policy debate provides an impetus for students to research the topics that they are going to debate. This in turn fuels students’ awareness of issues that go beyond their front doors. Advocacy flows from this increased awareness. Reading books and articles about the suffering of people thousands of miles away or right in our own communities drives people to become involved in the community at large.

Research has also focused on how debate prepares us for life in the public sphere. Issues that we discuss in debate have found their way onto the national policy stage, and training in intercollegiate debate makes us good public advocates. The public sphere is the arena in which we all must participate to be active citizens. Even after we leave debate, the skills that we have gained should help us to be better advocates and citizens. Research has looked at how debate impacts education (Matlon and Keele 1984), legal training (Parkinson, Gisler and Pelias 1983, Nobles 19850 and behavioral traits (McGlone 1974, Colbert 1994). These works illustrate the impact that public debate has on students as they prepare to enter the public sphere.

The debaters who take active roles such as protesting sanctions were probably not actively engaged in the issue until their research drew them into the topic. Furthermore, the process of intense research for debate may actually change the positions debaters hold. Since debaters typically enter into a topic with only cursory (if any) knowledge of the issue, the research process provides exposure to issues that were previously unknown. Exposure to the literature on a topic can create, reinforce or alter an individual's opinions. Before learning of the School for the America's, having an opinion of the place is impossible. After hearing about the systematic training of torturers and oppressors in a debate round and reading the research, an opinion of the "school" was developed. In this manner, exposure to debate research as the person finding the evidence, hearing it as the opponent in a debate round (or as judge) acts as an initial spark of awareness on an issue. This process of discovery seems to have a similar impact to watching an investigative news report.

Mitchell claimed that debate could be more than it was traditionally seen as, that it could be a catalyst to empower people to act in the social arena. We surmise that there is a step in between the debate and the action. The intermediary step where people are inspired to agency is based on the research that they do. If students are compelled to act, research is a main factor in compelling them to do so. Even if students are not compelled to take direct action, research still changes opinions and attitudes.

Research often compels students to take action in the social arena. Debate topics guide students in a direction that allows them to explore what is going on in the world. Last year the college policy debate topic was,

Resolved: That the United States 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, North Korea.

This topic spurred quite a bit of activism on the college debate circuit. Many students become actively involved in protesting for the removal of sanctions from at least one of the topic countries. The college listserve was used to rally people in support of various movements to remove sanctions on both Iraq and Cuba. These messages were posted after the research on the topic began. While this topic did not lend itself to activism beyond rallying the government, other topics have allowed students to take their beliefs outside of the laboratory and into action.

In addition to creating awareness, the research process can also reinforce or alter opinions. By discovering new information in the research process, people can question their current assumptions and perhaps formulate a more informed opinion. One example comes from a summer debate class for children of Migrant workers in North Dakota (Iverson, 1999). The Junior High aged students chose to debate the adoption of Spanish as an official language in the U.S. Many students expressed their concern that they could not argue effectively against the proposed change because it was a "truism." They were wholly in favor of Spanish as an official language. After researching the topic throughout their six week course, many realized much more was involved in adopting an official language and that they did not "speak 'pure' Spanish or English, but speak a unique dialect and hybrid" (Iverson, p. 3). At the end of the class many students became opposed to adopting Spanish as an official language, but found other ways Spanish should be integrated into American culture. Without research, these students would have maintained their opinions and not enhanced their knowledge of the issue. The students who maintained support of Spanish as an official language were better informed and thus also more capable of articulating support for their beliefs.

The examples of debate and research impacting the opinions and actions of debaters indicate the strong potential for a direct relationship between debate research and personal advocacy. However, the debate community has not created a new sea of activists immersing this planet in waves of protest and political action. The level of influence debater search has on people needs further exploration. Also, the process of research needs to be more fully explored in order to understand if and why researching for the competitive activity of debate generates more interest than research for other purposes such as classroom projects.

Since parliamentary debate does not involve research into a single topic, it can provide an important reference point for examining the impact of research in other forms of debate. Based upon limited conversations with competitors and coaches as well as some direct coaching and judging experience in parliamentary debate, parliamentary forms of debate has not seen an increase in activism on the part of debaters in the United States. Although some coaches require research in order to find examples and to stay updated on current events, the basic principle of this research is to have a common sense level of understanding(Venette, 1998). As the NPDA website explains, "the reader is encouraged to be well-read in current events, as well as history, philosophy, etc. Remember: the realm of knowledge is that of a 'well-read college student'" (NPDA Homepage, The focus of research is breadth, not depth. In fact, in-depth research into one topic for parliamentary debate would seem to be counterproductive. Every round has a different resolution and for APDA, at least, those resolutions are generally written so they are open to a wide array of case examples, So, developing too narrow of a focus could be competitively fatal. However, research is apparently increasing for parliamentary teams as reports of "stock cases" used by teams for numerous rounds have recently appeared. One coach did state that a perceived "stock case" by one team pushed his debaters to research the topic of AIDS in Africa in order to be equally knowledgeable in that case. Interestingly, the coach also stated that some of their research in preparation for parliamentary debate was affecting the opinions and attitudes of the debaters on the team.

Not all debate research appears to generate personal advocacy and challenge peoples' assumptions. Debaters must switch sides, so they must inevitably debate against various cases. While this may seem to be inconsistent with advocacy, supporting and researching both sides of an argument actually created stronger advocates. Not only did debaters learn both sides of an argument, so that they could defend their positions against attack, they also learned the nuances of each position. Learning and the intricate nature of various policy proposals helps debaters to strengthen their own stance on issues.

Another problem that exists with debate research is the nature of affirmative cases. Some of the evidence against these cases is sparse if not non-existent. In fact, choosing a case where no defendable counter-evidence can be found is a strategic advantage. As a result, many generic arguments such as disadvantages and counterplans are generated which can apply to numerous cases. Some of these arguments have been used every year for decades. One example is the "Clinton Disadvantage" (in its current, but soon to be renamed manifestation). This argument typically contends that passage of the plan somehow affects the political process or another, more important vote. And while this argument may at first appear to lack educational value, it to has helped educate students about the world in which we all live. One long time impact to political disadvantages was the United States trade policy. When the protests happened in Seattle against the World Trade Organization, there were many debaters in attendance. Discussion on the listserve focused on the protests. The debates that occurred over United States trade policy helped to educate the community on the issues involved with US policy.

While reservations exist about the benefit of some aspects of debate research, it is clear that this type of educational discovery is a positive one. Research not only affects the opinions that we hold, but sometimes it compels us to act. This type of personal advocacy change can not be achieved through debate alone, but only by evaluating the world through others eyes, with research.

Overall, future research should examine some of the differences between research focused and parliamentary debate formats. Although obvious differences such as delivery style have been pointed to in both communities, does parliamentary debate lead to less, more or other kinds of advocacy and opinion change which are not present in evidenced debate? Are other causes of personal advocacy more tied to "cultural" aspects of various debate circuits?


Iverson, J. O. (1999). Young minds on debate: Examining debate in a migrant junior high school curriculum.

Allen, M.; Berkowitz, S.; Hunt, S. & Louden, A (1999). A meta-analysis of the impact of forensics and communication education on critical thinking. Communication Education, 48, 18-30.

Mitchell, G. R. (1998). Pedagogical possibilities for argumentative agency in academic debate. Argumentation and Advocacy, 35, 41-60.

Venette, S.J. (1998). Evidentiary standards for parliamentary debate: A quasi-logical perspective. Paper presented at the National Communication Association convention, New York.

Clandinin, D.J. & Connelly, F.M. (1994) Personal experience methods. In Denzin, N.K. & Lincoln, Y.S. (1994). Handbook of qualitative research. Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, CA 413-427.