With more than 100 student-run organizations on campus, Bowdoin’s small debate team often goes unnoticed. 

“The biggest challenge is getting enough interest from the school. We’re not a very well publicized team,” said Yabing Liu ’15, president. “I think it grows from the nature of debate. Other clubs have their own events on campus and that is a form of publicity for them. But for us, we have to go to tournaments.”  

Since the team’s last major revival in 2001, it has oscillated between non-existence and a struggle for growth. Current membership is between eight to ten students; the club meets once a week for an hour and a half. 

During these meetings the students try to practice as much technique building as possible, but varying degrees of commitment and a lack of professional guidance has hindered their development. Sessions involve mock debates, lectures on current events, public speaking, debate videos and preparation for possible cases at upcoming tournaments. 

The debate team has not had a steady coach to work with over the past few years, so for the most part they use in-house coaching, which involves a lot of effort from team leaders and the few with previous experience at the high school level. 

Debate teams at peer schools have also assisted Bowdoin’s team. As one of the younger teams, host schools often offer discounts on travel expenses for the team and take time to discuss its performance after tournaments. Bates College’s Debate Team has been especially helpful this year. 

“Last semester we started looking at Bates and Colby,” said Liu. “And Bates has a really strong team so we started to practice once a semester with them. They will give us workshops and participate in mock tournaments.”  

As for a professional coach, Liu has been searching for someone in Maine who is both willing to work with the team and also experienced with the correct style of collegiate debate. While in years past the team was able to work with local high school coaches, that resource is no longer available, given that some Bowdoin debate team members have taken those positions at local high schools. 

Nevertheless, Liu was able to acquire funds from Student Activities Financial Committee (SAFC) for Wayne Jortner, a local lawyer who is also her host father, to be a part-time coach last semester. 
The team has returned to in-house coaching this semester to focus on the stylistic and strategic aspects of parliamentary debate. 

“My favorite aspect of debating is the critical thinking aspect that is needed to succeed in any debate, said David Levine ’16. “You have to be able to understand your opponent’s arguments and come up with effective means of countering them. This often takes all of one’s brainpower, but is also very exciting.” 

At debate tournaments, a winner is chosen based on the weight of the arguments’ impact, specific knowledge, and ability to respond well to the other team. Judges also give individual speaker scores based on eye contact, speed, passion, confidence, flow, organization and poise. 
Contrary to popular belief, debate tournaments are not only about political hot-button issues. Past topics have included a zombie apocalypse, contacting extraterrestrial life, and a theoretical resurrection of Montezuma. However, cases also covered the presidential election, abortion, gay marriage, and military strategy.

“One of our past cases was that an alien crash lands in your backyard,” said Madeline Davis ’16.

“He is dying and he can communicate to you how you can help him, but that is pretty much it,” she said. “You don’t know anything about this alien. So do you help him, or do you turn him over to the government?”

Those who have the best records after five rounds in a tournament  move on to the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals. While some tournaments host teams from across the country, most of Bowdoin’s competition comes from surrounding NESCAC and Ivy League schools. 

This year Bowdoin visited Tufts University in the fall and Brandeis University in the spring. While at Tufts, the team was unable to complete their rounds due to scheduling conflicts. They fared better at the Brandeis Tournament, where Bowdon’s two teams went 2-3 and 3-2. 

During dorm time at tournaments, teams enjoy the change of scene from their respective campuses.

“Tournaments are so much fun and every time we’ve gone we’ve had a blast,” said Davis. “The parties are always fun and really interesting because the debate crowd is just so quirky and intellectual that you go and see a ton of people having insane debates and discussions. Team bonding, visiting new towns and trying their food is great too.”

Current leadership is eager to improve  and hopes to expand campus involvement.

“We definitely welcome people who have never done debate to join us, but we also hope that those with high school experience will come and share their knowledge,” said Liu. “I also hope that members are ready to put in more commitment to practice more often and go to tournaments more often.”

“We’re getting better, which is cool,” Davis added. “I’m hoping we can also make the team bigger and work hard to do well.”