Experienced novices lift Peaslee Debate Society to dominant season

The Peaslee Debate Society, pictured in part here, has ridden a wave of success this season propelled by a group of dedicated seniors, a strong class of novices and team chemistry. (Julia Carleton/The Phoenix)

When a Swarthmore debate pairing reached the final round of a tournament at Bryn Mawr early this month, they already knew what to expect from their opponents. In fact, they had driven to the tournament in the same van — both teams in the final were from Swarthmore.

Of the more than thirty pairings competing at the tournament, three from Swarthmore’s Amos J. Peaslee Debate Society’s (APDS) made the playoffs, a dominant performace that is an indicator of the resounding success they have had this year. Their success there yielded enough debate “points” — awarded for winning a debate and speaking well — to put them in 10th place for the “Club of the Year”, one of the American Parliamentary Debate Association’s (APDA) prestigious awards recognizing season-long performance. The Debate Society has built its success on a core of senior debaters as well as a particularly strong and dedicated class of novices.

APDA, of which Swarthmore is a member, defines a novice as simply a first-year debater. Novices compete with the same people as varsity debaters during tournaments, but they can qualify for a separate, novices-only playoff round if, as is generally the case, they do not make the varsity playoffs — novices, after all, generally have less experience than varsity debaters.

Enter Andrew Waks ’13, a transfer student who as of the beginning of this year had four years of high school debate experience, two years of college debate experience at NYU, and three years of coaching experience, all alongside being the founder of a non-profit organization to expose underprivileged students to debate. He describes debate “the single most important academic and social experience I’ve had in my life.”

This being his first season in APDA, Waks has debated as a novice. He has nearly reached the varsity finals in a novice pairing, an unusual achievement. He is a near lock for APDA’s “Novice of the Year”, one of the prestigious awards the organization accords to individuals and schools for season-long performance. According to several of his debate teammates,APDA will pass a bylaw in response to his performance this season which would prohibit students with two or three years of college debate experience from competing as novices.

Waks leads a strong novice class, which comprises transfer students Sam Sussman, Lorand Laskai, and Reem Abdou as well as freshmen with prior debate experience. Jenny Koch ’12, president of the Debate Society, noted that the prior academic experience of transfer students gives them a leg up. “We have an especially strong novice class because a lot of them are transfer students,” she said. “Their ability to think and comprehend issues having taken seminars before gives them an upper hand.”

First-years and seniors, however, make up the majority of this year’s team. According to Waks, this age mix yields an energetic team atmosphere. “[The distribution of team ages] means a lot of great mentors, and a lot of new, excited members learning rapidly about debate,” he said. “There’s just a lot of really great community on the team this year, and I think that’s helped make people dedicated to and invested in debate.”

Swarthmore’s Debate Society travels all around he country, and occasionally the world, for tournaments. During the season, which goes from October to May, there is an APDA debate happening somewhere every weekend. Members of the Debate Society simply choose which weekends they would like to debate, get in the team van, and go. The Society’s private endowment, funded by Amos J. Peaslee (19)’07, pays for a van for local travel as well as airfare for far-flung major tournaments like the World Universities Debating Championship, which was held in the Philippines this year and was attended by six Swarthmore debaters.

According to Griffin Olmstead ’15, a novice who has attended eight tournaments to date this season, some students attend as few as one or two tournaments, while the most dedicated debaters will attend many more (Waks has so far attended 11). “I’d say the typical person who is a fairly active member of the team probably goes to between seven and 10 tournaments in a given season,” he said.

The commitment, however, is worthwhile to debaters for the public speaking experience and quick, analytical thinking skills they build through APDA’s brand of rapid-fire extemporaneous debate.

Debate can also be purely fun; witness Waks’s favorite rounds of this season, which came at a tournament hosted by American University: “we debated about whether George Michael Bluth of ‘Arrested Development’ ought to ‘go for it’ with his cousin Maeby,” he said, “and whether as the first government after a zombie apocalypse it would be a good idea to grant amnesty for crimes committed during the apocalypse.”

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