Real student involvement needed

Tonight, the Williams College Debate Union will host its fourth debate, the issue this time being free speech on the Internet. In the past year, the organization has been successful in bringing a number of students, faculty, and community members to its debates, though, as always, more would be welcome.

We at the Record support the continued existence of the WCDU and the discussion that it brings to campus. However, we sense that the organization and the way it presents debates could in some ways be changed, especially when it comes to the role of students.

Specifically, we feel that the positions of student speakers should be restricted to current students. At its very heart, the WCDU format is different from that of most other campus lectures in the role it gives students to play. Students are fundamental to the WCDU, as they not only participate as the opening and closing speakers of the debate, but are also primarily responsible for the organization of it. In light of this emphasis on students, it seems troubling that the WCDU decided to use alumni for the student role for this debate. Yes, it is true that both alumni have graduated only in 1997 and are likely to be remembered by some current students. And, yes, they both have had tremendous success as debaters and are likely to replicate that in tonight’s debate. Nevertheless, we still feel it improper for the WCDU to use alumni to fill the student role.

When the WCDU began, it was intended that students have a large role in the debate, both as regular speakers and during floor speeches. The WCDU felt that students needed some representation and some connection during campus debates – and we applaud the WCDU for this. With that in mind, we are somewhat bewildered by the conspicuous absence of students from this evening’s debate.

We have noticed other problems with the WCDU as well. We feel that the WCDU should not only attempt to find students to debate in the student role, but should look beyond simply the members of the debate team for these students. We understand some of the reasons why the WCDU’s current student speakers continue to come exclusively from the debate team members, or past participants in it. Debating is definitely not easy, especially in front of a large crowd in Chapin. As a result, the WCDU, in order to ensure that the debate will retain good quality, relies upon students with prior experience in debate, to date those on the debate team. Though debating may be difficult, we don’t feel that it is impossible for non-debate team students to participate effectively as student speakers. Being able to speak well, organize ideas quickly and think logically are skills that are not exclusive to members of the debate team. Students use these skills, admittedly in a somewhat modified form, in their classes. Involving non-debate team members as student speakers would be a welcome step because it would broaden the scope of the organization from its roots as a Debate Team-Gargoyle creation. This would likely increase interest in the organization.

Last February, when the Record reported on the formation of the WCDU, President Payne was quoted as saying, “Part of civic engagement is learning how to debate forcefully among ourselves with civility but also with a passion befitting the seriousness of the issues.”

But it seems the reality of the WCDU can too often fly in the face of these ideals. Far from befitting the seriousness of the issues, the Oxford style of debate can often trivialize the issues, privileging showmanship and panache over nuanced analysis. And it is difficult to see how President Payne’s platitudinous praise of civic engagement is really warranted by a student organization that must go outside the student body to secure student debaters.

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