Up for debate
A day in the life of the Victory Briefs Institute, a camp for young debaters on UChicago’s campus.
On a hot afternoon last month, at one of the wood tables outside of Cobb Hall where during the school year University students stop to chat with friends, debate instructor Christian Chessman sits with his laptop across from two nervous-but-intense high school kids. “This is going to be a Lincoln-Douglas debate,” Chessman explains as I sit down next to him. The students continue to sift through their daunting stacks of paper, ignoring my presence. Lincoln-Douglas, Chessman tells me, is a formal one-on-one debate style, named after the famous 1858 argumentation between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Here, two students will argue, not about slavery, but about the moral permissibility of a resolution—in this instance, a carbon tax. This style of debate involves one student in an affirmative (usually referred to as an “aff”) role, and the other in a negative (“neg”) role. The students will go back and forth responding to each other’s points and asking questions during cross-examination. “Oh, and the other thing is, it’s going to be fast,” Chessman warns me. Many experienced debaters can talk at speeds of up to 600 words per minute. To hone their speed-talking skills, Chessman has them do drills every morning where they talk as fast as they possibly can for 10 minutes straight. Debaters “get weirdly muscular diaphragms,” he says. These fast-talking kids are campers at the Victory Briefs Institute (VBI), a highly competitive debate camp held for two weeks during the summer on college campuses around the country—this year, Occidental, Swarthmore, and UChicago. During VBI, students live in the UChicago dorm Max Palevsky Residential Commons, use UChicago’s facilities for classes, and enjoy all that the campus has to offer. When I ask Chessman how the kids like being on campus, he says their two main comments were “it looks like Hogwarts” and “the food trucks are awesome.” Though these kids are smart, they’re still kids: a resident adviser in Max Central ,who lives there over the summer, tells me that on the students’ off time, they congregate in the lounges, talking (fast), laughing (loud), and getting to know one another. Debate is a big thing. It didn’t exist at my high school, so I never really got a sense of how big a thing it is, but it’s a big thing. Middle and high school students travel to tournaments all around the country, compete in dozens of different types of debate, hone their craft by working with coaches, and learn what it takes to be a great debater. So what does it take? Before he will answer that question, Chessman backs me up a bit. A University of Florida alumnus, second-year law student at the University of California, Berkeley, and an accomplished former debater, Chessman says that before focusing on what makes someone good at debate, it’s important to make sure that the debate world doesn’t exclude potential participants through the rhetoric it uses. After all, as Chessman explains to his students, rhetoric has the power to construct reality. To that end, this morning Chessman taught an elective VBI class on how to avoid gendered and disability-discriminatory language. He used examples the debaters are familiar with, explaining that the term “policy paralysis” is problematic and walking the students through how to avoid using terms like “man” as a synonym for human and “he or she” instead of the neutral “they,” as well as how to identify toxic double standards within the debate community. While a male debater may be read as “aggressive,” the same tactics when employed by a female debater can lead to opponents calling her “pushy”—or worse—after the round. The students nodded at this example. They were familiar with it. Chessman explained how they can play a part in molding the debate community to be an inclusive one. Back outside Cobb, Chessman explains what it’s going to take to win today’s carbon tax debate. “Different audiences need different styles of articulation to effectively communicate a message,” he says. The students need to learn how to “read the judge,” how to develop arguments on the fly, and how to communicate those arguments effectively. As a judge, Chessman is pretty easy to read. During the carbon tax debate, when one of the kids is saying something he thinks is particularly well argued, he’ll smile and nod. If he’s confused, his face will show it. This gives the students the opportunity to gauge how they’re dong and adapt accordingly. The “aff” argument is presented by a high school freshman with braces and a gray T-shirt. His argument is, essentially, that carbon taxes—any taxes on the use of fossil fuels—are morally permissible from a utilitarian standpoint because they have been demonstrably effective at reducing carbon emissions and, therefore, have the potential to reduce the threat of human extinction from climate change. That threat of extinction, from this debater’s point of view, should be the thing that Chessman, as the judge, cares about most. The “neg” argument is presented by a high school sophomore in a black tank top and cool pants. She argues that philosopher John Rawls’s theory, “justice is fairness,” is a better moral system than utilitarianism. Therefore, because a carbon tax would disproportionately affect the nation’s poor, entrenching them in a system of poverty through “carbon colonialism,” a carbon tax is not morally permissible. Again, these kids are about 14 or 15. I’m a member of UChicago’s mock trial team, so a lot of my friends are former debaters. Watching this round of debate makes me a little nostalgic for something I never experienced, except through fondly told stories of tournaments, camps, trophies, wins, and losses. I wonder what these students’ futures hold—maybe one day they’ll come back to UChicago’s campus as students, or for a mock trial tournament. I allow myself a moment of genuine excitement for what awesome things these kids might go on to accomplish. In the end, the “aff” wins the debate, but Chessman gives both students positive—and negative—feedback that they scribble down in their notebooks. After all is said and done, the temporary rivalry is suspended, and the students close their notebooks and excitedly head off to the food trucks.