AU Debate Society Ranks Nationally: No Argument

Shelby Ostergaard

When someone asks American University junior Frankie Orrico if she had a good weekend, her answer is a bit complicated. As president of AU’s Debate Society, Orrico’s weekends are usually spent competing at tournaments across the East Coast, from Boston to Chicago.

“We travel every weekend to a different tournament at a different school,” she said. “We get to compete, which basically means you get to go with any prepared topics that you want to talk about and get to engage in very interesting ideas and conversations with college students around the country.”

Though the team gets around, it often flies under the radar. And telling other students that she had a good weekend because she and her debate partner, Matt Sokol, moved up to Team of the Year rankings–they are now in the Top Ten–usually leads to some head scratches.  

AU’s Debate Society has been a member of the American Parliamentary Debate Association, a student-run competitive debate league, since 2008. Every weekend, a different school in the league hosts a tournament, with debaters going head-to-head on issues ranging from whether Emma Watson’s “Strong Men Fight For Women” campaign is normatively good for feminism to whether Jewish people should be able to transfer their Israeli citizenship to Palestinians. They’ve even debated which breakfast cereal mascot would make the best roommate.

“One fun topic was a hypothetical concept based on the movie Ruby Sparks,” Sokol said, describing a round that smashed philosophy and pop culture together, asking whether the author of a book whose main character came to life should continue writing.

In a debate, one team sends the first speaker, known as the Prime Minister, to read a seven-minute speech explaining a case. This is where Emma Watson’s campaign, or the plot to Ruby Sparks, would be explained. The other team’s first speaker—the Leader of Opposition—simultaneously listens and writes a reply.

“One of my favorite things about this format is that it’s not based on a ton of research, or who knows the most about a certain topic, but is instead about how well you logically make conclusions off the information you have.” 

The Leader of Opposition then must stand up and deliver an eight-minute speech, addressing the original points and bringing new ones to the table. Each side is then given an additional eight minutes for secondary speakers to engage with the arguments presented. Lastly, the Prime Minister and the Leader of Opposition deliver shorter speeches designed to sum up the discussion in whatever light is most flattering to their side.

According to Orrico, this is nerve-wracking at first, but quickly becomes routine. She has to strain to remember what it was like to be so nervous before rounds. 

“There’s a challenge to it, you need to be able to keep up with current events and have some understanding of what’s going on with the world,” Sokol said. “But the great thing is that you are able to ask as many questions as you want in a given round. So even if there is something you don’t know a ton about, you can always ask.” 

Although knowing the facts beforehand can help, that’s not what the students are ultimately there for. In the age of the Internet, where everyone can always use Google to prove their point, Sokol said that this can come as a relief. 

“One of my favorite things about this format is that it’s not based on a ton of research, or who knows the most about a certain topic but is instead about how well you logically make conclusions off the information you have.”