Instructor demonstrates a debate technique

PORT TOWNSEND, Wash. (WOMENSENEWS)–Debate season is in full swing with verbally talented teens across the country matching wits and crossing verbal swords in preparation for national tournaments. This is the students’ last chance to sharpen their verbal skills before the winter break.

Students are currently debating in qualifying tournaments for the National Forensic League’s Tournament of Champions and the National Catholic Forensic League’s Grand National Tournament. While most students participate in the National Forensic League, debaters may compete in both leagues.

Debate-team experience is widely extolled for the life and career skills it offers competitors. The practice at verbal sparring and public speaking can help teens improve their speaking, communication and logical thinking. Female debaters have become successful in careers such as law, investment analysis, public relations and marine biology. Famous debaters include daytime host Oprah Winfrey and television news anchor Jane Pauley.

While many female teens enter high school debate, few participate through high school and fewer still are sticking with it into college.

“Those that stayed made their mark, but too many were pushed out by debate’s boy networks,” said Jeff Shaw, Women’s Debate Institute instructor and organizer and former high-school debate coach.

Shaw says that girls drop out for many reasons including being outnumbered by boys, feeling intimidated and isolated, being insulted by male counterparts and getting propositioned by male judges.

To remedy the situation, a group of coaches from around the country including Shaw and his wife, Kari Thorene Shaw, started the Women’s Debate Institute in 2001, the only debate camp in the United States exclusively for girls. The camp’s goal is to develop a growing community for women and girls in debate and to encourage young women to compete in different areas of debate.

The program welcomes high school girls from across the country for its three-day long summer camp where they attend training workshops and panel discussions in Washington’s Fort Worden State Park. Schools sometimes pay $75 fee for girls to attend, depending on their budgets, but for the most part, girls pay their own way or get help from their parents.

Jeanette Schaller is a graduate of the first Women’s Debate Institute camp in 2000, when she was in high school. Now she is debating at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Last August, Schaller returned to the camp to act as an instructor in its fourth season.

“I loved it so much, I decided to come back,” Schaller said.

Intimidated and Outnumbered

Instructors say that male debaters tend to feel threatened by their female counterparts and thus alienate women. With men drastically outnumbering women, female debaters end up feeling isolated and discouraged. Many quit after just one year.

Bridgette Johnson, a Women’s Debate Institute counselor explained that this trend gave rise to the creation of the institute. “It brought women together, and said, ‘Hey, this is going on. How do we change it?'”

The answer they decided was to provide an experience that blends instruction with female bonding. While sharpening their debate skills by attending classes on everything from the basics of making an argument to tricks of the trade and talking to instructors both in class and out, the experience at the institute helps girls sharpen their debate skills while building a sense of community among female debaters, Shaw said.

At camp, female teens say that one of their biggest hurdles back home is the sense of intimidation that comes with being outnumbered.

“I’m so scared that I’ll sound stupid. Sometimes I’m the only girl in the whole room,” Jessica Howard, 16, a debater for Sam Barlow High School, Boring, Ore., said.

“We’ve all had that problem,” responded Howard’s instructor Rae Lynn Schwartz, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa. “The fact that you are the only girl in that room means that you bring something unique and that gives you power. Once you discover that power, you’ll be a better debater.”

Dev Majkut, 16, who debates for Sehome High School, Bellingham, Wash., was already tuned in to the power of debate. “I agree it’s really hard being a girl in debate,” she said, adding that debate has helped her overcome shyness during poetry readings as well. “We have so many opportunities that other people don’t have . . . I think debate’s amazing and everyone should stick with it.”

Shaw said that male debaters and even male judges sometimes proposition girls or comment on their clothes. He cited instances where young judges, usually college students, have written their phone numbers or improper comments on ballots.

“A challenge for coaches is to send a message that this kind of behavior is inappropriate,” he said.

High School Debaters Do Better Overall

Linda Collier, an instructor who is also director of debate at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, spoke about the benefits of debate. According to a study she conducted this year, high school students who debate performed 25 percent better in reading tests than those who don’t debate.

“That’s the difference between getting into your first school of choice or a second tier school. That’s enough of a reason to stay in debate,” Collier said.

Schwartz told the girls she got scholarships for her masters and her doctorate degrees because of debate.

“There are lots of college opportunities out there. We’ll steer you in the right direction,” Schwartz said. “Debate is an opportunity to network and these are the people that will help you do what you want to do.”

“Unfortunately, there are not a lot of women in debate,” Schwartz added. “Become a network. Try to make debate more accessible to women. If you stick it out, then you open the door for the person who walks in behind you.”

“I think it’s a really great opportunity to come and meet all these people. The counselors are really great,” Brittania James, 17, Puyallup High School, Wash., said. She added that after talking with the camp’s coaches she has a clearer view of the direction her life will take.

“I recommend the camp to anyone who’s interested in a springboard into their future.”

Maria Jose Serra Bendarz is a journalist in Oxford, Penn.

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