Fresno State’s Barking Bulldogs debate team has found success this year, but members are concerned they are being judged differently based on their style, race and gender.
This is Fresno State’s third year with an active debate team, but it is already the top team in District 1. That district includes UC Berkeley, Arizona State, USC, Stanford, UNLV among others.
In October, students Nadia Lewis and Jamila Ahmed made history after being the first two African-American women, non-traditional speakers to ever win first and second place individual speakers at the Henry Clay Debates in Kentucky.
Fresno State students Candis Tate and Sierra Holley made yet another mark at Wake Forest University’s 53rd annual Shirley Classic held Nov. 15-18.
Tate and Holley, who are also non-traditional speakers, broke into the elimination rounds and left the tournament with a 5-3 record. They beat Harvard, the second best team in the nation, but lost to Towson University.
The tournament was comprised of 137 teams and 274 speakers from schools such as Harvard, Northwestern, Georgetown, UC Berkeley and USC.
Tate and Holley won seventh and 23rd best individual speakers. Their success at Wake Forest placed them as the 15th best team in the nation.
Tate and Holley chose to be non-traditional speakers because they like to use their personal experiences to validate their arguments in debate.
“A lot of people just read off of cards, so it’s just a lot of literature,” Tate said. “But we incorporate poetry and our personal experiences into our debates. It helps to be able to reference what you’re debating back to your personal experiences and not solely rely on literature to make your argument.”
But Tate said the Kentucky win by Ahmed and Lewis using the non-traditional style caused backlash within the debate community.
“People were writing things on Facebook about how other teams didn’t feel like they [Ahmed and Lewis] deserved it,” Tate said.
The next national tournament after the Henry Clay Debates in October was at Harvard, which Fresno State did not attend due to financial limitations.
“When the next tournament happened at Harvard, a lot of non-traditional speakers were being voted down or given low speaker points, so they wouldn’t break into eliminations rounds,” Tate explained. “That is why Wake Forest had to change the typical way judging is done.”
Deven Cooper, director of debate at Fresno State, said that before the tournament in November at Wake Forest, there was a discussion group addressing speaker point inflation.
“Usually when you go to tournaments, you don’t have discussion groups beforehand,” Cooper explained. “The discussion groups at Wake Forest were in response to the events that took place at Harvard. What happened is that a lot of the traditional folks at Harvard, since they usually only judge traditional speakers, gave them [traditional speakers] higher speaker points than what they gave at the Henry Clay Debates.
“They offset the speaker points of the other non-traditional teams who usually get higher speaker points. It worked so well that I think only one semi-traditional, black competitor at Harvard went to elimination rounds out of 80 teams.”
Tate said there were many teams with black members who use the non-traditional style at the Harvard tournament. She said they normally do well, but not this time.
Cooper said in the meetings before the Wake Forest tournament, there were students, coaches and judges taking the issue of what happened at Harvard seriously.
“The Shirley Classic was trying to make some reconciliation,” Cooper said. “They were letting people talk about their concerns with what was going on with the speaker points and judging in general in the debate community.”
Cooper said he has some concerns about what the judges have in mind when they consider who the top debaters are. Specifically, he said comments from some judges of who they think are “final-round debaters” bothered him.
“What does that mean?” Cooper asked. “What does a final-round debater look like? They are judging these students based off of the traditional way of looking at a debate, which was mostly white males, speaking really fast, reading a bunch of evidence and using jargon. So that put [non-traditional speakers] at a disadvantage if they don’t speak the language that the judges want.”
Cooper said someone in the discussion raised the point that it was hard to understand how Ahmed and Lewis could win the Kentucky tournament and not advance into the elimination rounds in another tournament.
“Wake really did it’s best to try and fix things and to have conversations that wouldn’t otherwise be had,” Tate said. “It’s not going to solve everything, of course, but it was a start to reconcile the things that happened.”
Cooper explained the way that the judges are picked in the tournament is based off a system where all the competing teams rank the judges from highest to lowest. Highest means the team wants them to be their judges.
If one team ranks a judge high and another team ranks a judge high, then that person will most likely be the judge, he said. But if one team ranks a judge low, and another team ranks the judge high, another judge will be chosen.
As a compromise, Cooper said you’re left with a judge ranked in the middle.
“The judges have philosophies and some of them even say, ‘If you do non- traditional debate, you should rank me low.’ It’s the system that they have set up called mutual preference judging,” Cooper explained.
Regardless of the issues they face, the team said it’s focused on the Cal Swings debate hosted by USC and CSU Fullerton.
It’s a weeklong debate that starts over winter break on Jan. 2. More than 100 entries have already been submitted, including many schools from the East Coast such as Harvard and Georgetown.
“This is a make-or-break you kind of tournament,” Tate said. “We need to do well at Cal Swings to be able to go to the National Debate Tournament. It’s what everyone strives toward.”