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Marlborough Debate Team competes in online tournaments

Debaters attend online practice on Sept. 23. Courtesy of Adam Torson.

Like many other activities, debate had to make some major alterations following the start of distance learning in March 2020. All debate tournaments are now online, resulting in change to team culture and the level of competition in tournaments. Marlborough debate students have attended five tournaments since the start of the 2020-2021 school year, with team members making it to the elimination rounds at each tournament.
Tournaments are more competitive than normal this year, as all tournaments are online. Students do not need to fly to attend tournaments, meaning students are able to attend more tournaments than in a normal year, making it harder for students to place. Debate Coach and Program Head Adam Torson says tournaments organizers face a challenge this year in deciding who to let compete at their tournaments.
“There’s a tournament in Apple Valley, Minnesota that we usually don’t fly to, but in the world of online debate, we could attend,” Torson said. “The Minnesota tournament’s question is should they let Marlborough in if we aren’t coming back next year, at the expense of students who do normally attend the tournament?”
While there are downsides to having more competitive tournaments, debater Jocelyn ’23 believes there are also some unexpected benefits.
“The increased competition has honestly been really great because it’s allowed me to interact with lots of arguments that I had little experience with before,” Jocelyn said. “It’s harder, but I’m definitely learning more.”
Torson believes online tournaments also point to an equity issue in the debate world. Judges expect students to speak very fast to convey their ideas under a time constraint. Bad internet is more prone to glitches, which can cause issues at a tournament.
“Some kids don’t have access to very good internet or technology, including headphones and cameras that can really help with debate, so we want to be careful from the equity perspective,” Torson said.
A large aspect of debate is teamwork, which is also put under strain in online tournaments for a multitude of reasons. One reason is that it is much harder for Torson and his assistant coaches to help students prepare between rounds over Zoom.
“Online, I can really only help one person at a time,” Torson said. “We have strategies like breakout rooms, but it’s tough, because the process that we are used to is very dynamic. Students are having to be more independent.”
The change in teamwork affects students new to debate the most.
“A big appeal of debate is interpersonal relationships and friendships which are harder online, so we are trying to be cognizant of developing that with our new recruits,” Torson said. “Additionally, we have to rethink and be very intentional about how we are teaching the novices, which is also a good thing, because you always want to be rethinking your curriculum.”
Debater Julianne ’22 believes that not only are relationships with other debaters more difficult over zoom, but also connections with judges.
“It’s harder to convey your ideas through a screen because it’s harder to tell how engaged the judge is or read their reactions to different arguments,” Julianne said.
Despite the variety of changes to debate this year, the underlying structure of tournaments still remains the same.
“We do a format of debate that really emphasizes the students’ arguments, so the judges aren’t focused so much on appearance as they are to content,” Torson said. “So for the type of debate we do, the online platform hasn’t made a structural difference.”