Sunday, 11 August 2013

Five ideas for debating in The Netherlands

As I am now definitely part of the “old crowd” on the Dutch debating scene, I think it ought to be
time for me to sit myself down on the sofa of self-appointed wisdom, and give some general suggestions, ideas and inspirations for the coming debating season. I think our circuit is incredibly fun and inclusive, and serves as a great addition to one’s (student) life. Nonetheless, there are always things that could be done better, and that is a discussion that we should not neglect. I personally would love it if this circuit remained internationally competitive, and that the people we educate remain among the strongest, funniest and thought-provoking students around the world. Here are 5 tips that could help us on that path.



1. Let’s have some more intense training sessions with homework and proper feedback.

Agreed: you don’t want a first year to feel burdened to make life about debate and you have enough to do for study already, so your society should also be about being able to wind down, have a chat with your friends and making fun. These caveats aside, plenty of us do see debate as a competitive thing and would like to get really good at that and win prizes and all of that. Otherwise we wouldn’t gush for hours over speaker tabs and loudly applaud those who stand victorious on a Saturday or Sunday evening. As a debating society you do want to give room to these ambitious individuals. And I think one of the best way to do that is to use one evening a week for some good in-depth debating, with serious speeches, long feedback-sessions and clear themes. Creating a culture of wanting to improve is also really helpful as there is sometimes a cultural bias against wanting to be “good” in this country. Of course, you also don’t want to scare away the people who think the club is mostly fun, so I suggest you all get hammered in the bar until the wee hours after this intense session.

It wouldn’t hurt, by the way, if these sessions required people to put in effort outside of the 2-3 hours of debate. Give people an exercise, such as asking them to read a couple of articles, write a one-page note on a topical conflict or practice tongue-twisters for ten minutes in the mirror. At tournaments people have to argue about massively different things, and it would be a lie to say you can do that if you’ve never opened a paper or thought about the world. In high school one of my fondest experiences of debate was the hours we spend together preparing a pre-prepared motion and reading up on important world-wide events and concepts. I’d love it if uni debaters could engage in that thrill as well.

2. Small casual unorganized friendlies are a great  (and cheap) way of doing more competitions

I love our competitions with their Swiss clockwork timing, cheesy silverware and gorgeously extravagant meals – it definitely beats out going to English competitions and rushing through Sainsbury’s thrice a day to get some food. The downside to these is that they cost a lot of time, effort and (sponsorship) money to run and they can be a huge strain on small societies to run – I completely understand why there hasn’t been a Trivium competition in years and applaud the brave souls at the UCs and Cicero who keep running high-level tournaments. So wouldn’t it be totally OK and fun to every once in a while not do an extravagant competition, and run some small get-together with a few rounds of debate in an uni building while you bring your own lunch? Leiden has been doing this sort of thing more and more in recent years. Our novice competition is run on a shoe-string budget with no frills (we book a restaurant and that’s about it) but it has been getting rave reviews. Sunday prep sessions for Worlds were very well attended and judged. Most of all, lots of people like it and learn at these competitions. Seeing people from other societies expands your circle of friends and brings some competitive spirit that gets you the best out of your speeches. So apart from the 8 or so beautiful and lavish competitions we host, it would be a great idea to do a number of small ones on the side.

3. More novice finals!

From my earlier recommendation (in Dutch) to create a pro-am tournament instead of the Masters, you may have realized I am nuts about putting first-years in the spotlight. And why wouldn’t I? It boosts confidence, it nets the invaluable experience of speaking in outrounds in front of a crowd and it is a well-deserved recognition of people who are brave enough to start with the scary, frenetic challenge of attending one’s first competition. It is a bit of a bummer, therefore, that last year there was exactly one novice final, at the Leiden Open. Even Nationals didn’t have a special novice final, only giving a price to the best novice speaker. Cicero, UCU and RA all happened before national novices and had no special mention to novice speakers (then again, Cicero was won by a high schooler and a fresher, so maybe it didn’t need one).
We should really make novice breaks a staple of our tournament. They could easily be held during the semi-finals, and if you have dinner before the break is announced they can be squeezed in between the semi’s and the grand final, as judges need to judge the semi’s anyways. I am sure it will boost the confidence of our first years, and get first years who didn’t achieve the break the idea that they matter and that there are many other first years out there.

4. Get debating out to the outside world

One of the best ideas I heard of last year was Kalliope’s “friends-tournaments”. Debaters bring their friends along for some quick and simple debates, including a final, a trophy and eternal glory. This is an amazing PR-opportunity, a great way to bring some new people to debate and expand on your membership base and at the very least a well-spend evening. Variations include a family-competition, or just hosting a competition for all non-debaters in the region. You can do three rounds of AP and have a final in your regular bar. Keep your membership forms in plain sight and have fun!

An alternative way of getting debating out to the outside world is to give workshops at high schools. Now, naturally, there are a great number of schools with active debating societies, who go to tons of high school competitions and have a lot of intense sessions. I am sure you can look beyond those schools as well, and try to pitch debating to schools without debate teams. This is something you can do low-cost or free, and some of these kids may end up joining you once they go to uni. Beyond that, some of my personal favourite moments in debate are when I see kids I helped train do fantastically well or have fantastic amounts of fun. At the training sessions Leiden gives many of our own first-years happily swing by to help. It is truly an enrichment to your society and scores you some coveted social responsibility and karma points.

5. Use 21st-century tools to coach debate

Debating no longer is just a thing you can do one evening in the week, or can only learn of by older members giving hour-long lectures and then doing a debate on the first motion they can come up with. The internet currently hosts a massive amount of information about debating; from workshop videos, motion databases to recorded debates. Here are a few things you can do to make debating 2.0:

  • Record practice debates and debates at competitions. This is a great way of people to learn what they are doing (do I really say “like” that much? Why am I waving my arms around weirdly? What argument was I making there?) and a superb PR effort. You can finally let your friends, family, frat mates and university bigwigs show what we do on our free Saturdays.

  • Share casefiles and interesting articles on the web. Leiden has a great FB page on which people regularly post interesting articles, videos and cat macros about debate. Even more exiting is a members only page where people can post case files and other interesting stuff that can help people out a lot.

  • Use online videos on the evenings. You can, for instance, show people the first half of a Worlds final and then let them practice extending on that. Or show them a workshop on debating economics if your society doesn’t happen to have a macroeconomics PhD debating genius lying around. We are no longer confined to practicing with and learning from the 8 people who happen to show up on a Thursday evening; we can practice with half the (debating) world right now.


Here you go: 5 hopefully thought-provoking ways to make debate even cooler in 2013/2014. I hope it inspires all of you to make the best of the academic year, and can’t wait to see all of you at the next few competitions.

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