VAMPY courses encourage civil, well-informed debates

By Josh Raymer

Candidates shouting over one another. Talking points pushing well past the allotted time. Insults hurled at moderators. Expressions of disbelief and satisfied smirks. These are some images we might associate with the word “debate” during an election year. There are knee-jerk reactions from pundits, sound bites taken out of context, and in the style of a heavyweight boxing match, both candidates declaring themselves the winner.

At VAMPY, debate looks vastly different than the glorified shouting matches seen on television. Students in Competitive Forensics and Presidential Politics are learning the finer points of debate and refining their critical thinking skills.

Teaching assistant Jonathan Sahlman, a rising senior at WKU and a member of the nationally-recognized WKU Forensics Team, handles the debate portion of Competitive Forensics. With the class serving as an introduction to formalized debate, Jonathan implemented the parliamentary debate style that splits campers into teams of two and gives them 20 minutes to prepare for a topic. After starting off with the lighthearted issue of allowing cell phones and computers at VAMPY, students dove into real world issues like military intervention with ISIS, legalization of marijuana, and immigration reform.

Parliamentary debate begins with an opening statement by the affirmative leader (pro-marijuana legalization, for instance), moves to an opening statement by the opposition leader, then allows time for the second speakers on both sides to speak. The debate concludes with rebuttals from both leaders in which they argue why their side won. In most parliamentary debates, Jonathan explained, a clear winner usually emerges.

“With presidential politics, those debates tend to be more public speaking,” he said. “This is more competitive debate with a structure for how you prepare your arguments and how the arguments are weighed. There tends to be a clear debate winner.”

Ali Sheckelford of Louisville gets advice from her partner, Audrey Koch of Goshen, while debating in favor of school uniforms during a practice debate in Competitive Forensics Tuesday, July 5. (Photo by Sam Oldenburg)
Ali Sheckelford of Louisville gets advice from her partner, Audrey Koch of Goshen, while debating in favor of school uniforms during a practice debate in Competitive Forensics Tuesday, July 5. (Photo by Sam Oldenburg)

Before diving into the actual debates, students spent the first couple classes focused on argumentation theory, including the most common argumentative fallacies. To see these fallacies in action, the class studied the Twitter feeds of both presumptive presidential candidates for 2016 – Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. No matter where their political beliefs landed, students spotted all kinds of fallacious argumentation.

“It’s something fun to look at, but we’ve also got them thinking now that when a candidate says something, they know what’s fallacious and how it reduces the credibility of their argumentation,” Jonathan said “These students will now second-guess the validity of everything that candidates say regardless of their political affiliation. That’s something I tried to focus on – both sides have fallacious argumentation everywhere.”

For Jojo Jeyaraj of Joplin, Missouri, this portion of the class made her realize that she was guilty of using certain fallacies herself. “I overgeneralize a lot,” she said. “With political issues, I feel like that’s easy to do. I’ve realized that there are many sides to any given issue.”

Stuart Kernohan of Bowling Green realized once the debates began that competitive debating looks different from what he’d seen on TV. “There’s more structure than I realized,” he shared. “It’s not just blah, blah, blah, here are my points, you have to listen to me.” Taking the side of an issue he doesn’t personally agree with has also been a challenge. “You have to research and see things not just from your own perspective. It’s a challenge to look at an issue from another person’s shoes.”

Christian Butterfield of Bowling Green argues against school uniforms while his partner, Emily Jones of Lexington, listens to his points during a practice debate in Competitive Forensics Tuesday, July 5. (Photo by Sam Oldenburg)
Christian Butterfield of Bowling Green argues against school uniforms while his partner, Emily Jones of Lexington, listens to his points during a practice debate in Competitive Forensics Tuesday, July 5. (Photo by Sam Oldenburg)

Also challenging is the discipline it takes to bite your tongue when an opponent is saying something you disagree with. In competitive debate, interrupting your opponent is not allowed. “It’s very frustrating, but it’s nice to know they can’t talk over me either,” Jojo said. “This style of debate forces you to appreciate others, which is a good thing.”

If Competitive Forensics represents the more formalized side of debate, Presidential Politics is the free-wheeling flip side that tries to recapture the magic of memorable presidential debates, but with a bigger dose of respect and civility thrown in.

Dennis Jenkins’ course is a whirlwind tour of presidential elections from 1960 up to modern day. Days begin with 10-15 minutes of candidate commercials and students analyzing the strategy of each party for that year. The class then watches a portion of an actual debate, after which time students will fall into roles they selected and prepare to reenact the debate. Students split into three groups for debates: candidates, campaign managers, and poster makers. After the debate, which lasts 20-30 minutes, audience members jot down observations about both candidates on a scorecard.

In the scope of presidential history, debate stood out to Dennis as an imperative section of the historical tapestry. He also believed that students could benefit from learning to debate as someone other than themselves. “It’s important for students to stand by what they believe in when they’re role-playing these candidates, even if they have a difference of opinion from the person they’re portraying,” Dennis said. “They have to articulate why their candidate’s vision is more effective for the country than their opponent’s.”

Even when those beliefs are controversial, students had to stand by them during the debate. Benjamin Carter of Oakland learned that firsthand when he was tasked with playing noted segregation advocate George Wallace for the 1968 debate. “It was a challenge to role-play that character and act like I believed that,” Benjamin revealed. “I had to present it in the least controversial terms I could. I framed it as what was best for the majority compared to what was best for the minority.”

No matter the topic or candidate, students in Presidential Politics maintain an air of civility and respect during their debates. Students learned pretty quickly that certain argumentative tactics play well with the audience while others do not. Do you speak in a condescending tone and talk over your opponents? That won’t play well with the crowd. But if you can speak with wisdom and think critically on your feet, you’ll be a hit.

Abbie Camp from Mount Sterling chats with her Presidential Politics classmates while they create campaign posters for either Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan Friday, July 1. The students research issues relevant to the previous campaigns to create slogans on the posters. (Photo by Tucker Allen Covey)
Abbie Camp from Mount Sterling chats with her Presidential Politics classmates while they create campaign posters for either Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan Friday, July 1. The students research issues relevant to the previous campaigns to create slogans on the posters. (Photo by Tucker Allen Covey)

Both Dennis and Jonathan hope that students in their class leave VAMPY changed by their time spent debating. “I’m hoping they take away a broader perspective of the world around them,” Jonathan said. “They’ve learned that everyone has biases but those biases don’t make us bad people. In today’s society, we focus more on ‘this person doesn’t agree with me, therefore they’re a bad person,’ which is a fallacy itself. I think they’ll walk away with a higher level of respect for that person and more productive ways to debate hot button issues without resorting to personal attacks.”

Dennis echoed that sentiment. “In a country that’s increasingly at one extreme or the other, we’ve lost the art of compromise,” he added. “It’s important for this age group to learn how to debate effectively, stand by their beliefs, and to articulate their beliefs into something the audience understands.”

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