Quick Thinkers: Southeast Debate Students Exercise Valuable Skills


Southeast students Jacqueline Neil, left, and Haley Seger confer during a recent debate team competition.

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Missouri, March 13, 2015 –Students on the Debate Team at Southeast Missouri State University have spent hours this semester working to outwit their opponents on the pros and cons of demilitarizing law enforcement agencies.

The team is researching cases on the topic, preparing arguments and traveling to tournaments, all while learning valuable skills they hope to apply to future endeavors.

“Being on the Debate Team takes a lot of reading, research and practice. It takes some effort. It’s especially gratifying to me when students, who never thought that they could do anything like this or wouldn’t join the team because they were shy about speaking in front of people, become really good debaters. I still remember my first debate experience; that’s how intense the experience is,” said Dr. Larry Underberg, professor of communication studies and debate coach at Southeast.

At the start of each semester, collegiate debate teams nationwide, including Southeast’s team, are given a topic from the National Educational Debate Association that serves as the basis of their research and debate at competitions throughout the term. The Debate Team participates in at least three tournaments each semester, all centered on the same topic.

“We try to make our topics as closely related to current events as possible,” Underberg said, adding that people from the community often volunteer to judge debate events at Southeast because they are interested in the subject matter.

Previous topics have included civility and political discourse, treatment of psychological disorders and the value of online learning.

By debating on relevant, current events, students on the debate team acquire a variety of skills, including critical thinking, research and presentation skills.

According to Underberg, the first three to four weeks of the semester for debate students are spent doing intensive research to prepare affirmative and negative arguments for their given topic. Team members spend many hours during the week on debate, including a weekly meeting as well as extra hours doing research on their own time. Students have the option to receive academic credit for their participation on the debate team as a three-hour course that they can take twice.

Southeast student Jacqueline Neil of Maryland Heights, Missouri, who is studying mass communication with majors in public relations and advertising, said, “I started debating because I like to keep up with what’s going on in the news. Debating gives you a platform and an opportunity to talk about what’s going on in the world and look at issues.”

She says she enjoys exercising logic, reasoning and formulating a case – skills, she says, sometimes not learned in a class.

Haley Seger, an English writing major from Advance, Missouri, calls debating “a battle of the minds.”

Thinking on your feet and not getting flustered are important skills learned during debate, she said. Seger says she hopes to use these skills later in life in court practices and in job interviews.

“Debate is a lot of quick thinking,” Neil added.

At debate tournaments, each two-person team debates two-person teams from other schools, usually through about six preliminary rounds, according to Underberg. Following the preliminary rounds, the top teams advance to the semi-final and final rounds and debate until a winner is determined. This usually occurs over a two-day period.

Multiple people make up a panel of judges for debate tournaments with at least one being an outside critic. According to Underberg, sometimes the judges are debate coaches and faculty members and other times they are simply interested members of the community.

“Something that makes our program unique is that at least 50 percent of our judges at tournaments that we host are people from the community with no debate experience,” said Underberg. “This is important because it means that our students talk to an audience that’s very similar to what they are likely to encounter later on in any form of public deliberation.”