‘You Don’t Belong Here’: The Challenges of the Small Society on the Global Debating circuit

Joshua Taylor
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Based on the experience of turning a new, unknown debating society into one that breaks a team at WUDC, this article looks at the challenges facing small societies, offering some suggested strategies to aid success.

Succeeding as a small society in established territories

It is a time of unprecedented growth within the global debating community. In part, this has ridden on growth of university institutions, particularly within the western world. The result of this is that two tiers of institutions exist on the international stage – large, established institutions, and smaller, developing institutions. This article will consider the challenges facing small institutions in more developed communities, though one might expects similar (with greatly added) challenges to be facing debating communities in less developed circuits

It will do so by looking firstly at the specific disadvantages small institutions face, and then secondly by considering possible methods for combating these disadvantages. The aim of this article is to both draw attention to systemic challenges for the global community of smaller societies, and specifically assist small societies in their development.

A Background: The Griffith Story

In providing this critique, I will draw heavily on my personal experiences being involved with the Griffith Organised Debating Society (GODS).

When I first became involved, our society had existed since about 2000, and had ‘died’ twice. It ‘died’ again in my first year, leaving a small bunch of us to restart it from scratch.

In the first two years, we did not attend any debating tournaments outside of our own and the occasional University of Queensland Debating Society (UQDS) internals, as getting to tournaments in Australia is quite expensive and difficult. It was not until our third year post resurrection that we attended Easters, the Australian Championships – a Pro-Am tournament. At that tournament, we had four out of our six teams (including my own) finish in the bottom ten.

Not perturbed by this, we then sent two teams to the Australasian championships, where we lit approximately nobody’s world on fire (my team was zero from five until swine flu turned up and took out my teammates).  In the following five years, we have steadfastly improved, culminating in our membership growing from seven members in 2007 to over 80 members, and breaking at a range of tournaments – most notably our quarter-final appearance at the WUDC 2013. We have further been successful hosting Easters, and plan on hosting Australia’s first Harry Potter IV next year. During this journey we have had (and continue to make) many mistakes and often try things that do not work. My below commentary largely reflects lessons from this development.

A small institution – some systemic disadvantages

Training

Firstly, and most obviously, small institutions struggle with simply receiving consistently good feedback. This occurs both through misinformation, or partial information, being given to small societies, and the lack of regular feedback to develop and learn.

This being said, these sort of issues are being addressed quite aggressively on the debating circuit. Videos of high quality debates are now readily accessible on Youtube, university websites, and debatevideoblog.blogspot.com. Debating should be applauded for the commitment is has taken to the free sharing of information, and small societies most definitely should use it. That said, having people who have succeeded who can interpret and prioritise that information for teaching is invaluable, and missed by smaller institutions.

Internal Culture

However, the real issues with small societies are, I think, far more subtle. The first of these is the challenge of building a successful culture. Young societies often find it very difficult to establish, week in week out, a product that people want to participate in. This is partially due to a difference in standards within the society – a small group of more advanced debaters end up spending all their time and resources simply running the club and training, rather than debating. This is juxtaposed with often brand new novices who have never debated before. When a society is young, there are often only one or two rooms per night, meaning that these debaters hit each other. Usually, this is good for nobody. The newbies feel as though they will never improve because they are getting crushed every week, and the more experienced debaters feel as though they are getting nothing out of debating. This leads to people turning up actively not wanting to debate, and the better debaters burning out, rather than developing for personal success.

External Culture (Circuit Culture)

For those experiencing university debating for the first time, the debating culture can be lonely, aggressive and intimidating. To a large extent, this is to be expected and consistent with any activity. Debaters have their own language, customs and history, and understanding and becoming a part of this discourse is obviously difficult and takes time. Small institutions in particular are vulnerable to exclusion in this regard. Larger societies then have a big advantage in that they simply feel comfortable when travelling, and often have more people at events to facilitate that culture.

High School Development

A further issue is the quality of debates that newer, younger debaters get. Perhaps the most undiscussed barrier to the success of smaller societies are the skill levels of individuals who do join. Larger societies have breeding grounds within high schools. They run schools programs, coach the best teams and are usually the more prestigious universities to begin with. This means that overwhelmingly, the quality of young talent coming into these universities is much higher.  The University of Queensland, our neighbours, for instance, have complete control over the High School Debating circuit – coaching the most successful High School teams, running the High School tournaments and holding all executive offices in the organisational arm. This is a credit to that institution, which has developed debating in Queensland to a high level. The natural result of this is, however, that with their prestige already an advantage, the debaters that turn up to UQ are ready to go experienced debaters. Contrariwise, Griffith usually has people trying debating for the first time. As one former president said, “we spend most of our free time trying to make brand new debaters moderately better”. This means that it is far harder for smaller institutions to find success on the circuit. New debaters see that they are competing with debaters who, while also in their first year of university, have four years of debating experience behind them, and realise they will likely never achieve that sort of success in the three year degree they committed to. And they are probably right: those that do commit to debating are often never able to really catch up to the development of debaters coming out of these high school channels.

Retention

For a young society, the retention of any member is like striking gold. When you have 20 active members, not having one of them at a meeting is felt quite aggressively. As such, it becomes very difficult trying to provide a custom experience for every member that walks through your door – you can’t afford to have an attitude of ‘if you don’t like it, leave’ – because you do not have a large enough critical mass to sustain losses.

Retention is also difficult in circumstances where young debaters begin to attend tournaments, and find themselves horribly outclassed. Occasionally, this will drive a debater to become better. Often, it just leads them to give up.

Funding

Lastly, small societies generally have to pay for everything themselves. This makes sending people to tournaments and developing them difficult, as well simply being competitive on the circuit.

Developing a Society – Some Hints

Given the challenges outlined above, the next section is designed to provide some hints for overcoming these challenges. It will furthermore consider the decisions that small societies often have to face, and mistakes that I have seen and made before in my own societies’ development.

Development vs. Events

In their early years, societies find themselves facing a choice when attempting to construct their own identity. The balance between trying to develop stronger debaters, and trying to find acceptance through other means – usually hosting events – is a tough calculus to get right. Often, small societies err too much on the side of facilitating events, at the expense of developing their speakers’ talents. This is often justified as trying to bring in members, or trying to gain community acceptance.

At Griffith, we had two years where we put on over 8 events per year – comedy debates, show debates, charity fundraisers – you name it. Most of these were quite small and moderately successful at best, but we genuinely believed that this was the metric of success of a debating institution. At the same time, our results went definitely backwards, as our more successful speakers spent their time organising events rather then actually debating. If you want to be a show society, then that’s great! But do not forget to develop speakers.

Developing Speakers

More than anything, small societies simply need dedicated speakers. It is important to remember that you cannot simply ‘coach’ someone into being a good speaker – they have to want it, and they have to work hard at it.

Good speakers have three essential qualities – (1) they have developed a manner that allows them to carry the floor (2) they have practiced the skill of being able to think through arguments in their head – that is to say, they can link arguments without the need for a large amounts of notes (3) they have a ‘store’ of arguments in their heads that they apply to debates.

Here is the secret – few to zero people are born with the understanding of feminist, war, consumerist, economic, government etc. theories, all rationalised in their heads. The best debaters are simply very well-read for a start, and secondly have a ‘store’ of debates in their head.

To get this requires work. It requires working your way through persuasive arguments you have heard, analysing how great debaters have gone about their arguments. What were the logical arguments that were made? How did they characterise a certain issue or stakeholder?

Getting good at debating goes through phases: (1) know nothing (2) begin parroting better speakers – using “template” arguments to explain your ideas (3) get comfortable with those templates to the point where you can add ingenuity into them without compromising the underlying structure. Make sure that speakers are constantly working through these phases, and your society will build with them.

Developing a Culture of Success

Internally

Given that speakers only improve when they are dedicated, a culture that supports that needs to be developed. As flagged above, some societies really struggle with the varying expectations of speakers, given they have so few.

My suggestion is to work hard to take your internal practices seriously. When you are debating the same group every week, it is easy to go through the motions week in, week out. In the long term, this is a very damaging practice. It stops people working to get better, and it stops people who are keen from getting really involved.

This often starts from the attitude of the leaders and more experienced debaters. If the top debaters in the room look like they want to win, others in the room develop the same attitude. Other initiatives that may help are having a ‘top room’ which people can work towards, or bringing in high ranking adjudicators to judge – because no-one wants to mess around when reputable people from other institutions are around.

Your culture of success starts with a club dedicated to actually wanting to work at getting better. Obviously, not everyone in your society wants to turn debating into a real pursuit- and that is fine. But without a nucleus of people taking it seriously, the society cannot hope to succeed.

Externally

In addressing the issues with fitting into the wider culture of university debating, it is important to find security within the broader culture of debating. First and foremost, where possible try to travel in a contingent. This allows you to have some security and to be able to relay experiences with each other.

Secondly, find at least one other contingent to be friends with. Small institutions should stick together – it is amazing how much easier a tournament is when you have at least one other group of people to share it with.

Using Resources around You

Smaller societies have large societies around them. It is important to use them for a number of reasons:

a. Allows your stronger debaters to get better.

If you are struggling to strike a divide between training novices and building your stronger debaters, sending a contingent to another society allows these debaters to work together to build on their skills, while taking on more facilitative roles within their own institutions.

b. Builds culture   

This in turn allows you to keep driving people to get better. When you are debating in a larger society, you are more driven to succeed because you are debating unknown people in unfamiliar rooms.

c.Contacts

It is lastly beneficial because it helps you to meet people outside of your own institution, and to be able to gain access to the training and resources of that institution. It is most important then to develop relationships, first and foremost, with the institution closest to you.

Break Into Feeder Systems

It may be that for small societies to grow, they require forethought in how they create development programs in high schools. This may require some give and take with established institutions, as well as looking at schools that are not coached or fall outside of the established system, offering to coach these schools. Your university’s success can be partially defined by the quality of novices, so work hard at that level.

It’s All About the Money

Small societies are usually reliant on funding from their University. This is a precious resource, and there is a finite amount of goodwill that can be tapped. As such, it is important for money to not be spent recklessly. Conventional wisdom is that money gets put into sending people to tournaments, and this largely holds true. Some believe that funding the larger tournaments is better – instead of wasting your money on novices who often never come back. I believe a mix is good. You can never tell who your next core members are going to be, and so enticing people with the opportunity to see a tournament is the society’s best bet of keeping them.

Importantly, tell the University of your successes – build them up. Tell them about how many members you were able to send, build up the importance of debating as an activity, and definitely trumpet when people make finals. Show the University that your society is a sound investment. We were able negotiate higher funding by offering to do events for the university such as holding show debates. In short, building trust with your institution, and constantly building up your successes make your institution more likely to fund necessary activities.

Conclusions for Small Societies

It is important to be focused on growing the society. This requires a lot of dedication and hard work, and to not be distracted from the primary goal of the society – to get good at debating. Use the structures in place and develop from the inside, and your society will likely establish itself into the longer term.

Conclusions for the Debating Community

Small societies struggle to gain a footing for a number of reasons. But for debating to continue to be a valuable product and worthwhile endeavour, we need to see these societies develop. Larger institutions will need to share the resources they have developed, and understand the difficulties both on the circuit and in speaker development if small societies are to thrive.

The author would like to sincerely thank the members of the University of Queensland Debating Society for their selfless support in the development of the Griffith Debating Society.

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Joshua Taylor

Josh is a former president of the Griffith Organised Debating Society, and has been on the circuit in Australia for the better part of six years.