Towson Debate Team Help Transform Stodgy College Debate World

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The high school and college debate worlds has long been the provenance of, well, nerds. (I can say that because I did debate in high school. And I was a total nerd.) Other critics argue that the extracurricular activity reinforces traditional forms of privilege and power. But in recent years, the debate world has been transformed by “an increasingly diverse group of participants…[who are] mounting challenges to traditional form and content by incorporating personal experience, performance, and radical politics,” as Jessica Carew Kraft writes in the Atlantic. And the Towson University debate team, comprised largely of African-American women, is leading the way.

Two Towson debaters won this year’s national debate championship, beating out 170 other teams in the process; the team also won the national championship in 2008. This year, the debaters were asked to discuss whether the U.S. president’s war powers should be restricted The winning argument took things in a different direction than you might have expected, “[Likening] police brutality, the prison-industrial complex and structural poverty issues to a warlike violence against African-Americans in the U.S.,” according to the Baltimore Sun. Ameena Ruffin and Korey Johnson, this year’s winning debaters, are both Baltimore natives; they’re the first black women to win a national debate championship.

It’s not just the subject matter that’s becoming more radical in today’s debate world. Here’s how Kraft describes the final round of this year’s debate championship:

Ruffin and Johnson squared off against Rashid Campbell and George Lee from the University of Oklahoma, two highly accomplished African-American debaters with distinctive dreadlocks and dashikis. Over four hours, the two teams engaged in a heated discussion of concepts like “nigga authenticity” and performed hip-hop and spoken-word poetry in the traditional timed format. At one point during Lee’s rebuttal, the clock ran out but he refused to yield the floor. “Fuck the time!” he yelled. His partner Campbell, who won the top speaker award at the National Debate Tournament two weeks later, had been unfairly targeted by the police at the debate venue just days before, and cited this personal trauma as evidence for his case against the government’s treatment of poor African-Americans.

We’re all for this new, invigorated debate style–and we’re so proud that Towson is leading the way.

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