Kevin Whitley loves to argue.
In high school, the habit would get him kicked out of math class. At Towson, it got him a full scholarship.
Whitley, and the 20-or-so lightning-lipped debaters like him, found his voice in Towson’s Speech and Debate Program. And today, the TU sophomore is one of the top-ranked speakers on one of the top-ranked teams in the United States.
Towson Speech and Debate—or forensics, as it’s known to the initiated—
celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. But it’s the most recent chapter in the program’s long history that’s also the most remarkable.
According to Jennifer Potter, assistant professor of communication studies and director of forensics at Towson, “the team has really hit its stride in the past five years.”
The team’s current success started in 2008, when a pair of Towson debaters took home the title at the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) National Championship. In addition to being the first Towson team to win the national competition, they were the first African American pair ever to do so.
Since then, the awards have poured in—along with the talent. This year alone, Towson took first place at the West Point Debate Tournament. Duo Ameena Ruffin and Korey Johnson competed in the octafinals at the National Debate Tournament, while partners Kevin Whitley and Lenny Herrera made it to the quarterfinals at the CEDA National Championship. Towson debaters are dominating the individual rankings, too, with Whitley placing 10th overall at CEDA and Ruffin 18th at NDT.
“What’s most exciting about these wins is how young our debaters are,” says Potter. “They’re all freshmen or sophomores. We’re already doing very well and we’ll only get stronger from here. It’s very exciting to think where we can go in the next few years.”
Collegiate debate pits teams of two against each other in a grueling series of arguments, cross examinations and rebuttals that lasts nearly two hours. Teams debate the same topic—known as the resolution—throughout the entire season.
If you’ve never seen a competitive debate unfold, here’s the first thing to understand: You won’t understand. At least not at first.
In part, that’s because debaters talk fast. Towson freshman Korey Johnson, for example, unspools her argument at a dizzying 400 words per minute. For comparison, standard conversation clocks in at about 150 words per minute.
Listen to Korey Johnson read this article at top speed.
Such speed-reading—a practice known as spreading—allows debaters to pack more evidence into their time-limited arguments. It allows them to build a comprehensive case in preparation for the slower, more rigorous cross-examination and rebuttals.
But it’s not fancy phonetics that wins competitions. Debaters spend weeks constructing the arguments that they deliver in their nine-minute speeches. Between research, writing, team meetings and more, debaters spend between 40 and 60 hours per week in preparation. It’s all that work that makes the difference.
“We play a game of competitive research,” explains Head Debate Coach Stephen Davis, who began coaching at Towson in 2008. “It’s a chess match. You put all your pieces on the board, and in a better position than your opponent.”
Towson is known for performance-oriented debate, a style that the team pioneered in the past decade and has since become commonplace in the debate world. Arguments may be infused with poetry or other performative techniques, and Towson debaters strive to align themselves personally with the topic, rather than simply spouting policy.
“By connecting personally,” says Potter, “our students become more interested in what they can learn from the debate process and what they can give back. Many of our alumni go on to do community organizing, and a few even started a nonprofit. What they learn becomes bigger than themselves.”
As Towson’s reputation grows, so does interest in its program.
“Debate season is March Madness for research nerds,” laughs Potter. “Debaters watch the brackets and scour the Internet for the live stream. They follow their favorite teams.”
As Towson continues to face off against established debate powerhouses like Wake Forest, Georgetown and Northwestern, more top high school debaters are following TU.
The university expects to increase the number of teams it enters in national competition next year from two to four. And with many debaters eligible for partial and full scholarships at Towson, there’s no shortage of talent drawn to one of the most successful debate programs in the United States.
You can’t argue with that.
By Dan Fox. Photos by DeCarlo Brown.