Prestige and History in the Chicago Debate Society

The university’s longest-running debate club provides its members with a sense of community both in and out of the discussion room.

By Hassan Sachee

The Chicago Debate Society (CDS) is one of the oldest RSOs on campus, and with their membership of around 45 varsity members and over 100 novice debaters, they are also one of the largest. Off campus, they are one of the most successful college debate societies in the world, currently ranked as the third-best club in the country. Devesh Kodnani, the current president of the society, is as of this week the highest-ranked speaker in the American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) rankings. 

CDS generally practices two different forms of debate, American Parliamentary and British Parliamentary (BP). They participate in competitions almost every week, flying out on Friday and returning on Sunday. Most of these competitions are carried out in the APDA format and held at American universities, but there are also some BP tournaments, such as the World Championships, in which the society competes.  

The society operates on a deliberately open basis. One joins the society as a novice for one year—typically their first at UChicago—with older students training them three days a week. At these training sessions, the program can vary from doing drills to practicing speeches. After competing in an internal novice tournament in the fall, a novice debater becomes a full member, eligible to compete at the various events that CDS attends. Importantly, CDS is inclusive to all debaters, regardless of their prior experience. There are no cuts to membership, and anyone can take part in external competitions provided they turn up to each session and show proactive enthusiasm. After one year as a novice, one becomes a varsity member of the team. 

In an interview with Rohan Kapoor, the chancellor for the society, he stated that while the society aims to be as competitive as possible in tournaments and “qualify as many of…[the] debaters for national[s]” as they can, this is not its primary aim. Debate tries to “make people better speakers,” as Kapoor put it, a goal that is central to CDS. The social side of the Chicago Debate Society is also a large part of the RSO; the club often holds community-building activities so the members can get to know each other better. These might take the form of official socials after novice tournaments, or simply getting a few debaters together to watch a baseball game at someone’s apartment. In this way, the Chicago Debate Society shows itself to be more than just an organization purely focused on debate.