April 22, 2008

Dynamic debate duo places third in nation

While the general University populace took to the quads this weekend to bask in the sun, fourth-years Stephanie Bell and Bridget Fahey took seats at the front of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) lecture hall at the American Parliamentary Debate Association’s (APDA) 2008 National Championship tournament. After six rounds of debate, the duo ended up sweeping third place in the country, out of a competition pool of 60 teams.

Over the course of the three-day tournament, Bell and Fahey faced competitors representing Princeton, Stanford, Harvard, and Yale. The duo’s sole defeat came at the hands of Princeton in the semifinal round. Princeton later fell to Stanford in the finals.

“I think it was pretty clear that if the house had voted we would have picked up a win, but that’s how it goes,” Fahey said. In the end, the judges voted in favor of Princeton in a 4–3-- decision, leaving the U of C in third place nationally with a 5–1 record for the tournament.

Parliamentary debate is loosely based on British parliamentary procedures and pits two opposing teams of two people against each other in a battle of wit and argumentative skill. In a series of six speeches, the teams argue either for or against an issue chosen ahead of time by one side.

“It focuses much more on rhetorical skill than research or having lots of information,” said second-year Ben Field, president of the Chicago Debate Society (CDS).

At the national championships, each school sends one team and has the option of adding additional teams based on individual debater qualifications accumulated during previous tournaments. Bell and Fahey were the only team from U of C this year.

The team’s performance at MIT carries on the CDS’s legacy of national titles. Within the past five years, four out of the five competing U of C teams placed in the top four, and the weekend’s national tournament was not the first for either Bell or Fahey.

The duo scored several personal victories as well: Bell nabbed the award for third speaker overall, and Fahey, a former president of CDS, took 11th of all competitors present.

The focus of debates at such competitions spans a number of topics. Bell and Fahey debated the merits of returning art to Holocaust survivors, the legality of blackmail, and the value of administering homophobia tests to immigrants seeking entrance to progressive European countries.

It was in arguing opposition to the latter that the pair faltered—but not by much.

“For the semifinal round that they lost, virtually everyone in the audience thought that they had won,” said Field, who served as a judge at the tournament. “The pounding was almost so loud that nobody could hear what [Bell] was saying for the last minute,” he said, referring to the parliamentary debate tradition of the audience pounding the tables to signal its approval of a point that is being made.

“When you have sixty people pounding like that, it gets pretty loud,” he added.

The tournament marked the last season of eight- and six-year-long debate careers for Bell and Fahey, respectively. But although the pair may not have made it to the top spot at nationals, Fahey said that she has no hard feelings.

“It’s disappointing, obviously, to be so close to finals and not make it, but we really do debate to have fun and to have conversations about topics that we find interesting,” she said.

“We debated a lot of our favorite teams that we really respect…I think that Steph and I really learned a lot. You couldn’t ask for a better final tournament.”