On weekends, when many students attend parties or cram for prelims, the 75 members of the Forensic Society travel hours to universities around the country, working to retain their prestigious status as the best debate and speech program in the nation.
Members of the society compete for the debate or speech teams, which ranked fourth and tenth in the country last year. The teams compete in 14 to 20 tournaments each year, and individual students participate in three to five a semester.
The two-person debate groups compete in policy debates, where they argue the year’s topic. This year, the issue of debate is whether or not the United States should provide government aid to the Greater Horn of Africa.
Preparation for the debates “requires a tremendous amount of research,” explained Prof. Pamela Stepp, communication, the society’s director since 1980. “Students have to be prepared to debate both sides. [They] don’t know much about Africa and the issue is very controversial.”
“The amount of research is equivalent to several Ph.D. dissertations per year,” explained Maurice Ducoing ’03.
The debate team reigned victorious at a tournament at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point earlier this month, where Lara Douglas ’03 and Paul Wenzel ’03 placed first in the varsity competition, winning a mounted saber which goes home with the victors each year.
The team has won the award more than any other school in history, although this was the first time Cornell gained possession of the sword since 1995.
“[The award] is significant within the debate community because it represents a really important tournament which requires not just one strong partnership, but also great coaching and a lot of back-up teams to do well at,” Douglas said.
The speech team has also performed well this semester. At Bloomsburg University a few weeks ago, Kevin Sheldon ’02 placed first in the impromptu event and second in the dramatic duo event with Jessica Saunders ’03. Jonathan Pollard ’03 placed first in the poetry competition.
Based on their recent accomplishments, the society is optimistic about maintaining its championship status. “I think we have an even stronger team than last year,” Ducoing said. “Everyone is coalescing successfully.”
“[The team is] really strong and very enthusiastic,” Stepp said. “The talent is there, they’re really smart. They have the ability to do what my students have done in the past.”
The Forensics Society differs from other debate teams on campus because it is cocurricular rather than extracurricular — student earn two credits for participation.
“[Debate] is so draining but so amazing,” Anna Singh ’01 said, explaining that the intellectual stimulation of debate is far more satisfying than the physical rush associated with sports.
“There are so many people I would not have known if not for debate,” Singh added. “There is such a blend of cultures, religions and backgrounds. You wouldn’t find that in any other organization in the University.”
Experience in debate and speech may aid students when it comes time to get jobs, according to Stepp. “When students are out interviewing, interviewers will go right to Forensics and ask about their experience with it because it’s so valuable,” she said. Society alumni have gone on to work as trial attorneys for the Justice Department, clerks for the Supreme Court and to work independently as business owners.
The Forensic Society will hold its annual 1894 tournament on Nov 5. This policy debate is open to all Cornell students. Two-person teams need to register in advance and bring a volunteer judge who meets the educational requirements of having obtained a bachelor’s degree. Monetary prizes are awarded.
The society welcomes newcomers to its weekly meetings on Tuesdays at 4:35 p.m. in 213 Kennedy Hall. No experience is necessary.
Archived article by Stephanie Hankin