September 13, 2002

Cornell Forensics Society Speaks Out About Debate

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Every year, many students join the Cornell Forensics Society to conquer their public speaking apprehension. Both the debate and speech sectors of the Society offer an opportunity to do just that. The personal and academic rewards are tremendous say participants.


“The biggest impact is the reduction of fear. There’s some statistic about fear of public speaking and how it affects nearly two-thirds of people or more. It certainly affects me, even to this day, but the ability to go out there and be calm, clear and effective despite this is invaluable, whether it’s in front of 10 people, 10,000, or just one person in a job interview,” said speech coach Kevin Sheldon ’02. The speech and debate teams offer opportunities for students to hone their research skills, network and make professional advancement in the corporate and public sectors. Members enjoy strong institutional support and free national travel.

The Society — established by former advisor Pamela Stepp 20 years ago — currently consists of approximately 40 members, divided between both the speech and debate sectors.

Policy and debate relies on critical analysis and research, and requires argumentation skills, whereas speech is geared around presentation through informed research, according to student director Bilge Tanyeri ’03.

The only membership requirement is a pure natural desire to develop oratory skills, according to Prof. Jethro Hayman, communication, the director.

Teams practice in advance with coaches at meetings and topics range from anything unique and innovative in the technological world to a persuasive issue. The objective is expose an eye-catching invention before it becomes public knowledge.

Society members compete for trophies at the tournaments and each person that advances into a final round wins their own trophy.

The speech and debate teams both plan on traveling to Pennsylvania in the next few weeks for their first contests of the semester.

“We drive anywhere from Binghamton to Washington D.C. in a van, usually [departing] Friday afternoon and [returning] on a Saturday or Sunday night,” Tanyeri said.

200 to 300 schools compete at contests held at colleges and universities regionally and across the country. These competitions are organized by the National Forensics Association (NFA) and the American Forensics Association (AFA). Cornell holds its own tournament locally in February each year. Most regional tournaments are in Va., Pa., N.J. and N.Y.

There are approximately six to eight tournaments each semester, including two national competitions at the end of the academic year. The Society requests that speech or debate members participate in at least three. The Society pays for all transportation, made possible through endowment contributions by former speech and debate team members. The team is funded entirely through the endowment.

“We have received a lot of support in the past from the Colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Human Ecology, Engineering and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations,” Hayman said. “But after 20 years, we have generated a self-sufficient flow of capital.”

Continuing to raise thousands of dollars each year from past Society member donations, the team expects to be self-sufficient and fluent in capital in the years ahead.

“Alumni are doing so well economically because of their experience with the Society that they are sending us checks for thousands of dollars. They are putting their money where there mouth is,” Hayman said.

By sharpening critical thinking skills, Hayman believes that members of the Society will be in high demand by government agencies, corporations and non-profit organizations in the near future.

“Past alumni will attest to the fact that this is the most valuable activity they have [participated in] at Cornell. Corporate headhunters look for people who have done forensics and are therefore able to find information, analyze it and then synthesize it through presentations,” he said.

Current members are already experiencing the long-term benefits of the Society on their academic, professional and personal lives.

“I decided to participate [in the society] because I felt that Jethro ran a program which was dedicated to creating an atmosphere where Cornell students could expand their horizons and learn from each other while having a good time. It has provided me a place to share ideas, meet new people and grow as a person,” said debate member Dan Klaff ’04.

As far as the future of the organization is concerned, more community outreach programs are planned. By the end of the current year, Society members will teach public speaking and debate in high schools, 4-H clubs, and even prisons, according to Sheldon.

“Our biggest fear is that a Cornell undergraduate will study here for four years and not even hear about the team. Our goal then becomes making the Society accessible and known to everyone,” Tanyeri said.

Those interested in the speech or debate team can join at any stage by attending Tuesday meetings, at 4:30 p.m. in Morrison Hall 163.

Archived article by Chris Westgate