Over six time zones and 18 hours by plane, three teams, comprised of two individuals each, from Cornell Speech and Debate Society’s “worlds” style format travelled to compete in South Africa’s Worlds University Debate Championship — and walked away having done what no Cornell team has done before.
According to team member Jin Mo Koo ’21, as the tournament’s 400 teams from over 90 countries were gradually winnowed down, arguing topics such as populism and banking regulations, one of Cornell’s three debate pairs managed to survive four elimination rounds to compete in the final rounds — the first time the team had ever done so.
The debate pair was tasked with addressing the resolution: “This House believes that the current state of humanity will not be better in 100 years.”
While Cornell’s team ultimately missed out on first place — that honor, instead, went to the University of Sydney — the journey to that Cape Town podium marked a milestone in what Worlds debate captain Emma Rose Wirshing ’19 called, “one of our best seasons ever.”
“We’ve had a lot of success with the tournaments we normally go to — we’ve had teams final or win at almost every tournament we’ve gone to,” Wirshing said. “Which is crazy.”
Building on what Mo Koo called its “crowning achievement” in South Africa, the debate team has continued to rack up a series of impressive wins. At Clemson University’s United States Universities Debating Championships, held from April 13 to 15 — America’s largest collegiate debate championships, according to the event’s website — the worlds squad managed to land three of its teams in the top ten, along with four of the top ten individual speakers.
The team has also notched top rankings at the North American University Championships and a “whole host of competitive international tournaments,” Mo Koo explained.
And breaking into the finals for tournaments of that caliber is no easy feat, Wirshing explained, with successful teams needing to survive several tough elimination rounds.
“There is a certain number of preliminary rounds … and for nationals there were eight rounds,” she said. “And so everyone competes in that rounds against other teams in the competition, and at the end of those preliminary rounds, the top ‘X’ number of teams get to make it to elimination rounds.”
“All together, the results have been really amazing,” Wirshing added.
Unlike its cousin, policy debate — in which debaters are given months to prepare for a predetermined topic — worlds style, also often called “British Parliamentary,” relies on fully extemporaneous speech. Participants are given a previously unknown resolution and then have only a short period of time to assemble a cohesive set of evidence, arguments and counterarguments.
As a result, the format heavily rewards quick thinkers who are able to draw upon a wide base of knowledge with little preparation and present it seamlessly in a persuasive manner. According to Mo Koo, a successful debater must be fluent in a wide range of subjects that range from the wonky — such as the nuances of international law — to the esoteric.
“Our particular debate has a lot to do with logical persuasion … so it’s not as much a numerical game as is the case in other formats … it’s more of, you look at the structure of an argument, such as the premises upon which it’s based,” Wirshing added.
Judges then base their scores on “an intuition” of “what looks like a strong argument or a weaker argument,” and will look at how a team has “interacted … in terms of the positive material they’ve brought, and in terms of how they have responded to other team’s material,” she explained.
Preparation for these tournaments — which pit some of America’s sharpest undergraduate minds in a battle of words — often begins the moment one arrives on campus. For those who are most involved, the weekly time commitment can sometimes extend to up to 15 hours a week, akin to a part-time job.
“People who go to some of these competitive tournaments practice on average three or four times a week, and our practices last about two hours,” Wirshing said. “And they’ve been doing that since basically freshman year.”
In addition to a healthy diet of news to keep up with the near-limitless pool of potential debate subjects, practice typically involves mock debates that are used to gain “insight into different topics we research and prepare for,” as well as “strategic elements of debate we can improve on,” according to Mo Koo.
“There’s definitely a lot of time that goes into it,” Wirshing said. “So we’re definitely really lucky our work has paid off this year.”