A small group on West Virginia University’s campus likes to talk.

A lot. And fast.

It’s the only unspoken qualification to join. It also helps to be argumentative. It helps even more to retain facts such as differentiating between the U.S.’ many visas.

In a year they’ve learned to speak faster and think deeper, delivering swift counterstrokes in a war of words. Through it all, WVU’s debate team has nudged closer to each other.

“I’ve noticed over time it’s a lot less about us winning the tournament than it is the time that you get to spend with the other debaters,” said Courtney Plante, a second-year debater.

However, even as they’ve moved closer together – staying to support teammates who make it to the final round, for example – they’ve moved closer to the top.

WVU’s debate teams are consistently young and new to debate. They are also consistently good.

This week, the WVU debate team finished in the Top Ten in the national Cross Examination Debate Association tournament, its best finish ever. One debater, A.J. Warne, has been repeatedly named first speaker in competitions, once at West Point and again at the JV/novice national competition held a few weeks ago at Towson University in Maryland.

Neil Berch, a WVU political science professor, is the team’s coach. To describe how good his team is, he describes how it went up against Cornell University five times in a tournament. And five times, a WVU pair of debaters won.

“One of the unique things about the WVU program is that we have a large number of students who have never debated before,” he said.

“The fact that WVU’s young, relatively novice debate team is ranked in the top ten with Ivy League schools like Harvard and Cornell, whose teams have more financial resources and a longer tradition of debate on campus, is a testament to the high caliber of our students, academic programs, and faculty, said Eberly College of Arts and Sciences Dean Robert Jones.

“We are extremely proud of these students and the coaches and assistant coaches who mentor them.”

Others schools in the top ten include Liberty University, Oklahoma University, Northwestern University, Cornell University, Emory University, SUNY Binghamton, Mary Washington University, Harvard University and the University of Kansas.

WVU’s debaters have made it to the top level of policy debate with intelligence and hard work.

“I think their dedication is special, and I think that their connection to one another is really at a higher level,” Berch said. “They really seem to be looking out for one another. They support one another when one team goes on and the other is eliminated. They stay and root for one another. They just seem to be a group that likes each other a lot.”

Warne, like many of his teammates, didn’t debate in high school. He says debate is not often offered in West Virginia schools, and he ended up being involved in band. At WVU, the business major from Clarksburg saw a notice for the debate team online and joined this past fall.

“I definitely learned a lot about being sensitive to other viewpoints in life,” he said. “There’s a lot of arguments that are run in debate that are based on how you frame your rhetoric. I’ve learned a lot about being patient and about being a good team player.”

Since he began debating, he’s been consuming as much information as possible about immigration reform, the policy debate topic this past year. When his team is on the affirmative side of the issue, he argues that victims of human trafficking should have fewer barriers to obtaining visas in the U.S. When he argues the negative, he critiques the capitalistic society that produces this inhuman state of affairs.

While learning facts to wield, the students are also learning to speak about three times normal conversation – 350 words per minute.

Though the students put in a lot of talent and work – sometimes being away three weekends a month for tournaments – they get better through the guidance they receive from coaches like Berch and graduate students Samantha Godbey and Jeremy Zimmerman

“I’ve got really great coaches,” Warne said. “Dr. Berch has probably taught me more this year than I’ve learned at any other time in my life.”

Plante, an accounting senior from Beckley, is ending her second season with the team. She’s also a second-generation WVU debater.

Her father was on the team in college, and she thought it would be good preparation for law school, which she will be entering in the fall.

“I think that debate has been one of the best experiences that I’ve had as a college student,” she said.

She’s had to contemplate various angles of a case, read quickly and explain succinctly.

“You’re not just saying ‘I feel this way and this is my position,’ but you have to think about all sides of an issue.

“I think those are going to be the kinds of fields that are needed in law school. Before you can advocate a certain position you have to be able to anticipate what your opponent is going to say, and I think that debate prepares you for that.”


CONTACT: Neil Berch, WVU professor of political science
304-293-3811, ext. 5290; nberch@wvu.edu

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