While many Bates students were home during Christmas Break, a small entourage of elite debaters left their first semester for a somewhat contentious, argumentative trip to the World Universities Debating Championship at the Universiti Teknologi MARA in Shah Alam, Malaysia.
The three teams of two, comprising Taylor Blackburn ’15 and Matt Summers ’15, Zoe Seaman-Grant ‘17 and Ben Claeson ’15, and Alex Daugherty ’15 and Matt Kahn ’16, escaped this delightfully frigid New England hellscape to compete in what is widely regarded as the world’s largest debating tournament.
Out of 410 teams from across the globe, the teams of Blackburn and Summers, and Seaman-Grant and Claeson found themselves running in the top 48. Blackburn and Summers completed the tournament tied for 30th place, after having competed with teams from Auckland, Belgrade, Columbia and Harvard. Although they were surpassed by Belgrade and Harvard, they are the first team in the history of the college to win an outround at a world championship. Blackburn finished 41st overall and was ranked the best female speaker from North America. Summers was 68th overall.
“Matt and Taylor are a product of an entire team effort,” Claeson said. “Their success at Worlds is due to years of coaching and practicing and they are amazing debaters.”
The BQDC’s effort in Malaysia mirrors their recent performances at the World Universities Debate Championships. Last year in Chennai, India Blackburn and Jac Stewart ’14 along with Summers and Stephanie Wesson ’14 advanced to outrounds. Two years ago in Berlin, Cat Djang ’13 and Ben Smith ’13 were Bates’ first team to break to outrounds since the early 1990’s.
“Bates has about as much name recognition in the debate world as top schools like Harvard and Yale,” Summers said.
There are two styles of debate: American and British Parliamentary. In the American circuit, Bates College was ranked ninth this past fall, with the team of Summers and Seaman-Grant ranked as seventh in the nation. It is a strong fall semester that the Brooks Quincy Debate Council (BQDC) uses to polish its style prior to engaging in an international arena, with competitions every weekend around the country that give everyone from novices to seasoned vets the chance to fire a few test rounds.
The World Championship, however, uses the British Parliamentary style of debating. In this style, each debate consists of four teams with two speakers each. After having been given a topic, the teams have 15 minutes to craft their speech. Once each team has presented, the teams are ranked one through four, with a point system ranging from 0 to 3.
The second team to compete against the world’s top 48 was Seaman-Grant and Claeson. They were eliminated only after having competed with teams from Stanford, Auckland, and The Air Force Academy, of which the former two continued. Seaman-Grant was ranked 82th overall and the third strongest American woman. Claeson finished 89th overall
The team consisting of Kahn and Daugherty was highest-speaking team on 15 points. Out of 800 combatants, Daugherty finished 112th overall and Kahn finished 134th.
“We’ve never had a sophomore break at worlds before and we haven’t had sophomores that are competitive on the international circuit in a long time,” Summers said.
Debate knows no seasons. Bates’ master debaters may have fought valiantly in the battle that is World Championships, but the schedule of appearances to be made doesn’t cut off when the victors are named in Malaysia. Seaman-Grant and Blackburn competed in the semifinals at the North American Championships at NYU against the best teams from the US and Canada.
“We had a quarter of the best teams in North America,” Summers said. “It is one of the most competitive tournaments of the year, a lot of former debaters who are in grad school came back, and it was a lot of fun seeing Matt and Zoe performing at that level and blowing sophomores, juniors, and seniors out of the water.”
Summers and Kahn made it to the quarterfinals just before being bumped by Princeton (a school that Bates is currently ranked higher than in American style debating).
“Just a few years ago, having a team break at NorthAms would have been a huge deal and having two is evidence of their further success,” Summers said.
Last weekend, two novice groups from Bates made it to novice semifinals at Dartmouth. Cole Limbach ’18 and a Brandeis debater fought their way to the final round just before being snuffed out by a team from Middlebury.
“We have one of the deepest and most enthusiastic novice classes in recent memory, they are all showing the potential to be some of the best debaters in the country,” Summers said.
Santi Rozas ’18 and Bennett Saltzman ’18 captured a spot in the semifinals before losing to Limbach and the Brandeis debater while debating the merits of the Mushroom Kingdom in Mario.
“We’re definitely hoping to repeat the win at BP Nationals and excited to have a strong junior class back with us from abroad,” Summers said.