Join Our Mailing List

This form does not yet contain any fields.

    Director's Statement

    When I walked into the Hardy House, where the Northwestern University debate team practices, I expected to see students at podiums debating issues I could understand in a clear and persuasive manner along the lines of presidential debates. But then I saw the National Debate Tournament champion Josh Branson “fast talking”—rapidly and loudly sucking in his breath, filling up his lungs, and spitting out as many words as possible before running out of air and sucking in again.

    Other debaters got up to the podium (actually a stack of empty banana boxes, Northwestern’s trademark), all speaking so fast that I had no idea what they were saying. They gasped. They stuttered. They literally foamed at the mouth. I assumed I was observing some extreme exercise in preparation for a debate. Then I was informed that this is how policy debaters regularly debate, the fastest supposedly speaking in excess of 400 words per minute. I was stunned.

    I wondered: Do all debaters talk this fast?  And is fast talk just a phase or is it here to stay? More importantly, is fast talk good or a sign that something is broken and perhaps not just in debate?

    To answer these questions, I spent a year following the Northwestern University debate team, which had won more national debate tournaments than any other team in the country. The team was led by Coach Scott Deatherage. I also met Josh Branson, the returning national debate champion and his new debate partner, Noah Chestnut. I quickly found out that Scott, Josh, Noah and the rest of the team ultimately had one main goal: to repeat what they had accomplished last year--to win the National Debate Tournament (NDT).

    To Scott, the benefits of fast-talking were clear: more arguments per minute that an opposing team needed to rebut.  Scott also believed fast talking sharpened the pace of one’s thinking, kept one sharper longer and even staved off Alzheimer’s. 

    But then I found out that some debaters didn’t talk fast and claimed fast-talking was a tool of the privileged that discriminated against low income and minority students. To learn the necessary skills entailed attending expensive summer institutes prior to college.

    Others claimed the present state of debate alienated women. High-school and novice teams are tipped toward female debaters, but by the National Debate Tournament, female participation has diminished and/or women as a group don’t excel. One female coach commented that debaters look unattractive while fast talking, and women are conditioned to be more self-conscious about the way they look. Furthermore, to do well one has to be particularly aggressive, which for women is often seen as a liability. 

    As the National Debate Tournament approached and the team entered lockdown mode working day and night, I thought about what had happened to college debate. Was it really that different from what had happened to any other activity? Everyone I knew was working day and night.  Everything seemed increasingly amped up.  Also, don’t filmmakers habitually speed things up in much the same way as fast talkers?  And as we continued to piece together the film we noted that even editing was getting faster as viewers became more adept at taking in information.   

    And I tried to decide:  is debate broken or had it evolved?  But maybe that wasn’t what I really wanted to know.  Maybe I was asking:  Is it good that we are motivated to do more in less time or bad that we are expected to do so just to keep up?  Good that we are presented with so much information or bad that much of that information is overwhelming? Are we driven by curiosity and a desire to improve or merely by a thirst for acknowledgment and trophies? The debate continues. . . 

    – Debra Tolchinsky