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WPDU Semester in Review: Learning to Win

Making changes to a historic team

The William Pitt Debating Union (WPDU) is one of the oldest debate societies in the nation. As a co-curricular program housed in the Dietrich School’s Department of Communication, the WPDU has been a powerhouse in both competitive and public debate for more than a century. While the team has long excelled in Policy Debate, a highly technical, fast-paced, and intense form of competitive debate, this year the team transitioned to a more accessible format to improve student work-study-life balance and to make debate accessible to more students. The National Forensics Association’s Lincoln Douglas debate event, often abbreviated as “LD.”  is a research-intensive form of one-on-one debate, where students across the nation debate both sides of a single topic the entire year. This year’s resolution up for debate is: “THE UNITED STATES FEDERAL GOVERNMENT SHOULD SUBSTANTIALLY REDUCE THE NUMBER AND/OR ROLE OF ITS NUCLEAR WEAPONS.”  

Additionally, the team has expanded its competitive offerings to include six of the eleven speech events hosted at National Forensics Association affiliated tournaments. These events include: impromptu speaking, extemporaneous speaking, informative speaking, persuasive speaking, rhetorical criticism, and after-dinner speaking (event descriptions). These platform and limited preparation speech events provide students opportunities to take their public speaking and research skills to the next level, requiring targeted practice and coaching in all aspects of speech construction and delivery. At tournaments, students compete in multiple rounds that are judged by communication and theater arts professors from a broad and diverse selection of colleges and universities. As an educational activity, each student receives written feedback and advice from a different judge in each round.  

A first-year Pitt student walks into debate tournament…

The WPDU reported on some of the tremendous competitive success earned by our more-experienced debaters (“Pitt Wins at the Golden Gate Opener”). Due to the transition to a more accessible style of debate, we have also had competitive and educational success among newer students as well. First-year Pitt student, Avinash “Avi” Kunde, won the Novice division of Lincoln Douglas Debate at the Tony Bernacchi Invitational, hosted by Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California. Avi went undefeated at the tournament, winning all four preliminary rounds and surpassing strong challengers in the semifinal and final rounds. Competitors included students from the California State University system, Texas Tech, and University of the Pacific. This was a tremendous feat for the new debater, as it was also his first time competing at a debate tournament, having no prior debate experience in college and high school.

Avi’s competitive success was tied to his willingness to learn deeply about the substance of arguments and a commitment to developing excellent public speaking skills. While it often takes years of practice to master the technical nuances of intercollegiate debate, Associate Director of Debate, Dr. Alvin Primack, and argument consultant Parth Shah worked closely with Avi to ensure he was well-prepared for competition. At debate practice and in one-on-one coaching sessions, Dr. Primack and Parth emphasized the importance of knowledgeably and concisely explaining one’s reasoning to a judge.

In LD, debaters are expected to post their cases to a website, OpenCaselist, to promote a greater depth of argumentative engagement. Preparation for this tournament included small-group and one-on-one coaching sessions where Dr. Primack, Parth, Avi, and experienced debaters strategically discussed potential opponents’ cases. At one such coaching session, Dr. Primack and Avi picked apart several potential cases that Avi might debate against at the tournament. While they prepared counter-cases, most of the session was about ensuring Avi understood the thesis of each piece of evidence and each argument the opponent would make in their opening speeches. Avi took care to thoroughly think through each argument until he could comfortably both his and his opponent’s arguments in his own words. While traveling with debate coach and Communication Department graduate student Nadia Hussein, Avi continued studying his opponents’ cases and his prepared responses to their cases, ensuring a great depth of understanding that would ultimately help him win the tournament.

The art of public speaking is a group activity

As we roll-out our competitive speech program, several students have opted to compete in an online-modality for the first semester. Speech team mentors Sarah Memon and Natalie Rose, as well as new member Henry Zheng, have competed in a selection of online speech tournaments to learn more about their competitive events. All three students have begun practicing some form of limited preparation speech, either impromptu speaking or extemporaneous speaking. Sarah and Natalie are also developing their first memorized platform speeches. In addition to working on their own speech events, Sarah and Natalie have also provided peer coaching and mentorship to other new students, creating a better sense of team unity while ensuring great excellence in public speaking. Next semester, the speech side of the WPDU’s competitive program will travel to its first in-person tournament of the season along with several debaters with hope of qualifying events for the National Forensics Association’s National Championship Tournament in April.