Story by Pete Escobar
Photos by Pete Escobar and Andres Tolentino
Walking into Long Beach State’s forensics speech and debate team meeting is a lot like walking into a noisy coffee shop. There is a lot of chatter, enthusiasm and energy. But there’s one big difference between a coffee shop and the speech and debate team’s meeting room: These students aren’t experiencing a caffeine buzz. Their vitality stems from meaningful conversation about contemporary topics in society.
“Our mission is to give people an opportunity to learn to become better advocates for themselves and their communities; to become better public speakers, better intellectuals, better researchers, and better well-rounded individuals,” says Michael Eisenstadt, the director of forensics at Long Beach State and an assistant professor in the Communication Studies department.
And while that might sound like an exaggerated list of to-dos for some, all of those qualities are required to be an effective speaker or debater. Public speaking, no matter the subject, requires a knowledge of current events and culturally significant happenings within society, as well as the ability to clearly communicate ideas. Debating means “knowing the enemy,” or, in other words, the opposing side of an argument, and requires critical thinking skills to create a compelling narrative of persuasion. Both speech and debate require extensive research, planning and disciplinary skills.
It may seem like a daunting challenge to manage all of these talents, but Long Beach State’s current team is a testament to the fact that these skills can be acquired by anyone, no matter the circumstances or how late one starts practicing the craft.
An argument for debate
“Forensic” is a term often associated with scientific evidence, but it also refers to argumentative exercise. It’s what the speech and debate team practices throughout the year at tournaments held at a variety of schools across the country. Members can enter whichever competitions they choose, though in the spring, they often must qualify for tournaments.
Most of Long Beach State’s speech and debate team members started their public speaking career in college, with no prior experience in high school or elsewhere. For many, what they’ve learned while being a part of the team at the Beach has helped them overcome barriers within their own lives.
Take Michael Gai, a sophomore philosophy major and international student from China whose second language is English. He says the speech and debate team helped him overcome his struggles with public speaking. Now, he’s entering speech tournaments and succeeding; at a competition called Cool Off in San Diego, Gai made it to the final round.
“As a international student, I really have [a] hard time [with] public speaking,” Gai says. “I feel crazy communication anticipation, like anxiety, and our coach taught me how to deal with all those anxieties. [He] also helped me explain ideas, and how to think creatively, critically.”
Seasoned debaters have left their mark on the team’s history, too. Danielle Hyslop, a senior philosophy and pre-law major, has gone up against some of the best teams in the country and has come out victorious.
Most notably, Hyslop faced a team from Weber State University that was coached by debate legend Ryan Wash, who was part of the first all-black duo to win two of the top tournaments in college debate: the National Debate Tournament policy debate championship and the Cross Examination Debate Association championship. In the finals, she won.
Hyslop is just one of the competitors on the Long Beach State speech and debate team showing how these tournaments can offer an even playing field, no matter what school you come from -- or what style of debate you use. Elvis Pineda, a freshman pre-med student, often breaks conventional debating strategies.
“Instead of going up there and being like ‘Oh, we want these policies to change,’ we’ll go up there and we’ll be like, ‘Oh, why should we have policy changes when the underlying oppressions of black people are still there, and we still victimize people of color?’” Pineda says.
Pineda then prepares his rebuttals with the knowledge that other teams will try to invalidate his form of debate. It may seem daunting, but the team, Pineda said, is proud of what they do.
“Especially in Long Beach, when we go up against these other teams from like Kentucky, Ohio, you know, Harvard,” Pineda says. “All these kids are very white, and sometimes we’re some of the very few people of color at tournaments. We take pride in that, and that’s why we like to run these types of arguments. It’s our way of disrupting the debate space.”
It pays dividends at the awards ceremony, too: At a tournament in October at San Diego State University, Pineda was named the top speaker at the tournament.
The future of public discourse
Go online these days, and it may seem like civilized, rational debate is dead. In fact, Eisenstadt has found in his research that a large portion of online interaction, in a political context, might just be an echo chamber.
“I looked at a bunch of the content that people were putting on social media, Facebook and Twitter in particular, during the first presidential debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, and found that it is almost decidedly negative, and that people really are more interested in reaffirming their own beliefs,” Eisenstadt said. “I don’t know that social media is the cause, but it’s definitely a symptom.”
Still, although the idea of talking to someone with an ideology that opposes yours sounds challenging, Eisenstadt says all it really takes is an open mind.
“If my position on reproductive rights isn’t the same as somebody else’s, I shouldn’t discount what they say just because I don’t agree with them, but I should find an area of common ground that we can discuss our differences,” Eisenstadt says. “And until we are willing to do that, the situation regarding public discourse and controversy and public policy is only going to get worse.”
And it’s not all bad on social media. Online debate has, without a doubt, put a spotlight on topics that weren’t covered in the past. Public forums like Twitter and Facebook give representation to minority groups that have been underrepresented in the past.
According to Jaysyn Green, a junior history major and president of the team, online discourse has had a direct impact on the topics covered in speech and debate.
“When I started competing, it was before LGBT rights, and it was also before Black Lives Matter was established,” Green says. “So that stuff didn’t really come up in conversation because it wasn’t present in the media.
“Now, like seven years later, I see a big integration of identity politics and like the intersection of problems and things like that, because those are things that people started paying attention to in the public sphere. It really affects the debate community because it really does change the way we view topics and the way we approach arguments.”
Sidebar: Look Who’s Talking
The 20-student speech and debate team meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays in PH1-108 and LA1-303, respectively, before breaking off to practice for tournaments. For speech, that can involve script writing, practicing movement and overall speech recital. Debate practices focus on research, reworking rebuttals from previous debates and practicing a full debate between two teams.
The team also hosts high school tournaments. It recently held the Jack Howe Memorial Invitational tournament, one of the six largest high school tournaments in the nation, with over 2,000 competitors.
In addition, in an effort to advocate for structured discourse, the team is planning to run a series of public debates in the future.
If you want to join the team, for speech, debate, or both, there is only one requirement: a willingness to learn.
“We’re a full service program that welcomes anyone that would like to participate, from any major and with any level of experience,” Eisenstadt says. “We want this to be a place that’s recognized not only for its success, but also its openness and welcome to anybody who wants a shot.”
Anyone interested in learning more about the program can email Eisenstadt at Michael.Eisenstadt@csulb.edu.