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October 13, 2009

The twin forces of economic necessity and environmentally ethical citizenship forced a comprehensive review of the practices of Emory's intercollegiate debate team. In the same way athletic teams carry sports equipment to competitions, a debate team carries research to document their arguments; evidence read into the record of eight, two-hour debates which comprise the preliminary rounds of competition prior to five sudden death elimination rounds. Twenty-six hours of debate is supported by substantial research, and over 10,000 bibliography items are researched for any given year's nine-month tournament season--producing literally tons of evidenced briefs of advocacy used by teams in competition. Since a team doesn't know what area of the topic an opponent might select, all research must be carried into all rounds.

On average, each two-person team carries four to six rubber tubs weighing 50 pounds each for a total of 200 to 300 pounds. In 2008-2009, the intercollegiate debate team at Emory carried approximately 4,600 pounds when traveling by air and 13,800 pounds by bus/ground transportation, or more than nine tons of debate evidence. Excess airline baggage fees, paper, and extra local tournament transportation cost $9,200. As airlines announced price increases for all baggage checked, the projected costs for 2009-2010 were substantially higher.

At a June 2009 national academic argument conference at Wake Forest University, a panel was held on "paperless" debating as a way to engage the rising costs and environmental ethics of tournament debate. The challenges seemed insurmountable. Many college debaters started the activity in the 6th grade and had been debating for seven years on the paper system by the time they got to college; college juniors and seniors for 10 to 11 years. Taking paper away meant that computer programs had to be written to handle the volume of material to accommodate time limits per round. Other problems included hardware investments which might create competitive inequalities (e.g., the need for extra computers to prevent damage from one crashing mid-round), rule changes so that judges and opponents could review evidence during and after the round, transference mid-round to other teams, organizing speeches with multiple computer pages needed at the same time so that mid-speech strategy adjustment could take place, and many more. Competitive advantage is almost always sacrificed in such a radical transition. Imagine Serena Williams being given a ping pong paddle and asked to play her sister Venus, who has a tennis racket, in a regulation tournament tennis match. While most at the Wake Forest conference agreed reform was needed, it was clear that change would be slow.

With 44 active tournament debaters, Emory is one of the largest teams in the U.S., and begins the 2009-2010 season with several of the top teams in the U.S. Three tournament weekends into the season about 25% of competitive teams in the U.S. have adopted the paperless format experiment for competition. Thirty-eight Emory debaters are using the paperless format. Juniors and seniors were given a choice to be grandfathered into the new practice. Barkley Forum debaters are very supportive of the changes, realizing the benefits for both environment and budgets, and engaging the creative process to build best practices for the future of intercollegiate tournament debating.


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