Is APDA for me? An address to former high school debaters

By: Henry Zhang, Yale University 2017

Note: This article is specifically geared towards novices who participated in high school debate. If you did not participate in high school debate, consider reading this article for tips geared towards people who have no high school debate experience.

If you loved, or even just liked debate in high school, there’s a good chance you’re thinking of trying out APDA–and a good chance you’ll come to love it.

I put it that way because I think for many new college debaters, the transition from high school debate to American Parliamentary is not perfectly smooth (although obviously, everyone experiences this to a different degree). Having just been in a position where I had to make what I thought was a not-so-painless transition, I thought I’d share some of what I’d learned in the past year.

Here are a couple quick points:

  1. Embrace the activity’s differences. This is the least concrete thing I’ll say, but also probably one of what I found to be the most important. There are a lot of things that might be new about the American Parliamentary style of debate–for example, the fact that the teams are called “government” and “opposition”, or that the government team picks the topic of the debate, the lack of prep time, partnerships, the wide range of different debate topics, etc. It’s important, then, to resist the impulse to think APDA is somehow weird or inferior when compared to the event you did in high school. (Only the former is debatably true.) These are opportunities to hone new skills and become a better debate and thinker. At the highest levels, APDA debate is incredibly rigorous, so you should focus on getting to that level.
  2. Ditch the jargon. Don’t say “extend” or “contention” or “voting issue.” These are easy ways to present yourself as a high school debater and not the college debater you want to be, as well as keep yourself chained to the structure and thinking patterns of an event you no longer do. APDA certainly has some of its own lingo, but until you pick it up, it’s best to start off as a blank slate. Honestly, there’s no big need to use jargon to communicate your point anyway.
  3. Watch your speed. I know I had a tendency to talk too quickly at times.  This isn’t a problem for everyone, but for some, it is indeed a problem.
  4. Realize that line-by-line isn’t everything. It’s not. It took me a while to realize that I couldn’t just rely on that common high school tactic–going for dropped arguments–anymore. When thinking about why this is the case, I’ve concluded that APDA debaters are simply better thinkers, since it’s not always the case that a dropped argument is really more persuasive than a strong but contested point. In short, dropped arguments shouldn’t carry your side, the strength of your arguments and your position should, and you should debate accordingly.
  5. Resist the temptation to recycle. You probably have lots of prepared material from high school debate. You could debate the same topics again, but you’ll make better use of your first year–and probably have more fun–if you allow yourself to explore the greater breadth and depth of debate material that APDA offers.
  6. Make use of the league’s resources! It’s a fact about APDA that people just care. About people, about different issues, about the debate league. For first-year debaters in particular, there are a variety of resources. Older members are generally really helpful and eager to talk to novices. You can even ask them for feedback after rounds. There are the novice mentors, who are around specifically to help you. Make sure you stay connected to the novice Facebook page (www.facebook.com/APDANoviceMentors) and website (www.novices.apdaweb.org) for lots of different resources. Finally, I’d recommend checking out www.parlidebate.com for high-quality videos of APDA debate. Watching top-level debaters will help you get a sense of how to stylistically transition, how to improve on other debate skills, and how impressive APDA debates can be.

Ultimately, I think what’s most important as a first-year debater is to approach the activity and the league with openness. As a former high school debater, APDA can be off-putting, and it’s certainly easy to expect it to be exactly same as high school debate. It’s not, but it’s better. I’ve come to love APDA–I find the debate form to be rigorous and challenging and the community to be incredibly welcoming and enthusiastic about debate–and I hope you will too.

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