Thursday, December 10, 2009

UVM Team Debates the World


All the World's a (Debate) Stage

Release Date: 12-08-2009

Author: Warren Cornwall

Snider and Natale

Under the guidance of debate coach and forensics professor Alfred "Tuna" Snider, UVM junior Sam Natale and others on the team have traveled to debate competitions worldwide. Recent stamps in Natale's passport: Slovenia, Malaysia, Ireland and Thailand. (Photo: Sally McCay)

Sam Natale didn't have a typical Thanksgiving break.

While many college students encountered turkey leftovers and rarely seen relatives, the University of Vermont junior was six time zones away, facing off against people from 29 countries in heated debates over topics like whether a military should overthrow a corrupt government.

The trip to the tiny southeastern European country of Slovenia was the latest foray for a UVM debate program that has taken a strong international direction.

Over the past two years globe-trotting UVM debaters have crisscrossed the world. In one nine-month period, the debate team racked up enough miles to go to the moon and back. They've taught the finer points of disagreement in countries where open debate until recently was barely tolerated. At the same time, the experience has made them question their own assumptions about the world.

"When you're talking about Kosovo with Serbians," Natale said, "that's a different experience."

Follow the Tuna

The guiding force behind these world travels is a 59-year-old, high-energy iconoclast and debate evangelist, Alfred "Tuna" Snider, the Edwin W. Lawrence Professor of Forensics at UVM.

"It's because the world is smaller and we're bigger," Snider said, to explain his recent emphasis on international debate.

Snider first traveled overseas to promote debating in 1995, when he visited Serbia. The country was ruled by the authoritarian regime of Slobodan Milosevic. Snider recalled Serbian students surrounding thugs sent to disrupt the debate, and chasing them away with chants of "No violence!"

"It was a fabulous moment," he said.

He has since taught debate in more than two dozen countries, and hosts the World Debate Institute, an annual debate camp at UVM. His office is a crowded testament to his international work. A Turkish flag hangs on one wall. A stack of boxes hold gifts from officials in various countries. The latest one is a decorative metal plate from the sultanate of Oman's ministry of education.

His motivation, Snider said, is partly to give people the tools to think for themselves, and partly to promote peaceful dialogue and create a culture of "constructive disagreement."

"I see it as a way for global understanding and social change," he said.

International style

It wasn't until the last three years that the debate team regularly followed Snider overseas.

First, he had to teach people a different way to debate.

Much as Americans still measure things in inches rather then centimeters, so U.S. debaters follow different rules than most other countries.

Here, most debaters exhaustively study a single issue — such as health care policy — and then debate that topic for a year.

Elsewhere, the events are run much like parliamentary debates. Two pairs of opposing teams are given a statement on nearly any topic. They have 15 minutes to prepare, before each debater gets seven minutes to persuade the judges to either support or oppose the statement. After a series of preliminary debates, the top-scoring teams advance to the "playoffs."

So in 2002, Snider started teaching the international style to UVM debaters.

He has been a pioneer in the Northeast for pushing adoption of the international format, said Sam Nelson, coach of the Cornell University debate team and a friend of Snider's. He predicted its popularity would spread from more than a dozen Northeast schools today to as many as a hundred in 10 years.

"It wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Tuna," Nelson said.

Hitting the road

Natale's first taste of international debate came in late 2008. That fall, as classes were starting, he walked into Snider's office and was greeted with an invitation to go on a debate world tour.

"If you're willing to work hard and practice, you can do this," he recalled Snider saying.

While the full tour didn't materialize, Natale and a handful of other UVM students wound up debating in Slovenia, Malaysia, Ireland and Thailand. At an event in Malaysia, he competed in front of the country's crown prince.

Funding for the travel came from overseas hosts, alumni, and from an endowment that produces roughly $70,000 a year for the UVM debate program. Natale bought his own plane ticket to China, so he could teach at a debate program in Beijing and study Chinese.

Along the way, Natale was confronted with the realization that his assumptions about the world weren't always shared.

At a debate about whether pharmaceutical companies should be allowed to advertise their drugs, he was startled to realize drug ads weren't allowed in parts of Europe. His European counterparts were shocked to learn that American doctors could be sued by patients, and that many patients here question their physicians, he said.

"I didn't realize that it wasn't normal to sue your doctors at every turn, walk in and ask for drugs, and not trust your doctor," he said.

The UVM debate team has steadily climbed the world rankings among university debate teams. Currently they are 118th with three years of results, while many schools are ranked based on points earned for five years. Snider predicts the team will reach around 60th within two years.

On the latest trip to Slovenia — five days of workshops followed by a three-day tournament — Natale and his debate partner won second place. The two also tied for first place in a competition for the best individual speaker.

"People know that in any individual debate, we can go toe to toe with the best people out there," Natale said.

Turkey for the next holiday

Snider is already preparing for his next trip into a part of the world where debate is a far more perilous activity. In mid-December he heads to Iraq.

His itinerary for next year includes Japan, Finland, Serbia, Qatar, and possibly Italy and Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, Natale and five other UVM students are getting ready for their winter break. They won't be spending it carving turns on the slopes. They'll be at the debate world championships in Turkey.

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