Illinois State seniors Marlon Harris, Brian Rohman, Hillary St. John, and Michael Tristano had a lot on their plates this semester—a mountain of research to comb through, weekend after weekend full of work, a mad dash toward a big finish in the spring.
And that’s all before they stepped foot into a classroom.
They’re members of Illinois State’s Forensics Union, around 40 students broken into two teams: policy debate and speech/individual events. They’re an extremely dedicated bunch, traveling out of town for weekend tournaments more often than most student-athletes, all while carrying full class loads.
They voluntarily do things that would make many college students squirm—prepare a 7-minute speech in just 30 minutes, argue about the merits of U.S. energy policy with super-prepared opponents, or write and deliver the same nuanced speech over and over and over again, hoping to win just to do it again. Along the way, the diverse group says they’ve developed research and critical thinking skills that can make normal college coursework seem easy by comparison, while finding friends in the close-knit Forensics community.
“It’s really opened me up to new ways of thinking. It kind of changes your perspective on the world,” said St. John, a debater and political communication major from Wheeling who wants to use her biology minor to someday work at a zoo or nonprofit. “It’s shaped a lot of my life experiences, and I’m grateful for that.”
They carry a lot of history on their shoulders. Forensics touts itself as the oldest registered student organization on campus; a debating society formed four days after the University opened in 1857, and the next week another rival debating society began. (They were even granted charter status by the state legislature, so the group would technically still exist even if the University dissolved, so the story goes.)
St. John and the current crop of debaters and speech competitors are focused on adding to the Forensics Union’s legacy, which includes 10 national team championships and more than 80 individual national titles. After winning the Northwestern and Kansas State tournaments this fall, the speech team is in position for a Top 10 finish at nationals, if not a Top 5, said Director of Forensics Kevin Meyer, an assistant professor in the School of Communication. Likewise, the debate team is showing big progress under its new head coach, with momentum toward sending teams to nationals.
For Harris, who started debating nine years ago and competed in the Chicago Urban Debate League, that means going to the National Debate Tournament (NDT) in the spring. He’s already been to the national Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) tournament, and he and his partner, sophomore Anthony Ogbuli, are now in the Top 40 to 80 duos in the country, will need to crack the Top 40 to reach the NDT.
That’s no easy task. Policy debaters from colleges across the U.S. are given the same topic (or “resolution”) each year and spend the season arguing, defending, and attacking policies within it in front of a judge. This year, they’re tackling whether the U.S. government should offer financial incentives for energy production, such as coal, natural gas, or wind power.
“Debate people are curious people,” said Harris, a finance and managerial economics major. “I’ve always been curious, always wanted to know things, and I think a lot of debaters are like that.”
On a recent Friday night, there was Harris, standing at a podium in Schroeder Hall debating solar power against a visitor in town for a tournament hosted by Illinois State. At Harris’ disposal were thousands and thousands of pages of research, compiled on LexisNexis and other information sources and stored on Dropbox. During his time-limited turn to speak, he spoke almost faster than a layperson could comprehend—standard practice for college debaters looking to cram as many arguments into a single turn.
Harris will be job-hunting soon, and he may end up in public office or academia. For now, he certainly knows more than the average 20-something about whether the U.S. government should spur development of an Integral Fast Reactor nuclear power supply. And while it’s enough to impress someone at a party, Harris said the nature of debate is that you never know what the other side will use against you.
“The more you learn, the less you feel you really know,” Harris said.
Tristano and Rohman are president and vice president of the speech crew, the larger of the two Forensics teams with around 29 members. (Each team also has its own coaching staff.) Like the debaters, they travel to weekend tournaments throughout the year—sometimes two in the same weekend—with eyes on qualifying for nationals in the spring.
They compete in 11 events across three genres—limited preparation, public address, and interpretation. And yes, limited preparation is as terrifying as it sounds; the impromptu event gives you about 2 minutes to prepare a 5-minute speech. Rohman’s favorite event is called extemporaneous speaking, or “extemp,” giving him about 30 minutes to prepare a 7-minute competitive presentation based on a question he’s drawn about politics, economics, or social issues.
“It comes down to practice,” said Rohman, from Metamora.
Tristano’s event is rhetorical criticism, where he dissects a piece of communication in a prepared speech. His speech this year is on a sex-education book for youths in Jerusalem that, for religious reasons, essentially lacks any of the explicit language you might expect to find. He crafts the speech over and over and over again, in practice and tournaments, and by now he’s delivered it well over 100 times.
The Downers Grove native plans to go to graduate school for communication. He said his writing skills and ability to organize his thoughts have been greatly improved through speech.
“It really makes school easier, because writing papers is really just a breeze now,” Tristano now.
As part of its commitment to community service, the Forensics Union contributes more than 300 hours each year to various communities in the form of free coaching in high schools and volunteering on campus, among other efforts. They also work to recruit the next generation of competitors by hosting Illinois State’s Summer Speech Institute for high schoolers.
But on the weekends, it’s all about competition. The speech team drove 20-plus hours each way to a tournament in Texas last year. They usually hole up at Super 8s or Motel 6s, looking to save a buck. (The Forensics Union is always looking for alums or other financial contributors to help fund operations.)
Most people on the team live with other team members, Tristano and Rohman said, and many of their coaches over the years have found their spouses in speech.
“The bonds that we form on the team come from those trips, because we do have to spend the time together, all weekend in vans, hotel rooms, at the tournament, all the way home from the tournament,” Rohman said. “And at those tournaments, we see each other at our highs and lows. We see each other when someone has just went and won every single one of their events at that tournament, and we also see someone who didn’t even come close to ‘breaking’ at that tournament.
“Being through that travel experience, it really helps us bond together as a team, to be there for each other and pick each other up when we’re down and bring us closer together,” Rohman said.
Ryan Denham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.