VBI Family: Interview with Ben Sprung-Keyser
Ben Sprung-Keyser is a junior at Harvard College, majoring in economics. He graduated from the Harvard-Westlake School in 2011, where he competed in Lincoln-Douglas debate starting in elementary school. As a high school debater, he won the Voices and Greenhill Round Robins, cleared at multiple bid tournaments, and was the 2010 National Forensics League National Champion. He attended the Victory Briefs Institute the summers after his sophomore and junior years, and worked at VBI in 2011 as an instructor. He most recently won the 2014 World Universities Debating Championship held in Chennai, India.
VBD: Congratulations on winning Worlds! How did you guys feel when you realized you had won?
BSK: The feeling was incredible- just completely surreal. And you can’t process it in the moment- it’s impossible. It sort of begins to dawn on you that it happened afterward but I just felt incredibly excited and also incredibly lucky. The thing about Worlds is that you can do everything and do the right preparation, put yourself in a position to win, but there’s so much other stuff that goes into it that if it comes out right, you just have to feel lucky that and also grateful for everything that everyone does to get you there. It’s also an impossible thing to do individually, you obviously want a partner, there’s an enormous amount of reliance on coaches and teammates. So in total, the feeling is one of incredible excitement, feeling incredibly lucky, and also really grateful for the people who helped me get there.
VBD: You’ve been in a similar situation before when you won NFL Nationals! Was this better or worse compared to when you won NFLs?
BSK: It is impossible to compare. I would say no other moment in my life feels at all the same to the moment I won NFL nationals. So that is a kind of similar feeling of absolute shock and euphoria.
VBD: The WUDC British Parliamentary format doesn’t rely on evidence and pre-written material as much as LD does; how did you prepare before the tournament?
The first thing you do is you just read as much as possible. That is to say that you don’t know what the topic will be but you have a general sense there are going to be some econ topics, there are going to be some political science topics, there are going to be some social policy topics, and so you prepare yourself by immersing yourself in as much literature as possible. That’s reading The Economist, that’s reading blogs, that’s reading as many newspapers as you can get your hands on, just diving into that stuff as much as possible. And you can play a game of what topics you think are likely and do a deep dive into that kind of research, but the truth is the best strategy is to become as familiar with the material as possible. And the other thing you do is you prepare for it the same way you prepare for any other debate competition, which is to say it’s related to speaking itself. We do a huge number of practice debates- we once a week probably do practice debates where we would bring in students from Harvard Business School, the Harvard Kennedy School, students who were former Worlds quarterfinalists, semifinalists to help us out. We would do practice speeches and drills in the same way. The other thing we did a lot of was video analysis- a lot of watching rounds of excellent debaters and figuring out what they do right and what they do wrong, and then coming together and giving speeches based on those rounds and discussing based on those rounds. I would probably say the one thing I did a lot of here that I hadn’t as much beforehand was video analysis.
VBD: Do you think that the preparation you did for Worlds was more or less intense than preparation for TOC and NFLs?
BSK: It is different. It is definitely less intense and less concentrated than something like TOC prep. You need to pace yourself in different ways. One could the night before write a case in LD, and you could cram and do that, but one cannot say “I’m now going to read all the news in the world” the night before Worlds. So, you have to take a longer term perspective on preparation and say I’m going to do it piece by piece and get better, but you can’t worry in the same way about saying “let me now sit down for eight hours the night before a tournament.”
VBD: I’ve heard that in parli, the affirmative picks the topic—is there a general topic category announced before the tournament so the neg has some time to prepare?
BSK: So the affirmative does not pick the topic in British Parliamentary debate. It does in some forms of American Parliamentary debate, for example, but the Worlds format is chosen by the adjudication- so there’s a group of people who run the tournament, who are themselves former debaters and what you think of as the cream of the crop judges, and they choose the topics. The topics are announced fifteen minutes before the round, and no one knows it beforehand, and you have those fifteen minutes of prep, and then you get started.
VBD: That sounds really scary.
BSK: It’s fantastic.
VBD: Do you think your experiences in LD helped prepare you for Worlds?
BSK: Oh, absolutely. It was enormously helpful. The thing is that it was in LD, and specifically at VBI, that I got some of my most rigorous debate training. That is to say, training that taught me how to think about arguments in the right way, and about the way that arguments interact. The truth is that debaters come from a huge number of different backgrounds- the British, I think are particularly excellent in terms of how beautifully they speak, the Australians have a really strong grasp on facts about the world, and they tend to utilize those things very well. But I think the advantage we have as Americans is in terms of the academic rigor of our activity in high school. That is to say, we take the study of argument really, really seriously, and I think that shows. One of the ways, for example, American debaters can deal with the fact that British debaters sound prettier when making an argument is that they are explicitly comparative on the issues of the debate itself and use their ability to compare and explain to the judge why they won the round. I think that kind of training is incredibly important and comes directly from American high school debate, comes from LD, and for me came from VBI.
VBD: Is that rigorous debate culture not present in other countries?
BSK: There is a large background in debate, and they do a lot of debate. But they do different styles of debate, and they don’t think of arguments in quite the same way. That is to say that, I think the constant rhetoric that surrounds American high school debate is questions of comparative impacts, the size of relative impacts, questions of links, questions of who controls those links, questions of the way in which uniqueness operates, questions of offense and defense- those kinds of terms indicate a strategic way that Americans think about arguments that is not always true of other debaters. And I think that it is probably unique to LD and policy more than it exists in other activities of that sort, but that way of thinking is something that LD teaches you. And I think if utilized in the right way, it can be enormously important in every activity.
VBD: Well, it’s nice to hear something uniquely good about America for once.
BSK: [laughs] I say this noting that no other American team has won the tournament in twenty-five years.
VBD: What other activities are you involved in on-campus aside from debate?
BSK: I’m involved in some research work. I work as a research assistant in the Harvard economics department and I also work at the NBER, which is the National Bureau of Economics Research, and I do work on a whole range of projects on things related to monetary policy- just trying to get my feet wet in different areas. I also did an activity called Fed Challenge, which is a sort of debate on monetary policy- so it is a hybrid of the kinds of stuff you would do in debate. You are judged compared to other teams on the arguments you make, but it’s specifically econ-focused. It’s a series of fifteen to twenty minute presentations and then Q and A sessions from prominent academics. It is sort of debate related and sort of econ related, so I spent a bunch of years doing that.
VBD: Do you think that the skills you learned from debate have carried over into other fields?
BSK: Yes, absolutely. It is hard for me, to be honest, to try and isolate an individual skill I learned from debate and say “this is how it helped me.” But that’s probably just because debate has so influenced the way that I think that I can’t separate it out from how I would think absent debate. That is to say that I view the world so completely in terms of arguments that it influences all of my activities. I think that economics done right only draws on a lot of the things that debate teaches, and a lot of the ways in which it forces you to go through rigorous causal chains and form effective arguments, because persuading someone of an idea and generating an argument into a paper- that is at its heart the same as what it is to give an argument.
VBD: What is the single best piece of advice you received as a debater, and what single piece of advice would you give to a young LDer?
The best advice I think I’ve probably ever received as a debater is just three words: find the heart. I think that as advice for the way to think about debate rounds, it is probably the single most important thing that you can do. Debaters have an enormous tendency to lose the forest through the trees, to get distracted by whats going on, and they just start thinking about individual arguments and try to play the game of debate. I think what they forget about is that they need to constantly focus on what the debate is about, in a more abstract sense. When you begin to say “What is this debate really about?,” “how do I answer the question of this debate”- I think that has an enormous impact on debate success. This differs format to format, it is particularly important in a format like British Parliamentary, where you are generating the arguments as you are making the speeches for the first time, so you’ve gotta really narrow what the debate is about. I think in something like LD, it has a two-fold impact; first is in generating casing- you know, you decide what is your AC, what is your NC- I think answering the question of what should the debate really be about is the best way to find that. I also think that when someone is making a strategic decision about what argument to go for in a round, the way in which they should place defensive arguments relative to offensive arguments- you’re suddenly forcing yourself to go back to the larger question of what the debate is about. This is, by the way, a slightly different version of the kind of stuff that Neil Conrad always used to say about the need to tunnel up from the flow.
VBD: Last question- what did you like best about your VBI experience?
In the abstract sense, the thing about VBI that makes it different is the number of people who are there all the time who are willing to work with you as much as possible to get you better. I think that it is just incredible, and is better than any other working environment or debate coaching that I have seen. The willingness to say “you want to sit down and get better, you can do that” is really incredible. The specific memory I have is actually a two-hour long conversation sitting on a couch talking about the interaction of kritiks and theory, and I know it’s sort of oddly specific and incredibly nerdy, but I look back at that conversation as as one of the most defining moments of my debate education. My instruction was Neil Conrad. He sat down with me and three other debaters and just asked a single question about the interaction of the two things. He would ask “Does Argument A beat Argument B, or does Argument B beat Argument A?” We had a two and a half hour discussion about this question about which argument beat which argument, in which the three of us were going back and forth and getting very very frustrated, and Neil just kept asking questions, just in a very Socratic method approach of trying to figure out what we were doing. We slowly began to realize that we were not really having a discussion amongst ourselves, but rather we were pawns in this argument, or this idea that he wanted us to come to realize at the end. By the end, there was that “aha” moment of understanding the arguments, and that to me is one of the defining moments of of VBI. It was the kind of thing that one could give you the answer and tell you, and go and be done for the night, and you take something away from it but not very much, or they could sit and discuss with you until it clicks and you understand it. That can have a lasting effect on your understanding. I think the kind of time investment and willingness to work with people is true of VBI as a whole and what makes it such a remarkable place.