Post-COVID Debate: What to Expect by Serena Mao

The Opinions Expressed In This Post Are Those of the Author And Not Necessarily Those Of Victory Briefs.


It’s been a bit over a year since the virtual UKTOC: the tournament that kickstarted an unprecedented season of e-debate. Since then, competitive high school debate has consisted of a whirlwind of new norms, workarounds, technical difficulties, and a lot of “getting used to.” But just as we’ve acclimated to the strange conditions of virtual debate, we’re also finally seeing the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel.

As we slowly transition back to in person debate, some e-debate practices may be here to stay, while others may even have to be unlearned. Having experienced the highs and lows of both physical and virtual debate, I’m excited to observe e-debate’s long term effects on the activity, but before then, I’ll offer my two cents on what I expect throughout the return to normalcy.

First, the most tangible changes to debate will be apparent in round at in person tournaments:

  • Practices like whispering during PF prep are among the norms that will unquestionably return. Prep time enforcement will tighten up once again: no more “it’s taking a while to load.” 😉 Tech issues will vanish, ensuring no debater is disadvantaged for having lower quality WiFi or a cheaper device.
  • At the same time, the future of PF email chains is uncertain. On one hand, there’s no “Zoom chat” to conveniently share emails or a Google Doc link in, meaning debaters may very well revert to the traditional method of card-sharing. On the other hand, sending cards through email chains is far more educational, saves time, and better upholds evidence ethics.
  • Formal clothes may or may not make a comeback. Online, fewer debaters are dressing up, hypothetically because less of their clothing is visible. Yet, many more have been shamelessly rocking hoodies and sweaters in late elims, possibly setting a precedent for more casual wear post-transition. With some talk in the past about the cost of formal clothes creating a financial barrier for competitive debate, many may welcome this change.
  • Body language and other physical cues will regain their significance. Only the face and shoulders are typically visible through a cramped Zoom window—so when rounds return to school classrooms, hand gestures, projection, and posture will warrant increased attention. Though the bulk of online debate is centered around the substantive arguments made in round, physical debate will make pre-round small talk and the concept of “perceptual dominance” increasingly important, especially at locals or “lay” tournaments. Debaters joining the activity this year will find themselves having to direct their attention to a whole new facet of persuasion in order to continue picking up ballots.
  • The pressure is on! Debating in the comfort of one’s home can be mundane, but it alleviates stress and distances oneself from the intense atmosphere of a cramped classroom. While a quick click of the “mute” or “camera off” button can immediately remove online debaters from the heat of the moment, competitors are effectively “stuck” and vulnerable during rounds when tournaments revert to normal. Emotional responses are not only more difficult to conceal or control in person, but can even be exacerbated during difficult rounds when the opponents and judge are sitting and speaking just a few feet away.

The out-of-round aspects of in person competition are equally as significant:

  • Tournaments become a vacation on the side. At home, it rarely feels like we’re “at a tournament.” But in person, whether it’s in California, New York, Minnesota, or at any one of the dozens of tournament locations across the nation, intense hours of competition are interwoven with team dinners at niche restaurants or walking the streets of an unfamiliar city. At the same time, though, it’s important to be cognizant that frequent travel is unaffordable for many—making attending travel tournaments a privilege that competitors should not take for granted.
  • Community! As cliché as it is, arguably the most valuable part of competitive debate is the people we meet along the way. Online, casual interactions must involve intentional texts and calls, meaning small talk with both previous strangers and acquaintances is rare. In person, hundreds of competitors are closely packed onto campus, meaning friends unintentionally bump into each other often (which is how most conversations start). The social aspect of tournaments isn’t just entertaining—whether it’s celebrating over recent wins or ranting about losses, bonding over the emotional rollercoaster of debate is an integral part of the in person experience.

The micro level impacts of in person tournaments are relatively clear-cut, but on the macro level, their return will have unclear effects on competition accessibility:

  • Peter Zhang’s VBriefly article “Five Trends Among E-Debate Competitors” revealed that more small schools and lone wolf teams began competing this past year. This trend is unsurprising—without the need to travel, debaters living in areas with lower tournament density or just unable to afford high travel and entry fees are encountering far fewer barriers to competition. On the flip side, these debaters may face unprecedented obstacles as upfront costs rise again, signaling a need for renewed efforts to expand accessibility to retain these new competitors.
  • Rumors suggest that e-debate may be here to stay, at least in some capacity. Considering the significantly lower costs of hosting an online tournament, some predict that previously in-person tournaments will permanently pivot to a virtual format. Even then, due to the possibility of technical difficulties and the perceived inauthenticity of online debate, most tournaments will likely face overwhelming pressure to revert to pre-COVID practices. However, it wouldn’t be surprising if a few tournaments remained virtual (or if new virtual tournaments are established) next year, maintaining some of the accessibility advantages of online debate.

From smaller in round changes to overall shifts in tournament schedules, it’s clear that the highly anticipated transition back to pre-COVID debate will entail both short and long term adjustments. After piloting previously untested practices and easing into the new normal of e-debate, debaters can now permanently adopt what succeeded, as well as regain the non-virtual experiences they missed dearly. So with that, see you next season—hopefully, in person!