USC’s debate team survives Zoom era to win USC’s biggest title in 30 years

USC’s recent debate dominance in the Texas Open national competition was historic, the biggest win for the Trojan Debate Squad in 30 — and possibly more — years.

It was especially sweet for debate partners Julian Kuffour and Kevin Sun, who took victory together in their final tournament after overcoming the challenges of Zoom debates for the past two years.

The stakes of the Zoom debates

Sean Kennedy, debate director and faculty member at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, described the challenges of leading a team during the pandemic.

“Basically, I had an amazing time with the students, but it was really tough,” said Kennedy, who arrived at USC in the fall of 2020. “With COVID, probably the biggest challenge was to maintaining team cohesion and bonding Many debate teams are in a van or an airport or at dinner with all the students, and the impromptu bonding that occurs.

A major challenge for the debate teams themselves – strategic mid-debate discussions were now irrelevant.

“Debating is a partner activity, and it’s very difficult to communicate with your partner when I’m in Kansas and he’s in California, and we’re debating on Zoom,” said Kuffour, a senior at USC Dornsife. College of Letters, Arts. and Science. “We had to text a lot and learn to communicate non-verbally and learn each other’s patterns.”

Sun noted other downsides to online debate. “There’s a period in debate called cross-examination, and it has a lot to do with assessing the mood and intangibles of a play,” he said. “We lost all of that on Zoom.”

But Kuffour — a law, history, and culture major — and Sun, a computer science student at USC Viterbi School of Engineering, were seasoned contenders who have spent the past three years debating side-by-side about everything from collaboration space to antitrust laws. They were able to adapt and weren’t afraid to work overtime to prepare.

The Art of Arguing at USC

The debate at USC began in 1880, as USC’s first chartered student organization. The modern version began in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and USC has participated in national debate tournaments since the very beginning. For decades, the debate has been housed in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at USC Dornsife; it merged with USC Annenberg in 1995.

Kennedy — who took the helm from longtime debate director Gordon Stables, now director of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism — says the debate has a host of benefits beyond building research and decision-making skills. of public speaking. On the one hand, it gives students a more nuanced and thoughtful perspective.

“You learn skills like the ability to reflect on the point you’re trying to make while still being an advocate for your point of view,” he said. “The debate about the perspective that conflict gives you is positive.”

Sun added, “People often view debate as adversarial, but the best debaters know what things to give up and when to give ground. When you can see it from another person’s perspective, that’s a strength. We use deductive logic to find common ground with other teams.

A moment of tension on a lost judge

After a year of perfecting every argument for and against the Monopolies, the potential fate of the USC team became increasingly apparent as the Texas Open progressed.

“Teams Michigan and Northwestern have haunted us all season — kind of the white whale we’ve been chasing,” Kennedy said. “I tell the debaters to go round by round. It wasn’t until we beat Dartmouth that we thought, ‘Oh my God, we could win this tournament.

The USC team debated in 22 hours of playoff rounds the weekend before the final debate. Thirty-two teams were won at USC and Michigan, the No. 1 team standing. At the end of the debate, everyone lined up in the corridor to allow the judges to deliberate. Kuffour and Sun said they felt good but cautious – around 60-40.

Kennedy described the dramatic moments leading up to the ruling: “We were called back for the ruling, to find one of the judges missing,” he said. “We waited 20 minutes to find out later that he was in the bathroom and his phone was dead.” After the judge returned, the winners were announced.

A proper final debate

“When they announced it was 2-on-1 for USC, it was crazy. There’s a YouTube video of me and Julian celebrating,” Sun recalled. “I’ve never been so happy with my life, honestly.”

According to Kennedy, it’s USC’s biggest win since 1990, and while unverifiable due to spotty records, it’s likely Troy’s biggest win since the 1970s.

It was also the culmination of three years as partners and Kuffour’s final debate as a Trojan horse. “It was a relief to win,” Kuffour said.

“I’m still pretty speechless,” he admitted. “There are no words to describe how important the win was for my career, for Kevin’s career and for the team.”

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