The GW American Parliamentary Debate Society credits the team’s success to a culture of diversity and inclusion.
By Tatyana Hopkins
A “prime minister” once tasked Robin Gloss, a first-year student in the Elliott School of International Affairs, to determine the fate of the human race. Her assignment—decide whether to sustain a small human population during a zombie apocalypse or attempt to annihilate the undead intruders even at the cost of human lives.
The “prime minister,” however, did not govern a country, but rather was a college student and member of the “government team” in an American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) case tournament.
Parliamentary debate is an extemporaneous form of competitive debate that stresses logic and rhetoric over preparation of evidence.
In case tournaments, a pair of two-member teams face off in a round of five speeches. A government team, whose members are labeled “prime minister” and “government member,” proposes a resolution just 15 minutes before the round begins. The opposition team then works to rebut the proposal without the use of outside evidence.
“It actually turned into a really interesting debate about the philosophical basis for a society,” said Ms. Gloss, “and how the things that drive your society from the beginning shapes it later on, and what it would mean to have a society originally founded on the violence of the complete extermination of all those zombies.”
Every weekend, members of the George Washington University American Parliamentary Debate Society team, like Ms. Gloss, compete in APDA tournaments along the East Coast.
The APDA is the oldest parliamentary debating association in the United States and is only one of two collegiate debating associations. It sponsors over 50 tournaments a year as well a national championship for its more than 80 teams.
As of April 25, the GW team ranks third in the nation behind Yale and Harvard.
Ms. Gloss said the world of APDA college debate is totally different from the public forum style she competed in during high school. Aside from not having pre-assigned cases, she said the biggest difference in the two styles of debate is the lack of formality in APDA.
“Tournaments in high school were very formal—it was a bunch of teenagers in suits, pretending to be lawyers,” she said. “Now, I debate in jeans and a T-shirt. Some people even wear sweatpants.”
But she said APDA debate differs from other college debate styles because the organization, and most teams, are run by students. Everyone from APDA’s executive board to tournament judges are students.
The organization also has six student-run committees focused on issues such as equity, diversity and training novice members.
Taleen Khleifat, a sophomore on the GW team, co-chairs APDA’s diversity committee, which aims to increase awareness of and combat issues faced by people of color in the league.
“We think it’s important to increase diversity and inclusion,” Ms. Khleifat said.
She said the same rings true for the GW team because it has an open-door policy to all students.
“We’re a no-cuts team—we accept any and all members,” she said. “We are really proud of that. Our culture is very unique.”
Ms. Khleifat said unlike other teams that have rigorous tryouts or exclude students who are not experienced or competitively successful, the GW team works to address the needs of its team members during twice-a-week practices.
Team rankings are based on an accumulation of points earned by members while representing the school at weekend tournaments.
“But that doesn’t mean that the same debaters who are competitively successful are the only ones contributing to the rankings because there are caps to how many points they can contribute to our national ranking,” she said. “So, it’s really a team effort when we say we are [one of the best] in the country.”
Matthew Cryer, a senior international affairs major and the team’s current president, said the team has worked hard to foster a positive culture as well as increase its visibility on campus by hosting public debates and public forums with political student organizations on campus.
“We’ve been trying to increase our profile because we are mostly an external team,” he said. “Not a lot of people know about us even though we are pretty successful.”
In addition to that, the team worked to be more inclusive.
“This year, we almost tripled in size,” Mr. Cryer said.
Now, the team has about 40 regularly competing members.
Mr. Cryer said although the team historically ranked as one of APDA’s top teams before the growth, he is happy to have more members.
“I’m pretty sure all of the other top five teams are all schools that have cuts and an application process,” Mr. Cryer said. “So, it’s really cool that we can accept anyone and still be competitively successful.”