Why Former Debaters are the Best College Professors by Doyle Srader, Ph.D.
ots of my friends make boring, unintelligible conversation that’s all larded up with jargon and concepts I can’t follow and don’t really care about. Your closest nondebater friends know my pain. I debated from seventh grade until my fifth year in college, so nearly everyone who came of age in my cohort went on to law school. I didn’t; I took a different path. When I get together with college friends, and they talk about collateral estoppel or motions for summary judgment, I have to tell them to shut up and watch the movie. That’s not so bad, but I do admit it rubs me the wrong way when people operate off the unspoken assumption that, obviously, good debaters are supposed to go to law school and become attorneys. I mean, if you’re good at research, strategy, and execution, then that’s where you belong, right? The legal profession is to debate as the NBA is to basketball, no? No. I have nothing against a career in law if that’s your calling, but I realized early that it wasn’t mine. When I was halfway through college, I decided I wanted to be a college debate coach and stay around debate my entire life. That didn’t last long. Instead of paying attention to what debate coaches actually did each day, I imagined all my favorite parts of competing in debate, and added on power
Rostrum | WINTER 2017
The field doesn’t matter. Former college debaters of my acquaintance are now professors of Political Science, Philosophy, International Relations, Economics, History, Cognitive Science, and Math.”
and permanence, in the sense that I would get to make all the decisions and never run out of eligibility. Let’s just say it wasn’t quite like that, and I coached college debate for only two years. But the one thing I did do right was I got the schooling to nail down job security: I did a doctorate in Communication, which included several terms of TA teaching assignments. When my coaching dreams shriveled up and blew away, I fell back on teaching. In the years that followed, I made a discovery. Debate is really excellent training for a career as an educator. I don’t mean debate coach: I mean educator. The field doesn’t matter. Former college debaters of my acquaintance are now professors of Political Science, Philosophy, International Relations, Economics, History, Cognitive Science, and Math. I’m too far removed from debate to know whether “portable skills” is still a trendy buzz-phrase, but it’s got a lot of truth to it. (If it isn’t, ask your coach about it.) I’ve won campus-wide teaching awards in four of the past ten years, at a huge state school and a tiny liberal arts college. I don’t say that to brag; instead, I say it to set up the question so many of my colleagues
ask me: “How do you do that?” I always give them the same answer: “Debate.” They roll their eyes, but it’s true. To give you a sense of how cut out you are for the classroom, let me list a few things I do that make my colleagues ask, “How do you do that?”
1. I answer questions comfortably and confidently. Some professors do this, but you’d be surprised how many don’t. They know their subject, but they’re not used to being put on the spot. A handful of professors ask students to hold all questions until the end of class, but far more common is the professor who gives a short answer that really punts the topic down the road. But I spent years, and hundreds of debate rounds, parsing a question, quickly deciding on the best way to answer it, and then carefully choosing my wording on the fly, often turning my response into a useful argument in the moment. And any of you who’ve debated know how natural it feels to do that. College students love it.
2. I don’t fall behind. It’s amazing how many professors have zero awareness of the passage of time. They schedule lecture topics, exercises, and other learning activities for the class meetings, but then barely make it halfway through what they’d planned. Too often