Cabin Fever Debates offer new students a chance to learn the craft

Deck: Event focuses on helping new debaters train their skills

Jump: High-profile debaters got their start at Cabin Fever

Academic debating is something that UAA is notoriously good at. The Seawolf Debate team has placed highly in many national and international tournaments since its inception in 1972. Unfortunately, many of Seawolf Debate’s greatest accomplishments occur off-campus, leaving the debate team often unable to engage with its community.

With that obstacle, the debate team has found a solid way to recruit new students: the Cabin Fever Debates. The event, which started in 2006, was designed especially for students who are either totally new to debating, or have only competed in past Cabin Fever events — no official Seawolf debaters are allowed to compete.

“We were looking for a way to reach out for students who weren’t active on the team,” Steve Johnson, an associate professor at the Department of Journalism and Communication, as well as Seawolf Debate’s director, said. “We have a terrific competitive debate team here at UAA, but we knew that there’s a whole bunch of other students who we might not be reaching because the competitions happen outside. We’re the only competitive intercollegiate debating team in Alaska so we always have to travel outside to engage in competitions. We wanted to bring some of that experience to students who weren’t active on that team, and perhaps broaden our recruiting effort and some good quality talent out there who might not otherwise have known about us.”

Many students find the event to be an important milestone in getting into the debating field.

“Participating in the Cabin Fever Debates was one of the best decisions I made in my college career,” said Arina Filippenko, a student at UAA who had participated in the event in the past. “The whole experience was transformative and eye-opening as I had never encountered a situation where I had to advocate directly for something I was opposed to.”

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Before the Cabin Fever debates, one of the debate team’s most effective recruiting efforts was engaging with high school debate teams. Many members of Seawolf Debate joined because of their prior experience.

“I fell in love with the activity in high school, and found out that UAA has an incredible debate team, which also offers scholarships,” Sam Erickson, a member of Seawolf Debate, said. “So that was a pretty big draw for me; getting to come to a close school and get paid to debate on a fantastic team? I mean… it doesn’t make much more of an easy sell than that.”

Since Cabin Fever, students have had a bigger opportunity to get their feet wet in the debating field. The event takes place at the Social Science Building, room 118, before the final round in the Arts Building’s recital hall. The first day of the event, Feb. 2, is a practice day. Students are given time to research their topics and form their arguments. They have many resources, including members of Seawolf Debate.

After a week, on Feb. 9, the preliminary rounds begin. Students compete in teams of two. The style is typical British Parliamentary Style, complete with audience members pounding tables with an agreeable, “hear hear!” The preliminary rounds continue through March 1, before teams advance to the semifinals on March 8 and eventually the final round on March 10.

While adjudication isn’t entirely objective, USUAA Vice President and Seawolf Debate member Matthieu Ostrander admits, there is a definite level of persuasiveness that judges are looking for.

“I think there’s always a gradient when we’re talking about the experience of the debaters that you see at Cabin Fever,” said Ostrander. “The important thing to remember is that we’re looking at both the matter that they bring, and then the manner in which they deliver it — that is, the way that they present themselves.”

At the end, cash prizes are awarded ranging from $100 for the semifinalist team, to $200 to the finalist team, all the way up to a grand prize of $1,000. There’s also the $100 Quianna Clay Prize, named after a UAA debater who went from no prior debating experience to a semifinalist at a national championship in the span of a couple years (1998-2000).

According to Johnson, this theme is what makes the Cabin Fever debates so important. He cited students like Akis Gialopsos, who went from top speaker at Cabin Fever to being one of the top-ranked speakers in North America, and Brett Frazer, who got his start at Cabin Fever and went on to advance to two elimination rounds at the World Universities Debating Championships, before adjudicating the Cabin Fever debates themselves.

While many of the students on Seawolf Debate started because of prior experience in high school, members of the debate team encourage students to get started no matter what their experience.

“One of the complaints about young people is that they’re disconnected from the world around them,” said Johnson. “I don’t think they are, but I think that even if they are not paying as close attention as they might otherwise, debate gives them incentives to pay attention to what’s going on in the world around them.”

Many of the debaters see their activity as a vital skill to have in today’s world.

“I think competitive debating teaches you how to think,” said Ostrander. “Even if you’ve never been exposed to it, the act of thinking about how you’re going to engage in making arguments in a way that is persuasive to other people forces you to think about how you’re communicating and how you as an individual can convey ideas effectively. So when you look at that through a competitive lens, there’s really an incentive to do that in the best way possible. So it’s not an academic experience purely, it’s both an academic and competitive experience.”

Members of Seawolf Debate also cite a common prior fear of public speaking, but for them, debate has always been a way to keep that fear in check and hone their skills. They encourage anyone with an interest in overcoming those hurdles to give the Cabin Fever debates a try.

Jacob Shercliffe, Genevieve Mina, and Neal Koeneman promote the Cabin Fever Debates in the Student Union.