At the Pi Kappa Delta national debate tournament last spring, five Emerson students—all of them brand new to competitive debate—won first place in multiple categories against 500 students from other colleges and universities. “To start a season completely new to the activity and then win a national title is amazing,” said Deion Hawkins, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies and Director of Forensics.
“Of the four schools I have coached at, Emerson is by far the place where students have the natural talent and are fearless enough to say, ‘You know what, I am wild enough to actually give this a try,’” he said.
While this year’s team may be new to the activity, forensics—which is the academic term for public discussion and debate—is certainly not new to Emerson. Alternately called the Debating Society, the Debate Council, the Debate Club, and now Emerson Forensics, the organization has undergone many iterations and a few hiatuses throughout the years but its legacy and reputation for thriving in competitions, and its aptitude for making comebacks, remain unchanged.
A TRADITION OF ORATORY
One can’t help but think that debate is part of what Charles Wesley Emerson had in mind when he founded the College as a “school of oratory” in 1880. An old Emerson yearbook cites 1948 as the inception of the debate team, but it began in earnest in 1949-50 when they started competing, “beating [the] Army three times, to say nothing of B.U., Harvard, and Dartmouth.” The team competed in tournaments at the University of Vermont, Tufts, and M.I.T.
In 1951, Professor of Speech Coleman Bender took on the role of debate team coach. Under the guidance of Bender and his fellow professor Haig der Marderosian ’54, MS ’55, the Emerson debate team quickly became one of the best in the country. The debate team would also regularly compete against teams of incarcerated men at Norfolk Prison with the goal of helping them prepare for life post-release. The spirit of democratizing access to education for marginalized people lives on today through the Emerson Prison Initiative. See sidebar for more on the Norfolk Prison debates.
For decades, the team maintained its status as a fierce competitor, earning them invitations to both regional and national competitions. Today, rows upon rows of trophies earned in competitions from the 1950s through the 1970s can be found lining shelves in the Walker building.
A SPACE FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE
Hawkins came to Emerson in 2018 and was immediately struck by students’ passion for social justice. Hawkins, who started debating competitively when he was 13, said forensics is oriented toward social justice. “It is a place where all folks are welcome,” he said. “[As someone with] two marginalized identities—being a black gay man—I felt at home [and] accepted. My differences were celebrated.”
Last fall, Hawkins received the National Council of Pi Kappa Delta’s Bob Derryberry Award, which recognizes excellence among intercollegiate forensics educators who have been teaching for five years or less. As one of the few black directors in the country, Hawkins says he hopes he will encourage other coaches of color to see themselves in forensics.
“The team here at Emerson is very collaborative and I think that that's kind of the team culture that I strive to establish—recognizing that we're all here to learn from each other. Together we are more likely to have solid points,” he said.
Hawkins cites this variety of perspectives and viewpoints as a major strength of the Forensics team. The students come from diverse majors, including Writing, Literature and Publishing, Theater, Political Communication, Marketing, Visual and Media Arts, those from the Institute of Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies. “I tell students: if you do speech and debate well in college, you will learn the essential skill of time management,” he said.
Emerson Forensics team member and Political Communication major Sara Hathaway ’22 said Hawkins inspires students to believe in themselves. “I have learned that my voice is powerful,” she said, “and I am capable of using my voice to enact change.”
THE FUTURE OF FORENSICS
Since winning the tournament last year, Emerson Forensics has been busy, and it seems they are only getting started. This past spring semester, they traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina; Queens, New York; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They also were invited to participate in a tournament with the International Forensics Association, held in Tokyo—and were planning to attend—but the trip was cancelled following the outbreak of coronavirus.
Hawkins has big goals for the future of the team. In addition to working with the Emerson Prison Initiative, he hopes to keep growing the team, and wants to see Emerson place in the top 25 at the main national tournaments.
Beyond winning tournaments, though, what Hawkins hopes his students take away from debating is the experience, and the spirit of collaboration. “What I loved about last year’s [competition] is that even though [not everyone won] an individual national title, they were thrilled that their teammates were able to excel and succeed. When students were eliminated, they were more than happy to come back and help their teammates prep. As I told them, that matters more than any of the trophies...those are the things you're going to remember. Those are the life skills that matter.”
Originally written by Sarah Teczar MFA ‘18 for the Spring 2020 issue of Expression Magazine. (Photography by Derek Palmer)