This academic year, Yale’s football team was not the only campus group to break a years-long streak. Over winter break, four teams from the Yale Debate Association competed in the World Universities Debating Championship in the Netherlands. Two teams of two students each made it past the opening rounds, and, for the first time in 11 years, one Yale team broke into the final round.
The international debate championship, held from Dec. 28 to Jan. 3, brought together over 370 teams in competition for the world champion title. Out of all four YDA teams that participated, team Yale B — composed of Justin Katz ’18 and Jim Huang ’18 — advanced past the preliminary nine rounds, and Yale A — made up of Henry Zhang ’17 and Evan Lynyak ’17 — competed in the four-team finals.
Lynyak also finished ranked as the sixth-best individual speaker in the competition of more than 750 participants.
“Worlds is a lot different than the other competitions we do,” Katz said. “Usually we just compete against other schools on East Coast, and sometimes Stanford comes out, but Worlds is actually an international experience … It’s nice to see hundreds of people united in an activity.”
Unlike the competitions in the U.S., which are primarily held in the American Parliamentary style of debate, the world championship uses the internationally accepted British Parliamentary style. The main difference between these two styles is that the former pits only two teams against each other, whereas in the British style there are four teams of two: “Opening and Closing Government” and “Opening and Closing Opposition.”
Historically, YDA has focused more attention on the American style than the British style in preparing for competitions, as underclassmen on the team typically focus on American Parliamentary debate. Only later during their junior year do students acquaint themselves with the British style. This does not prevent nonsenior debaters from competing in the world championships or in championships in Europe and Canada as well: Of the eight Yale students sent to the Netherlands, four were juniors — Katz, Huang, Marina Tan ’18 and Adela Lilollari ’18 — and one — Xavier Sottile ’19 — was a sophomore. In addition to Zhang and Lynyak, Megan Wilson ’17 also competed in the Netherlands.
“In general a lot of core skills are important in both [styles] — logical thinking, rhetorical skills, et cetera. As a result, I found that the most important differences were in strategy and style,” Lynyak said.
The preparation for this international competition was also slightly different for the attending teams. Both Katz and Huang mentioned the teams read The Economist every week in order to stay updated on current events. Katz also said that the team prepared briefs for each other on the specific issues currently developing in the world, as they were likely to come up as topics for each round. For this championship, the YDA teams collaborated to research the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Russia–U.S. relations and conflicts in the Middle East.
Huang also said that for American-style competitions, the members practiced by themselves, trusting one another to do the necessary work. But for this championship, they held weekly group practices and worked in pairs outside of the regular meetings.
“For example, my partner and I would weekly prepare two cases on our own and give speeches for them,” Lynyak said. “[We would also] research current events and other background material, and watch videos of past debates, replacing particular speeches in order to drill specific skills.”
Overall, Katz said, the seniors on the team this year placed a lot more emphasis on the British style, and made sure the team would devote resources towards attending international competitions and preparing for the format they would encounter there. There was, for instance, much more emphasis this year on participating in Canadian tournaments that usually use the British style.
Huang said that in the future, the team will probably take the British style more seriously as they train the future generation of Yale debaters. Maintaining dominance in North America, however, will stay a priority: The YDA has earned the American Parliamentary Debate Association’s Club of the Year title each of the last eight years — the only eight years the championship has been awarded.
Katz stressed that next year, in the international competitions, it is necessary to put work into learning “what judges are thinking, what they expect to see, so [we] can … adapt [our] style of presentation to things that people find persuasive.”
“Hopefully, we’ll replicate this year’s success,” Katz said.
The first World Universities Debating Championship was held in Glasgow, Scotland in 1981.