Stop Debating 'Virtually'

Luqmaan Thein | 4/15/22

Perhaps the only thing that has remained common across all debate events and has remained virtually unchanged in its use over speech and debate history is the legal pad: the yellow, 8 ½” x 14” stack of sheets bound in a pad that can be easily held and maneuvered around. To be entirely fair, a lot of debaters—especially in Student Congress—don’t technically use ‘legal pads’, but instead use notepads that have yellow paper, but I think that the term legal pad can still be used, if only because it sounds cooler and more politically correct than ‘yellow pad’.

It may be too presumptuous of me to declare that the usage of the legal pad has been unchanged throughout speech and debate history. Indeed, in events like Lincoln-Douglas and Public Forum, legal pads are simply too inconvenient to use in the seven-minute opening case (unless such a case can be condensed to a single page, in which one must have extraordinarily small handwriting or be able to pull arguments and statistics from pure memory, which is a commendable feat in and of itself). Even then, however, legal pads are still near-consistently used in the intense cross-examination and rebuttal periods that are unique to those events.

At least, that was the reality two years ago.

Now, in place of the legal pad, the computer has rapidly risen in prominence. This was, perhaps, first initiated by the allowance of internet in rounds several years ago, but even then, computers were never fully able to eclipse the legal pad as the dominant medium through which speakers delivered their speeches. This was primarily because not many people are able to maneuver a computer properly and/or comfortably while speaking, especially if they intend to walk during their speech, which primarily occurs in Congress. While some use iPads and tablets, which would mitigate this issue, iPads are typically heavier (though they are getting lighter now) than legal pads would be more comfortable to hold, with a much lower chance of getting damaged if dropped during a particularly passionate speech.

But in the world of virtual debate, unless one intends to stand and do the three-point walk (which few people actually have the room to do, or even if they do, it would be more convenient for them to sit down), all of these points regarding the legal pad’s comfort and maneuverability are made moot. It is relatively easy, in comparison, to situate a laptop on a desk in front of a larger computer and deliver a speech from it; or, simply sit in front of a laptop or a computer and simply switch to a word processor with a written-out speech on it and read the speech out while giving the impression that you are actually speaking when you are called upon.

Unfortunately, the two possibilities I have just described have become the norm amongst debaters. I will not deny the fact that the most talented debaters, and the one with the most success, are capable—more often than not—of simply giving speeches with a few cards in front of them and nothing else. However, it is absolutely destructive for most novices to be using such practices. (Note: for the purposes of this article, ‘novices’ refers to completely new debaters, not necessarily students who are new to a particular event.)

A unique facet of debate is that it allows one to not only gain proficiency and fluency in speaking and mastering the English language, but it also enables one to gain valuable and priceless skills in argumentation. However, mastery of the English language in communicating a certain thought can only come from the spontaneity demanded of a partially-written speech on a legal pad. It makes no difference when a speech is written out in a word processor: it may make a person a proficient argumentative writer, but unless they can properly express their ideas verbally, they will not impact the majority of people (i.e., the compulsion of televised news over newspapers).

Novices will gain nothing from debating ‘virtually’, which is to imply the exhaustive usage of word processors in debate. Rather, to become not only a successful and talented debater, but also a successful and talented person later on in life, it is important that they use legal pads instead, which force them to develop spontaneous and comprehensive communication skills. What’s more, the writing-out of speeches takes away from the uniqueness of debate as an activity: when students literally write out argumentative essays in English class, is there any true distinction between what debate offers and what English offers?

To summarize this entire article succinctly, even though we now debate in a virtual world, this does not mean that we should debate virtually; rather, it is more important now than ever to debate virtually as we would in person. Virtual tournaments have so much to offer in terms of equity and inclusion in forensics, and to offer the greatest learning experiences, legal pads are integral.