NOT cutting up dead bodies: UT hosts national competitive forensics tournament
If you’ve driven down Guadalupe at any point this weekend, you may have seen college students dressed in professional attire, visiting the Drag’s various storefronts, shopping and eating as if it weren’t strange they were buying bagels at six a.m. wearing suits and ties on a Saturday.
For these students, visiting competitive public speakers from colleges across the country, this odd behavior has become quite the norm. When you do it every weekend, you get used to the sideways stares and the constant questions. Looking good is part of the performance; and sharp looking suits are a must for the seasoned competitor.
But the odd behaviors go far beyond the costumes. These dedicated orators give up their college weekends (including long ones during their winter breaks) to travel the country in vans and planes, wake up at 5 a.m. or earlier, put on pantyhose and heels, to compete for the opportunity to be named the tournament champion in their public speaking event.
It’s called forensics, or competitive speech and debate. The activity derives its name from the ancient Aristotilean art form of researching and orating, (not the cutting up of dead bodies), and it requires ample preparation, practice, writing, re-writing, memorizing, coaching, editing, stressing and not sleeping. Only the most confident or most naïve know the meaning of regular sleep.
Being “ready” for a tournament is a fluid definition because the weekend’s given competition level and the endless possibilities for chaotic unknowns: illness, scheduling, energy levels and unfortunate judging pools. Despite the amazing rigor some competitors put themselves through, forensics is an imperfect, subjective activity, with outcomes decided by only a handful of crapshoot judges.
At any given speech tournament, competitors enter between one and six prepared public speaking events. Some are memorized speeches: Informative, Persuasive, Rhetorical Criticism and humorous After Dinner Speaking. Others are interpretations of literature: Poetry, Prose, Drama or paired Duo Interp. And then there are the tricky, think-on-your-feet events: the dreaded Impromptu and Extemporaneous Speaking.
All competitors are assigned, according to events and by fancy calculations, six to a room with a single judge in preliminary rounds. Students hope to be ranked first in the round in each of their preliminary rounds so that they may advance to the twelve-person semi-final rounds, where they will be judged by three more judges. The six highest ranking competitors per event advance to the final round, where they can attain the honor of being that tournament’s champion in that event.
At the end of each tournament evening, all advancing semi-finalist and finalists are announced on stage, and points are awarded to each team according to the placements of each student’s events. In the end, one team is declared the victor, and one competitor is recognized as the overall individual champion of the day. Exhausted, everyone returns to their hotel, either ready to compete the next day or ready to head home via bus, plane or van.
The world of competitive college forensics is an entire microcosm unto itself, a world that few college students know exists, and even fewer that have the cojones (or the craziness) to make it an overwhelming part of their college experiences.
I was one such individual who stumbled upon the activity in high school, drawn to the allure of regular opportunities to impress a captive audience, ten minutes at a time. Hooked, I continued my tenure at my nationally competitive state university in Arizona, receiving regular doses of praise and scholarship funds. Forensics paid my way through graduate school here at UT, and launched me in to the next seven years of teaching and coaching speech programs and classes at two universities.
Saturday and Sunday, I returned to my Longhorn alma mater to judge a few rounds and revisit my past life as a member of this microcosm when the University of Texas at Austin co-hosted a pre-Nationals warm-up called Hell Froze Over. Thirty-five speech programs from across the country traveled to Austin to partake in two one-day tournaments on the UT campus, one hosted by UT and one by their rival, Bradley University.
The tongue-in-cheek name of the weekend comes from the hyperbolically impossible notion of these two formerly antagonistic programs ever overcoming their differences long enough to host a tournament together. The University of Texas Forensics Union and the Bradley University Speech Team are two of the “big dogs” in college forensics, having won numerous national team championships over the years.
Their decision in 2000 to team up for an annual weekend of goodwill set an important precedence to the greater forensics community. If two of the biggest rivals in the activity could work together to create a fun, pre-Nationals competition for the rest of the country, then everyone could undoubtedly work together for the greater good of the community.
Now in its 13th year of existence, the two teams are still bringing the fun to Hell Froze Over, exemplified by a costume theme that corresponds to each day’s hosting team. This year, the themes were “Royal Wedding” and “Shotgun Wedding,” so you can imagine some of the costumes these students came up with for the day’s fun.
In April, the frivolity of this weekend will be shifted aside as the old rivalry heats up again at Nationals. Both teams will be gunning for that first place trophy at the American Forensics Association National Tournament held at Texas State University in nearby San Marcos. Bradley proved the champions last year, and they’re looking to recreate another 13-year streak.
Saturday’s and Sunday’s tournaments each began at 8 a.m. sharp and ran eight consecutive rounds without scheduled breaks. For these competitors, once the adrenaline starts pumping, you find your own time to eat, stay hydrated and reserve your strength. Then it’s on to the next performance round.
So, no, being seen in a suit walking amongst the Drag Rats on Guadalupe is no big deal. These students: the brave, tired souls, have already seen and heard it all.