Winning word warriors

by Daniel McCabe

When Matthew Cohen first noticed Jamie Springer debating, he sensed something special. "He wasn't winning any trophies at the time, but I really liked the way he carried his arguments." Although Cohen didn't know it at the time, he was looking at his future partner in action

Cohen and Springer were assigned by the McGill Debating Union to operate as a team for a series of tournaments last semester, and the duo quickly gelled.

They were one of the top 32 teams at the World Debating Championships (out of a field of over 200), and earlier this month, Cohen and Springer were named top team at the North American Debating Championship, besting 80 other duos from across Canada and the United States.

Cohen says a debating team needs a certain chemistry to thrive--partners need to offer skills that complement one another. "It isn't necessarily true that if you put together the two best debaters on a team, they'll win."

The team does especially well when they play the role of the opposition in parliamentary-style debates.

"The first speaker's job is to be like a machine gun--to just spray rapid fire arguments over the other side's position," explains Cohen, a political science student. "That's Jamie's forte. He is quite exuberant--he loves to go on the attack."

Cohen tackles the role of the second speaker. His job is to present a more sustained critique of his opponents' positions, focusing on a few aspects. "I like exploring issues more deeply."

The partners come to debating from different vantage points. Cohen is a seasoned pro--he began debating as a twelve year old. Springer, who is pursuing a double major in philosophy and political science, has only been debating for two years.

"I just went to a Debating Union meeting last year and liked what I saw," says Springer. He wasn't much into debating when he was in high school.

"The style of debating is much different at that level. High school debaters tend to really research a specific issue and the debates sometimes sound a little canned. At the university level, you need a good general knowledge base and the ability to tackle things in an impromptu way. That I can do."

Springer says he tends to tune out the media during the first semester to focus on his studies, but becomes a voracious newspaper reader in the second semester, when most of the major tournaments take place.

"I have to know the issues of the day. I have to know both sides of the story, because you never know what topic you'll be assigned or what position you'll have to take."

"Debating has made me become more of a fence-sitter," says Cohen. "I know some people don't think that's such a great thing, but debating has really helped me to analyze both sides of an issue and to see where both sides are coming from."

Cohen says he hopes to intern at Parliament Hill this summer, but suspects he'll be disappointed by the sort of debate that goes on in government.

"I get the feeling that decisions get made for the sake of expediency, not because they've been carefully debated. I think it would be good for the country if more politicians went to Ottawa after spending some time in university debating. It teaches you to approach issues thoughtfully."

While Cohen ponders a future career in law or teaching, Springer is considering journalism. "It requires the same abilities as debating--you have to be able to outline both sides of an issue."

Cohen, who graduates this spring, only hopes that Springer sticks to debating. "It's been amazing watching him get better and better. He's like a kid in a candy store."