USC’s recent debating dominance in the Texas Open national competition was historic, the biggest win for the Trojan Debate Squad in 30 — and perhaps many more — years.
It was especially sweet for debate partners Julian Kuffour and Kevin Sun, who brought home the victory in their final tournament together after surmounting the challenges of Zoom debates these last two years.
The challenges of Zoom debates
Sean Kennedy, director of debate and a faculty member at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, described the challenges of leading a team during the pandemic.
“Fundamentally, I had an awesome time with the students, but it was really hard,” said Kennedy, who arrived at USC in fall 2020. “With COVID, the biggest challenge was probably maintaining team cohesion and team bonding. A lot of debate team is in a van or an airport or at dinner with all the students, and the impromptu bonding that happens.”
A major challenge for the debate teams themselves – mid-debate strategy discussions were now off the table.
“Debate is a partner activity, and it’s very difficult to communicate with your partner when I’m in Kansas and he’s in California, and we’re debating on Zoom,” said Kuffour, a senior at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “We had to text a lot and learn how to communicate nonverbally and learn each other’s patterns.”
Sun noted other disadvantages to debating online. “There’s a period in the debate called cross-examination, and a lot of it has to do with assessing the atmosphere and the intangibles of a room,” he said. “We lost all of that on Zoom.”
But Kuffour — a senior law, history and culture major — and Sun, a junior computer science major at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, were seasoned competitors who spent the last three years debating everything from space collaboration to antitrust laws side by side. They were able to adjust and weren’t afraid to put in extra hours to prepare.
The art of arguing at USC
Debate at USC started in 1880, as USC’s first chartered student organization. The modern version started in the late 1940s and early ’50s, and USC has been participating in the national debate tournaments since the very beginning. For decades, debate was housed in the department of Communication Arts and Sciences at USC Dornsife; it merged into USC Annenberg in 1995.
Kennedy — who took the helm from long-standing director of debate Gordon Stables, now director of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism — says debate has a host of benefits beyond building skills in research and public speaking. For one, it gives students a more nuanced, thoughtful perspective.
“You gain skills like the ability to be reflective about the point you’re trying to make while remaining an advocate for your point of view,” he said. “The perspective debate gives you about conflict is a positive one.”
Sun added: “People often view debate as adversarial, but the best debaters know which things to let go of and when to give ground. When you can see it from another person’s perspective, that’s a strength. We use deductive logic to find common ground with the other teams.”
A tense moment over a lost judge
After a year perfecting every argument both for and against monopolies, the USC team’s potential fate became more and more apparent as the Texas Open progressed.
“The teams at Michigan and Northwestern were haunting us all season — kind of the white whale we were chasing,” Kennedy reflected. “I tell debaters to just take it round by round. It wasn’t until we beat Dartmouth, that we thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we could win this tournament.’”
USC team debated in 22 hours of elimination rounds the weekend before the final debate. Thirty-two teams were winnowed down to USC and Michigan, the standing No. 1 team. When the debate concluded, everyone filed into the hallway to allow the judges to deliberate. Kuffour and Sun said they felt good but cautious — about 60-40.
Kennedy described the dramatic moments leading to the decision: “We were called back in for the decision, to find one of the judges missing,” he said. “We waited for 20 minutes to later find out that he was in the bathroom and his phone had died.” After the judge finally returned, the victors were announced.
A fitting final debate
“When they announced it was 2 to 1 for USC, it was crazy. There’s a YouTube video of me and Julian celebrating,” Sun recalled. “I’ve never been so happy in my life, honestly.”
According to Kennedy, it’s the biggest USC win since 1990, and though unverifiable due to spotty records, it is possibly the biggest Trojan victory since the 1970s.
It was the also the culmination of three years as partners, and Kuffour’s final debate as a Trojan. “It was a relief to win,” Kuffour said.
“I’m still pretty speechless,” he admitted. “There are no words to describe the importance of the win for my career, for Kevin’s career, and for the team.”