DIVERSITY, FORENSICS, AND SAN JOSE STATE UNIVERSITY
Sarah Chan, San Jose State University
with a few updates by Jim Hanson
I attended San Jose State University. At the time, I had recently graduated from Leland High School in Almaden Valley. My grades and SAT scores were high enough to enable me to leave the home I had grown up in, but my academic interest in occupational therapy convinced me to stay in San Jose. Because I was staying at home, I felt a little abandoned because the friends I had known for years were all leaving. It was this loss of a community that led me to seek out a new community, a new home.
I found my new home with the SJSU forensics team, even though I was never involved in forensics in high school. One of my instructors, Annabel Forbes, was also the assistant director of forensics, and she and one of my co-workers at the tutorial center, Jose Jimenez, convinced me to join the team. A friend of mine, Tony Rubolino, also decided to join, and he convinced me to debate with him. Unfortunately, he quit before we started competing, but by that time, I was at home and in love with the activity.
During that first year, I did not realize how diverse our team was, although I knew that we were an eclectic group: a couple of Asian males, two African-American females, a gay Latino, a white male every so often, a white female, and myself, an Asian female. It was not until summer when I went to a debate camp that I realized how unusual this diversity was in the rest of the forensics community. It was there that I had the first realization that white males are the majority of people involved in forensics. Most of them are from middle to upper class families and go to school full-time and do not need to work. In contrast, the majority of our team works part-time, some even work full-time. Many competitors also receive forensics scholarships, although none of my teammates do.
As the year started, I began posting semi-regularly to the electronic listserv,(1) the CEDA-L, which eventually became known as eDebate, short for electronic debate. There were numerous discussions about diversity, and I always wondered whether our team truly was an anomaly. I constantly reminded people in the larger debate community that diversity does exist in our community, but we must work to increase our diversity by reaching out to non-traditional debaters. I argued with people who said that college is not a place to train new debaters, and pointed out that our team's success was the result of diversity. If we limited ourselves to white males, we would only have a handful of competitors. But instead, our coaching staff has constantly worked to include as many people as possible, which brought in new talent and experiences which we were able to share with each other.
We recruited more people, replacing those who had graduated. More white males were competing, but our team was still mostly women. My new partner was a black male, and we had many more non-traditional students whose ages ranged from 18 to 29 years old. We got a new assistant, Shar Gregg, who was white, like Annabel and director of forensics Genelle Austin-Lett.
This diversity is the springboard for my paper. I am interested in the history of this unique community: how we managed to come together, why we came, why we stayed. I am interested in learning why our team is so different from so many other programs.
The forensics team is constantly changing. Often it is difficult to determine who is actually on the team at any given time. Because of this, the narratives that follow will be from members who have competed during my third year on the team. While this excludes those who may be practicing and enrolled in forensics units, it is the only way to take a semi-accurate "snapshot" of the team.(2) Currently, the three assistant coaches are white males, and there are 9 females and 7 males who have competed. These are our stories.
"Muddled" is how Jean Battiato describes her ethnic background. "My mother's term is San Josean. I'm mostly European, Italian, but some of who-knows-where-it-came-from is there too." A twenty-two-year-old communication studies major, Jean has been on the forensics team the longest.
"In fifth grade, I had to write a speech on my heritage, and I was told it was college level. Then in my junior year of high school, I joined the team at Presentation. I qualified for the state championship, but I didn't go. Four years ago, during my first semester at San Jose State, I was in Annabel's Comm 20 class. After I gave my intro speech, she said I should join the team.
"After 15 years in theater, (I love performing), I was sick of the cattiness, hours, and people, and I wanted out of the corner. Oral interp allows you to be your own characters and perform in front of people the way you want to. Someone doesn't tell me I can't do it that way.
"I don't know what I get out of forensics, I never thought about it. But with my learning disability, forensics has helped me to organize my thoughts better and speak them in front of others."
Twenty-two-year-old Jayme Maltbie, a communication studies major, is Caucasian, with a Sicilian mother and a Scots-Irish father.
"I was in Annabel's Argumentation and Advocacy class, and I'd always been interested in forensics," she said. "At Sonoma State, my roommate was on the Santa Rosa Junior College forensics team, but I left before I got a chance to join.
"There are two different dimensions to forensics. First, there's the education level: critical thinking, the improved ability to articulate my self and my ideas in a concise manner. I would recommend it to anybody because it has helped me develop my thinking about world issues, form my morality because you have to take sides you would not support and helps me understand why I believe what I do. My personal beliefs have really evolved. I'd had philosophy through classes but I didn't understand how to use it before.
"Also, by and large and this is not 100% true, but I'm socially compatible with most people on the team. For the first time, I felt like I really belonged, and that I had things in common with people. I wasn't the freak. Also, people are really supportive. Even in the rest of the community outside of rounds we can all relax togther.
"As for what I get out of forensics, you can cross-apply what I enjoy. In addition, I get cool vocabularly like parametricize."
Our engineering major, Aaron Fischer, is twenty-one and Norwegian. He was in a high school debate class and actually looked for a debate team at SJSU but could not find it. When he had Annabel as a sophomore, he joined the team.
"What is there to like?" Aaron asked. "Well, you get to go off, think on the spot, put ideas into something that sounds presentable. You also get more comfortable speaking in front of people."
Marcus Walton is twenty-seven, is a journalism major, and describes his ethnic background as black. A high school teacher recommended that he try debating, and then he debated at Contra Costa Junior College for a couple tournaments. I met Marcus on the Spartan Daily staff and when I learned that he had some debate experience, I pestered him for a year before he agreed to join the team. "I came back because I didn't get all I thought I could get out of it," he said.
"I like the intellectual stimulation and the competitiveness from not being allowed to play sports when I was a little kid. Plus there's the people, and being part of a team. That's what I get out of it."
"I'm Central-American, Hispanic," says twenty-year-old Melissa Paredes, a computer science major. "I did a few speech contests when I was a junior and senior in high school and then I took Public Speaking. Shar came recruiting and she was persuasive, but it wasn't until I came to the office when Genelle and Shar convinced me to do it.
"I like competing and all the stuff I learn (from my own research and from other people's and what they think). I learn to think on my feet and be clear when I'm explaining things. I explain myself better and use information now."
After much discussion about what "ethnicity" means, twenty-two-year-old Alex Kramer finally described himself as Dutch. This communication studies major first became involved in forensics in high school because he needed an oral communication class, and going to tournaments was worth extra credit. "I did little bits here and there, policy, Lincoln-Douglas,(3) Congress (4) but at DeAnza, there wasn't any forensics.
"Even as a comm major, I didn't know San Jose State had a team until Shar came to my rhetoric class, and I thought I'd check it out. I spent a half an hour talking with Shar, and she can be quite persuasive.
"For the most part, forensics is a really good group of people. There's not much competition within the team. It really helps with thinking on your feet when talking to people. Not just formulating ideas, but also arguments, and linking them together and thinking critically. I've also gained comfort in front of an audience."
"I'm Armenian, which is considered white, Eastern-European, but I don't see myself as Anglo," said Taveed Makdessian, a twenty-year-old political science major. "Most of my family friends are Middle Eastern, and that's who I identify with.
"I was in Shar's Comm 20 class, and I gave two pretty good speeches, so she said I should join the team. It's not a big deal to get up and talk in front of other people.
"I like CEDA5 because of the intensity in the middle of the round. Plus the people on the team and on the circuit are cool, and I get the experience of meeting people, and you learn. I get a lot of debate - information on current topics, and it looks good. You get a lot of people skills."
Philip Jang, 19, is Asian-American, Chinese to be specific. Like many others, he also heard about forensics through Shar. "I was trying to get into her class, and she mentioned forensics. I had done individual events in high school because my sister wanted to take a summer class which I took with her and I found I liked it. After that, I joined the team and we got to go all over the country, including Hawaii.
"I like it because it's good education, my vocabulary is better, and I can think easier and quicker. I really gain knowledge and understanding of the world around me."
Andrew Joice, a twenty-two-year-old communication studies major, describes himself as a mutt. "There's some German, Norwegian, Polish, and English, as in Great Britain," he said.
"I took Genelle's debate class, and she said we could go out and compete or take the final. Since I'm not really a study or test-taking type, I chose to compete, and I really enjoyed it so I kept on going.
"I like the fact that you get to work with a partner, especially since I like to talk to people. I've had cool partners so we really get to bounce ideas off each other. It's also a really good team. You can talk to anyone about other stuff, everyone offers information, and they're really supportive. The team morale is also high. I'm happy when I hear that my teammates are doing well, and it lifts me up.
"Overall, I get a good feeling of accomplishment and achievement, especially when I get to bring a trophy home and have it on display. It's also cool because the team is just like a big group of friends having fun."
Angie Higgins, 19, describes herself as mostly European, white. "There is some Native American, not very much though," she said.
"I was in Genelle's class last year, and I enjoyed it. I'm interested in drama and after I saw the colloquium, I decided to join.
"I really like the support of the group, even though I'm doing individual events, everyone is supportive. It's a good learning experience, just being around other people.
"I've been able to overcome my fear of getting up in front of people I don't know, knowing someone is judging me. I've gained more confidence each time, overcoming my fear just by getting experience."
Anna Zapata, 20, is Filipino. "I joined forensics because of Melissa," she said. The two of them compete in duo interpretation6 together, and Anna also does impromptu.7
"I really like how the team is a family, and I get great speaking skills," she said. She is currently exploring other individual events in order to decide what else she wants to attempt.
Twenty-two-year-old Stacie Pettigrew is a Caucasian criminal justice major. "Shar got me thinking about forensics when we were both in Interviewing together and then I just came to the first meeting this year.
"I like debate when I do come up with arguments, they're logical, and I know I've made a good argument. I had a lot of fun at Northridge, and I liked helping Melissa find evidence.
"Forensics has definately helped me feel comfortable speaking in front of other people. I didn't even feel butterflies, and that's not me at all. I didn't even think about it until later when I was talking to someone else about it. I just don't feel as intimidated anymore."
Sean Swensson, 29, is an industrial design major. He is twenty-five percent Swedish and says that a major bulk is European but he does not really know what specifically.
"When I took basic public speaking, I realized that as bad as I was, I could scare and affect the audience, and I really liked that. The second semester the teacher talked about forensics, and I decided to join. As my coach, she said that I was the last person she expected to join.
"I was really quiet so forensics has made me more comfortable talking to people, but the biggest thing was that I only used to watch movies, and I hated reading books. At first, my coach helped by giving me stuff to interpret, but then I started having to find my own stuff. Watching other competitors made me realize that literature can be entertaining. There are a lot of authors that suck so you have to wade through everything to find the good ones. Some of them really spoke to me. Now I read books more and go to libraries and bookstores to find stuff. I also learned about the power of literature. A sentence can be said a million different ways and it brings English to a whole knew level.
"I really like the ability to affect my audience, to make them think and and feel a certain way. I like how forensics has made me a better communicator, the comraderie with people who have a similar goal, and learning that it's okay to let people know who we are, just laying it on the line."
Cheri Griffith-Moore, a twenty-year-old African-American, is a communication studies major. "I came to SJSU as a comm major. A friend of mine said that it would be beneficial since I want to go into law and that it would probably be a lot more fun than political science, and it is. She had done forensics and really encouraged me to get involved.
"I like forensics because it encourages me to use whatever communication skills I've acquired and to practice them. I also really like the people so even if I don't stay with CEDA, I still want to participate in forensics."
These conversations with my teammates have confirmed my beliefs and the beliefs of several coaches in the debate community that forensics is a valuable experience, regardless of ethnicity, age, or background. Common themes, the education, enjoyment, and community, filled our conversations as we reflected upon the benefits of forensics and the reasons we have chosen to continue competing.
The diversity we have is somewhat by accident, but at the same time it is almost intentional. Unlike many programs, instead of recruiting top high school debaters (who are predominately white and male), we recruit from public speaking classes which are very diverse. In this way, the "accident" is created because we do not attempt to appeal to any one ethnic background. As a result, the fact that various ethnicities have joined the forensics team is very telling. Forensics does not appeal to any one type of person; there is no universal ethnic group, age group, gender, or major area of study.
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to work with coaches from different ethnic backgrounds and genders. I've had two CEDA coaches, Bill Wisneski and Dave Schoenthal (who also happened to be debate former debate partners), who had more experience than me. Shar had gone to one tournament in CEDA, and our current coach, Scott Millward, does not have a debate background. Even friends (debaters and coaches) whom I consult with are all white males. However, these thoughts are usually fleeting as I focus on the present.
I hope that I am making a difference. There are very few women of color who debate, even fewer teams where neither debater is white. I am aware that other people may pay more attention to what I do because I am a woman and because I am Asian. As I work with my debaters, as I talk to other female debaters who come up to me after watching me debate, as I interact with others in the community, I want to make a difference, if only a little bit, in a small attempt to give back to forensics what it has given to me.
There are so many things that I like about forensics. It has taught me to think quickly on my feet and helped me analyzes issues more deeply. But beyond education, I have found a group of people, joined only by their interest in forensics, care about each other and are supportive, not only with forensics but with other issues as well.
In addition, because I have been coaching the CEDA team, I have learned incredible amounts about teaching others, gaining a unique perspective about debate that has shaped the way I compete. No longer is it just about arguments, but it has become a part of sharing who I am and what is important to me.
1 A listserv is an electronic mailing list which allows subscribers to send messages to everyone on the list. The list has nearly 1,000 members.
2 Many people "hang out" with the team, without actively participating, others have competed in the past and may compete again, and still others have not quite decided if they are going to join the team. While talking to my teammates about my dilemma determining who was competing and who was not, we agreed that the easiest way to answer this question was to look at who had actually competed.
3 Lincoln-Douglas is an individual debate event. In high school, they have value resolutions which change every semester, but they do research and prepare their speeches in advance.
4 Congress is a high school event where students speak about bills.
5 CEDA stands for Cross Examination Debate Association. CEDA debaters compete on two-person teams on a policy topic.
6 Duo interpetation is considered an individual event. The competitors interpret a piece, reading the selection in different voices as they play different characters and using various gestures.
7 Impromptu competitors choose a topic from the three they are given and have seven minutes to prepare and present a speech.