Benjamin Rolsma’s Experience with Competitive Speech in “The Real World”

Benjamin Rolsma competed in homeschool speech and debate  for many years. He thought perhaps those years might be behind him, as he decided to attend The University of Wisconsin- Madison. However, that turned out not to be the case. For many speech and debate kids their season may not have to be over once they graduate. Colleges across country WANT speech and debate kids. Be sure to ask and check out your college’s program, some speech and debate programs even offer scholarships. Here is Benjamin’s experience with collegiate speech and debate…

It can be difficult to leave competitive high school speech and debate. The community and competitive thrill develop skills and character, and there is little like it to be found in college. I found this out as I dabbled in collegiate competitive speech as a member of the University of Wisconsin–Madison speech team. Many two and four-year institutions have speech teams, and the leagues they compete in have a lot in common with homeschool speech and debate leagues, such as NCFCA and Stoa, but there is also a great deal that is different.

First, what is the same. Many of the categories are quite similar. You’ll find impromptu, extemp, duo, persuasive, informative (though not quite the same name) at most collegiate tournaments. The rules are very similar, although the cultural expectations of how a speech should be are a bit different. The purpose of teaching better communication is also the same, and is as passionately adhered to. The various categories are divided up into Pattern A and Pattern B, with rounds alternating between them (although they are now called “flights”). The forensic clap is adhered to at awards ceremonies. People win and everybody is excited.

Some of the differences you’ll run into right away. Collegiate speech is organized in a somewhat fragmented way. There are two national championships, AFA (American Forensics Association) and NFA (National Forensics Association). AFA is harder to qualify for than NFA, and neither organization officially hosts any other tournament during the competition season, making them perhaps a little like Stoa. Most of the tournaments I attended were organized by the Mid-America Forensics League, or MAFL (pronounced by all as “maffle”). Other such regional groups organize tournaments around the country, and some schools host their own outside the auspices of any league. They all follow more or less the same rules and categories though, so it is easy to switch between tournaments.

Unwritten rules about how speeches should be are also different, and you will find out quickly because you are expected to watch every speech in whichever room you are competing in. Exceptions are of course made if you have multiple entries in the same flight or are competing in extemp or impromptu, but in general it would be very rude to saunter into your room, give a speech, and saunter out, as happens in homeschool leagues. You will notice that extempers must answer the question and do nothing but answer the question in their speeches. You will be surprised to learn that the same prompt is usually used for every speaker in an impromptu room. You will realize that it is almost unheard of for one person to play more than a couple characters in an interp, or to play a character whose gender does not align with their own. In most duos each competitor is just one character. You will be shocked at the extraordinary percentage of woman who wear brightly and uniformly colored skirt suits. I still don’t understand that. You will notice a lot of other things, many of which I have not noticed yet myself.

The other thing you will notice is how utterly different the culture is. College speech is secular and progressive, almost to the point of unwitting self-parody. It made me appreciate far more that the homeschool league- NCFCA, where I competed, is operated explicitly for the purpose of glorifying God and for preparing students to be better servants of Him. It truly makes a difference, everywhere from the content of speeches, to the deepest recesses of the league’s culture, where things are felt more than spoken. Your conversations will be different and the people you meet will often have utterly foreign perspectives on the world.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. College speech is set up well to do what forensic competition is designed to do: make you a better communicator and thinker. I can assure you that however well you did in high school speech, there is still room for improvement. It may also be worth it to you because college speech is a vibrant, friendly community. There are countless thoughtful, caring people who are excited that you are there and want you to succeed and learn. It is full of people who are acutely aware that there is something terribly, terribly wrong with the world, and who want to change that. Far too many of them do not know the truth. If you expect to merely continue your high school forensics experience in college, you will be sorely disappointed. Instead it will challenge you in ways that the NCFCA and Stoa never could, and were never designed to.

Ben Rolsma is at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he plans to major in economics and philosophy. He competed in the NCFCA for seven years, with varying levels of involvement, investing time in both speech and debate. He is now co-captain of the UW–Madison speech team and student ambassador for the University’s Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy.