Talon: Hey everyone, it’s Talon. I got home late last night after driving 15 hours from Idaho to California after my Thanksgiving trip and I’m battling off a bit of a cold but I just wanted to pop in before the episode starts because today is Giving Tuesday and the Orange Coast College speech and debate team is looking for donations. Running a speech and debate team is not cheap. You have to pay for tournament entires, judges, transportation, and for the National tournament in the spring, plane tickets and hotel rooms for everyone competing. If you want to help OCC give students this opportunity and learning experience then please consider donating. We’ve got the link in the show notes as well as in the transcripts for this episode. Alright, thank you and on to the episode!
Heather: Ok, Nationals is canceled too and we’re switching over to Online and everything is pretty much done at this point.
Talon: Hi, my name is Talon Stradley and this is Soapboxers, a fly-on-the-wall podcast about speech and debate. I used to competed on the Orange Coast College team and now I’m back after 2 years to document the speech and debate experience and bring it to you. Covid-19 changed the landscape of the world and forensics is no different. In today’s episode, we’ll explore the changes speech and debate has had to make in order to survive online. This is Soapboxers.
Talon: It’s October 17th and Hannah is sitting with a couple students in the squad room.
SQUAD ROOM AMBIANCE
Talon: It’s a hot day and the AC still doesn’t work, so the fans are on. Hannah is helping a couple students group prep. The rest of the students are scattered around the building in different rooms. This is a tournament. The Crossman Invitational, hosted by El Camino College. Unlike the last tournament we visited, this one is entirely online.
Tess: Today is an online tournament for one of our IE’rs and a whole bunch of our debaters.
Talon: For the last year and a half, ever since Spring of 2020, tournaments have been online. You can already feel the difference in energy. While the last tournament was a bunch of fresh students bustling around in groups, excited and nervous for the day. This tournament is a little bit… more relaxed. It’s quieter. People are off in their own rooms. The only real noise is a little murmur and the hum of the fans.
For OCC, this tournament is a bit of a hybrid. While the tournament is entirely online, they decided to meet up on campus, just like they do every Tuesday, to retain some of that energy.
Tess: Yeah, so we definitely want to encourage our students, despite being online, to come to campus because it just helps with the atmosphere, actually being around your team, being able to do warm ups and then, like we’ve been doing this morning, if anybody has issues, we’re actually here to help them. To communicate with the tournament instead of just getting an email from them an hour after the fact that something went wrong. So, still want to keep as much of that in person while still, you know, wearing masks, keeping them in separate rooms, so that everybody is safe but they get that sense of community still.
Talon: Online tournaments work a much like in person ones only instead of the students competing in the same room they compete over some kind of video call, such as Zoom. Because we can’t have multiple people competing in the same physical space, the students who are here on campus are spread about into different classrooms in the building.
Tess: Yeah, luckily we are able to keep them all to this building. We have, what, about six students in here in different rooms, we have three classrooms downstairs, and then another six classrooms upstairs with them. So they are spread out but contained.
Talon: Each student on campus is competing on their own laptop and using the school’s wifi. As I’m sure you’re aware, this reliance on computers and technology can be prone to… technical difficulties. Computers shut down, programs don’t work, internet cuts out. It can bring a lot of chaos to an already chaotic day. That’s what Hannah had to help fix early in the morning, just before I showed up.
Hannah: Today is going well. It was a little chaotic in the morning getting everyone set up, making sure there wasn’t any internet issues. It’s the first online tournament so there is a lot of little technical things. We knew that there would probably be some issues but things are going well right now, for sure.
Talon: As the first round ends, the squad room starts to liven up a bit more. Students come from the individual rooms they were competing in to hang out and socialize in between rounds. It gives me a chance to hear about some of those technical issues first hand from Nina, a debater on the team.
Talon (Recording): How did your round go?
Nina: Big internet problems for the first, like, five minutes but you do what you gotta do. I called in on my phone. Joined in on there. Couldn’t hear a word they were saying, had to hold it up to here, but it’s fine. Did what you have to do. Still went well I think. I recovered. I used my cross ex to figure out what my opponent’s argument was. So we’re all good there, but besides that I think it went well. Honestly. For the first time me debating at a tournament, I think it went well.
Talon: Nina went to the first in-person tournament, but she was competing in an individual event, prose. For this tournament, OCC wanted to focus on debate and so Nina is competing for the first time in IPDA. In fact, out of the fifteen or so OCC students in the tournament, only one is running an IE: Natalie, the student I coached last episode. Although this tournament took place about a week or so before I coached her. I spoke to her after a couple rounds to see how this online tournament differed from her first in-person tournament.
Natalie: It got me a little nervous, just wanting to make sure everyone heard me. One girl was having issues with that. But, I kind of felt a little less nervous. I don’t know if that’s because it’s on zoom and I felt a little more free. I added some different accents to the other characters in my story. I didn’t plan on doing that but I think just feeling that it was just me in the room helped a lot.
Talon: For Natalie, being online helped take some of the pressure off, but she also realizes that it’s important to find that confidence in-person as well.
Natalie: I gotta work up to being super confident and comfortable just in-person, that’s super important too.
Talon: At the first tournament of the year, the in-person one, we weren’t able to bring any extra visitors due to Covid regulations. Because this is an online tournament that the team is engaging with in our their own space, we are able to have people stop by to see how things are going. People like Olivia.
Olivia: Hi, I’m Olivia. My pronouns are She/Her and I have only been on the team for two to three weeks now? I think, three weeks. Yeah. I am here today, even though I’m not competing, one, kind of wanted to support the team and two, I have been able to ask a lot of questions so that when I do come to my first competition and actually compete or when I do IPDA in a competition for the first time I won’t go into it completely blindly. So I just kind of wanted to see how an online competition works, how we meet up, what is IPDA, what does it look like in terms of a day of competition.
Talon: Even a past teammate of mine, Heather, stopped by to say hi and help out.
Heather: Um, I’m here to hang out with Hannah, I don’t know. Help prep.
Talon: Heather was on the team when forensics was shifting online.
Heather: I had already packed my bags, my food, everything was ready…
Talon: We’ll explore forensics transition to online right after the break. This is Soapboxers.
Talon: Welcome back. During the first half of the episode we stopped by OCC’s physical approach to an online tournament and got to see a little bit of how that works. Now, I want to take a look at how we got there. Forensics has been an exclusively in-person activity for decades until, in the blink of an eye, it all shifted to the virtual space. How was that transition navigated and what was it like for the students competing at the time? To help answer those questions is Heather, a former teammate of mine who decided to stop by the online tournament.
Heather: Hi, my name is Heather and I was on the team from 2018 to 2020, right when covid hit.
Talon: Heather was on the team the year that Phi Rho Pi, the community college national championship, was canceled due to covid-19.
Heather: We were kind of gearing up for state. I think we were supposed to leave for state in three or four days. It was less than a week. I had already packed my bags, my food, everything was ready, and we got a text that said “Hey, states is canceled. We’ll talk about it in class.”
So that was really hard. I think we all texted each other and we’re like “What the heck is happening?” Before that we were like “Oh, Covid. Everyone’s making a big deal out of it, it’s not that big of a deal.”
At that point, Nationals was still up in the air. It didn’t look like it was going to happen, but it was like we’re going to shut down for a couple weeks, see what happens, keep running your pieces, we’re going to figure this out. And then about a day or two later we got the message that ok, nationals was canceled too and we’re switching over to online and everything is pretty much done at this point. So the season kind of ended right there. Nobody knew how to do online tournaments. I think speech just was like “Oh no. How do we figure out how to do this online?” So it was a weird time for speech I think, just as a whole.
Talon: This was heartbreaking for the students involved. You’ve seen the amount of effort these people put into their craft. The countless hours spent practicing, researching, writing. The community that’s built. The passion that builds over the course of the year and right at the end, right at the most climactic point of the season. Just before a two week trip out of state to compete against colleges across the nation, it ends. That’s it. It’s done. For people who are graduating or transferring, their speech and debate experience stops cold.
The forensics community needed to rethink their approach from the ground up. How do you run an online tournament? Well, one of the solutions was already being tested in the community: E-Ballots. Ballots are how judges rank the competitors, give feedback, and know who’s supposed to be in the round.
Michael: And so that’s kind of been a move that’s been happening even in normal tournaments.
Talon: That’s Michael Marse, Director of Forensics at Cal Baptist University.
Michael: Yeah, so the traditional model is we print out paper ballots and we give them to judges and then we put paper postings on a wall somewhere and then people go look at them and then usual they take a picture with their phone to remember where their room is and stuff. And then we would take those ballots, and then sort of do data entry. Right? We’d enter them in and then photocopy the ballots if there was a need and then we’d give those ballots back.
Talon: But that model is starting to change.
Michael: More and more tournaments, especially on the debate side, in the last three or four years have moved to e-ballots. So then the idea becomes you get a verified email, you get an email with a link, you click on it, it opens up the actual tabulation software itself, you fill it out, you do it, and there is nothing else for me to do as director of the tournament. It’s really great.
Talon: This shift to e-ballots started even before the pandemic for a variety of reasons.
Michael: The first one I ever did, as an IE judge, was just before the pandemic at Pi Kappa Delta, which is one of the national tournaments and they had that. And their main reason for doing it wasn’t obviously viral, it was distance. It was at Hofstra University in Long Island. Really big school with a lot of walking. And so they found that with the e-ballots they could just have judges look and see where the room was and they could just go from their room to the next room and not have to walk all the way back to where the ballots were and then walk all the way back to where the competition rooms were. So it becomes easier to keep the tournament running on time.
Talon: Having the architecture already built for digital tournament logistics helped smooth the transition to online spaces. In addition to e-ballots, tournaments had to implement solutions many of us have grown accustomed to in our own life: Video conference calls, emails, creating virtual spaces on platforms like Discord or Slack. Slowly but surely, forensics returned in a remote, online capacity. In April of 2021, the Phi Rho Pi National Championship returned as an online tournament. If you look it up, the tournament’s host is listed as Space which is way cooler than Reno, Nevada.
However, just because tournament organizers figured out how to function online, doesn’t mean everything was just fine.
Kayla: When the world went online, they left my students behind.
Talon: That’s Kayla Mercure, my coaching friend from last episode, speaking on the struggles her students faced in the Santa Ana Unified School District.
Kayla: Many of them don’t have stable internet access, nor do many of them have a stable home environment in which they feel comfortable performing and being coached. A lot of them live in households with lots of generations under one roof and it is not conducive to their learning if they don’t have the privilege of their own space. So, Covid left a lot of people behind.
Talon: Luckily, these students had passionate and dedicated coaches who worked hard to make sure students had the resources they needed to keep learning.
Kayla: But that’s why I love the the Santa Ana coaching staff. We rose to the occasion. We kept reaching out. We kept providing resources and we continued to show them that we care for them more than anything. More than about coaching them or about their performances. So it became much less about performing and more about sticking together.
Talon: The coaches made sure that the student’s needs were met, directing them to school programs to assist with necessities like food or technological resources.
Making the shift to remote forensics was very difficult for a lot of people, especially considering the stressors of an ongoing pandemic and its many impacts. Still, among all the hardships, there were certain benefits to all of this. Because tournaments and forensics were online, it meant that people or schools without the resources to travel to in-person events could participate freely, no matter where they were. OCC has had some students like that. Take Kyle for example, who participated on the speech and debate team last semester all the way from Pennsylvania.
Kyle: I’m from Pennsylvania and I lived there for the whole first 19 years of my life. That was definitely a great escapism too over the first semester. Meeting people that I didn’t know already and meeting people that lived all the way across the country.
Talon: Even for local students attending this semester, the option to participate online has given them the flexibility they need to stay involved like Luan, who shifted to a more remote experience to better fit his work schedule.
Luan: My work is short staffed and they need me to come earlier. So that’s why I have to switch from going in person to going to online zoom. It saves me some time because my house is like thirty minutes away from driving from my house to school. And the experience is a little different from in person, of course, but so far I am doing very good at it.
Talon: And because of some of these benefits, online speech and debate might persist as another way to participate in the community.
Hannah: I think it has benefits for those who maybe are in a different country or we want to have more intercultural communication, we can’t afford to travel in that way, but I think in general a lot of the speech community does miss the in-person tournament vibe and so we’re probably going to go back to in-person. I think they’ll keep some elements of online. I have a feeling online ballots might continue to be a thing. I have a feeling a lot of the online communication will be a thing, like getting emailed your ballots for rounds, but I don’t think it will be a big part of forensics for much longer.
Talon: We’re already seeing a return to the more traditional speech and debate experience. OCC is attending two in-person tournaments this fall with more expected in the spring. Everyone also has their fingers crossed for an in-person National championship this year. However, until then, the OCC speech and debate team will continue to find ways to foster that energy and community, no matter the format. Even if that means coming to campus early on a Saturday to compete online in different rooms all so they can cheer each other on between rounds.
David: That’s what I’m talking about.
Student: Good? Good?
David: Yeah! Thank you! Talon come here over there too.
Talon (Recording): Good job my guy, good job.
Student: What about Hannah? Again.
David: I did not miss you!
Talon: Next time on Soapboxers. We’re leaping right into another tournament! It’s our last in-person tournament of the year and we’re going to take this opportunity to learn a little bit about what it takes to judge a tournament.
Jimmy: So right now I went and got and picked up my ballot.
Talon: That’s next time on Soapboxers.