How Underclassmen are Treated (and How to Help)

by Zara Chapple

At this point in the year, most debate teams are trying to recruit underclassmen. Usually, these initial meetings are mostly female, while upperclassmen and club leadership are mostly male. Many girls will attend a tournament or two and then leave, deciding that debate is “not for them”. By the time they’re in 10th or 11th grade, most girls have left.

For example, at my school (last year) it was about 50-50 guys vs girls in novice. But in varsity, out of a group of nearly twenty, there were only three or four other girls who regularly attended tournaments. Only one of them was a senior.

We’ve talked extensively about how girls are excluded from and discriminated against in debate (we even have a whole page dedicated to the latter). So instead, I’m going to talk about how we can actually prevent girls from dropping out and make debate more inclusive as a whole (with a few disclaimers).

  1. This almost goes without saying, but every person is different, as is every team dynamic. I’m not saying that the only reason girls quit is that they’re bullied or excluded, but it makes up a large amount.

  2. I have talked with everyone referenced about why what they said made me uncomfortable and they have all been forgiven. Please do not attempt to seek out members of the team, or use this against them as a whole.  I love my team, and I truly believe they are good people with good intentions. The point is not to criticize the people who say/do these things, it is to criticize the culture that allows these things to be said and done.

  3. While a lot of these behaviors hurt girls disproportionately, they affect everyone.

That said, here are some problems I’ve faced and some solutions.

provide help

A big problem on a lot of teams is the creation of boys clubs– where guys (usually unintentionally) avoid prepping with and practicing with girls. I get it, it’s easier to interact with people who are “similar” to you. But when girls aren’t given the same help as guys on their team, they perform worse and feel isolated from their teams– both things that drive people to quit.

The guys who I admire and respect most on my team aren’t those who have had the most success on the circuit, but those who took the initiative to help me learn how to flow,  checked in after rounds, and actually talked to me out of practice. Now, this isn’t to say senior guys should be creepy around freshmen girls, but they should be giving them the same help that they give to guys.

Team mentorship programs, where upperclassmen are assigned to help specific underclassmen (regardless of gender), were effective (at least for me). This is how I met one of my closest friends on the team. He helped me with expected things like writing cases and giving summaries, but he also answered dumb questions I didn’t feel comfortable approaching random people on the team with.

Also, Beyond Resolved is working on a mentorship program specifically to match girls with girls, so stay tuned!

treat them with respect

Yes, novices are by definition new to debate. But that doesn’t mean they’re less intelligent or that their opinions matter less. Furthermore, just because you are male and in a position of power on the team, doesn’t mean you’re better than younger girls who are new to the activity. I remember a specific instance from last year when a captain on my team told me that I “didn’t believe in my debate style, (my male partner) just told me what to think”. Another one told me I was “the cutest”. Meanwhile, they rarely commented on how my summaries were improving, or that I was putting in a lot of work into the activity.

Am I fishing for compliments here? Maybe, but as a 14 year old girl regularly competing against 18 year old guys, it was hard enough to be taken seriously in round; it was even worse when it came from a team that was supposed to support me.

One of my teammates even commented in my partner and my dropbox folder that, “no one wants your prep, freshmen.” That felt terrible. Our hard work was already ignored and diminished by some members of the team, but the fact that someone actively typed out that sentence where they knew we would see it made it 10x worse. To add insult to injury, we knew teams were using our prep. Sharing prep was always enforced on us, but people were more lenient with the rest of the team.

The solution? Let underclassmen know their work is valuable and don’t go out of your way to tell them otherwise.

Especially when teams are forced to share prep, it’s easy to use the research of (well-meaning) highly motivated freshmen with lots of time and without the workload of upperclassmen. But when you do that, you lose their trust and abuse your power. It also discourages them from doing prep in the future, if you normalize stealing other people’s work. And If being a decent person doesn’t persuade you, you also get worse when you don’t do your own prep. (Seriously, just do your own work, it’s not hard.)

give them chances to succeed

One of the hardest things about being a younger debater on my team was that I wasn’t able to attend certain tournaments because our team chose who could go to tournaments by who was the oldest. Despite the fact that I did a lot of prep (and my partner did more prep than the rest of the team combined), attended every practice, and performed on par with many of my senior teammates, I rarely got to watch my hard work pay off. Not being able to go to tournaments doesn’t just mean you can’t debate, but it also means you can’t be a part of the team.

Every system for picking teams to bring to tournaments has its own strengths and weaknesses. This is something my coach and I have talked extensively about. I would say a combination of a) prep done b) practices attended c) how many tournaments you were denied and d) records at previous tournaments (weighted in that order) would be the most effective at making sure that the people who work the hardest actually get a chance to watch it pay off. This is especially important for new debaters who want to see improvement and thrive off of feedback.

include them in team traditions and events

This goes for more than just sending them to tournaments. Teams hang out outside of debate related spaces and that’s often where they bond the most. Even if it’s something that seems trivial like a team social media post or sending memes on a groupchat, it means a lot to novices to see themselves as “insiders” within the team.

Two things my team does that I really appreciate are 1. Team dinners every tournament and 2. An end of year celebration / get together/ non-school-sponsored “shindig”. Team dinners because of the free food, and more importantly because they were an opportunity to talk to members of the team. The end of year non-school-sponsored-shindig because it was an opportunity to bond outside of a competitive debate setting (even if debate was all we talked about).

In conclusion, treat people the way you wanted to be treated. If something helped you, try and help other people. If something hurt you, don’t do that thing just because you can now. And to all our readers, especially the girls who are just starting out, good luck in the upcoming season!

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