Unpacking "Backpacking"

by Sara Catherine Cook

I remember the first time my parents watched me debate. Not because they were blown away by how incredible I spoke in semifinals of the Alabama Junior Varsity Public Forum State Championship, but because after the round, they told me that my partner was better than me. Now don’t get me wrong, I am NOT saying I was any better than him. We were at the point of our career where summaries were a repeat of contentions, and rebuttals were good if they only dropped one major argument. We didn’t have a coach, and at least I don’t think anyone ever expected us to be “good”. The reality is that in this activity, we don’t only compete for trophies and bids. Whether intentional or not, we also compete for attention and favor from other debaters.

That’s what creates the idea of “backpacking”, when one partner “carries” the other inside or outside of rounds. There are two main ways that this happens.

The first is within a partnership.

The way I’ve seen this materialize is when partners almost compete against each other: saying that you are better than your partner, or that you carry the team by doing significantly more prep. While this is definitely harmful, the second form of “backpacking” is worse.

The second is within the community as a whole.

After watching teams debate, spectators often comment about which partner is better, or imply that one carries the other by only crediting one debater for the result of the round.

I do think that the concept of carrying is harmful to the debate community as a whole by creating issues in partnerships, and often upsetting the debaters involved. Unfortunately, it is especially harmful to girls in the activity for a couple of reasons.

The first is the second speaker bias.

It’s no secret that often people view second speaking as more dominant, or more important to the round. While I firmly believe now that the first speaker has a much harder and more critical job (hint: summary speeches are so important) as a novice, I believed quite the opposite. Dreaming of epic “mic drop” rebuttal moments, novices on my team (including myself two years ago) often fight to be second speakers.

With this dynamic, guys often take the second speaking role on girl-guy teams because deeper voices are seen as more persuasive. Judges even play into this, often automatically assuming that the guy is the second speaker, or showing their preference on ballots. (To be clear, this is not every situation. I just think it is definitely more common.) This creates a dynamic where guys are often credited for wins, praised within teams or the community as a whole, and prioritized when coaches choose captains, or people to lead.

Second, the “hype” culture is sometimes toxic.

Debaters are always talking. On the Alabama circuit specifically, debaters were almost always talking about one of my teammates, gasping when they saw him at tournaments, and desperately trying to become friends with him. Missing was any discussion about his female partner, who was an equally good debater. Even more, this transferred over to Anna Kate and I. Almost every time we experienced some sort of success on the local circuit, other debaters would comment (sometimes to our faces) that the only reason we won rounds was because of our male teammate, or his prep. In the eyes of the Alabama circuit, us winning rounds meant that he won us rounds, and losing rounds meant that we were just bad at debate. Not only was he credited with all of the success of him and his partner, but also our success, and any success of our program. Now don’t get me wrong. He was massively helpful to our program, and worthy of a lot of the respect people gave him. The issue is that often the only debaters people respect, praise, or talk about (or at least the majority of them) are guys. Take a trip to the Debate reddit, and you will constantly see male debaters being praised for their success. And that’s great. What you see way less (or sometimes not at all) is a celebration of awesome girl PFers. And that’s not so great. Even worse, sometimes the dynamic of the hype culture leads one partner to believe that they are carrying the other, and thus worsens partner dynamics. I’ve seen situations where one partner will blame the other for losses, using the “backpacking” culture as a way of avoiding accountability.

It’s obvious that this activity is stressful and time-consuming, and there are definitely other issues that cause girls to dropout of Public Forum, or debate in general. But unfortunately, when girls aren’t encouraged or credited for success, and in some situations are told directly that they are the weakness of a team, they are more likely to quit debating. That’s why it’s important for the community as a whole to stop forming their opinions on debaters based on single rounds they’ve watched. Or maybe stop comparing partners to each other, when they have entirely different roles in the round. Even more so, we need to start celebrating the successes of female debaters (or doing so more often). (Go check out our Hall of Fame page and send us photos of your success!) I want girls to love debating, and feel empowered through this activity. Let’s starting talking about the awesome girls in this activity. (hint: you are one of them!)

(side note: I’m not at all angry with my parents or the situation I describe in the beginning, as they obviously didn’t understand the complexities of the activity. My parents are really supportive of my debating, and no longer make comments of the sort.)

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