Yale Debate Association considers benefits and drawbacks of year of virtual debate

Yale Daily News

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Yale Debate Association, or YDA, has forgone trips to Thailand and England and adjusted to a virtual competition format, which members say has both advantages and disadvantages.

The YDA first began attending online tournaments during the summer of 2020, after the 2019-20 season was cut short by the beginning of the pandemic. So far this season, the team has competed at tournaments hosted online by universities such as Brown, Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge, according to YDA President Alex Gordon ’22. Although some members acknowledge that online debate lacks the travel and social aspects of an in-person tournament, others emphasize that virtual debate formats have increased access to the activity by decreasing the financial costs associated with tournaments. As the group awaits a return to in-person competition, team members shared their thoughts on competing virtually.

“Debate itself transfers surprisingly well from in-person to online, but we definitely miss the social and travel aspects of competition,” Gordon wrote in an email to the News.

According to Gordon, in a normal year, the YDA will travel across the world to attend tournaments. Past seasons have brought the team to Thailand, South Africa, England and more.

Although the team is currently able to compete in online tournaments hosted by universities around the world, YDA social board member Matt Song ’24 explained that he misses traveling to unfamiliar places and meeting new people at in-person tournaments.

“We’ve lost the charm of stumbling into unfamiliar university auditoriums at 9 a.m. hopped up on an energy drink, munching on a bagel and tracking down friends to talk about how much work you’re avoiding,” Song wrote in an email to the News. “There’s a big difference between the natural interactions that occur at an in-person tournament and the awkward Zoom chats that you might get at an online tournament.”

YDA member David Bloom ’25 also added that the performative aspect of the activity is often lost during a virtual debate. He explained that while in-person debate requires competitors to make eye contact with a judge, the virtual format is just “staring at a screen,” making the activity feel less conversational.

Gordon shared a similar sentiment, stating that online debates were not as energetic as their in-person counterparts.

“Rounds are more exciting and intense in-person,” Gordon wrote. “Sometimes, people will debate without their cameras on, so it is odd talking just on voice calls.”

On the other hand, however, multiple team members pointed out that despite the drawbacks of online debate, virtual competitions have increased access to the activity as a whole.

Song explained that because online debate tournaments cost less to attend than in-person tournaments, more teams are able to participate in the activity.

“The cost of debate used to be incredible: you had to physically go to any tournament you wanted to compete at,” Song wrote. “This was especially harmful for teams in areas with less debate presence, since they have to travel a lot (thereby coughing up a lot of money) to get anywhere. Online debate also makes it easier to organize practices between teams, which is quite important if your team is smaller or less developed.”

Gordon echoed that online debate has also increased the diversity of competition that the YDA faces. He explained that without the barrier of travel, the YDA has been able to compete against a “broader range of universities” with more members debating.

In addition to increasing accessibility, some members also see debating within the familiar environment of a Yale classroom as a benefit of online competition.

“It feels more laid back because you’re in a more familiar space, versus in-person, you need to go somewhere foreign,” YDA member Lawrence Tang ’25 said. “Online debate feels less intimidating and also less stressful.”

Similarly, Gordon explained that online tournaments allow team members to compete without forgoing the benefits of the Yale campus. By competing virtually, team members can continue to sleep in their own dorms or apartments as well as hang out with friends.

As COVID-19 guidelines continue to change, the YDA will continue to follow Yale’s travel policy for student organizations as they await a return to in-person competition, Gordon said.

“I’m extraordinarily proud of the resilience that the members of the YDA have shown this year,” Gordon wrote. “Online competition isn’t easy, but we have achieved great success, earning top awards at several tournaments.”

The YDA welcomed 24 new members this season.