Rocky debaters take on Ireland’s best

David Crisp/Last Best News

Shelby Jo Long-Hammond is the director of debate at Rocky Mountain College.

One way to judge a team is by the quality of its opponents. By that standard, Rocky Mountain College’s debate team has to rank with the best.

RMC takes on a national champion team from Ireland on Saturday in a parliamentary-style debate. The Irish team is on a six-city tour of the United States after rising to the top in a country where debate has a long and honored tradition.

The teams square off at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 8, in the Great Room of Prescott Hall at RMC. Admission is free, and a 6 p.m. reception precedes the main event.

RMC’s team will consist of three senior members: Molly Davis, David Fejeran and Shay Sturdevant. The Irish team consists of Leah Morgan, Aisling Tully and Dara Keenan.

Under parliamentary debate rules, teams aren’t given the topic until 15 minutes before the debate begins, but RMC’s director of debate, Shelby Jo Long-Hammond, said it likely will involve immigration and/or the international refugee crisis.

The Irish team last visited Billings three years ago. Montana’s scenic attractions have something to do with the return trip, but so does the work of Brent Northup, the Carroll College debate director who organizes the Irish team’s U.S. tour. The tour ends at America’s national college debate tournament in Denver on April 14-15.

Northup is the founder of Pax Rhetorica: Words Across Borders, a nonprofit dedicated to global dialogue.

For Long-Hammond, who studied debate both at Carroll College and at Trinity College in Ireland, the visit is a chance to again test her students against the best competition available.

“We don’t win tournaments,” she said, “but we’re part of the global network of debate.”

Exposure to that global network introduces RMC’s debaters to a wide variety of debate styles, Long-Hammond said.

“That’s why I take them to Ireland,” she said. “That’s why I take them to Greece.”

RMC offers no debate scholarships but compensates with rigorous training and strong competition.

“We debate every week,” Long-Hammond said. “We have argument drills every week.”

The practice pays off in producing students who are able to think critically and quickly about important issues. Students learn to argue for both sides of contentious issues and look beyond their own biases.

“It’s not about arguing,” Long-Hammond said, “but it’s about exploring all the implications of an issue.”

As a former Irish debate winner, Michael Moriarty said at this year’s debate final in Ireland, “I believe that debating is at its best when big ideas are contested by articulate speakers who can reach out and communicate sophisticated notions in an accessible manner.”

Long-Hammond puts it even more simply.

“It teaches rhetoric and argumentation in a way that is unique,” she said.

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