Tennessee Speech and Debate Society Moves into CCI, Gains New Coach and Support
The Tennessee Speech and Debate Society has operated on the campus of University of Tennessee, Knoxville, for nearly 200 years, and for the past 14 of those, the team has been a student organization. As an organization, student members led the team in both its competitive endeavors and in fundraising to support their travels and needs, keeping it going all on their own.
Now, Tennessee Speech and Debate Society has officially found its new home at the School of Communication Studies and will have a new faculty coach and director, Lecturer of Practice Abbey Barnes.
“The team felt that the College of Communication and Information would be a good home for them, and I agree. They’ve been a very successful team without a coach, and have been scraping by on their own, so I’m excited to see what they will do with more resources and support,” said Jon Hess, professor and director of the School of Communication Studies.
Hess is also excited that Barnes is the person stepping into the newly created role, as she brings with her a wealth of knowledge and experience in debate. Not only is she well-versed in the ins-and-outs of what it takes to excel in debate competition, Barnes is from East Tennessee and has competed throughout the state and even against the Tennessee Speech and Debate Society when she was a student at Middle Tennessee State University.
“I’ve always admired the team’s determination and positive attitude and talent, so when I heard that the director position was open, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a culture I really want to contribute to.’ Then when I came to the interview, I felt an instant sense of community,” Barnes said.
Barnes was on her high school debate team but did not originally plan to participate in college. But once a speech teacher—who also happened to be the MTSU debate team’s coach—heard her deliver a speech for class, he convinced her to join the team and she found debate once again and never left. She followed up her undergraduate degree in communication studies and English with a master’s from the University of Southern Mississippi, where she is also currently completing her PhD in communication with a focus on rhetorical criticism.
The freshly minted debate coach said she hopes to build upon the team’s existing successes but she will be shaking up the status quo. Besides providing more structure and support for the team, she plans to open new forums of exposure to promote debate on campus and to integrate it into the Knoxville community.
Finding a Home
For Cole Pawlaczyk (‘22), having a coach such as Barnes and moving the team under the purview of a school so it can have more support is a dream longtime in the making. When he was a student at UT, he joined the team and served as communications director, secretary, and president at different times during his tenure. He knows first-hand how difficult it was for members to keep the team afloat financially and to perform well at debates.
“Truly I have to give it to all the students because of their dedication and just their grit. It’s hard on a lot of the students and this is one of the things that pushed me to advocate for the team to move,” he said. “Anybody who serves on the team’s board knows that it’s a part-time job, and if you’re dealing with other part-time jobs that pay you, and school, and all that—everybody had to make sacrifices along the way whether that be in our personal lives or rushing in assignments at the last minute. It was hard and a lot of pressure.”
Pawlaczyk said the dream all came to fruition when he was at an alumni reception in Nashville and began talking to administrators from CCI. CCI Dean Joe Mazer was one of those people, and the two began chatting about the debate team and how it needed a new home.
“I could see the dean’s wheels turning and he said, ‘Well, I’m interested in bringing the team over to CCI if that’s something the team is interested in.’ and he went on to say, ‘With a coach, and with a budget.’ And I’m telling you that, right then my eyes started watering. This was something we’d been asking for years and to hear an administrator for this to happen, it almost hurt to feel how easy it was,” Pawlaczyk said.
After that, he met with Hess and others at the School of Communication Studies, and soon it was apparent to everyone that moving Tennessee Speech and Debate Society into the school would be beneficial for everyone involved.
The Advantages of Debate
While Pawlaczyk learned many skills in school as a public relations major, his experience with debate helps tremendously in his career as an intelligence strategist at an agency, and he advocates strongly for debate because of the skills students can pick up from being on the team.
“I didn’t expect to have a job that related to the debate skills as much as it did. And there’s research that shows in a longevity study that people who debate are more likely to vote and be engaged in political advocacy but less likely to be a member of a political party. They typically achieve higher grades and positions compared to industry standards after leaving college,” he said. “It’s great that not only do we feel amazing, but we can show we’re amazing, too.”
Any student on campus can join the team, regardless of their major, which brings a lot of varying perspectives to the table. Hess said having the team at the school will elevate CCI’s presence on campus, but he’s also hopeful more CCI students will see the advantages it offers and join.
“It gives students an applied experience where they can take the presentation skills they learn and apply them to critical thinking, analyzing arguments, using evidence—and all these communication aspects like thinking on your feet and working under pressure,” Hess said. “It’s a good practical experience and we didn’t have that kind of opportunity previously. It gives students a chance to put theory into practice in a way that’s very real and concrete.”
Besides competitions, there are many other opportunities debate teams have to engage with the campus and community, and Barnes already has ideas formulating around that topic. She wants to inspire students to join the Tennessee Speech and Debate Society and to develop avenues for the team that align with UT’s land grant mission by making a broader impact on the community. One idea she hopes to bring to fruition is collaborating with the Baker School of Public Policy and Public Affairs to produce public, town-hall style debates around issues the Knoxville area is facing. It will give team members a challenging opportunity to flex their skills in a forum outside of a competition, and it will allow community members to engage with students and learn more about tough topics that affect them.
“Right now, the team has done a great job maintaining their status as one of Tennessee’s best debate teams. But I’m in the business of institution building; I want them to not only be a strong force on the debate circuit, but to also be a presence that is known on campus, and to be able to contribute on campus and through community outreach such as workshops with high school students and alumni,” Barnes said.
There is an upcoming Speech and Debate alumni reception and a tailgate in Knoxville for the UT vs. Austin Peay game; alumni who participated in speech and debate at UT are invited to attend one or both events. Register here to attend.
Those who would like to give to the Tennessee Speech and Debate Society can do so by filling out this form.