Friday, November 13, 2009

UK2: Debating at Oxford

Add “debate judge at Oxford” to my resume. What a day.

I wake to the sound of commuter cars whizzing by on rain-soaked roads. There’s a little window cut into the roof that slopes above my bed. It’s cozy being tucked under the eaves, like snugging down in a tiny attic hideaway. The bed is 30” wide, with a desk about the same width, and a 2” bookshelf beside an 18” closet. There’s a little shelf for a tea kettle by the miniscule sink. The whole room might be 8’X8’. Just perfect! I actually have two baths: one with sink and toilet is down the hall. The other with a bathtub / shower and sink is at the foot of the stairs near the door.

About 8am, I walk outside and a few doors down. First I tidy the kitchen so I can begin cooking the breakfast given us by Vivian, the B&B lady: bacon, eggs, toast, beans, tomatoes. One of the men has dropped his wet towel on the lounge carpet, so I loop it over a doorknob in the hall: that’s his towel for the week. (Surprise!) I lay out the toiletries scattered around the lounge on a windowsill, so when the students emerge and start looking for toothpaste and deodorant it’s easily found.

I wake the guys at 8.30. Ned has purchased crumpets, and he pops some in the toaster. The guys are tired, but recognize their advantage over peers who were binge-drinking last night. “For them, it’s a lose-lose situation. You can’t remember what happened, you have a horrible headache, and you spent $50 for nothing. Our heads are clear, and we didn’t spend a cent.” (Zeb) They used their drink tickets to buy pop. The big winners are pub owners and alcohol companies, who do a roaring business – many students don’t consider they’ve had a night out until they have had 3-4 pints of beer, according to Vivian. And the town kids hang out and drink in their own pubs, creating a cultural headache for all. There’s more to life, and these kids know it. The alcohol temporarily soothes the meaninglessness of today's secular and subjective values.

The students take a long time to get ready. As they push away from the table, the first one leaves his dishes for me to clear so I call him back with a friendly, “Don’t forget to put your dishes in the dishwasher!” and he sets the tone for the others. They shower, iron their shirts, and put lunches in their backpacks.

We get out the door a half hour behind schedule to start walking to the Union. It’s a good half-hour hike, and my legs are feeling the five-plus miles we walked yesterday. It feels good to stretch them out though. What a contrast to the sedentary and car culture we live in back home. I’ve walked further in two days than in the last two months in Seattle.

Once we’ve confirmed our teams’ attendance, I get money from the cash machine to pay for a second team – our two students have been permitted to compete as a second team. Oxford specifies that a school with two teams needs to provide a judge as well. That's how I get the opportunity to judge debate at Oxford!

On my way back from the bank, I take the long way around, admiring the stone spires and the shops tucked into C15-C19 buildings. The city council has wisely preserved much of the old buildings over the years. I’m reading “Oxford” by David Horan as an accompaniment to travel here, and he notes that a college building was torn down to widen the road… in 1779. I love the cobblestones on which busses, cars, cycles, and pedestrians squeeze through the streets. Blue name plates highlight historic events. For instance, we pass the field every day where Roger Bannister broke the 4 minute barrier for running the mile. I remember the story from a book I read when I was 12 years old, and it gives me a thrill to cheer him on when I pass the track 50 years later.

Back to the Union, I register at the judging table on the second floor and participate in two rounds. Both of my debates have excellent judging chairs: the first is an experienced Oxford debater and the second is a woman from Berlin with a mind like a sponge and a tongue like a velvet saber. She offers the students clear suggestions for improvement, based on the judges’ discussions after the round finishes.

The debate style is international Intervarsity Parliamentary Debate. Four teams of two people each compete in a round The first and third teams will debate for the motion (idea of the debate). The second and fourth will debate against it. The speakers alternate: one member of a team argues for, the first member of Team Two argues against, Team 1 (person 2) argues for, etc. The fourth and final team sums up the arguments against. It takes a long time for eight people to speak back and forth. The motions in Rounds One and Two were: “The House is in favor of deaf couples using medical technology to ensure their child is born deaf;” and “The House is in favor of Europe becoming one super-nation.”

Students have fifteen minutes to prepare a defense with their teammate. In these first rounds, the students have only five minutes to present their case. Usually, it’s easy to judge the top and bottom teams. The middle two teams are more problematic to differentiate if they are close in style or presentation. Sometimes it comes down to the whim or preference of the judges.

Northwest’s Team One scores second in the first round, but vacates their own room before we finish judging Round Two. Team Two scores third twice. By the time the second round is over, it’s 8.30, time for a late dinner. I see Team Two in The Mission, a little Mexican restaurant close to the Union, and they are tired and a bit disappointed. Jetlag hit in the late afternoon. They promise to do their best in the next series of debates tomorrow, regardless. They’re learning so much about the process and judges' expections. This will enlarge their view of debate forever.

As I listen, Northwest's excellence in academics, spiritual formation, and care for its students shines out. Though our worldview is not global like the Europeans and Asians, there's an awareness of God at work everywhere that is absent in the secular universities. I'm proud to be part of Northwest U - even at Oxford!

I head home before the final round, which won’t be over until 10.30 or 11pm. We're on our way early for an 8am debate breakfast in the morning. The guys decide to skip the round of parties tonight and head home to sleep.

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