I grew up in the rustic town of Palouse, WA, where vast amounts of assorted grains, legumes, and fertile minds are grown. (I like to think of it as saving America, one carbohydrate at a time.) Last spring, I graduated from Whitworth with a degree in English (Writing) and Philosophy, as well as a minor in Communication. I plan on spending the next year traveling and preparing for graduate school, for which I’ll be applying this upcoming fall. I would like to pursue a PhD in philosophy, and will probably specialize in ethical theory and/or aesthetics.
The Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl (IEB) is nationwide annual competition in which teams of students are pitted against one another in a series of debates across two major tournaments featuring over 125 public and private institutions. (Think March Madness, but with fewer screaming fans.) No distinction is made concerning the size, funding, or prestige of individual schools. That meant that we went up against the big dogs; we were in the same pool as institutions like Dartmouth, Georgetown, Villanova, and Princeton. Before each bowl, teams are given 10-15 cases to guide their preparation, but the actual questions are not announced until each round formally begins. So, while there’s an element of improvisation at the Bowls themselves, extensive research and practice are paramount.
We were coached by Dr. Mike Ingram (professor of communication studies and associate provost for faculty development and scholarship) and Dr. Keith Wyma (associate professor of philosophy). In addition to being one of the most outstanding public speakers I know, Mike also has over twenty years of experience coaching debate. He worked with us one-on-one to improve our clarity, diction, and argumentative style, while Keith tended to focus on the integrity of our arguments and research. Both coaches would team up each practice to tear apart our cases (usually with great glee). When our arguments were in any way ill-prepared or haphazard, they made sure that we knew it. Needless to say, we quickly got tired of losing. Every practice, we came hungry to beat them. At the beginning of the semester, Mike and Keith were destroying us. A few weeks in, crushing rebuttals became less frequent. After a month, we were holding our own. By the time the National Bowl came around, we were consistently beating them. And in the end, we tempered our hunger with the confidence that we could face any opponent, and brought that attitude to the Bowl itself.
(Left to Right: Mike Ingram and Keith Wyma. Not pictured: Keith’s verbal smackdowns.)
The other members of the team were Krister Johnson (’13, Political Science), JaJa Quarless (’12, Philosophy and Political Science), Jesse Javana (’12, Political Science), and Sarah Sauter (’15, Philosophy and Spanish). Evan Underbrink was also helpful in preparing for, and competing at, the Regional Bowl. Krister and JaJa each brought a wealth of experience and leadership to the team. Krister went on to achieve further national success with Whitworth’s debate and speech forensics team, and his aggressive style propelled our team forward. JaJa was studying abroad during the spring semester and missed the National Bowl, but was nevertheless instrumental in our success at the Regional tournament. JaJa’s spot was filled by Sarah, whose precocious mind (not to mention her bugging me to do my research) was crucial to our victory. Max, whom we nicknamed “The Accountant” for seemingly having memorized every statistic in Encyclopedia Britannica, was able to draw from his storehouse of facts on the fly to stop opposing arguments in their tracks. Finally, Jesse also brought improvisational abilities to the fore. Combining his experience in public defense with his comedy skills gained from his four years performing with Whitworth’s improvisational troupe Cool Whip, Jesse was quick with a rebuttal that would often contain a hidden song lyric, if not a subtle and witty pun—a style that was so disarming, opponents would forget he had refuted their point in the process.
In preparation for the trip to Cincinnati, I packed along a pea coat. (Why? Because I wanted to look stylin’, that’s why.) Unfortunately, however, this decision led to all sorts of problems. First, I wasn’t able to stuff it inside my bag, and removing other clothes to make room for it made us even more late for our plane than we already were. (Spoiler alert: we caught the plane on time.) Second, unbeknownst to me, the Bowl was scheduled at the Hilton—the very hotel in which we were staying—so there was no reason for us to go outside other than to eat or sightsee. Third, even if we were going to spend time outside, I wouldn’t have needed a pea coat, or any coat at all, because while it was chilly in Spokane, Cincinnati was experiencing a 75 degree heat-wave. Needless to say, my wonderful teammates and coaches mocked me relentlessly for my unnecessary carry-on. Eventually, I snapped, told them all to shove it (albeit in terms less appropriate for this blog) and proclaimed that if we made it to the final round, I’d “wear my ******* pea coat” just to spite them all. Long story short, we did. And I did. It was extremely hot, and rather itchy, but dang I looked fly.
In the semi-finals, we faced Wake Forest, an outstanding team and our most challenging opponent overall. To quote Mike Tyson in the third-person possessive, their style was impetuous, their defense was impregnable, and they were just ferocious. Jesse and Max, however, stepped up their game and matched every point Wake Forest made. The round was an hour-long fury of energy. Finally, however, it was over, and the judges spent several minutes calmly and deliberately preparing their scores. Finally, they held up the results. Out of one hundred eighty points possible, we had won by a single point. One of their team members broke down and cried. They were a brilliant team, and it was an honor to have competed with them. I relayed that sentiment to each member as we shook their hands. Nevertheless, as we moved on to prepare for the final round, and as they walked over to the elevator, Krister overheard them exclaiming “I hope they lose!”
In the final round, we faced Clemson University. They wore matching orange shirts atop dark trousers. When they sat down to debate us, however, all we could see were their orange tops. From our view, they looked like prison inmates. Coincidentally, the final case was “Prison Break,” which concerned the recent decision of Mississippi governor Haley Barbour to suspend the sentences of felons Gladys and Jamie Scott, on the condition that Gladys donate a kidney to Jamie. After the match was over, we shook hands with Clemson, received the trophy, had our pictures taken, and called friends and family to tell them the news. After it was all over, we walked to the elevator. Everyone was exhausted, but happy. As soon as the door closed, however, Mike Ingram suddenly exclaimed “Prison case, baby. Beat ‘em at their own game!” before doing a little jig and shrieking in excitement. Forget the trophy; that alone made the trip.
I knew I had received an outstanding education at Whitworth, but I never had an opportunity to see how it might compare to that of other schools. This was my first real chance to see, empirically, exactly what I had paid for. Whitworth has placed within the top five schools at the National Bowl three times in the past four years. Furthermore, several members of standout teams over the last few years have been English majors. I do not believe this was a coincidence. Whitworth English department is filled with professors who are committed to producing strong, smart, and capable students. Several of these professors, including Thom Caraway, Vic Bobb, and Fred Johnson, were exceptionally helpful in providing direct assistance on particular cases. All of these professors, however, were indirectly involved through the time, energy, and skill that they brought to the classroom, and by being incorrigibly devoted to producing not just better debaters, or better students—but better people. That goes for all departments, and all people involved. Any courage or tenacity we showed was tempered by the professors, family, and friends we had around us. It’s unsurprising to me, then, that my most vivid memory of the Bowl is that of being a part of something much, much larger than myself.
(Left to right: Sarah, Krister, Mike, Max, Jesse, myself. Not pictured: Keith Wyma.)