Professor pioneers online debate

USC communication professor Gordon Stables is looking to revolutionize traditional debate.

Stables, who teaches a course called Advocacy in Public Diplomacy: Argumentation and Debate (PUBD 509) is the coach of the Trojan Debate Squad. He debated in high school and again in college, and after becoming a faculty member in 2002, began coaching the debate team at USC.

Debater · Gordon Stables, as assistant professor of communication at USC, is hoping to integrate social media and traditional debating. - Photo courtesy of Gordon Stables

Since he began debating, Stables said he has noticed the world of debate shift.

“A lot of how we deliberate and engage today is through social media,” Stables said.

So, starting next year, Stables plans to host what he calls the first video debate tournament.

Debaters will record videos of their speeches and rebuttals and will post the videos on a website Stables calls “VBate.” USC is the first university in America to work with the VBate video platform.

Stables is also looking to integrate Twitter into debates, experimenting with having students make their point in three or four tweets.

The initiative is new and open to improvement, Stables said.

“The year one mission is experimentation. We are encouraging students to give feedback on the social media site so that we can improve,” Stables said.

The initiative has seen some resistance, Stables said, because of what he calls a fear of the “paperless debate.”

Stables said there are people who argue that something is lost in a digital, paperless debate or that debating within Twitter’s mandated 140-character frame might limit what would be said in a traditional debate.

He emphasized, however, that there is no desire to replace any form of traditional debate.

“We are not trying to replace the old debates with technological debates; we’re just trying to complement them,” Stables said.

The main goal of this initiative, though, is to make debate accessible to more people.

“What we’re realizing is that the traditional paradigm of competitive high level debate isn’t for everyone because it requires a lot of time and energy for people to do,” said Anna Li, a member of the Trojan Debate Squad and the program coordinator for the digital initiative.

Stephanie Scott, captain of the Trojan Debate Squad, emphasized the importance of appealing to the general public to get interested in debate and highlighted additional benefits of online debate.

“Debate can be very expensive as it requires traveling,” Scott said. “Online debate allows you to talk to people who you wouldn’t normally talk to. Any way that debate can become more useful to the public is good.”

The VBate website and other pieces of the digital initiative run simultaneously with other projects Stables and his team are working on.

One such project is the USC Neighborhood Debate League. Sponsored by University Neighborhood Outreach and the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, the program helps train high school debaters and holds debate tournaments at five local high schools.