Speech and Debate—forensics—is the oldest co-curricular activity at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. We trace our roots to the student-orators of the Athenian Society (a University of Wisconsin forensics society for men founded on 24 October 1850), Castalia (a University of Wisconsin forensics society for women found on 28 December 1863), and the oratory, literary, and debating societies descended from them. Our first intercollegiate debate was against the University of Michigan in 1893.
In 1949, Wisconsin faculty member Winston L. Brembeck was a founding member of the American Forensics Association. Wisconsin speakers were American Forensics Association national champions in 1986 (after-dinner speaking), 1988 (informative speaking), and 1989 (communication analysis). Wisconsin speakers were National Forensics Association national champions in 1989 (rhetorical criticism and persuasive speaking) and 1990 (informative, persuasive, and rhetorical criticism). Wisconsin won its divisional sweepstakes in the National Forensics Association’s 1989 and 1993 National Tournaments.
Affiliated with the L&S Honors Program since 2004, we are now making new Speech and Debate history. We invite you to join us.
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Who may join Wisconsin Speech and Debate? Do I have to be an Honors student?
We welcome every current Badger to join Wisconsin Speech and Debate. Students (including Honors, exchange, visiting, and special students) of all class standings and from all majors, departments and programs, and schools and colleges (including the graduate school and the professional schools) may take part in our training.
Tournament competition is often limited to full-time undergraduate students.
Like the L&S Honors Program itself, you will find that Wisconsin Speech and Debate is a community of many of UW-Madison’s most talented and engaged students. Last year, two of our members were elected to the Associated Students of Madison.
What experience do I need? May I participate if English is not my first language?
We welcome all levels of experience, from none to high-school national champions. No experience is necessary or expected—you came to UW–Madison to learn! Experienced speakers will also have much to learn as they adapt to intercollegiate Speech and Debate.
We welcome all levels of spoken English. As a UW–Madison student, your English language skills are sufficient to participate. We have many members from countries in which English is not an official language, including China, Denmark, United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam. Participating in Speech and Debate can improve your ability to speak English and to understand spoken English.
How much time does it take?
We recommend that new members attend one two-hour practice per week and one competition per semester. Competition participation is encouraged but not required.
Members should prioritize their well-being and academic success and adjust their participation accordingly.
Opportunities for much greater participation exist for enthusiastic members seeking excellence in Speech and Debate or organizational leadership experience.
How will COVID-19 affect Wisconsin Speech and Debate this year? Will there even be Speech and Debate?
Wisconsin will continue to speak and debate! When classes moved online the previous spring semester, we did too.
This fall, all Wisconsin Speech and Debate activities will be online. This is for at least three reasons:
- to avoid contracting COVID-19 or spreading it to fellow Badgers
- so that members who are not in Madison may participate
- to prepare in the environment in which we will compete (competitions have moved online).
Competitions moving online has created an exciting opportunity for members to participate in competitions that would have been inaccessible to them in previous semesters, including some of the world’s most notable Speech and Debate events.
How do I join?
Join here. There are no fees to participate. Please talk to the coach at practice if you are interested in representing UW in competitions.
What speech events do you do? What format of debate do you do?
We are UW–Madison’s home to all formats of intercollegiate Speech and Debate.
There are eleven National Forensics Association individual speech events. We support preparation for any individual event and are particularly strong in persuasive, informative, extemporaneous, impromptu, and after-dinner speaking. Attend a meeting to learn more.
We also compete in British Parliamentary (BP) debate, the format of the World Universities Debating Championship. In BP, four teams of two are given fifteen minutes to prepare to speak on a motion (the motion is the topic for debate, other formats call it a resolution). Two teams speak in favor of the motion and two teams speak against the motion. Speeches are seven minutes long. This format is rarely used in high school. It is accessible to both new debaters and students pursuing any major yet offers strategic depth and persuasive challenges to former high-school debaters. No experience is necessary. We provide training. If giving a seven-minute speech after just fifteen minutes of prep is intimidating, don’t worry, we’ll work with you to it.
We also do Civic Debate. Civic Debate has many formats but is unified by its desire to engage with stakeholders of contemporary issues, encourage scholarship, and promote service.
Even though we focus on BP and Civic Debate, we are interested in debate of all formats and wish to be the home of all Badger debaters.
I did Speech and Debate in high school. Should I want to do it at UW?
Studying history, math, or English in college is different from studying those subjects in high school. In college, those subjects are studied more broadly, more deeply, and more critically and with new teachers, new classmates, and new competitors. You will also be different and that will influence how you interact with those subjects. There will be new challenges and responsibilities but also opportunities that didn’t exist in high school. So it is with Speech and Debate.
As a member of Wisconsin Speech and Debate, you can meet aspiring tech entrepreneurs majoring in CS and future playwrights, make friends to visit in Neenah or New York or Nairobi, compete against students from other top universities, enjoy professional coaching on-campus and through intercollegiate competitions, persuade federal judges or European Union policymakers, and travel the nation and world (virtually and someday physically).
Joining Wisconsin Speech and Debate can be particularly beneficial in a large research university like UW–Madison. With us, you can avoid getting lost in the university or trapped in your academic department.
I'm a high school student interested in Wisconsin Speech and Debate. May I visit? Do you have scholarships?
We’re glad that you’re interested in joining us.
We do not currently offer scholarships for Speech and Debate. However, excellence in Wisconsin Speech and Debate may help support applications for the Theodore Herfurth and Teddy Kubly Awards for Comprehensive Undergraduate Excellence, Phi Beta Award, Marion A. Hicks Scholarship, Charline M. Wackman Award, Charline M. Wackman Summer Award, William E. Elliott Endowed Scholarship, Fest Family Agricultural Enrichment Scholarship, Marilyn T. and C. Vernon Howard Moral Obligation Scholarship, and others.
How can I support Wisconsin Speech and Debate?