Way With Words
Photos by Gino de Grandis
members of SF State's Forensics Team, a.k.a. the Speech and Debate Team,
are settling into their desks when Megan McCallister enters waving a
paper covered with red marks. "I just got my ADS back from Nicole,"
she tells her classmates. "I don't have a shred of dignity left."
She is referring to her After Dinner Speech, a talk that aims to entertain
as well as inform or persuade.
The red edits are courtesy Nicole Sandoval (B.A., '06), a graduate
student and volunteer coach. "Nicole is ruthless," explains
Lisa Rau, a junior seated a few desks away. "She gives us a lot
of comments on our speeches. I mean a lot. She puts so much
passion into the job -- and she doesn't even get paid."
is the name of the game in forensics -- for coaches and students alike.
At the start of each semester, Shawn Whalen, the team's longtime director,
warns students that speech and debate can be addicting. But first he
clears up a common misconception. The Forensics Team does not perform
crime scene investigations. "It's funny," Whalen says. "There
is always at least one student who leaves right away on the first day."
Forensics is the umbrella term for both Debate and Individual Events
competitions. In Debate, students compete in pairs to argue the finer
points of a single topic each year -- most recently, the First Amendment.
"Debate invites students to drive their own education, to increase
the philosophical things they are learning in college," Whalen
says. "Students learn to ask, 'What is evidence and authority,
and where do they come from?'"
Each team choses an aspect of the topic to debate, then researches that
The Individual Events competition includes informative, persuasive and
impromptu speeches, and interpretation, in which students recite literature,
usually excerpts from short stories, plays or poems.
"We have a tapestry of really amazing students. There are the verbal
go-getters but some are challenging their greatest fear," Whalen
says. He enjoys watching students grow more secure in their own abilities.
Defeats over Ivy League competitors certainly help, he says. "After
a few semesters they say, 'Hey, I'm kind of good at this. I didn't get
into this school, but I've beat them three times.'"
for one, considers herself stronger and braver than she was pre-forensics.
The spunky senior with a flair for the dramatic admits she was once
the quiet student who never said a word in class. "After being
on the team, I have come to realize that even though people may not
agree with what I have to say or my ideas, I have the right and almost
the obligation to speak up."
McCallister was among seven SF State students who qualified for national
competitions earlier this year. Although 2007 did not bring any wins
for SF State at these competitions, qualifying and competing was a significant
accomplishment -- especially with the record number of novices who joined
the team in the spring.
Students work extremely hard to perfect their craft. Students can devote
20 to 50 hours per week to their debates and individual speeches depending
on tournament schedules. But researching, writing and memorizing pages
of text are only the beginning. Each category of forensics carries its
own stringent set of rules. "You work within that framework,"
says Graduate Assistant Nathan Steele (B.A., '06). "But
at the same time it's about pushing against the lines, trying to challenge
Last season, Rau took a risk with an informative speech, an event that
tends to focus on new breakthroughs in research. While her competitors
selected the latest scientific and medical discoveries as topics, she
picked the ancient Mayan calendar. Her speech discussed the modern-day
implications of ignoring lessons from the past. She performed it at
the annual "Hell Froze Over" tournament at University of Texas-Austin
-- a competition known to be as fierce as its name implies -- and placed
second in the nation.
Students learn from coaches who trained under Whalen. They know firsthand
what it takes to succeed in forensics. In 2005, Steele and partner Robert
Hawkins (B.A., '05) placed second in the nation in Duo Interpretation.
Hawkins also placed first nationally in Dramatic Interpretation that
This kind of talk is not cheap. Even a weekend forensics tournament
in the East Bay can involve substantial hotel fees. "It's an enormous
struggle," Whalen says. "We have a small pool of money and
lose competitive opportunities for students."
Still, the team has won many debates and individual events, including
the Regional Championship Tournament for the past seven years. Two students
have been named All-Americans by the National Individual Events Tournament
Committee, and eight have been named All-Americans by the Cross Examination
Debate Association. In 2001, the University won the National Championship
SF State's team has also defeated a number of formidable opponents including
Stanford in 2003, Dartmouth in 2002 and Harvard in 2001, but Whalen
isn't one to rattle off any of these statistics. Ask him what he's proud
of and he lists names. Among them: Patrick Ip (B.A., '99), a hearing-impaired
student who found a creative way to incorporate audio equipment into
his competitions and wound up with a trophy, and Tony Bernacchi, a senior
who learned Lakota for a rousing speech about the U.S. government's
attempts to restrict Native Americans from speaking their own languages.
Whalen's team members, who represent a variety of majors, find that
forensics serves them well in other classes. Many say it has improved
their ability to organize their thoughts, to construct arguments and
Debate has provided excellent preparation for aspiring lawyers, Whalen
says, adding that other alumni of the forensics team include teachers,
nurses and at least seven forensics coaches at Northern California colleges.
Sakamoto, a graduating senior, believes the experience will serve her
well in a future career in broadcast news. "Forensics has made
me realize that whenever we are speaking, any changes in rate, tone
and inflection can heavily impact how we come to understand each other,"
In May Sakamoto received the award for Outstanding Performer in Literature
Interpretation presented by the Northern California Forensics Association.
The organization named Rau Outstanding Performer in Platform Speaking.
Whalen received the Distinguished Service Award.
Success is always viewed as a bonus by the team's coaches. The overarching
goal in forensics is improving students' communication skills, Steele
says. "It's all about students being willing to engage with the
world in a way that will hopefully make them more productive, better
able to connect with each other, understand each other -- and ultimately,
Need a little polish at the podium?
Check out Shawn Whalen's public speaking tips.