How can girls succeed at the highest level of high-school debate?

You know the problem, right? If a girl is meek and submissive, she won’t impress the debate judges. If she is strong and assertive, the judges will call her an aggressive bitch and she won’t do well. So there’s no way to win. What’s the solution, if any?

Well, the girls at Newton South High School in Newton, MA, proved the naysayers wrong. I highly recommend watching the documentary about them, Girl Talk. For those who don’t know Newton South, I should point out that it’s in a high-income, mostly white and Asian and highly Jewish neighborhood, so it’s a prime candidate for winning in the extremely competitive world of high-school debating. Not coincidentally, Newton South is always one of the top contenders in the New England Math League, which is my main connection with them. But math competitions don’t require the enormous time commitment that serious debate requires; only crew and swimming are in that league, so to speak.

The documentary follows a group of debaters, ranging from very experienced seniors to just-beginning novices, as they make their way through all the challenges of debates—local, regional, and even national. We see glimpses of their home lives and are helped to understand the enormous pressures they are under, just like the students I taught in honors math courses in nearby Weston. In fact, if anyone told you that these girls were students at Weston High School, you would have no reason to disbelieve it.

How, you may wonder, are debate competitions different from math competitions? The three most salient differences are in dress code, judging, and public performances:

  • Debaters dress up, mathletes certainly don’t. Jeans and tee-shirts are the rule for math competitions. Of course the male debaters all dress alike, in dark suits and ties, but the female debaters have some issues to contend with. “I like your dress, but your shoes don’t match the dress,” complained one sexist judge.
  • Debate judges are subjective, and not just because of sexism. Everything from pitch of voice to speed of delivery can affect their judgment. But in math competitions the judges are 99% objective, as an answer is almost always clearly right or wrong. The few exceptions are when a judge has to decide something like whether 4 is an acceptable answer when the key says 4+0i.
  • Debates are normally oral, in front of an audience, even if sometimes that audience consists of no one but a judge. Math competitions (at least in the leagues that I’m familiar with) are pencil-and-paper affairs. This, of course, is one reason why it doesn’t matter how you dress, and it also can make a big difference to many mathletes, depending on their personality. The kind of oral math competition famous from Mean Girls is a different matter.

Speaking of sexist judges, there’s an interesting comment in the film from the Newton South debate coach. When one of the girls pointed out how sexist the judges were and suggested that they need anti-bias training, he observed that the judges surely think that they are already unbiased, and if she could somehow succeed in removing their sexism it would mean that the team would be prepared for a fantasy world, not the real one. Hmm…

Categories: Teaching & Learning, Weston