USF Convenes Debate Tournament With a Twist

In the St. Ignatius Dialogues, teams collaborate as much as they compete

by Evan Elliot, USF News

On Saturday, Sept. 30, students from eight universities converged on campus for a different kind of debate tournament.

“It was a nonbinary tournament,” said Robert Boller, professor of rhetoric and director of the debate program at USF. “In a nonbinary tournament, no one is forced into pro or con positions. These are civic debates — we’re attempting a civil discourse model that we’d like to see in society.”

At the tournament, called the St. Ignatius Dialogues, each team of students responded to these questions over three rounds:

Round 1: How can we best embrace diversity without exacerbating conflict or losing identity?
Round 2: What should the role of technology be in advancing social justice? 
Round 3: What is the best way to support the LGBTQ+ community?

“These are broad topics, I know,” Boller said. “They’re meant to be broad. The challenge for each team is to research these topics, to come up with original arguments, and to engage with each opponent’s ideas.”

Civilized Disagreement

In contrast to traditional college debates that “force speakers into oversimplified false dilemmas, such as being 100 percent for or against gun control, the St. Ignatius Dialogues prompt nuanced responses to big societal issues,” Boller said.

While the teams do argue, they don’t yell.

“These dialogues aren’t combat,” Boller said. “They’re not a zero-sum game in which the winners gloat and the losers grovel.”

Katie Inthavong ’25, a psychology major who has been debating at USF since spring 2022, took part in the St. Ignatius Dialogues. “You arrive with an open mind,” she said. “You can disagree without disrespecting each other — and you can learn from each other.”

Discernment in Action

At its best, debate is discernment, Boller said. “Discernment is at the heart of Jesuit education. Discernment is when you’re pondering a difficult choice and when you waver between reason and emotion. Calm and respectful debate, free from hostility and ego, helps you make better decisions — for yourself and for society.”

So, who won the tournament?

“I think everybody won,” Boller said. “But if you must know, George Washington University was named the winning team. And by the way, Katie Inthavong, Chisom Okorafor, and Ananya Singh of USF all tied for the first-place speaker award. I’ve been to many, many debate tournaments over 25-plus years, and I’ve never seen a three-way tie for top speaker, and particularly not all on the same team.”

Learn more about the USF debate team