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How the Hart House Debate Club argues its way through a pandemic

Two participants on how they adjusted online
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The move online meant leaving the debates room at Hart House, instead opting for Zoom and Discord. GABRIEL CARTER/THE VARSITY
The move online meant leaving the debates room at Hart House, instead opting for Zoom and Discord. GABRIEL CARTER/THE VARSITY

Conceived in 1919, some may think of the Hart House Debate Club (HHDC) as an exhausted centenarian. They couldn’t be more wrong. The spirit of the club resembles a flexible, curious individual who loves to debate about anything that comes to mind. 

Whilst the pandemic is a worldwide bummer for all things fun, the HHDC has kept up its lively discussions with even more rigour online. 

Maria Bon, a second-year student and the HHDC’s social director, and Mia Feldman, a first-year novice, shared their perspectives with The Varsity on the shift to a virtual debate life. 

The Varsity: What was the initial impact of the pandemic on the HHDC?

Maria Bon: I was a part of the debate club before the pandemic. We had practices twice a week, and we also went to a bunch of tournaments. Obviously, that had to stop. 

We moved online pretty quickly and had practices on Discord and Zoom all throughout summer. Tournaments also moved online —  they actually run through Discord and Zoom as well. It’s been a pretty seamless transition, but the social aspects have definitely suffered. 

Something that we keep a close eye on every year is our novice retention; this year we got a lot less novices. Yet, overall, I’m really glad that we can still continue doing what we love here.

TV: What online mediums does the HHDC use? 

Mia Feldman: At our weekly practices, we have a Discord server that we all use, and that’s how we exchange information. We each get sent a Zoom link, which is really nice because we’re able to see each other’s faces, so it feels more normal. 

Tournaments usually operate in a similar way. They’ll often use both Discord and Zoom. Discord is really accessible and pretty easy to use. We also use Facebook a lot to communicate. We have lots of messenger group chats where we chat with each other.

TV: Has the art of debating changed as a result of being online? Has it lost its essence in any way?

MB: A lot of debate is about being in the same room together, but having these visual components supplements for that. I think the biggest thing is the social aspect of debate. 

Especially traveling to tournaments together. Obviously that’s a really big bonding experience and how you make friends. 

Debate is also very mentorship-based. When a new class of first-year debaters comes in, it’s up to the more experienced second-, third-, and fourth-year debaters to teach them how to debate and give them basics, especially for those who haven’t had high school experience.

TV: Do you find any unexpected benefits by going online?

MF: I think that it’s easier to participate in international tournaments now. Typically, it would be hard for us to go because they’re super far away, especially during midterm season. But now, a lot of Canadians are waking up at 4:00 am because of the time difference, but can still compete in the tournaments over Zoom. 

MB: We used to have students from UTM and UTSC commuting to practices. Now, they can call in, so that’s a lot easier. But we also have a lot of people from our team who are dispersed across the world in different time zones. So that’s definitely harder for practices as well.

TV: Did the debate team have to drop any rituals from the virtual meetings?

MB: One cool thing is when we go to a tournament, and if we do really well, we have a little chant that we do together where the winner yells, “Whose house?” And the whole team yells back, “Hart House.” All the other Canadian teams make fun of us for it, but it’s a great endorphin rush. We haven’t figured out a way to do it over Zoom without breaking our ears.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.