As the director of CSULB’s forensics team, Ryan Smith oversees as many as 100 students who participate in speech and debate tournaments throughout the year. CSULB offers students the opportunity to compete in policy debate, parliamentary debate, and all 11 American Forensic Association’s individual events.
And, although winning a lot of tournaments is exciting, Smith takes his greatest pleasure in watching students grow and get better at what he calls a true art form.
“I don’t talk about win-win-win or competition as much, because I find if you teach the kids the art form and they love what they are doing and are putting their heart out there every time, the trophies will come,” said Smith, who credits his predecessor Matt Taylor for the strong program he inherited. “Matt was very good, he worked very hard and he left me an amazing foundation to build on.”
Today CSULB ranks among the elite in intercollegiate forensics having won six national championships. Most recently, the brother-and-sister team of Jeremy and Ciera Carson brought home the 2007 National Championship in duo interpretation but this is just the tip of the iceberg. During the 2007-08 season CSULB won the state and district championships by more than 500 points, qualified for the maximum number of events eligible for nationals, has two debate teams ranked in the top 20 in the nation, and will walk into the national tournaments this spring with a very good chance of bringing home a few more national championships.
“I love it here,” added Smith, in his third year as director after two years with Taylor as an assistant. “I have spent so much time pouring my heart and energy into this team. It’s kind of like raising a kid. I try to take a lot of things in stride that I didn’t before. I use to micromanage everything, but I don’t anymore. Now, when the kids have a really great day, I remind them that winning is great, but it’s really about the art form and if you do that, the trophies will come.”
Team members meet every Tuesday and Thursday from 3:30-5:30 p.m. and on Saturday, when not participating in a tournament. Students also work individually with coaches during the week as schedules allow.
In a tournament, participants have no idea what the resolution is going to be and it changes every round. Once they get a topic, they have 20 minutes to prep for a 40-minute back-and-forth debate. Generally speaking, resolutions focus on current events or other topical issues.
The forensics program, which has been at CSULB since 1951, is open to all undergraduate and graduate students, not just those in Communication Studies, as evidenced by those participating coming from majors as diverse as engineering, management information systems and graphic design.
“Our team is really big and really good, more than it has been in a few years,” said Smith. “We are very successful. With more people and more trophies, there are many positive effects. There are tournaments that are disappointing because you are prepared and expect to do really well and you don’t. It’s such a subjective activity and you have judges who are making those decisions. It’s just the nature of the beast and you live and die by that.”
As an undergraduate from Texas Tech University, Smith participated in its forensics’ program for four years as a student, finishing eighth in the nation as a senior. He then came to CSULB to go to graduate school and work with the forensics program. His bachelor’s and master’s degrees are in Communications Studies.
So, what is the allure for students who subject themselves to stand before judges in order to have their debate skills critiqued?
“The public speaking, critical thinking and argumentation skills taught in debate are good for any major,” said Smith, whose teams are preparing for national championship events in March and April. “The most important thing they learn is, quite honestly, a work ethic. There is no difference between the kid who takes speech team really seriously and the star basketball player. It’s a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week job and you still can’t do enough. The kids who put in that kind of time and the effort have a sense of accomplishment. It’s not an easy thing to do, but they are usually very successful. It’s fun to watch people grow and get better at it.”