When Heather May came to teach public speaking at Emerson College a little more than 10 years ago, the Forensics Team here was more or less “on hiatus.” Which, to May, seemed unfortunate for a school so heavily focused on, well, public speaking.
May started the team back up and that first year, took three women to the Nationals, mostly using her faculty travel money because the team was broke.
“We’ve come a long way since then,” May said.
This year’s team is still small—somewhere between 5 and 10 students, May said—but it’s competitive. And this week, five of them are in Muncie, Indiana, for the National Forensics Association (NFA) national speech and debate competition April 14–18 at Ball State University.
Since September, the team has traveled to competitions across New England and the Mid-Atlantic, as well as the Midwest, where big universities with large Communication departments pay full-time employees to hone the teams’ skills.
“They don’t have advisors, they have full-time coaches, so it’s very much a part of the institution,” said May, who was on the forensics team at one of those big Midwestern universities (Nebraska) and competed in every event except Extemporaneous Speaking.
The Emerson students will be up against some of those teams this week in Muncie, where participants from about 100 schools will try to talk their way to the top.
The students on the Emerson Forensics Team represent many different majors, but they all have one thing in common, May said: “They love to perform in a very specific kind of way; they love to perform with a message.
“That’s kind of the interesting thing, when I meet new students, they have these issues that they care so deeply about, and performance seems the most natural way for them to make a statement about the [issues],” she said.
Hayden Ventresca ’18, a Political Communication major, will be competing in the Interpretive Poetry event, on the theme of loving someone with mental illness and the toll it takes. In her piece, she will use the poems “Nearest Exit” by Alex Dang, Brenna Twohy, and Eirean Bradley; “I Won’t Write Your Obituary” by Nora Cooper; and “Angels of the Get Through” by Andrea Gibson.
Ventresca said in an email that she joined the Forensics Team so she could “learn to speak more eloquently under pressure”—which she did. She also said that anyone who joins a forensics team learns so much about so many topics: foreign policy, politics, social issues, technology.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned doesn’t actually have to do with speech and debate,” Ventresca wrote. “I think it’s just how to work with a group of people (a bunch of wonderful, strong women really) who all approach problems in completely different ways.”
May said she’s feeling good about the tournament. They’re a small team, but they’re talented and have been working hard at competitions since September.
The last time an Emerson student placed at Nationals, it was in the After-Dinner Speaking category.
“It’s a persuasive speech on a serious topic, but it’s supposed to be funny, so I don’t think it’s any accident that Emerson students are good at that,” she said.