Nearly every high school and college in Kentucky has some kind of debate team, but what they do is very different from what will be on television Thursday night, when the vice presidential candidates hit the stage in Danville.
The Centre College debate between Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan will be a relatively casual discussion, with the two men seated at a table. Most students take part in more formal, structured competitions, where timing and topics are strict and controlled. Even so, the students will be looking to learn from the candidates.
The most popular debate format is called Lincoln-Douglas, based on the series of seven debates held by Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858 as they competed for the U.S. Senate.
"It's very different because intercollegiate debates are very insular," said Tiffany Dillard Knox, the debate coach and speech teacher at the University of Louisville. "These debates are more for the public audience, but we will use them to talk about persuasive speaking more than anything else."
Dan Glaser, a debate coach at Western Kentucky University, said that under the Lincoln-Douglas format, students have a topic, and each team is either arguing in the affirmative or the negative.
The affirmative side starts, arguing its side for typically 13 minutes. Then the negative side rebuts it. At a recent debate, for example, students argued either side of the following statement: "The federal government should support sustainable or organic agriculture."
The two sides are given time to prepare rebuttals, and then they argue again. They also are allowed to cross-examine each other in timed segments. "If they go off-topic," Glaser said, "they lose the debate."
Glaser said students must be more disciplined, and it might help the public if the national political debates followed the same format. The current structure, in which a moderator throws out a topic and lets the two sides argue, "creates a free-for-all where candidates think they can talk about whatever is important them, and we lose topicality," he said.
Andrea Reed, director of the debate program at the University of Kentucky, said the presidential and vice presidential formats mostly allow students to think and learn about persuasive speaking. She's going to require her students to watch the debate and decide what they could do to improve the candidates' arguments.
"They have to explain why they thought it was weak and what they would have done to improve it," Reed said.
At Dunbar High School in Lexington, speech club director Neomia Hagans Flores had a round-table discussion with her students after the first debate, and she's requiring them to watch the one at Centre College on Thursday.
At their round table, the students talked about presentation, and "the ability of both presidential candidates to deliver their message in a concise way," Hagans Flores said.
The team is headed to a competition at the end of the month where the topic is whether developed countries have a moral obligation to reduce their carbon footprint.
"They have to come up with arguments on one issue versus trying to tackle the world," Hagans Flores said.