Maintaining Agency: Taking debate into Prisons

Amy Arellano

As educators, we find ourselves within an interesting contemporary moment, specifically at the intersection of increasing civic engagement while safeguarding limited budget resources. Historically, this tension has been handled by promoting forensics as a co-circular activity (Millsap 1988, Walker 2015, Pelliteir 2015). Based on the current sociopolitical environment, forensics students often utilize their specific event choices as an instrument for civic engagement and/or protest. With the move to stabilize forensics as a place for resistance and advocacy, I suggest forensics educators adopt a community engagement pedagogy to increase the possibilities for societal change (Coasta and Leong, 2012). Based on these assessments, I explore how forensics engagement within the prison system can help promote the value of both advocacy and social justice.

In the fall of 2016, I joined the ranks of Boise State University and inherited a prison debate initiative that was started the year before. As a forensics educator, I was ecstatic to volunteer to teach debate to inmates once a week. An added benefit is that the BSU prison debate initiative allows me to strengthen the programís roots regarding community engagement pedagogy, or what some refer to as service learning. Within our partnership with the prison, I accomplish the following things that help our programís development and community engagement: the program is comprised of 25-30 inmates, I utilize student volunteers from the team, we spend 24 weeks teaching speech and debate skills, and graduation includes a debate exhibition for their family and friends. Based on this, I am also providing an applied experience for competitors to learn the relationship between advocacy and education. Thus, I look at how a prison program benefits the department, the volunteer students, and most importantly students within the initiative.

First, on a departmental level the initiative is understood as a tool for community outreach. It serves as a visible application of the departmentís commitment to advocacy as a learning outcome. As I operate the program as a volunteer, I can utilize the program to count towards faculty community service expectations. Additionally, the prison debate initiative is an official partnership with the Idaho Department of Corrections. The program is the first educational partnership the prison has made within the community. Forensics is more than just tournaments and trophies. This debate program has allowed the expansion of need and advocacy outcomes to serve as strong justification for maintaining the initiative. In turn, participation shows the direct benefits of teaching communication competency both to the student volunteers as well as the prison participants. The prison program acts as an exemplar on how a department can achieve core learning objectives within the community and not just classroom.

For the student volunteers, the program helps highlight the vitality of accessibility. As a gatekeeper, I pay special attention during student lectures to how jargon is being used and insist the program remains focused on communication skills as opposed to a technical style of debate. This requires students to adjust their language choices for inclusion. Additionally, the initiative allows me to have a space for volunteers to learn how to construct, deliver, and unpack lectures. The opportunity for development helps the growth of students not only wanting to coach in their future, but also is extremely beneficial for my pre-law students as it allows time for hands on experience utilizing forensics skills outside of the activity.

As a forensics educator, my intent behind the program is twofold: to teach critical thinking as an alternative form of dispute resolution, and to teach each inmate how to advocate for their own interests and needs. I see the work that we do over the year as active engagement to resist the prison industrial complex that tends to focus on punitive outcomes.


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Millsap, S. (1998). The Benefits of Forensics Across the Curriculum: An Opportunity To Expand the Visibility of College Forensics. Forensic, 84(1).

Pelletier, L. (2015). Older, Wiser, Novice: Nontraditional Students and Collegiate Forensics. National Forensic Journal, 33(1).

Walker, B. (2015). Experiential Learning and the Basic Communication Course: A New Path to Assessing Forensic Learning Outcomes. Speaker & Gavel, 51(1), 4.