Give 'em 10 minutes, any topic, and they'll debate

Harvard University student Tony Dinovi is what you might call a modern-day minuteman - eight minutes to be exact. Give him any topic, such as ''A little learning is a dangerous thing'' or ''Planet Earth is blue, and there's nothing we can do,'' and he'll give you 480 seconds of well-reasoned analysis wrapped in more than a dose of humor.

Tony uses his skills in ''off topic'' debating, something that is becoming more and more popular on campuses in the Northeast United States. It's a variation on traditional ''on topic'' debating, except that participants speak spontaneously, without the hours of research and preparation common to most college and high school debate.

Many college off-topic debaters are refugees from conventional high school debate teams. They say they've grown tired of lugging trays of facts on index cards to tournaments only to read them aloud to judges as fast as possible.

Parliamentary debate's requirements of quick thinking and steady nerves, instead of hours of library research, appeal to many students. ''I went to one (off-topic tournament) and I was hooked,'' says Merri Baldwin, a former on-topic debater who now heads the team at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

In off-topic debating, the first side to speak has 10 minutes to prepare. It then sends a member forward to define the topic and defend it for eight minutes. Next a member of the opposing team must immediately rise and argue the opposite side for eight minutes. Five-minute rebuttals by the other members of the two-person teams then follow.

The sessions, says Merri, ''may start off with silly resolutions, but we make them something.'' Thus a debate on the question ''We are turning Japanese'' yielded discussion on the social effects of high-technology; the topic ''The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world'' provoked cross fire over the roles of the sexes today.

Although on-topic debaters generally look down on their free wheeling cousins , Merri and Tony say the criticism is unwarranted. ''I have several professors who were on-topic debaters,'' says Merri, ''and they're always saying, 'Well, when are you going to do real debating?' ''

But the two say they are learning valuable skills, such as overcoming fear of public speaking. ''The first time you get up there, you say to yourself, 'Oh my gosh, eight minutes! What am I going to say?' '' argues Tony. ''But after about five times you find that you wish you had 10 minutes.''

Unlike conventional debating, ''You don't have the crutch of cases and cases of evidence,'' says Tony, referring to the index card-filled trays. He started Harvard's off-topic team three years ago. ''You're forced to just stand there and start talking. I hate to admit it, but it's educational.'' Recently, he says , a Harvard Business School student called about joining the team's practices - to improve his speaking ability.

After all, adds Merri, ''Debate is just organized talking. Everyone can do it with a little practice.

''No matter how eloquently the opposition speaks,'' she says, ''there's always another argument, another side to what they're saying. You can pick up their flaws and make them your strengths.''

''Any kind of debating is valuable,'' agrees Thomas Kane, chairman of the Department of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh and a noted on-topic coach. Still, he favors the traditional system that teaches constructing a case based on research. He cites as evidence ''the number of people who go on to clerk for the Supreme Court'' who have traditional debate backgrounds. ''It's incredible,'' he says.

Harvard and Smith are among many of the 30 to 35 US schools with off-topic teams that are meeting March 14-20 at the world championships at Princeton University in New Jersey. There they face tough competition from schools in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

Schools in those nations, Tony points out, have long histories of parliamentary debate; US schools generally have fielded teams for less than 10 years. The British tradition goes back to the debating clubs of Oxford and Cambridge, where champions were noted for the wit and style, as well as the substance, of their arguments.

That tradition is being built at Smith, says Merri, who serves on the board of the American Parliamentary Debate Association, the US governing body. The Smith team has a budget of about $12,000 a year, mostly to cover travel costs, and has drawn as many as 400 onlookers to a tournament.

Although early rounds are presented only to a judge, who picks the winner, final rounds are held in front of spectators, who are urged to stand and ''heckle'' the speaker or even come forward to present their views. Spurred on by the audience, a team that laces the most stand-up comedy into its arguments often emerges victorious.

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