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Forensics keeps professor's job fresh

November 16, 2008|By KATE S. ALEXANDER

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- Every trophy-covered inch in the basement office of Joyce G. Webb echoed with excitement.

A trio of students huddled in the cramped office, loudly strategizing on how to win their upcoming debate tournament.

While one student browsed the Web calling out the latest headlines, the others discussed speech topics and double-checked that the team had dotted all the "I's" and crossed all the "T's" for the competition.

Webb paused to apologize for the chaos. It was less than a week before the veteran coach would take the Shepherd University Debate and Forensics Team to compete in the Pi Kappa Delta Invitation Tournament at Morgan State University in Baltimore and there was much to be done.

"You would think this gets old," she said. "Somehow it doesn't."

For 29 years, Webb, a communications professor, has coached the Shepherd Debate and Forensics team and after nearly three decades of arguing, compromising, criticizing and recruiting to keep the program alive and winning, she could not imagine doing anything else.

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"I love teaching," she said. "But this (the debate team) adds an element of interest to my job that goes outside the classroom and allows me to keep my teaching alive when I am in the classroom."

The small Shepherd University team has never had a losing season, Webb said.

With a constant ebb and flow of students, winning, she said, is a challenge.

Early in her career, Webb learned to be an advocate for the team.

"I had to make this important to the university and something that works, or it would have the potential to go away," she said. "So many teams have gone away from other schools, that is why I, why we the team, advocate so hard."

Nick DiBartolomeo, one of the team's novice competitors, said it has become his job to visit members of the Shepherd Administration for final approval of each tournament.

Just stopping by to see those individuals keeps the team on the administration's mind, Webb said.

The team works by being a sort of family for students and public relations representatives for the school, she said.

Unlike football and basketball, there are no divisions in collegiate debate, and Webb said the open competitive field has allowed Shepherd to compete against schools such as Harvard, Princeton, New York University and Penn State, and win.

"We are the only competitive academic team on campus and off campus, our name is known at (schools like) NYU because we have won against NYU," she said.

Despite being a small team with a very small budget compared to schools like Harvard, Webb said Shepherd is winning national recognition and awards, including the Welch-Strine Traveling Trophy for year-long success.

The students win by competing in individual and paired debate, and public speaking events at tournaments all across the world, from Maryland to Wisconsin, from Canada to the Czech Republic.

While the awards are won individually, the thousands of trophies belong to the team as a whole, and even Webb to an extent.

Seeing her students learn, grow and win is the greatest prize of all, Webb said.

"I have seen so many students grow into what they are and become proud of where they are from," she said. "My goal was to take this team to Nationals and I have done that. I guess my goal now is to take them to nationals and win."

Team Captain Brittany Young said she owes her confidence and preparedness for the future to Webb and the time spent on the team.

"I remember approaching my first tournament unsure if I could speak long enough or well enough to final (in the competition)," Young said. "Now, four years later, if you told me that in five minutes I had to give a speech in front of 500 people, I could do it without breaking a sweat."

The Shepherd University team is currently the No. 1 ranked team in the Collegiate Forensics Association.

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