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The Carletonian

Ethics Bowl wins 3rd place

<rch, teams from colleges around the country converged in Cincinnati, Ohio to compete in the 2010 Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl. Carleton’s representatives took third place, the best performance in the team’s history. They credit part of their success to an improvised style of presentation that kept their speeches fresh and relevant.

So, what exactly is Ethics Bowl?

“It’s basically ethics debate,” explained team member Dan Kagan-Kans ’10. A couple months before the competition, participating teams receive 15 ethically fraught scenarios, which they use to prepare.

In each contest, two teams are matched against one another for two rounds. Judges pose a question based on one of the scenarios, and after a few minutes of preparation time, a representative from the first team must answer in a ten-minute presentation. Next, the second team offers a rebuttal, the first team rebuts the rebuttal, and finally, the judges question the first team about its stance. In the second round, the teams swap roles, and the judges ask a new question.

After taking third place at regionals, Carleton’s team of Kagan-Kans ’10, Chris Logel ’10 and Carmen Ross ’10, coached by economics professor Michael Hemesath, advanced to the national contest. Three initial matches whittled down the 64 teams to just eight in the quarterfinals, and four in the semifinals.

Although the University of Alabama at Birmingham eventually emerged as this year’s champion, Carleton’s team advanced farther than they ever have before to win third place. They accomplished this with both an unusually small team and a unique strategy: improvisation.
“I think you do get a more genuine response when you do it extemporaneously,” Logel said.

The journey to the national competition began with team coach Michael Hemesath, who heads the organization Ethical Inquiry at Carleton, also called EthIC. In addition to overseeing Carleton’s team during competitions, he founded the team about four years ago. Hemesath also sets the team’s size, preferring to prepare a small group.

In the world of Ethics Bowl, Carleton’s three-person team is the smallest allowed in the competition, and the only group of its size to make it to the quarterfinals at nationals. A more typical group has four to five members, although one school brought a total of thirteen people—one six-person team plus substitutes. But these Carls turned their small team size into an advantage.

With only three members, splitting up the fifteen scenarios meant that Kagan-Kans, Logel and Ross ended up studying five topics each, making memorizing a ten-minute presentation for each topic unfeasible. Instead, the team met twice to discuss their ideas, but ultimately delivered unplanned speeches at the competition.

“I’d say 95% of it was extemporaneous,” Logel said.

“The other teams had memorized a ten-minute speech, but I think we felt confident enough to not have to do that,” added Ross.

According to all three team members, a prepared speech neither shows thoughtfulness nor fits the judges’ question exactly. Each scenario could inspire a variety of questions, and a speech written for the wrong question could lead to what Kagan-Kans calls “a politician answer, where they turn the question into something they want to talk about.”

In fact, Carleton’s small team size and looser preparations led to their success.  Logel described a poor style of presentation he witnessed at the competition: “It was like they were reading off a piece of paper—so rigid.” In contrast, the winning team, University of Alabama, delivered their answers in an extemporaneous style.

Since Carleton’s team consists entirely of seniors, a new group of students must assemble for next year’s competition. Would-be ethicists can contact Hemesath to ask about joining, or he will recruit students who may be interested.

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