IU’s ethics bowl team prepares for national competition

Post by IU Newsroom intern Annie Brackemyre

In a competition of rhetorical and conceptual distillation, the IU ethics bowl team heads to the national Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl for the second year in a row on Feb. 21 in Reston, Va. The team will face 35 other schools who qualified for nationals based on their performance at regional competitions in November.

Ethics bowl team

Members of the IU ethics bowl team practice at the Poynter Center. | Photo by IU Communications

Despite the impressive placing by both IU teams at regionals, rules for nationals dictate that each university can send only one team. The two teams reorganized with five competing members for February — Reyan Coskun, Hannah Eli, Ali Henke, Alex Johnson and Nikhil Nandu — and four alternates: Seth Carter, Jess Gingles, Daniel Hao and Roger Morris.

For the two returning members and team captains Henke and Nandu, nationals symbolize redemption after losing in the semifinals last year. But for the remaining seven freshman members, ethics bowl and nationals mark unfamiliar territory.

“It is very difficult for me to imagine going into these next two weeks of preparation for nationals,” said Johnson, a freshman majoring in supply chain management. “But the team captains have prepared us well. They know when to push back in practice and led us through mock bowls.”

Despite the IU team’s success in past years, winning nationals twice since inception of the IU program in 2001, the achievement of the team remains relatively unknown in the IU community.

“I don’t think there are misconceptions about ethics bowl,” said Henke, a junior majoring in chemistry and political science. “But that is because not enough people know it exists in the first place for any misconceptions to exist.”

Ethics Bowl practice

Ali Henke, left, speaks with a teammate during a team practice. | Photo by IU Communications

Some of the confusion around the club stems from the atypical scoring. Teams do not win their debates, and arguments are never judged as right or wrong. Instead, they are judged on how well they considered and argued against all alternate positions.

At nationals, the IU team will compete in a series of debates against opposing teams. Fifteen potential cases are distributed six weeks before the competition. During preparation, the five competing IU members are assigned three cases to research and brief the rest of the members.

This year’s case topics include medical advance directives, maternity tourism, the high cost of potentially lifesaving medical treatments, normalizing relations with Cuba and culpability gray areas in car accidents.

“You begin by thinking through what your opinion is on any case, consider the exact opposite position and then start working through every position in between,” Henke said.

The team meets twice per week, allowing them to run through each of the 15 cases twice before nationals. At each practice, assigned members come prepared to present the facts of one of their three cases. Then, they propose a position. The other team members and alternates poke holes in the argument, playing devil’s advocate to strengthen the position.

“It’s not about whether or not your argument is right,” Henke said. “It’s about justifying why you didn’t take a different position.”

In Virginia, the teams will work to either debunk the opposing team’s argument or agree with their stance but present improvements to their argument. Judges choose eight teams to advance to a knock-out round based on a team score of comprehensiveness, consistency, clarity and ethical considerations. A win comes from a comprehensive understanding of the case from all angles and a rhetorically skilled presentation that fits within the 10- minute parameter. Teams are also awarded a separate and uncounted score on civility.

Ethics bowl team practice

Team captain Nikhil Nandu speaks during a recent team practice. | IU Communications

IU team members’ diverse backgrounds serve as one of their biggest assets.

“We have a wide range of viewpoints so that if anyone hasn’t thought about an alternate option or argument, there is another member who steps in and offers a different perspective,” said coach and graduate student Joe Bartzel.

The variance is seen in the breadth of team member majors, which include chemistry, economics, international business, law and public policy, marketing, neuroscience, philosophy, political science and supply chain management.

The diversity also helps team morale. While Henke and Johnson groaned at the mention of the science-heavy cases, Coskun perked up.

“No one else likes environmental cases,” said Coskun, the team member in charge of a case about California’s drought and water-intensive farming. “But I love them.”

With a few weeks of research and preparation left, the team’s confidence continues to grow.

“We know we have what it takes to hang with the very best this year,” Bartzel said. “We know we can win the competition.”

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