Education: Meet Elmer, an Online Debate Camp Director in Austin, TX

Interviewer: Danielle Gu; June 1, 2020

Interviewee: Elmer Yang

Elmer is the Assistant Director of Debate at the War Room (Elmer Yang).

Could you tell us about yourself and why did you decide to start the War Room, an online debate camp?

I'm Elmer and I'm a rising junior at UT Austin majoring in business, and I've been involved in debate for about six years now. The War Room basically came around when I was talking with one of my friends, and we were looking at the price point of online camps and a lot of them were still one point five thousand, two thousand. We decided that was a pretty ridiculous for an online format, especially in an activity that is supposed to be for individuals trying to make an impact on their community and the educational reasons why debate is important for people.

So we decided to create an online camp at a low price point in an attempt to help people who would have never been able to access the debate camp experience. I did an extremely affordable cost so that they were able to get experience from a quality staff and be able to use those things that we teach them to make a broader impact, especially given that this new shift to the Internet gives us that opportunity to do so. So we talked about it together with a couple of people we knew on the circuit, and then that's for the war room began. Now we're at 30 students and I'm super blessed to be a part of that.

"[Debate camp] an activity that is supposed to be for individuals trying to make an impact on their community."

So you mentioned that I know you talked to a lot of people in the circuit, and what do you think drew those people to become lab leaders?

I think it's about our purpose and our mission, which is to bring camp at an affordable price point. I think that's what brings people who may have been staffed at other larger camps to come to ours specifically because our entire staff is made of people who believe in the power of debate, who believe in what debate has given us, and wish to give back to others in the community, and that way together we're able to create this unique experience for people.

Where did the name "The War Room" come from?

This is actually pretty interesting - one of the co-founders is really into strategy games online. Then we were talking about how a lot of times debate borrows these military terms. Whenever we go into pre round preparation, we use the term war room for the room that we steal from the tournament, and then we just take it to prep in. The war room is meant to build strategic vision for debaters, especially in LD., and we decided that was a pretty amped term for what we're trying to do to our curriculum, which is give people the strategic vision, not just give them cards or blocks, but the ability to execute any argument.

How has teaching virtually has impacted how students learn from their instructors since camp is all online?

Having an online camp borrows from a few issues that happened during online schooling writ large, I think, especially dealing with high schoolers and middle schoolers, they tend to have shorter attention spans because they're unable to use communication techniques like eye contact with individuals. There's also less participation happens because when you're asking a question to a group of people, 15 or 20 students, no one tends to speak up because they don't really feel comfortable with doing so in an online format. So that caused us to redefine how our curriculum is based, and we've redesigned our curriculum to be much more interactive. So we center things like execution, drills, and practice rounds that makes people more comfortable in having their defined role of what to do. That way it's not just us asking questions and we deposit information into people, but it's about our campers building their own information and building their own experience from it. So that's the way that we've created a more involved in person feel for the environment.

"So we center things like execution, drills, and practice rounds that makes people more comfortable in having their defined role of what to do."

What does an average day at the War Room look like?

We start off with a morning lecture, and half of it is individuals teaching about their own experiences, and then we have drills that come after that with those specific instructors. We set up our instructors as specialists who specialize in different sects of LD debate whether that be theory, whether that be policy, or critique. They get that experience with those people. Then we take a break and it's back to another drill or practice round, with 2 of them back to back. There's a shorter lecture after, which would be a rotation elective. Finally, we have office hours, and we've expanded the role for office hours in our camp because we think that that's the best way for individuals to get one on one instruction.

That way they feel more comfortable talking one to one with instructors and allows them to practice what the instructor may have taught in morning lecture or the shorter afternoon one.

How do you think providing this lower cost camp option and the War Room itself has impacted the debate community?

I think the major one we've done is to allow people who may geographically or monetarily not be able to attend regular camp to get these experiences. For example, we have people from all the way from Idaho to people in the North East to people in California, including areas where sometimes you might not even be able to get to take a camp at all, even if you have the money to attend one. I think we're bringing a universal sort of staff from all ideological backgrounds to teach them and that's a primary way in which we're able to provide a unique perspective from our staff to a wide range of students.

I also think that the curriculum itself or the way we center strategic vision as the primary point of our camp is one that we think revolutionizes how LD debate is taught because we no longer watch our students to tell our students how to debate, but rather give them the skill set for them to choose how to adapt within specific rounds. Everything that hopefully, external to the accessibility portions of our camp, will allow our students to build a portable skill set that exists outside of just debate itself.

How have you adapted your schedule to time zone differences?

All our times were based in Central Time, but we think that starting from that only allows a one hour difference for East Coast and then only back to two for those in California, and the West Coast. Then we started our camp fairly late. Our camp starts at 10:00 a.m. Central Time. So that means that it doesn't push it to 7:00 a.m. or 6:00 a.m. on the West Coast. It also means it doesn't start to date for those on the East Coast because it's only 11:00 a.m. and that's the way that we've kind of found a good middle ground, because you're right - a lot of online camps and online tournaments will struggle with making sure that everyone on the West Coast and East Coast, because there's a four hour difference, can participate, and we think we've found a good middle ground.

"...A lot of online camps and online tournaments will struggle with making sure that everyone on the West Coast and East Coast, because there's a four hour difference, can participate..."

If you're willing to share, how has COVID-19 affected you individually and your family?

So, I am personally privileged enough that I have a safe home to go to, and I have two parents who can work from home and aren't furloughed. I'm really blessed to have that privilege to not be extremely affected by COVID 19, but it also does have effect. Things like the shift in schooling obviously was difficult, but overall it hasn't been too bad. I'm really glad that I have the opportunity to still continue some semblance of my normal life when I know that people who unfortunately have been hit much harder.

What do you think is the greatest lesson that we can learn from this outbreak, both debate related to me and not?

Yeah, I know that for me personally, I always try and find opportunities, even in things and situations where it may all feel like a disadvantage. COVID 19 has taught me personally that we need people and we need others to generate a community and we need those people in our lives to continue our sense of belonging. I think that's something that I didn't know, that I necessarily took for granted whenever I was able to go to a large university and be able to meet with these people every day. I didn't realize how important that was to me. I think being able to talk to people face to face and have those physical interactions is really important to how we develop as people. That's what will change for me the most going on after this all passes. I would take those opportunities and recognize how important those opportunities are and how privileged I am.

How have you advertised for the War Room and why has it been effective?

I think the important thing is that we have a message that people want to believe in, which is that we want to make debate and its educational experiences more accessible to people. That's why people spread the word so fast for us, because they truly believe in what we're doing. In addition, we've also talked to people that we know. We have people that we reached out to, just people within the community that we knew and we wanted to help spread the word. We were able to get it out that way, as well as just having our friends, people we know, former teachers, coaches, tell all their students about us. I think people really helped get the word of us out there, and that's how we are able to be at the position we are today.