Join Wisconsin Speech and Debate

There are no fees to participate. Current Badgers of all class standings and from all majors, programs, departments, schools, and colleges may take part in our sessions.

Our Story

Speech and Debate—forensics—is the oldest co-curricular activity at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. We trace our roots to the student-orators of the Athenian Society (a campus forensics society for men founded on 24 October 1850), Castalia (a campus forensics society for women founded on 28 December 1863), and the oratory, literary, and debating societies descended from them. Our first intercollegiate debate was against the University of Michigan in 1893.

In 1949, Wisconsin faculty member Winston L. Brembeck was a founding member of the American Forensics Association. Wisconsin speakers were American Forensics Association national champions in 1986 (after-dinner speaking), 1988 (informative speaking), and 1989 (communication analysis). Wisconsin speakers were National Forensics Association national champions in 1989 (rhetorical criticism and persuasive speaking) and 1990 (informative, persuasive, and rhetorical criticism). Wisconsin won its divisional sweepstakes in the National Forensics Association’s 1989 and 1993 National Tournaments.

We are now making new Wisconsin Speech and Debate history. We invite you to join us.


This is an accordion element with a series of buttons that open and close related content panels.

What’s happening this semester?

How do I join?

Join here. There are no fees to participate. Email Coach Thoma at if you are interested in representing Wisconsin in competitions.

Who may join Wisconsin Speech and Debate? Do I have to be an Honors student?

We welcome every current Badger to join Wisconsin Speech and Debate. Current Badgers of all class standings and from all majors, programs, departments, schools, and colleges may take part in our sessions. Exchange, visiting, and special students and students in the graduate school and the professional schools are welcome to join.

Tournament competition is often limited to full-time undergraduate students.

L&S Honors Program students are encouraged to join. You do not have to be an L&S Honors Program student to join.

Like the L&S Honors Program itself, you will find that Wisconsin Speech and Debate is a community of many of UW-Madison’s most talented and engaged students. For example:

In the 2019–2020 academic year, two of our members were elected to the Associated Students of Madison.

In the 2020–2021 academic year, two of our members were elected to Phi Beta Kappa, one was awarded a Fulbright scholarship, and one was the spring commencement student speaker.

In the 2021–2022 academic year, more than a third of our members made the Dean’s list.

And at the start of the 2022–2023 academic year, one member was the fall convocation student speaker.

What does COVID-19 mean for Wisconsin Speech and Debate in 2022–2023?

Wisconsin Speech and Debate continued to speak and debate during the pandemic! When classes moved online, we did too.

We returned to in-person, on-campus sessions in the 2021–2022 academic year. In the spring we competed at the National Forensic Association National Championship in Normal, Illinois, at the European Union’s Schuman Challenge in Washington, D.C., and at our debate conference’s national championship in Anchorage, Alaska.

During the 2022–2023 academic year, we expect to continue to meet in-person, on-campus and to compete in a mix of virtual and in-person events.

What experience do I need? May I participate if English is not my first language?

We welcome all levels of experience, from none to high-school champions. No experience is necessary or expected. We welcome any Badger who will make the effort to improve. Experienced speakers will also have much to learn as they adapt to intercollegiate Speech and Debate.

We welcome all levels of spoken English. As a UW–Madison student, your English language skills are sufficient to participate. We have had many members from countries in which English is not an official language, including China, Denmark, United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam. Participating in Speech and Debate can improve your ability to speak English and to understand spoken English.

What speech events do you do? What format of debate do you do?

There are eleven National Forensics Association individual speech events. We support preparation for any individual event and are particularly strong in impromptu, extemporaneous, and persuasive speaking.

We debate in the format of the World Universities Debating Championship. In this format, called “Worlds” or British Parliamentary (BP), four teams of two have fifteen minutes to prepare to speak on a motion (the motion is the topic for debate). Two teams speak in favor of the motion and two teams speak against the motion. All four teams are in competition with each other. Speeches are seven minutes long. This format is rarely used in high school. It is accessible to students pursuing any major and new debaters, while also offering experienced debaters new strategic and persuasive challenges. No experience is necessary. We provide training. If giving a seven-minute speech after just fifteen minutes of prep is intimidating, don’t worry, we’ll work with you to it.

We also participate Civic Debate events. Civic Debate events take many forms but are unified by their desire to engage with stakeholders of contemporary issues, encourage scholarship, and promote service.

Even though we focus on BP and Civic Debate, we are interested in debate of all formats and wish to be the home of all Badger debaters.

How much time does it take?

It depends on your goals. Our most casual members participate in either our 120 minute Friday debate sessions or weekly forensics sessions when it suits them.

However, our most competitive speakers and debaters participate in every session.

Competitive debaters should speak or judge in each of our weekly two-hour sessions and in as many competitions and public debates as possible.

Members aiming to compete in a forensics national championship should participate in every speech session. In addition to participating in the weekly sessions, members are expected independently revise and practice their speeches/performances each week. Speakers aiming to qualify for a national championship should plan on attending multiple tournaments each semester.

Members should prioritize their well-being and academic success. They should adjust their participation accordingly. However, many members find that participating in Wisconsin Speech and Debate promotes their well-being and academic success.

Opportunities for much greater participation exist for enthusiastic members seeking excellence in Speech and Debate or leadership experience.

What is “Go Big Read Then Speak”?

Wisconsin Speech and Debate hosts “Go Big Read Then Speak”, a showcase of speeches by student Badgers about UW–Madison’s common book of the year.

“Go Big Read Then Speak” aims to promote the Office of the Chancellor’s Go Big Read goals, to “generate vigorous discussions and exchanges of diverse ideas,” “bridge learning experiences inside and outside the classroom,” and “promote connections among students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the wider community.”

All student Badgers are invited to submit speeches for the next “Go Big Read Then Speak.” Faculty are encouraged to assign “Go Big Read Then Speak” to their students. Membership in Wisconsin Speech and Debate is not required to participate. Speakers featured in the showcase are recognized. Past recognition has included the publication of their speech on the Wisconsin Speech and Debate website, a certificate, a gift card, and invitation to a discussion with the author.

How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith
No entrants

Past Books and Featured Speakers
2021–2022, Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
Olivia Ligman (African Cultural Studies, x24)
Deborah Massawe (Sociology, x25)

2020–2021, Parkland: Birth of a Movement by Dave Cullen
Breanna Schumacher (Mechanical engineering, x24)
Grace Schumacher (undeclared, x24)
Kieren Nortunen (Management Information Systems, x24)
Lexus Browning (Education, x24)
Mitchell Benyukhis (Biomedical engineering, x24)
Nick Byrnes (Finance, x24)

I did Speech and Debate in high school. Should I want to do it at UW?


Studying history, math, or English in college is different from studying those subjects in high school. In college, those subjects are studied more broadly, more deeply, and more critically and with new teachers, new classmates, and new competitors. You will also be different and that will influence how you interact with those subjects. There will be new challenges and responsibilities but also opportunities that didn’t exist in high school. So it is with Speech and Debate.

As a member of Wisconsin Speech and Debate, you can meet aspiring tech entrepreneurs majoring in CS and future playwrights, make friends to visit in Neenah or New York or Nairobi, compete against students from other top universities, enjoy professional coaching on-campus and through intercollegiate competitions, try to persuade federal judges or European Union policymakers, and travel the nation and world (virtually and sometimes physically).

Joining Wisconsin Speech and Debate can be particularly beneficial in a large research university like UW–Madison. By joining Wisconsin Speech and Debate you can make friends from across campus with some of UW–Madison’s most talented and engaged students.

I’m applying to universities. May I visit Wisconsin Speech and Debate? Do you have scholarships?

High School students applying to universities or visiting campus that “want to be a Badger” speaker, performer, or debater, may email the coach, Austin Thoma (, to ask to attend a session or event.

Prospective students are also encouraged to tour the university.

We do not currently offer scholarships for Speech and Debate. However, excellence in Wisconsin Speech and Debate may help support applications for the Theodore Herfurth and Teddy Kubly Awards for Comprehensive Undergraduate Excellence (in 2020, a WSDS member won honorable mention), Phi Beta Award, Marion A. Hicks Scholarship, Charline M. Wackman Award, Charline M. Wackman Summer Award, William E. Elliott Endowed Scholarship, Fest Family Agricultural Enrichment Scholarship, Marilyn T. and C. Vernon Howard Moral Obligation Scholarship, and others.

How can I learn more about Free Speech at UW–Madison?

Alumni? Connect!

If you are a graduate of UW–Madison and participated in forensics, speech or debate, please email the coach Austin Thoma ( Current members would love to know about your experience.

How can I support Wisconsin Speech and Debate?

Wisconsin Speech and Debate relies on generous donors. Please join them in supporting the next generation of Badger speakers and debaters.

Donations may be made at:

If you have questions about donating, please email Wisconsin Speech and Debate faculty advisor, Susan Zaeske, at