Persisting: Interviewing Alyssa Corrigan, Glenbrook South

Girls Debate Interview Series: Alyssa Corrigan, Glenbrook South

By Jasmine Stidham, Teacher and Coach at Harvard-Westlake and Assistant Coach at Dartmouth College 

            This article will be the first in a Girls Debate series where we interview non-cis men in the debate community, including coaches, directors, and community leaders. Our goal in this series is to not only increase visibility of the important work non-cis men do, but to also learn more about the experiences that have shaped their lives in debate. We hope this series can be a source of inspiration, knowledge, and guidance for everyone, especially women and non-cis male debaters who do not have access to mentors with similar experiences.

            In this interview, I spoke with Alyssa Corrigan, the Director of Debate at Glenbrook South High School. Alyssa has coached at various schools, including the University of Southern California, the University of Nevada- Las Vegas, and the University of North Texas. She is a fierce advocate for non-dudes in debate and is someone I look up to. Being able to interview Alyssa was incredibly encouraging as a young female coach, and I hope others feel the same. Happy reading!

J: What spurred your career/interest in debate?

A: I was a super weird kid with a lot of academic interests and zero academic discipline. I needed to be around other weird people and find my place in that space. Debate, for obvious reasons, is a good fit. That’s what got me into high school debate. For college debate, I thought I was doing it for the scholarship money, but it ended up being so much more. There’s probably a whole memoir’s worth of material as to how it ended up being my career, so I won’t get into it in this particular format.  

J: Were there any non-cis men who were role models for you as a young female debater?

A: There are certainly non-cis men in debate who have been influential to me in my career, and I do not want to discount the role that those people played. However, I actually think one of the things that has spurred me to continue my involvement in debate is the fact that I was surrounded by mostly cis men during my college career. A lot of those cis men were tremendous allies to me, but I think I really craved women in debate role models during my time as a college debater. I try not to put too much pressure on myself to be “the perfect role model” because I’m nowhere close to perfect, but it is definitely constantly on my mind that I want to be something that I did not necessarily feel I myself had as a debater.

J: I definitely relate to that sentiment. I remember looking up to people like Beth Mendenhall and Melanie Campbell when I was a freshman and wanting to be as good as them. When you debated, what was your favorite argument? Least favorite?

A: In terms of favorite arguments, the case debate is a lost art. I think that’s literally the one universally loved argument among all judges, so why not get good at it?

I think my least favorite arguments are arguments that make both sides of the political divide look bad. Policy folks, if you’re reading a rider DA that could be read no matter what the topic is, you’re not helping your cause. Critical folks, if you’re reading a K that you can explain without using the phrase “arms sales” in any of your speeches, you’re not helping your cause either. I like debate arguments that involve, you know, actually debating. 

J: Oh, the rider DA… can that DA just die already? Okay, before I go on an anti-rider DA rant… You were recently selected to be the new Director of Debate at Glenbrook South High School, a historically successful program. Have you experienced any challenges in taking up that role?

A: There are a ton of challenges and a ton of opportunities. In regards to challenges, there are a lot of logistical things to wrap my mind around from the fact that I’m still finishing my teaching certification to trying to wear a ton of different hats in the building with a limited number of minutes in the day. There are also a ton of opportunities: We have really supportive and involved parents and admin, our school truly values debate, and we have a group of kids that are largely tremendously dedicated to both competition and being good debate community citizens. I’m proud of who they are and what they do.

I should say one thing that is both a challenge and an opportunity is that our school is having a lot of discussions about what it means to have equity within the school. I think it is really important that we rise to the occasion as a program to be a contributor to the equitable environment that Glenbrook South is trying to create. We are nowhere close to perfect in this regard and I am trying to get better every day. However, I think if we look at this as a long-term mission that we need to be cognizant of every day, we have the opportunity to do some really great things.

J: Having a supportive administration and parent network is important, for sure. I know I’ve always enjoyed judging GBS kids. What was your favorite moment this past season?

A: There are a lot to choose from! I had a really good time this past year despite the challenges we faced as a program.

The one that pops into my head is going to the beach with some of the young ladies on the team after they were out of the competition. It was one of those tournaments where our cis dude-cis dude team was still in/doing pretty well but our all-female partnerships had a rougher time. That’s always difficult to navigate as a coach. You want to keep the momentum of the team still in while acknowledging that the other people on your team did not have as good of an experience.

One of our other coaches stayed behind with the boys and I went with the ladies to the beach. We got ice cream and eventually settled on the sand. I jumped in (anybody who knows me knows that I cannot resist a body of water), and when I got back out, the ladies on the team were taking turns running as fast as they could down the beach while screaming at the top of their lungs. It was clearly extremely cathartic for them and it was a pleasure to see. I think that was a moment of vulnerability for all of us. The kids on the team were letting off some steam and not pretending that everything was fine, which I think is very healthy. I had let myself take a break from competition to do something fun with the rest of the team. I am very extremely competitive so this is not an easy balance for me to strike, but I am glad we found it on that day.

J: Man, I need to do this beach yelling thing. The momentum aspect you mentioned is very real; it’s always hard to recognize a team’s success without making others feel alienated. As a director, what are some of the strategies you’ve implemented to make the GBS team more gender-inclusive and supportive?

A: I should start out by saying that I am in no way perfect with this and that I am constantly learning. Below are just a few specific strategies that I have found useful.

1)    Recognize that teaching is all about relationships and vulnerability. You cannot possibly expect a student to feel comfortable in the environment you have created if you have not worked to form a connection with that student. We can’t call ourselves coaches if the extent of our coaching is staring into a computer and cutting cards. Boundaries are important, but they’ve got to be more than just the teacher is the figurehead in charge and the student is there to learn from us. Additionally, we’ve got to recognize when we don’t have the answers. Us being real people doesn’t eliminate our authority in the classroom, it creates a space where the kids also feel free to be humans and to make mistakes.

2)    Recognize that making a team more gender inclusive/supportive is not just about empowering cis women. Obviously, empowering cis women is a huge part of this. However, making sure that we give space for who we presume to be traditionally masculine cis dude students to contribute to the effort of making the space more inclusive is really important. It can’t be all on the women on the team to promote gender inclusivity. We have to give space to and allow the cis dudes on the team to step up.

3)    Try not to mimic traditional gender roles in leadership positions on the squad. I think there’s a stereotype on coaching staffs that female coaches are the emotional caretakers and that male coaches are there to be detached argument coach figures. This is really easily to replicate on our squad and it is still something I struggle with. However, I think there are ways to combat this. One example from how I’ve personally kept these things in mind is that I try not to portray myself as the “Superwoman Who Does It All” to my kids. For example, I worked a ton more hours (and had a much longer commute) than my spouse last year. As a result, sometimes the ratio of who does what around the house was out of whack and I had to rely on him in that area quite a bit more than just splitting it 50:50. I remember calling him from the squad room one day when a practice debate was running late and asking him to put the clothes in the washer into the dryer. Some of the women on the team were kind of horrified at this and told me that they would never trust a man to not screw up the laundry. I tried to non-judgmentally explain that this attitude, while seemingly innocuous, can contribute to a world in which women feel like they have to do everything while men are not responsible for anything. That’s a lot of pressure for women to handle, and it’s not what they should have to do if it’s not what they want to do when they are adult women. I also try to be a close ally to my students but don’t personally feel comfortable taking on a “motherly” role for very similar reasons.

4)    Proactively talk about these issues and don’t wait for something bad to happen. For example, before camp, we had a conversation that involved the need to avoid saying things about the appearance/personal lives of women at camp. We talk proactively about how it’s not a good look to talk over females in cross x. These issues tend to be much easier to pre-empt than they are to deal with retrospectively.

5)    Recognize that they’re kids and they’re going to make mistakes. 14-year-olds are not going to be experts on feminism. Being willing to truly talk to kids when they make mistakes and help them get better is really important. Understand that you need to draw a firm line while also help educating kids so that they can become the best forms of their adult selves.

6)    Be willing to truly hear people when they are telling you that you have gotten it wrong. The reality is that we all grow up influenced by gender in society and that all of us are going to screw some stuff up. Hear people when they criticize you. Reflect. Try to be better next time.

J: That’s an extremely exhaustive, and helpful list- thank you! I’m definitely taking notes here, and others should as well. If you could change one thing about high school debate, what would it be?

A: I would severely restrict the role that coaching egos play in the educational decisions we make for our students.

J: That’s a good one. I know I’m not perfect in that aspect. It can be hard to separate our own desires for success from what is best for the kids. For male coaches who want to their teams more inclusive, what are some “pro-tips” you would suggest to them?

A: I think the above advice can apply to male coaches as well. I especially want to emphasize to male coaches that it is not enough to not be a part of the problem: You must also be a part of the solution. Just because you are a “nice guy” who is not yourself sexist does not mean that you don’t have a responsibility to do more. It goes a LONG way to have cis dudes be actively involved in these issues, and I really appreciate some of my colleagues who have stepped up to the plate.

For these male coaches, also do not neglect the positive influence you can have by talking to young cis men on your team about these issues in a frank matter. There is not a good template out there for how to help young men NOT engage in toxic masculinity. Being very explicit about how one can navigate being a cis man while not falling into the trap of acting in a sexist manner is really important.

Finally, hire some lady coaches! I know this isn’t always the easiest thing to do: For a lot of reasons, not that many women want to continue in the coaching world after they are done debating, and there isn’t always a quick way around that. However, please, please, please, make a concerted effort to give opportunities to female coaches. It turns out that not only will this help your team be more gender inclusive, many debate non-cis-dudes are pretty good at debate too!

J: Yes to hiring lady coaches! We also know how to win and cut cards! Those are some excellent pro-tips. On a more wholesome note, what is your favorite aspect of coaching high school students?

A: Watching children become who they are going to be as adults. Hands down.

J: Nailed it. Couldn’t agree more. And now for some fun questions…. If you could trade lives with anyone for one day, who would it be?

A: Nobody. One of the cool things about becoming an adult is that I am quite happy to just be me at this point in my life.

J: What’s your ultimate debate pump-up song?

A: Obviously, Fighter by Christina Aguilera.

 That concludes our interview! Thank you so much, Alyssa, P.S. I am totally stealing your pump-up song.

HW Debate