I AM UAA: Steve Johnson

by Kathleen McCoy  |   

Associate Professor of Communication and Discourse Studies
Director of Seawolf Debate Program
Hometown: Rosholt, SD
Fun Fact: Loves playing poker for the same reason he loves debate-the combination of hard-earned skill and lady luck

I AM UAA Steve Johnson

"It is not in my nature at all to be argumentative," laughs UAA's head debate coach, Steve Johnson. "I grew up the middle child, in a family raised by my mom, of Scandinavian descent, in the Midwest. Every fiber of my being is conflict avoidant. I don't enjoy arguments with people and I don't like interpersonal conflict."

Despite all that, Steve found himself in a debate class during his sophomore year at Moorhead State University in Minnesota. Uninspired after a directionless freshman year, he was ready to follow a job opportunity as a lineman for a local power company in his small hometown in South Dakota when his mom encouraged him to try one more year of college and a professor suggested he take debate.

"I had never even heard of debate before I got to college," Steve says. "But after that first class, I remember thinking, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. And I'm still doing it."

"I found a liberty in debate that allowed you to engage in intellectual disagreement," he explains. "It's a safe space to do so, with clear rules and parameters. I loved the intellectual exchange, I loved the challenge of it, I loved researching topics and finding positions and making arguments that were persuasive to others and having answers to my opponents' assertions. I loved every bit of it."

And it was a real turning point in Steve's college career. He went from a "1.?" GPA to almost carrying a 4.0 the rest of his time at Moorhead State, where he earned his B.A. in Communication in 1990. From there, he went right into a master's program in rhetoric and argumentation at Colorado State University, graduating in 1992.

"I credit debate for everything good that's happened to me," he says, "including my family for that matter." He met his wife, Shawnalee Whitney, as a rival debate coach when he was a graduate student at Colorado State and she was director of debate at the University of Southern Colorado.

The two married in December 1992, after Steve's graduation from his master's program in May. That summer in between they moved to Omaha: he for a job as director of debate at Creighton University and she to pursue graduate studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. By 1995 they were both itching to get back to the mountains, "but the front range of Colorado was really saturated with degrees so we looked for opportunities elsewhere. A job came open here at UAA and Shawnalee applied for it," he said. Steve came on part-time while Shawnalee took the reins as director of Forensics. They co-directed the UAA debate program from 1996-2001, by which time Steve was in a full-time tenure-track position.

Shawnalee has since taken on the role of curriculum coordinator for the Department of Communication and Discourse Studies and stepped down from the rigors of coaching debate while the two started a family. Steve has transitioned more of his time to coaching, with some classroom teaching on the side in (ironic to his personality) conflict and argumentation, as well as public speaking.

Transitioning from the U.S. debate circuit to the world debate circuit in 2005, UAA's debate team has had tremendous success under Steve's direction. Ranked 11th in the world last year, the Seawolf debaters consistently hold their own against the likes of Yale, Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge and Sydney. They won the National Championships on the U.S. circuit in 2002 and in 2007 made it to the semi-finals of the World Debating Championships, ending the tournament as one of the top eight teams. This year, freshly back from the World Debating Championships held in the Philippines, the Seawolves placed 8th overall out of 195 squads from universities around the world and second among the U.S. schools represented.

"Like any competitive exercise, I think debate is a merging of opportunity and skill," Steve says. "You can't control fate-the next topic or what side you're going to be assigned to argue-but what you can do is be prepared to take advantage of that opportunity. When lady luck deals you a good hand, you need to have the skills to capitalize on those opportunities." And he can't stress enough the incredible amount of hard work and practice his debaters consistently bring to the table in preparing for their tournaments.

Although the 2005 and 2007 successes rank among Steve's competition highlights, he emphasizes, "Each student I work with is a career highlight. Each student who goes on to achieve great things or who is more secure in who they are and is more empowered because of what they learned in debate, is a career highlight."

When asked about his own debating career highlights when he was a college student, he says, "When I was debating? I was a terrible debater. I rarely won a debate round and certainly had none of the expectations of success that many of my current student debaters have. I was thrilled if I just won a mediocre preliminary round against a community college team from central Minnesota."

Steve continues, describing himself as a far better coach than he ever was an active debater. "I'm much more comfortable watching the argument than being in the argument, and I'm much better at pointing out to people their strengths and weaknesses and how they can improve than I am at seeing my own. I have a passion for competition and understanding how to motivate people."

Ironically, Steve wasn't able to witness firsthand his team's win at Nationals in 2002. He was in China on family leave, adopting his first daughter, Jen. Now a father of two (his second daughter, Mamie, also was adopted from China), Steve finds any opportunity he can to increase his children's connections with their birth culture, and debate frames those opportunities as well. At the World Debating Championship in Singapore shortly after Jen was adopted, he met a man looking for help in coaching Chinese teams in English language debating techniques. Steve agreed to be a guest lecturer at the Chinese National English-language University Debating Championships in 2003 and in 2007 took over being chief judicator for the competition, recruiting, training and overseeing a team of over 200 international and Chinese adjudicators. In 2009 he published his first book, Winning Debates, as an introduction to the world debate format. Republished in Chinese, that book is being followed by a second textbook Steve is writing specifically for Chinese coaches on how to teach debate to English language learners.

Looking back on his 16-year career at UAA, he says, "I can't emphasize enough how grateful I am to UAA for giving debate the chances they have," Steve says. "What our students have accomplished is in every way a reflection of the institutional support that UAA has given them. I'm surrounded by people who want to do nothing more than make their community better. UAA is where that spirit of service is married to the Alaska work ethic our students possess. I can't imagine working anywhere else."

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