After having built the HWS Debate Team and running it for nineteen years, Dr. Eric Barnes has stepped down as Director of Debate. Taking up the position along with teaching as a Professor of the Practice in English and Creative Writing, is Hobart Alumnus Daniel Schonning.
Schonning graduated from the Colleges in 2016 having studied Creative Writing and International Relations with a focus on the Middle East. “In my academic work and in my work life since I’ve been oscillating between those two things and trying to make room for both of those things,” Schonning said.
Intent on pursuing both his interest in service and English, Schonning dedicated the year after he graduated to working for the Prospector Theater, a nonprofit employing adults with disabilities while he composed an application for a Masters of Fine Arts.
He attended a three-year program at Colorado State University for the study of poetry and creative nonfiction. While working on his Master’s, Schonning served as the Assistant Director for Creative Writing and Reading Series at CSU, developing skills which “would come very much in handy for all things debate.” In the summers of those 3 years, he worked with a variety of volunteer and refugee organizations similar to his work with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency as an undergrad. Among them was the Chios People’s Warehouse, an organization dedicated to providing clothes to refugees on the Greek island of Chios. Schonning also became certified in search and rescue at sea with Atlantic-Pacific with the aim of serving as a crew member on a ship rescuing refugee attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
“The pandemic intervened on that plan and so I didn’t end up making good on that certification,” Schonning added to the Herald. “But I hope to yet.”
After concluding his MFA in the summer of 2020, Schonning worked in a variety of odd jobs while applying for fellowships during the pandemic, including one at a bookstore and another as a tutor for second and seventh graders.
After getting close with a couple positions, Schonning accepted a Trias Postgraduate Teaching Fellowship back here at his alma mater. Schonning has worked at HWS in that capacity for the past two years. Last year, after the intended Assistant Coach was unable to secure a visa, Schonning stepped in to help fill that role.
“[I]n that experience my love of debate was re-enlivened and I sought to fill the position as I could.” Schonning said.
The Debate Team at that time had been run by Dr. Eric Barnes, as it had for 19 years. Dr. Barnes has stepped down from the role to focus on his work in philosophy. Schonning applied for the position and now serves as Director of Debate on top of teaching one class per semester.
“I knew coming in that this position would be exceedingly difficult,” Schonning explained. “Still, it is a more difficult job than I anticipated. The amount of work, the amount of hours, the amount of attention and time that goes into making sure all those different aspects of this job go off without a hitch is extraordinary.”
Despite being faced with an even more daunting workload than expected, Schonning had some of his positive expectations exceeded as well. Schonning said that, “The wonderful surprise is, though I knew that this would be a sustaining, exciting, lovely job, I continue to be surprised and moved by the quality of the people with whom I get to interact on the everyday. The students who participate in debate […] are some of the very best people one could hope to meet. […] They are some of the smartest, most engaged, most open students who are intent upon growing and changing their minds, intent upon growing and being able to better participate in the world, for a myriad set of reasons.”
“My favorite thing about my job is probably also baked into the ethos of HWS, which is: […] This is a space and this is a campus where we are asked to test the assumptions, the notions, the ideas, the beliefs that we enter these doors with. We are always asked to improve ourselves, to change our minds and therefore change the way that we act with the world to be better in keeping with what we share as a set of ideals.”
Schonning is certainly no stranger to HWS debate. After briefly looking into club rugby, he joined the Debate Team shortly into his first semester and went on to represent the schools at some of the most elite levels of competition over the following four years.
“I was drawn to debate in part because I wanted there to be more congruence between the things that I believed and the things I was able to express. I think often folks feel like they have deeply held convictions but when asked to or pressed to express exactly why […] there’s a breakdown between what one can truly and earnestly believe and how one can move through the steps to convince another person of those beliefs or simply to have themselves heard, to have themselves understood.”
In the short term, Schonning has said his primary goal is to continue the hard work of Eric Barnes to keep HWS “preeminent on the world scene for debate” and maintain the “competitive standard that’s expected both in terms of the tournaments we host and the competitive value of our students themselves.” In the longer run, he hopes to begin an initiative similar to the Bard Prison Initiative “in which we bring debate into local penitentiaries in order to provide folks who are otherwise quite restrained from traditional channels of education [… with] the tools necessary in order to advocate for themselves or have their positions heard.”
Ultimately, Schonning is excited to work with students to develop their skills in both the fields of creative writing and debate.
“I found in creative writing, and in poetry specifically, a lens by which to see the world new. I think the capacity that creative writing or the arts more broadly have to change the minds and lives of the people who give themselves over to them cannot be overstated. I think it is something that can give one’s life meaning, it’s something that can give one the opportunity to speak and be heard against what [are] sometimes extraordinary pressures that are telling them to be silent or that are telling them they are helpless.
“I think debate does something similar. I think they are both channels by which one can feel a sense of agency and a sense of purpose and a sense of personal responsibility in a way that keeps one present in and of the world.”
To anyone who is at all interested in the HWS Debate Team, Schonning would encourage them to show up for a practice Mondays or Thursdays from 5-7pm in Stern 103. There are no tryouts and there is no expectation of experience with debate.
*Grammatical changes and edits for clarity were corrected by the Editorial Board after initial publication. All content in the piece remains unchanged.