Informant KS is a 19 year-old USC freshman from San Jose, California. The informant participated in the Speech and Debate program during all four years of high school under the National Speech and Debate Association. The event which this technique is referring to is policy debate, where teams of two students each debate a policy proposal made by one team.
KS: “Spreading is a portmanteau of ‘speed reading.’ It’s a technique developed fairly recently, but it’s very widespread in high school and college policy debate tournaments. Basically, in the first two speeches of the debate, you typically just read off your pre-written evidence. What people found out is, you can read a lot more evidence in your 6 minute speech if you read the evidence at an insane pace, then send out the documents so that people can read the evidence along with you, which they can read a lot faster than they can hear. You read the evidence at rates of 300-400 words per minute. You would slow down for the part you have written yourself, and you would speed up when you have written someone else’s words. A very common habit is people doing incredibly sharp breaths when they’re speed reading. So it’s become a joke that people breathe that way when they’re spreading. The most common reaction for a normal person is ‘How the heck is anyone understanding what’s going on?’ Basically, in college level debate, the judges are all other previous debaters or coaches. So they have all also trained how to understand spreading, and so therefore, only the people within the debate can actually understand the debate. The interesting thing about spreading is that it locks debate to a certain demographic to watch. Historically, debate has been focused on rhetorical abilities and public speaking; however, spreading has indicated a shift away from learning how to speak in public towards learning how to think critically and respond to complicated arguments and many arguments in a short amount of time.”
The National Speech and Debate Association was founded in 1925. Since then, the organization developed its own folklore among its participants, such as their own slang terms and techniques. The term “spreading” and its respective practice is one which reflects the growing competitiveness of academics in the United States, as it subverts the classical values of debating — rhetorical skill and public speaking, according to Keshav — in order to win the most points during the debate. Along with the growing competitiveness of academics and the NSDA is the growing inaccessibility of speech and debate: some schools lack the funding and resources to develop their own speech and debate programs; with increasingly complex and specialized skills such as spreading, the barrier of entry grows higher and higher. Additionally, the proliferation of spreading reflects the growth of a common culture amongst the NSDA. The organization is old enough that former participants return as judges and coaches to pass down the technique of spreading as coaches or adequately understand spreading as judges. The folklore surrounding spreading “spreads” further, into common jokes, such as the tendency for debaters to take sharp breaths during their speeches.