Shannon LaBove: Rice University’s Great Debater

Everyone talks, but few know how to turn a speech into a work of art.

By Sarah Rufca Nielsen November 21, 2016 Published in the December 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Image: Robert Deale

"I’m not playing with you today,” says Shannon LaBove, and her deadpan tone suggests she means it. She’s sitting in what’s known as the trophy room, the headquarters of Rice University’s George R. Brown Forensics Society, where cases full of prizes and medals from tournaments past line the walls.

Senior Allison McKibban is trying to write a funny speech about the failings of feminism, and LaBove, the university’s assistant director of forensics, is helping her. They go back and forth about structure, content, tone and how to get laughs, occasionally delving into the sort of big ideas—about gender and race—most commonly found in college dorm rooms at 3 a.m.

The student calls LaBove, who serves as both sounding board and sparring partner, her “speech mom.” It’s a relationship that works; McKibban regularly places among the top three finalists at speech and debate tournaments, often in multiple events, and she’s a favorite to dominate at nationals in April.

By the end of the session, the kinks haven’t all been worked out, but McKibban has a road map for moving forward.

“That’s why I come in here,” she says. “I argue with Shannon, I go home, I write the speech, I freak out, I call her, she edits it, and magically it’s beautiful.”

For two decades, Rice’s forensics program has been ranked in and around the top 20 in the nation—an impressive feat for an intercollegiate team that’s a third the size of other powerhouse programs and doesn’t offer scholarships for speech and debate.

Yet the team continues to attract top-tier competitors. And this year could be its best yet: David Worth, the school's director of forensics, thinks the team may crack the top 10 for the first time. And, he says, LaBove, who arrived in 2012, is a big part of that success.

“When prospective students come visit,” says Worth, “it’s nice to be able to point to Shannon’s accomplishments both here and before she was here, as one of the best speakers in the nation at the high school level, and say, ‘This person can coach you to a national championship.’ That’s no guarantee, of course, but if anyone can do it, she can.”

LaBove, a native Houstonian, discovered forensics at Aldine’s Hambrick Junior High, begging her mother to buy her high heels so she could see over the podium. The experience brought the self-proclaimed introvert out of her shell. She discovered a gift for impromptu speaking, in which competitors have seven minutes to prepare and perform a presentation on an unknown topic—possibly the most anxiety-inducing of the 11 individual events that make up speech and debate competition.

“I like that adrenaline bump,” says LaBove. “I’m super-competitive, and I’m very self-driven. I like to win. I like the ribbons. I like the game of it.”

Her junior year at MacArthur High School, LaBove shocked many, including herself, by making it to the state finals in impromptu speaking. “People were like, ‘Who is this girl, this brown chick?’” she recalls.

As both a woman and a person of color, it wasn’t the first time she’d faced pushback in the forensics world. “Even in junior high, I’d get notes like, ‘that’s not ladylike,’ or ‘you’re too aggressive.’ In high school, my ballot said something like, ‘aren’t your type supposed to be in poetry and prose?’ Meaning that women and black performers were doing a lot of those at the time. I had multiple ballots like that, like, ‘you’re not supposed to be here.’”

Though today forensics is more diverse than it was during her student days, LaBove is still the first woman and first person of color to coach at Rice. She was also the only woman of color among the coaches of 150 college programs that participated at nationals in 2016.

LaBove competed at the college level, at the University of St. Thomas and UH, before going on to coach and teach. Her first job was at West Texas A&M, where she helped take the team from 25th in the nation to 3rd in her first two years. Since then, she’s been known as a team-flipper.

In 2008, she signed on to lead the debate program at Wiley College in Marshall. The historically black university is known for its dominant teams from the 1930s, the basis of the Denzel Washington movie The Great Debaters, making LaBove’s role as high-profile as any football coach's in the tiny town.

“You’re the coach that everyone pays attention to,” she says.  “Everybody wants to know how the team did at the last tournament.”

Her next gig was at Lone Star College in Kingwood, and it was there that Worth, who’s known LaBove since her competing days, took note of her leadership skills. She’d taken over the team two weeks before the school year started, following the death of the previous director, and Worth was impressed by the way students took orders from their new coach. “She built a team and a team culture in no time—a matter of weeks—which is amazing.”

At Rice, students quickly learn to adapt to her intense coaching or find a different hobby. But for the ones who stay on, she pushes to truly master their craft during four years of her tutelage. And that, she says, is what makes her job so great.

“That’s the most fulfilling thing, that you can be one little pebble in the stepping stones that is their life,” she says. “The whole point is for people to feel like they’ve grown and they’ve learned. It’s finding what they’re passionate about and making them the best advocate they can be.”

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