English prof wins 21st UM Life Raft Debate

Published 9:47 am Monday, October 15, 2018

By NANCY WILSTACH / Special to the Reporter

MONTEVALLO – The coveted Oar landed in the hands of “the comics guy” at the close of the 21st Annual Life Raft Debate in the University of Montevallo’s Palmer Auditorium Thursday night.

Alex Beringer, English professor and professed devotee of “Crazy Cat” and similar graphic literature, persuaded a plurality of the approximately 100 in attendance that “a vote for English is a vote for saying that you can sustain yourself.”

The annual debate takes place on a metaphorical life raft holding the last remnants of civilization with just a single spot remaining.  Each of five panelists argues that his or her discipline provides the crucial ingredient a new society would require.

Political Scientist Scott Turner, prefacing his remarks with a Nixonian victory salute and a stinging satirical impression of newly confirmed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, warned his audience that “politics is one of the basic things that define us . . . Ignore politics at your peril.”

Turner, a previous Life Raft victor, ordered the students to exercise their right to vote: “Political scientists understand that outcomes are often determined by how the game is designed.”

Emcee for the evening was Dr. Scott Varagona, associate professor of mathematics and three-time Life Raft winner. “We had to disqualify him so that he couldn’t win again,” explained Philosophy Professor Michael Patton, originator of the Life Raft Debate, now emulated on campuses across the country.  Patton’s UM Philosophy Club sponsors the event, a part of UM’s Founders’ Day.

Varagona maintained custody of the Oar (really more of a canoe paddle) until presenting it to Beringer. Varagona also carried the symbol of his victorious outing last year as Devil’s Advocate, a red trident he describes as “the devil’s pitchfork.”

“Have you seen my body count?” Varagona asked the crowd at one point, holding aloft two homemade posters of 14 skull-and-crossbones, representing those vanquished in his three victories.

Emily Gill, theatre department, represented wardrobe, and took the stage—as one would expect—costumed as her specialty.  Her short black apron screamed efficiency with a neat row of safety pins, five types of tape, a spray bottle of Febreze and scissors.

Gill argued that society needs her to help it make “a fresh clean start.”

“You have worlds to create, objectives to attain . . . Trust wardrobe,” she said, so that “at the end of the night you get to triumph in well-deserved applause.”

In her concluding comments, Gill wielded the scissors, describing a dual role of creativity and destruction, miming the use of the sharp points to pop the life raft if she was not selected.

Next up was UM’s dean of education, Dr. Courtney Bentley, representing curriculum and teaching.

Naturally, she had a slide presentation to accompany her argument that teachers are trustworthy, prepared and capable.  “Teachers are willing to tie the wet shoelaces for children when they have just come out of the bathroom.”

Arguing for art was Laura McMillan who told the students that art can prove very helpful in rebuilding a lost world because artists “have knowledge of perspective,” and art “represents a faith in survival.”

Beringer, with comic slides, reminded the students that “literature teaches us about the texture of human experience.”