Sorry Public Speaking. Composition is Owning You.

Nobody wants to be accused of "teaching to the test" - a trope used quite a bit in the public education policy discussion where state exams often radically overdetermine things such as campus or district funding, teacher or principal bonus pay, or the continuation of particular extra-curricular activities. The trope functions by degrading the teacher - instead of teaching the material, the teacher is a mere teacher of form. They teach the test, not the course content. They teach how to game the mechanism, not the mastery of that material. 

I am frustrated with current public speaking pedagogical practices which highlight form and pragmatic function over anything else, including content. Most public speaking texts and syllabi focus on the purpose of the speech being the form of the speech (informative, persuasive, explanatory, etc). Content is not really discussed or engaged, except for the public speaking teacher banning particular topics - usually the major controversies of the day such as drug legalization and legal abortion - or assigning topics to the students that are either unrecognizable as controversies to them, or things that they are ill-equipped to speak about such as Afghanistan or global climate change. 

Even further still, public speaking does not make use of the basic elements of teaching inventio, or how to come up with productive things to say. Most public speaking classes do not even use a simple "rough draft and revision" model to speeches, as Tonya Blevins points out in a very interesting thesis about this issue. Assigning revision seems to have an impact in quality of speech and quality of education. 

Part of the problem is the lack of seriousness dealt to production courses. Most speech communication people simply think it's enough to assign genres and see what happens. If a student doesn't do a good job, it's because they didn't practice enough. But how are we teaching speech practice? Find the genre, plug in, and the structure will save you? 

Composition pedagogues are way ahead of the game. There is no shortage of books that offer careful and critical reflection on the teaching of writing (not so different from the teaching of speech; both are, after all, courses in composition). There are no books that offer the same philosophical or reflexive discussion on public speaking. Not one. I've been looking, so if you can find one that would be great. Whatever is out there, I'm certain it is nowhere close to Peter Elbow's Writing without Teachers. Something like that could not be written in public speaking. Why?

One of the major reasons is that public speaking is never thought of as composition and inquiry. We still suffer from what I call the "elocutionist hangover" - we think public speaking is all about the delivery of goods made and packed elsewhere. Even though public speaking teachers leave their sections to go write and read about agency, exigence, the crafting of subjectivity in language, and the tidal roll of cultural identities, there is a hermetic seal between that discussion and what happens in a public speaking course. We really just don't believe our rhetorical theory at all when it comes down to instructing a public speaking course. If our pedagogical actions are a barometer of our level of self-persuasion, that would be a sad metric indeed. Where are the themes? The controversies to explore? The variety of texts to synthesize? through those interesting and engaging activities, the course could teach some amazing, contextual, and situational modes of assigning and embodying motive and attitude for audiences. 

Theme orientation in public speaking creates a concerned civic space of knowledgeable folks that can evaluate and engage in ideas from a position of care. Speeches that could be about anything might not be up to the task of getting a good evaluation from the audience. They might still be processing the new material and information, unable to really concentrate on much else. We don't even really get to the crafting of a group of people who are good at evaluating the formal requirements of a speech we so arduously and boringly teach to them again and again, giving back page after page of legalistic rubrics with boxes ticked that say "Three part division of main points previewed in the introduction." If we are tired and bored of this, if we think it doesn't match up with our scholarship, imagine what our students think about it. 

Composition courses offer teaching and practice in writing through the investigation of various texts, themes, and controversies - they teach good formal appeal through a deep wrangling with the content and context. Public speaking courses offer teaching and practice in basic, almost other-worldly forms of speech that have firm, imagined differences (such as informative and persuasive). They teach the rules of these forms and maybe, just maybe, there's a day where a student hits on a theme or some information that energizes the class. Sometimes those don't happen at all. Accidentally, and student-driven, our public speaking classes make connections. Our pedagogy does not.