The Classroom as a Public Space


A blurry photo of one of the classrooms I teach in



I engage in a fantasy that the classroom functions as a public space. That is, the classroom in micro can be seen as the way people would interact in macro.

But the classroom is a very protected and isolated space. There are very clear roles for everyone to play and very clear structures of control and obedience.

The furniture and surroundings indicate that you are in a special place, a place marked for being what it is - like a doctor's office, hospital, or institutional building like a court.

If the function of the public speaking course is to prepare students to attend to the demands of a distracted, sharp, busy public of transient bodies, how does the classroom promote this?

I am starting to think that perhaps it doesn't, and it might be up to faculty to try to alter this environment to make it provide a bit more for the students so they can learn the most important lessons from a public speaking course.

What are the most important lessons? Here is the beginnings of a list I am working on:
1. That facts do not speak for themselves.
2. That the truth is not obvious nor immediately convincing, and needs a huge amount of help.
3. That what works for one audience will not work for all audiences.
4. That knowing more than others gives you more responsibility toward them, not less.

I know there could be many more and should be many more applied to this list, but in the traditionally arranged public speaking in a classroom these four are violated quite a bit. The students speak to a very limited and very familiar audience. They speak using a lot of tropes and shortcuts of reasoning that work very effectively for their very specialized peer composed audience. And the audience and the speaker often conclude together that "those others" out there in the world are just too stupid to be concerned about, unless they can get you a job or are at another university or college somewhere.

The answer to this problem for me is to "publicize" the classroom - with a dose of some more complicated audience theory (I'm considering a bit of James Crosswhite and some of Benedict Arnold as well for starters). How do we publicize the classroom? The easiest way might be broadcasting speeches through networks like Skype or stickcam. There are probably other alternatives that are asynchronous, such as youtube or blip.tv. The focus and the point here is to give students' speeches a wide audience of people in and outside the university so they can have a bit more engagement and practice with that "public" audience that the traditional classroom marks as out of bounds.