Another Semester of Public Speaking

Public speaking, the class everyone must take at University (with a few exceptions such as being at an Ivy League, or being in a very professional-oriented degree) is my new life. It looks like for the foreseeable future it’s all I’ll teach. This is good as it’s all I pretty much want to teach. There are a lot of possibilities within this class, it’s status as a requirement, and its status as a core-curriculum “sacred cow” that makes it interesting. I really can’t believe how little this class has been used to empower speech, rhetoric, and communication departments in the U.S.

Instructors aren’t connecting the dots very well. It wasn’t that long ago that composition was a very small, very ignored corner of the English department, where literature was king, and writing just to study writing was so low that even the MFA program was seen as more legitimate. Now it’s impossible to imagine a campus without a writing center, writing in the disciplines, writing across the curriculum, etc. Now it’s amazing every time I hear a University official talk about how everyone has a responsibility to teach writing.

The same should be true of speech, but we teach only simple modality in our courses. Public speaking textbooks exist, which is a huge problem. There are so many amazing things to read about, study, and present about that there really shouldn’t be a need for a public speaking book. Teaching people form of public address is to miss the wonderful opportunity to get them interested and motivated to read good works about ideas and topics they really love.

That research benefit goes with a confidence benefit in the art of presentation, particularly because they have a stake in whatever it is that they are speaking about instead of it being randomly assigned by some instructor, or some topic that is “reserved” for class speeches. Speaking centers would be a great addition to writing centers as places where students could get assistance and help developing what they’d like to say instead of being graded on whether they can “find the thesis” of a speech.

The absolute poverty of what we teach was revealed to be very starkly last week during an assessment meeting, where the pre-test to be given to students had them locate a thesis statement. How is this helpful? How does this help them come up with what to say to convince others that they are right? How does this help a person marshall the right words when the stakes are high and the disagreement is everywhere?

Assessment might be impossible for public speaking in a way that satisfies the Dean’s office bureaucrats who want the right form filled out the right way in the right folder so they can go home at the right time. A performance assessment might be better for public speaking, just to see if we can see the attempt to connect to audience, establish a position, and show the audience that this position is a reasonable, if not the best position, to take on a question.

I’m very worried that students don’t know how to do this, and are instead learning a “courtly” rhetoric, where they learn how to follow the rules to say something that pleases power. As Sacvan Bercovitch pointed out years ago, American society even agrees on what dissent should look like. There’s a cultural practice of consensual dissent defining what it means to be recognizably against. Awareness of this, and the awareness of engagement in structures of power distribution, or awareness of human motives and how they are accounted, seems essential and at the very least, more valuable than rule-following for the construction of messages. Following the expected rules of a speech is one thing, but following them in order to gain adherence from an audience is quite another.

To this end, I’ve started playing around with various controversiae and declamation topics from Rome, updating them to suit the modern day. I tried this out on Friday, and it went pretty well. What was most interesting about it was that the class I have that is younger students, mostly first or second year in college, were very much into it and very excited about doing it. The other class with mostly juniors and seniors was not into it at all, and seemed to resent my disruption of their passive existence in the classroom. It might sound like I’m blaming them here, but I feel that this is a survival strategy that comes from having numerous professors who just want attention and a space to talk rather than a space to engage with others in practice.

The Ancient Roman curriculum recognized the need for practice to happen to get a grip on how and why commonplaces worked (or didn’t). To theorize in action the audience reacting to an appeal as it unfolds over time (praxis, in rhetoric at least). And to indicate the existence of perspective and ideology in every account we can give of a situation and the need to judge/move/or act on it (narrative). These are three things that I think could be assessed through performance, but again, this is something that would be too difficult to do since assessment is more of a “I’m doing my job” thing rather than an authentic exploration of what students are becoming through study.

More posts to come about my declamation experiment - I’m always thinking about and composing them which is super weird, but it’s a good time. I think that the crafting of these declamation exercises is really good for the mind, which is why I like to work on them anytime my mind drifts. Creating the possibilities of rhetorical response is also rhetorical, and very healthy as it reminds us that there are numerous ways to be within society and the world. We don’t have a grasp of that at all, but we do like to universalize our own experiences. Public speaking is the art of keeping that from happening by showing how powerful and attractive it is to be trapped hopelessly in perspective, but a perspective that makes politics possible.