I used to range from laughter to anger when I heard people talk about the need to eliminate public speaking as a requirement from university curriculum. However, there are several recent events that have given this argument new life in my mind.
The first is that students operate with different evidentiary and proof principles than most instructors. For them, most research is good and they have little desire (not ability as most instructors attribute it) to go into evidence standards and evaluation. The reason is quite simple. With the proliferation of information available to them, there is little reason to trust the old publishing house model of trust. They look instead for texts, arguments and documents that already support their view of the world, or the view they seek to represent in class. Traditional public speaking does not adequately account for easy access analysis from many voices. It treats the public speaker (rhetor) as a singular unidirectional source of information who then disseminates the collection to a waiting crowd (I always think of this model when I am feeding my goldfish). The students, since they are plugged into the internet most hours of the day, don't relish or have interest in this model of information as during the speech they could conceivably look information up and get a deeper read of the speaker's thesis.
Secondly, the students are not interested in a unidirectional, domination model of communication. The students casually interrupt the speaker, pose questions, and the speaker often times abdicates the position of authority during the speech to hear voices from the audience. I found this appalling at first, but the students always rank these speeches highest in quality and most interesting.
Finally, our students are, for the most part, very comfortable being in front of a large audience. They have facebook accounts, blogs, youtube channels, etc. Many don't mind the idea of millions of people watching a video of them doing something. They just think about the embodied audience as much more of a threat than that vague audience out there somewhere. I wonder exactly what incident in life we are preparing them for when we put them up in front of a group of their peers to talk about the creation of chewing gum, politics in Saudi Arabia or campus dining hall conspiracy theories. I think these moments will be less what they do and more what people have always imagined the public speaker doing.
So what's the solution? I think that structuring the public speaking class like a debate/criticism class is the answer. The reason why is because this model is much more prescriptive in how to engage with other ideas and less descriptive (i.e. "The successful speaker does x, y and z before arriving at the venue.") The pace of their daily lives could be understood as a sequence of mini-speeches and as James Crosswhite has argued, we are always a part of some audience all the time. So why localize and freeze the matter and experience of daily life into an odd eccentric model of communication?
I am going to be reworking my syllabus around these ideas and around the idea of advocacy instead of speaking. I'm not sure yet what that involves, but I forsee it being more localized, tethered and connected to the present moment than assignments that fall out of the sky. I'm curious how the research component will change, and I'm most interested in how we can pedagogically account for and work in the very different proof and evidence standards that students have.