A quick browse through the Courses of Instruction will yield classes on topics as specific as medieval Welsh literature and the theory of the individual in Chinese literary culture. However, even a thorough search would not reveal the words “Public Speaking” in any course title.
Many students and faculty members believe that this is problematic, and that Harvard should address this area of education by offering courses in public speaking.
“A place like Harvard, with all its resources, would be able to put together a very good course,” says Ryan D. Hughes ’06.
Last spring, the Committee to Review the Teaching of Writing and Speaking in Harvard College—one of seven committees under the Harvard College Curricular Review—released a report calling for the integration of public speaking into the undergraduate curriculum.
“The teaching of public speaking and oral argument is scant, for many students non-existent, and must be revived vigorously,” the report states.
“Oral communication should be taught as public speaking and also as debate and oral argument,” it continues. “A specific course or courses in public speaking should be mounted.”
The debate about whether Harvard should offer a public speaking course and whether such a course should be mandatory has sparked the interest of numerous students and faculty members.
Committee Chair James Engell says that although the report did not recommend that public speaking be required—and that “many students certainly speak very well”—he believes that everyone could benefit from help with public speaking.
“If we had public speaking courses, it wouldn’t just be one-size-fits-all,” says Engell, who is also the chair of the English department, Gurney professor of English, and professor of comparative literature. “Speaking is such an important skill in so many important fields that each student would find the right kind of help in the right context at the right level.”
According to Engell, Harvard offered public speaking courses up until the 1970s. He says he is unsure why such courses have ceased to be part of the curriculum. Although he teaches a rhetoric course, English 34, “Elements of Rhetoric,” he says that only approximately one-tenth of the course is devoted to public speaking, with the rest focusing on the history and theory of classical rhetoric.
Nancy Houfek, the Head of Voice and Speech at the Institute for Advanced Theatre Training also says she believes that the College should train its students in public speaking.
Houfek, who also teaches Dramatic Arts 28, “Vocal Production for the Stage,” says her course is insufficient to accommodate the demand among Harvard students for instruction in public speaking, due to its small size. According to Houfek, although 60 students showed up on the first day of class this year, the course can only accommodate 20 students.
“Twenty students a year is not enough,” she says. “The bulk of the students that showed up were not interested in performing. They wanted to improve their public speaking...to use their voice professionally.”
Luciana Herman, an Expository Writing preceptor and the Quincy House resident tutor in writing, is one instructor who has taken the initiative to incorporate public speaking into her Expos course.
“Once you learn how to talk on your feet, you’re also leaning how to think on your feet,” Herman says. “Oral presentation skills tend to enhance critical thinking skills.”
Herman said that she is aware of six Expository Writing classes that have formal public speaking components.
Many students have said they would also appreciate a public speaking course, according to Engell.
“A number of students have told me that they would like such a course,” he says. “Students indicated to the Committee that they want help with oral presentations.”
Alexander B. Schwab ’06, president of the Harvard Speech and Parliamentary Debate Society, says he would like to see a public speaking course instituted. Schwab said that although many students speak “better than the average American,” there are still students who could benefit from such a course.
“It would definitely be good to have a public speaking course to fulfill a requirement,” he says. “It’s a skill that comes back to haunt people if they lack it.”
Harvard Rhetorical Society President Merve G. Emre ’07 says that having a requirement similar to Expository Writing but devoted to public speaking would be “incredible.”
“The people who want to speak publicly or who are good at it are already involved in activities like debate. Those are the people who we see speaking up in class,” she says.
She adds that she believes many instructors make class participation a large percentage of students’ grades as an incentive for them to work on their public speaking skills.
“There are many people here who could use the practice,” says Ariel A. Huerta ’08. “Who couldn’t use a few public speaking classes?”
Huerta says she believes that although a public speaking course should be offered, it should not be required.
“Harvard already asks so much of us with Cores that it would be hard to lose another free space,” says Ariel A. Huerta ’08.
Hughes, however, suggests that although such a course should “certainly not be required,” public speaking “would be a great Literature and Arts Core, so that people who wanted to take it could take it.”
Engell says that in addition to a class devoted entirely to speaking, discussion sections are another context in which students can practice public speaking.
He says that sections that already run on a discussion format might experiment with debate and oral presentation so that everyone is encouraged to be more disciplined about how they speak and present.
According to Herman, however, some students shy away from public speaking opportunities and might not be so fond of a course devoted to this topic.
“I think some students love it and some students are intimidated by it. The most common phobia that people experience is public speaking,” Herman says.
Regardless of whether or not students would enjoy a course in public speaking, Engell, Houfek, and Herman all say that proficiency in public speaking is crucial to success in every career.
“Harvard educates world leaders,” says Houfek. “It is a proven fact that leaders need to speak well....Careers are made or broken on how people speak.”
Although Engell says he could not predict how soon public speaking courses would be incorporated into the curriculum, the issue will likely be discussed at a faculty meeting within the next couple of months.
In the meantime, he says that students should take an active role in advocating for such courses if they want to see them instituted.
“If students think this is important, they should let their teachers know before it comes to faculty discussion,” he says. “If students feel this is something they want to have, they should ask for it.”