Seeking Practical Skills

Harvard should create additional resources for public speaking

As I shuffled between various fire code-violating classrooms during my final shopping week at Harvard, I lamented that I had missed out on dozens of excellent courses over the past three years. There was still so much content knowledge I lacked, so many analytical and critical-reading skills I had yet to hone. But one element was still missing from most of the courses on my shopping list. No, it was not the job offer I could have more easily secured had I just taken CS50 or anything in the engineering department. This missing piece of my undergraduate education was social skills.

I concentrate in Social Studies. I have taken coursework that counts for the “Social Analysis” core (may it rest in peace). But in reality, while I have improved my ability to study and analyze social things, I am bad at participating in them myself. (Is that what you do? Participate in social things?) I take courses in General Education areas like “U.S. in the World” and “Societies of the World.” But what about “You, Currently Living in the U.S.” or “You, Functioning in Societies of the World”? I say, sign me up.

I think I speak too loudly, but people don’t generally come close enough for me to ask. I am awful at laundry. I also apparently have poor taste in clothing; the only times I receive compliments on my attire are when I am out of laundry and must reach to the depths of my closet for fancier options. Friends from home ask me about the accuracy of the depiction of Harvard in the movie, “The Social Network.” I respond: What’s a movie? Perhaps most tragically, I will almost definitely graduate from Harvard without knowing how to cook. Harvard could help here; it offers a class and public lectures on Science and Cooking. But what about a course on the basics of cooking? We students could use fewer lectures on “Exploring thickeners to manipulate mouthfeel” or “Proteins & Enzymes: Transglutaminase,” and more on subjects like “Boiling Water: The Truth about Adding Salt,” or “Eggs: A Primer.” A “Social Skills” General Education requirement would mitigate some of the shortcomings of Harvard’s current course offerings. Unfortunately, Harvard is notoriously slow at implementing initiatives for new curricula, so this is an unlikely addition to the General Education program.

But then there’s public speaking. I become nervous during the first week of section when I must introduce myself with vital details (e.g., name/year/concentration) and a “fun fact” (e.g., I was born on Friday the 13th. This is my definition of “fun”). This spring’s public speaking course, Expository Writing 40: Public Speaking Practicum, offers instruction in a skill that is highly important for students’ future professional and social lives (e.g., speaking in front of other people and not just criticizing things behind the comfy façade of a Crimson article). According to the Expos 40 website, however, over 160 students applied for just 45 spots in the class. I imagine many students here gave high school valedictory speeches, but there is still high demand for additional learning opportunities.

Public speaking may be a practical and social skill, but it aligns with the goals of the liberal arts as well—aiding those who give lectures, attend conferences, and defend theses. But oratory is one area in which Harvard currently lacks opportunities. In addition to Expos 40, the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning trains undergraduate Speaking Tutors and hosts a Program in Speaking and Learning for teaching fellows and professors. Of course, students give presentations in seminars and sections. But Harvard should expand formal and informal public speaking instruction, perhaps by incorporating it into freshman Expos courses or Wintersession activities.

Bolstering Harvard’s offerings in public speaking would not undermine its commitment to the liberal arts; rather, it would reinforce it. Harvard students who speak clearly and persuasively will leave Harvard better educated than they arrived. Then, perhaps after phasing these courses in, Harvard could consider adding Social Skills 101: Coughing in One’s Sleeve and Social Skills 55: Dealing with Being Quadded (spring only). After all, we could all use some help in those departments.

Elizabeth C. Bloom ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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