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Overcoming Glossophobia

By Reva P. Minkoff, Crimson Staff Writer

Since the days of Cicero, the ability to speak eloquently in public and argue persuasively with others has been a prized skill and a ticket to success. Among our generation, however, the use of the words “like” and “um” predominates, and even at Harvard many students struggle to speak articulately. Yet public speaking is almost completely absent from the curriculum. The Faculty should make public speaking a high curricular priority.

Public speaking is eminently important in today’s world. It is a necessity both in the classroom at Harvard and in the quest to succeed in the working world. The people who are most successful at achieving their goals are arguably those who can express their ideas in the most convincing and articulate manner to those around them. And to be an active citizen and leader—the type of person Harvard seeks to mold—one must be able to speak well.

America, however, is undergoing a public speaking crisis. Most people receive little to no formal training in public speaking and are petrified of it. Experts have cited the fear of public speaking as the most common phobia, one particularly widespread among college students. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is the case at Harvard as well. All it takes to realize the severity of the situation is to notice how few students raise their hands when professors ask questions in lecture and how few students speak up in sections.

The curricular review is the perfect opportunity to do something about this epidemic. The Faculty seems ready to adopt the premise espoused by the Task Force on General Education—that Harvard must educate global citizens for the 21st century. It is difficult to see how the College might be able to accomplish these goals without considering the role of public speaking in general education. Yet, public speaking was only mentioned once in the Task Force’s report—in the context of expository writing—and no concrete recommendations were made on how to incorporate public speaking into general education. Instead of being at the heart of the proposal, public speaking is being treated as an afterthought.

Fortunately, the curricular review’s Committee to Review the Teaching of Writing and Speaking made recommendations to remedy the situation. The committee advocated adding course offerings in public speaking, debate, and oral argument and integrating oral assignments and instruction into c urrent courses. The report also advocated hiring professors to teach these courses and the creation of a writing and speaking center to integrate and streamline Harvard’s scattered resources on these subjects.

When the report was released in May 2005, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences created the Standing Committee on Writing and Speaking to implement its recommendations. Yet while the Committee, which has met twice, works toward progress on some of the recommendations of the report, other recommendations can and should be implemented quickly and without sweeping changes. For instance, workshops and seminars could be created to teach interested students public speaking skills.

Even if no new professors can be hired immediately, courses in public speaking could and should be offered in the near future. Many Harvard professors are talented public speakers who could easily teach courses in the area—particularly those in the humanities and social sciences—and staff at the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning specialize in teaching such skills. Future courses could fall under many departments: Dramatic Arts, English, Government, or a new area established especially for such a purpose.

Beyond creating courses in public speaking, it is also imperative that oral expression be further incorporated into the curriculum. This can easily be accomplished through assigning students more interactive activities, such as presentations and even an occasional speech. It is also accomplished when sections are truly interactive and discussion-based so that no student can get away with sitting in the corner in silence. Such adjustments can be made in time to affect spring courses.

While requiring students to speak may terrify some, it is precisely for this reason that Harvard must place a priority on public speaking. By stressing and investing in public speaking, the College will be doing all of its students a huge favor. While such changes may be fairly minor, they will also go a long way toward preparing students for life outside these gates.

Reva P. Minkoff ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

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