The lines in the photograph are from Ryan F. Boyland ’17’s poetry, which he writes and performs.
The lines in the photograph are from Ryan F. Boyland ’17’s poetry, which he writes and performs. By Grace Z. Li

An Articulate Art: Spoken Rhetoric in the Contemporary University

The place of spoken rhetoric in the liberal arts curriculum at Harvard remains uncertain, even as professors and students today use rhetoric as both a creative art and a practical skill.
By Lucy Wang

In 1995, Jay Heinrichs published a piece in Harvard Magazine titled “How Harvard Destroyed Rhetoric.” The article criticized Harvard’s undergraduate curriculum, which “doesn’t offer a single course in which oratorical theory and practice are taught together.” Today, such a course exists—Expository Writing 40: “Public Speaking Practicum,” though it’s the only spoken rhetoric class in the undergraduate curriculum. Marcus K. Granderson ’18, who designed his own concentration, Rhetoric, had to commute to MIT last year to take his introductory rhetoric class because Harvard didn’t offer one.

Even at a liberal arts college with a broad range of course offerings, the place of studying rhetoric in the undergraduate education remains uncertain. Some students and professors view speaking as a skill crucial to any sort of career, while others see it as a creative outlet and type of performance. Still others value rhetoric as a way of enhancing and enriching human communication. Although some argue that advanced technologies and social media are beginning to replace face-to-face conversation, many students at Harvard still see the ancient art form of spoken rhetoric as worth pursuing, both inside and outside the classroom.

Defining Rhetoric

Expos 40 may be an anomaly in the undergraduate course catalogue, but at the Kennedy School, the Business School, and the Graduate School of Education, rhetoric courses are much more available. One such course, on offer at all three schools, is “The Arts of Communication.” Timothy P. McCarthy ’93, an Adjunct Lecturer on public policy at the Kennedy School, teaches six sections of the course this semester. “It’s a course that seeks to introduce students to the arts of communication and public speaking, and some writing, and a little media training as well, but it’s mostly based on public oratory,” he said.

The title of the course itself implies that spoken rhetoric has an artistic side to it. “Public speaking is by nature performative. You move, you use your voice, you use your body, you try to connect with people in different ways, you make eye contact, you master a script, you use language,” he said.

So what is spoken rhetoric anyway? An art? A practical skill? Steven D. Cohen, who holds a faculty appointment at the Harvard Extension School, where he teaches “Oral Communication In the Workplace,” splits spoken rhetoric into two components.

“On a basic level, there’s what you say and how you say it. But what I write about is the music beneath the words,” Cohen said. Vocal performances have a clear connection to spoken rhetoric, but Cohen said that even music without lyrics can provide models for speaking.

“There are elements that both speakers and musicians use: tempo, dynamics, pitch, for instance. And a couple of my research articles look at the technique that composers use to create beautiful pieces of classical music, and the techniques that leaders use to create memorable moments,” he said. “So my central argument is that we ought not just consider the words that speakers use, but the music they use to coat those words.”

In some contexts, such as spoken word poetry, rhetoric is essential to the art form itself. Ryan F. Boyland ’17 is a member of Speak Out Loud, a spoken word poetry group on campus, and also performs on his own. Just as Cohen makes a distinction between the words and the way that they’re spoken, Boyland also articulates the difference between the written and performed versions of his poems.

“I perform for others, but I write for myself,” he said. “I perform because I want people to feel something, that’s the goal. I write because I like to write. I feel like it helps me figure out the way that I’m thinking, my emotions.”

Boyland said that he uses his techniques of speaking as a way to respond in real time to the reactions of his audiences. He echoes Cohen in his sense of the musicality inherent in spoken word.

“I’m not that great of a writer. People like the way that I say things,” Boyland said. “I feel like with my stuff, not necessarily with everyone, a lot of the message is found in the way that things are said. Just with the emotions, the pauses, or the lack thereof, all of that together.”

Boyland emphasizes that music and rhetoric not only sound similar, but also share a broader communicative purpose. “I feel like music and poetry and spoken word are all just different types of storytelling, different ways to convey your ideas,” Boyland said.

At the heart of it, these students and professors see rhetoric as a means of creative expression. “As human beings, we’re hardwired to be social creatures,” McCarthy said, “We seek to be understood.”

Amanda N. Dias-Jayasinghe ’17, who took Expos 40 last fall, sees the connection between public speaking and the deeper messages that music conveys. “Music is all about the words, but there’s something about the rhythm, the instruments, that conveys the sense that it’s happiness, or it’s hope. And that’s the same with public speaking. You can tell a story, just as you can with a novel, with a painting. It’s not just you that’s experiencing it, it’s your whole audience. It’s an art form in the sense that you are trying to reach a human being, because those human beings are right in front of you.”

Instructors in rhetoric echo the idea that the interpersonal aspect, the idea of connecting to the audience, is crucial to spoken rhetoric. David S. Carter, currently one of the three preceptors for Expos 40, said that speaking is as much a craft as other forms of art. Expos 40 focuses on improving public speaking skills through practice and cultivating an understanding of communication itself. In addition to delivering three speeches throughout the semester, students practice impromptu speaking, analyze famous speeches, and write their own. “I think because our class is a practicum, we practice the craft. If you want to call it an art, it certainly can get in the poetic,” he said. “We practice the craft of gauging an audience, which is artistic.”

A Practical Art

Though the music of the words may very well define spoken rhetoric as an art, students and faculty also note rhetoric’s practicality and pre-professional purposes. Cole S. Scanlon ’18, a previous student of Expos 40, sees spoken rhetoric as almost universally useful. “Public speaking is such an everyday skill,” he said.

Paul Lisker ’17, another former student of Expos 40, said that students in almost any field need public speaking skills to prepare themselves for life after college. “I think that being an effective speaker is sort of essential for most careers that people take, certainly many of the careers that people in Harvard are interested in in particular. If you’re going into finance, or science, or government, any of these professions will require public speaking,” he said.

Other students say that they’ve seen the gap in their education when they leave Harvard to pursue jobs and internships. Dias-Jayasinghe recalls a public speaking opportunity at her internship last summer at Wal-Mart as the “most embarrassing moment of my life.”

“I was asked to M.C. a Wal-Mart quarterly meeting,” she said. “So I was in front of all these executives, thousands of people, and I completely froze on speech.”

Dias-Jayasinghe knew that public speaking was a skill that she wanted to work on. In fact, she’d been trying to lottery into Expos 40 since the second semester of her freshman year. Since Expos 40 is the only rhetoric class at the college, however, and she was not chosen for the lottery until after this internship, Dias-Jayasinghe had had little opportunity to practice her spoken rhetoric in a classroom setting before she had to give her presentation.

A Rhetoric Requirement?

Dias-Jayasinghe is not alone in her experience with Expos 40’s lottery process. In fact, over 200 students get turned away from the class each semester.

“Expos 40 is a lottery class,” Carter said. “We have between 250 and 300 students each semester who want to apply, who do apply. But we can only choose five sections, no more than 70 or 80 people.”

Juan P. Castaño ’17 presents a speech on happiness as part of Expos 40, a public speaking class.
Juan P. Castaño ’17 presents a speech on happiness as part of Expos 40, a public speaking class. By Grace Z. Li

Students who have taken the class see its value as part of the undergraduate education, but are split on the issue of whether such a rhetoric class should be required. Currently, all undergraduates are required to take Expos 20, an expository writing course. But Expos 40 is purely elective and does not currently fulfill a General Education requirement.

“I think that Expos 20 should definitely be required. And I think that Expos 40 should be as well, or some kind of public speaking class,” Lisker said.

Granderson, who designed his own concentration in rhetoric, thinks that it should be an integral part to every undergraduate’s education. “Every college student should be required to take at least one rhetoric class, I can’t stress how important that is,” he said.

Dias-Jayasinghe agrees. “I wish there were more options for courses,” she said.

Scanlon said that he felt similarly. “I think Harvard should do a better job at encouraging public speaking, be it offering more classes [or] expanding the Expos 40 sections,” he said.

However, Scanlon does not think that Expos 40 should be a required course. “I’m very con requirements, generally,” he said. “I think the fact that so many people are lotterying for it speaks to its value, and that that’s enough to cause a lot of people to enroll in it, which already happens, but I don’t think it needs to be a requirement. Because I think there are cases in which people might not want to do it or whatever else.”

Professor Jeffrey L. Seglin, who is the director of the Communications Program at the Kennedy School, does not believe that requiring Expos 40 would be a positive change in the curriculum. “Anytime you make something a requirement it results in resentment,” he said. “But I think the skills that we teach are those that anyone graduating from college should have.”

Instead, he said that the college could offer a set of courses from which students could choose and make it a requirement that the students take at least one of those courses.

Constructing a Concentration

For Granderson, however, just one class wasn’t enough. He started out thinking about a government concentration, but then realized that didn’t fit his interests completely. In high school, his first introduction to the academic side of rhetoric was in his AP Language class. He also participated in debate in high school, which he said wasn’t as artistically fulfilling as what he was looking for.

Marcus K. Granderson ’18 crafted his own special concentration in rhetoric.
Marcus K. Granderson ’18 crafted his own special concentration in rhetoric. By Grace Z. Li

“The power of rhetoric in American history, thinking about Martin Luther King, and Frederick Douglass, Shirley Chisholm, Sojourner Truth, all these different powerful orators who have moved the needle of history by their words, it was just really attractive to me,” he said.

Since Granderson had to create his own curriculum and set of courses to take, he did some research online and looked to other schools for inspiration. “Berkeley actually has this program, an extensive rhetoric program. I looked at how they constructed it, their concentration, and I drew upon it. They were looking at film, looking at literature, looking at poetry, looking at rhetoric in all of these mediums, to give a multidisciplinary approach to rhetoric,” he said. “So I tried to do the same in my concentration, tweaking it more to my interests.” He added that he sees rhetoric as inherently linked to many different areas of a liberal arts curriculum. “Rhetoric is a multi-disciplinary idea to me,” he said.

Among the classes that he included in his own curriculum are rhetoric classes at MIT, because there were no specific “rhetoric” classes offered for undergraduates when Granderson made the concentration. Instead, he’s taken classes ranging from psychology to the sciences. “Science is one [subject] that people don’t necessarily associate with rhetoric, but I took a class on climate and talking about how we frame climate change can change how people perceive it,” Granderson said.

To Granderson, rhetoric is as valuable as any other liberal arts program offered for undergraduates at Harvard. “Harvard is always talking about how it’s training future world leaders, but what if those future world leaders don’t understand how to talk about well-reasoned, well-thought out ethical arguments, and also [don’t understand] the rhetoric that is coming at them?” he said.

Extension School Professor Cohen believes that teaching rhetoric aligns with the values of Harvard. “Harvard is all about creating leadership. And the way to create leadership, the way to get undergraduates out there, is to not just learn about the art of communication, but also the science of communication,” he said.

While some liberal arts schools, such as Seglin’s alma mater Emerson College, require an oral communication class, many American universities today do not include rhetoric among their core offerings. Cohen said that Harvard has the chance to be one of the first to do so. “It’s about doing something that the Ivy League hasn’t yet tackled. It’s about making communications part of the core curriculum. It will differentiate Harvard, it will make us stand out,” he said. “It will send a signal to the world that we’re not only a place where we breed leaders, but we’re a place where we give leaders the skills we need to achieve their goals.”

Michael D. Smith, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Robin Kelsey, Dean of Arts and Humanities, did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

A Political Art

From a political perspective, McCarthy also emphasizes the importance of rhetoric skills for students interested in becoming successful leaders.

“Many people are increasingly coming to understand that one has to be an effective communicator in order to be an effective leader and to have any kind of success in public life requires you have to have fairly advanced and even sophisticated skills,” he said. “You have to be able to write well, speak well, you have to be able to communicate through the media, you need to be able to code-switch in different settings with different audiences.”

In the current political climate, students are recognizing rhetoric not only as a classical art, but as one that renders political discourse dynamic and subjective. Lisker, for instance, compared President Donald Trump’s ways of speaking to pointillism, an artistic style that was controversial and idely criticized when it first appeared. “Donald Trump’s rhetoric, I don’t think it’s a very typical type of art, but it’s subjective and could also be characterized as a distinct school of art,” he said.

Some even see rhetoric as deceptive, as putting content in a more attractive package. Seglin, Director of the Kennedy School’s Communications Program, emphasizes the necessity of quality content as well as persuasive rhetoric.

“I’d much rather deal with someone who has content and has rough edges, than deal with someone who has nothing to say,” he said. “It’s easy for me to help someone become a better writer if they have something to say. What’s really challenging is if someone’s gifted or charismatic but has no meat, and there’s nothing really there.”

Contemporary Communication

As media of communication evolve, so does rhetoric. McCarthy recognizes that changes in the way we communicate pose challenges to some of the classical techniques of rhetoric that Aristotle posed. “Aristotle never would’ve imagined a tweeting Trump,” McCarthy said. “But in fact, Aristotle is deeply relevant in the twenty-first century because he laid out a practice of rhetoric and a structure of rhetoric that is very much still alive and well today.”

Expos 40 preceptor Carter said that he believes that perfecting spoken rhetoric requires students to be less dependent on electronic forms of communication. While he recognizes that students juggle often not one, but multiple smart devices, he says that he asks students to step away from them in the classroom. “It’s the elephant in the room, in one respect,” Carter said. “I do say that you don’t need your laptops, we ask you not to use your laptops in class, because it’s a very practical, interactive, experiential course. The experience is to interact with each other on a verbal level to get that practice. To take people away from the texting and typing.”

Granderson said he thinks that technology has the potential to erode the very basis of traditional rhetoric. “I think that social media, that whole 140-character, short prose, is killing rhetoric,” he said. “Rhetoric to me is about long, sustained, well-crafted, multi-point arguments that bring together poetry and different philosophical ideas and different novels in literature and all these ideas to make well-reasoned and well-thought out, artistic arguments”

Yet for some, new technologies herald new forms of rhetoric rather than its disappearance from social life. “I think rhetoric has evolved, as many art forms do. Some people think that the art of writing is lost, because people don’t write letters anymore. I don’t think it’s being lost, it’s just different from what it used to be,” Lisker said. “There’s a certain beauty to the evolution of art. You can’t let art stagnate. I don’t think rhetoric is stagnating, it’s evolving, and I think it’s really exciting.”

—Staff writer Lucy Wang can be reached at

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