On Thursday, I thought I’d do something different with my Public Speaking class (and just as an aside, I think I should have been born in the mid 1700s; I keep trying to spell “public” as “publick.” Weird). I’d been thinking a lot about how resistant some of them were to the materials I’d chosen out thus far, and I wanted to test a theory that, for some of the more vocal complainers, the material wouldn’t matter a single little bit; they still weren’t going to exert themselves.
I picked out four different speeches. I started with Martin Luther King’s speech about his opposition to the war in Vietnam – this was the longest speech, clocking in at just about 20 minutes, and was the only one for which I could find a written transcript that I could print and give to the students so they could follow along. Then, I showed them the “peace by inches” speech, delivered by Al Pacino in the film “Any Given Sunday.” After that, I showed them Bono’s acceptance of the Chairman’s Award from the NAACP and, finally, I showed them Joss Whedon’s speech for Equality Now.
We’ve been doing analysis as a group for several weeks now; exercises in critical thinking where I’ve led the students through the close reading of several speeches and articles and demonstrated for them what it means to look carefully at language and structure. We’ve talked about how to connect speeches to one another; how to look for similarities in rhetoric and technique that help to make our understanding of the speakers’ messages richer. I modeled how to discern not only the main topics of a speech, but also to figure out what the speaker’s purpose is in giving it – what does the speaker want us to think/know/do/believe when we leave the presentation?
After I showed the four different speeches to the students, I charged them with choosing ONE and analyzing it. I asked them to look closely at the words and to talk about not just the content, but also the construction. I asked them to think about the other speeches we’ve looked at and listened to over the course of the semester and to connect the speech they chose to work with to another we’ve encountered; how do the two speeches inform on another; how do they make use of the same rhetorical tricks; how can your understanding of that speech help you to better understand this one, and vice-versa?
I haven’t finished grading their work yet, but I’m finding that, so far, I got pretty much what I expected. My most consistent students really put some effort into this exercise; I had one student who was able to draw a convincing parallel between Bono’s speech and Wiesel’s “The Perils of Indifference” by drawing out Bono’s “love thy neighbor isn’t just a suggestion, it’s a command” statement and relating it to the point that Wiesel made about how important it is for us to recognize other’s suffering as our own. Another drew a connection between MLK’s Vietnam speech and Wiesel, by pulling out Dr. King’s “there comes a time when silence becomes betrayal” line and talking about Wiesel’s discussion of how easy it is to not see other’s problems if they don’t affect one personally. I would have been thrilled had these students gone on to connect those speeches to Clinton’s UNH commencement speech, where the former president talks about a South African greeting that translates not to “hello” or “good day” but to “I see you,” but they didn’t quite make it that far. Still, they were excellent pieces of thinking the students did, and I was pleased to see them.
There were, of course, a couple of predictable disappointments. One student – and I should note here that this is one of the students who’s been griping about the content of the class and who gives off a profoundly distinctive impression that he feels I’m entirely wasting his time – wrote almost exclusively about the content of Whedon’s speech, but spoke nothing about the mechanics of it. Another student wrote about how religious Bono must be “because he kept talking about God.”
I’m left to wonder: had the exercise been verbal, would these students have been able to demonstrate deeper, more nuanced thinking than they were able to put on the page? I’m not sure they would have, and I’m left to consider that these were the kids I just couldn’t get to.
I know I can’t reach all of them – I say that every term, and often more than once. Still, I feel as though I’ve reached a greater proportion of students in this class than I have in past courses. I don’t know if that has to do with this group of students or if it’s an indicator that I’m hitting some sort of pedagogical stride. I’d like to think it has a little to do with me, though, so I’m going to run with that.