LOCKHART: What our education is missing

The University should add an oral communication competency requirement

As undergraduate enrollment begins for Fall 2014 courses, I notice with disappointment that next semester’s offerings include very few public speaking courses. A quick search of the word “speaking” as part of a class title on Lou’s List turns up only two courses. Both of them are in the Commerce school and restricted to 16 students. This isn’t an irregular occurrence; looking back at course offerings over the past few semesters, the story has been similar. This scarcity of oral communication courses is a systemic problem at the University.

Public speaking is a vital skill that everyone should have the opportunity to develop. While many people place the fear of public speaking above the fear of death, you will have to do both. And it’s much easier to prepare for the first one. No matter what you want to do with your life, you will have to give a speech in either a professional or personal capacity. Even if your dream job is in a cubicle where you never have to talk to anyone, you will have to give a toast at a wedding or a presentation at your community group or an announcement at your kid’s birthday party.

You may ask why we need courses specifically focused on public speaking. Couldn’t we simply integrate assessments of oral communication into the curricula for courses focused on other subjects? This approach is problematic because it expects students to be proficient in a skill they have never been taught. These commonly used assessments of public speaking competency offer evaluations without instruction. Even if teachers offer constructive feedback on end of the year PowerPoints or speeches, these surface level prescriptions fail to address the root cause of problems that require personalized, extensive work on the part of both teachers and students.

Many other universities have broader curricular opportunities for students to develop their public speaking abilities. Stanford’s Hume Center For Writing and Speaking offers several courses on oral communication such as “The Art of Effective Speaking” and “The TED Commandments.” If you explore Stanford course listings, you can browse through the extensive offerings of classes related to public speaking. Altogether, they have the capacity to serve hundreds of students each semester.

This semester, I have had the opportunity to facilitate a workshop-style course on public speaking through the Cavalier Education Program. It has been amazing to see the increase in student confidence and speech quality that come from weekly public speaking practice. Only a few days after the course was posted on SIS last fall, course enrollment had filled up and several students were placed on the wait list. The high demand for this class speaks to the unmet need for public speaking education at the University.

In 2005, the University’s Office of Institutional Assessment and Studies designed an evaluation of “undergraduate student oral communication competence.” The Oral Communication Competency Assessment Committee, composed of professors from across the University, conducted these evaluations of presentations from a group of students across the six schools with undergraduate programs. Among other findings, the committee concluded in their report that “too few students are ‘highly competent’ [in public speaking]. . . than we believe should be the case at a top tier university” and “far too few opportunities exist — either to learn or engage in — extemporaneous speaking at the University.”

In light of all of this, an oral communication course should be added to the core requirements for all undergraduate schools. In the same way that all students must complete the first writing requirement in order to fulfill the College of Arts & Sciences competency requirements, I propose a first speaking requirement. New professors and public speaking experts should be brought in to run small, workshop-style courses with enough individual attention to meet the diverse needs of every student. While this new requirement would be costly, the benefit of a poised, competent class of public speakers is worth the investment. Every University student should learn the skills they need to speak their mind with clarity and confidence.

Kurt Lockhart is a third-year College student and the student instructor of INST 1550: Practical Public Speaking.

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