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The Case for Oratory

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Oratory is a group experience, a give and take between speaker and audience. In contrast with other subjects like physics or philosophy or the political history of France, the best indication of how much you are learning comes from how your fellow students (i.e., your audience) respond to your work.

Dana Yeaton leads a warm-up exercise using tai chi.

Dana Yeaton leads a warm-up exercise at the start of class.

That’s why Dana Yeaton ’79 teaches oratory in a workshop format. One of the 125 courses offered on campus during the 2014 Winter Term, Oratory: A Speechmaking Studio was a class on a mission.

“This course wants you knowledgeable about the history of rhetoric. It wants you passionate to explore the world of ideas and put what you find into words. It wants you confident that when you stand up and speak those words, people will listen and maybe even be changed,” Yeaton said in the first class.

“And to do all that you need each other. As an audience, yes, and as fellow travelers who will question and challenge and console each other along the way. Your best work will very likely come from the desire to engage your classmates.”

The 22 students were required to give a speech on the first day of J-term and a speech the next day and a dinner toast and a critical response to Pericles’ Funeral Oration. There was a mini-moth, a rant, a “great speech speech,” and a three-minute speech adapted from a term paper that had been written for any other class. There was also a TEDx pitch, a scripted and memorized TEDx talk, and probably one or two more speeches. And every speech was videotaped and critiqued by fellow students.

Yeaton, a visiting assistant professor of theatre, believes that great oratorical skills come from understanding the basics of rhetoric, gaining an appreciation for what makes a great speech, mastering the physical aspects of public speaking (use of voice, posture, eye contact, etc.), and practice, practice, practice.

Cole Bortz, from Littleton, Colorado, delivers his mini-moth speech.

Cole Bortz, a first-year student from Colorado, delivers a speech.

During the second week of class, the oratory students delivered their mini-moth speeches, which were five-minute-long personal stories told live without notes. By this time members of the class were well versed in their public-speaking basics: approaching the podium (or stage) with confidence, finding a solid neutrality in their stance, establishing a moment of solidarity with the audience, and enunciating clearly.

The class split up for a mini-moth practice session, and James Clifford, a junior from Tiburon, Calif., picked a partner and headed into the hallway of the Mahaney Center for the Arts looking for a place to work on his speech. He chose a quiet spot under the stairs and launched into his mini-moth about why his friends on the ski team call him “The Fireman.” (Moth talks are based on The Moth Radio Hour, an NPR show, and moth performances have been popular at Middlebury for the past four or five years.)

Clifford’s true story was about how he bonded with other members of the team on an Alpine ski-training trip out West. It involved a pan of flaming nachos, the local fire department, billows of smoke, and, well, that’s how he earned the moniker of “The Fireman.” After practicing his speech and reviewing the feedback, Clifford returned to the classroom where he would present it to the class.

“Oratory has been one of the most valuable pieces of my Middlebury education,” Clifford later said. “Through this class I found my voice on the page and I found my voice at the podium.”

The case for oratory is on the rise at Middlebury. Yeaton is working with a group of administrators who are discussing how to make proficiency in public speaking an expectation within the curriculum. Their effort comes on the heels of President Ron Liebowitz’s observation in Middlebury Magazine that alumni are saying the College could do a better job preparing its graduates for the rigors of public speaking.

All eyes are focused on the speaker.

In oratory, all eyes are focused on the speaker.

Sophomore Premlata Persaud from New Jersey is confident that the oratorical skills she gained during Winter Term will transfer to other classes. “I find it difficult sometimes in seminars to express my ideas in a way that really convinces my professors and other students, but now I have a checklist of sorts to go through before I make an important statement in class.”

Heading into the 2014 J-term, Dana Yeaton had high hopes that his class’s enthusiasm for oratory would spread across campus. “This course is designed as a laboratory in which we will be teaching each other the art of oratory,” he told his students. “You will be reading, analyzing, writing, and delivering speeches; you’ll do physical and vocal training, and focus exercises.” And he also said the class would be “exporting” this model through a workshop series and at the Martin Luther King Oratorio in Mead Chapel, which Yeaton directed.

The professor’s hope took root when the oratory students offered a series of public-speaking workshops open to anyone wishing to improve their oral communication skills. During the final week of Winter Term about a dozen students from the Middlebury Entrepreneurs class showed up at the workshop, anxious to hone their oratorical skills for the final projects they would present in their class the next day.

For two hours the oratory students became the teachers: they formed small groups, discussed principles of oratory, analyzed the visitors’ speeches, and led training exercises designed to build their guests’ public-speaking skills.

In a spontaneous moment during class one January afternoon, the students decided to form the Oratory Society of Middlebury. The group made a circle in the middle of Room 232 and composed the oath Ethos, Logos, Pathos for membership in the Oratory Society, which is open to the Middlebury College community. The College would now have a student organization committed to conducting workshops, sponsoring public-speaking events, and advocating for oratory’s place on campus.

If anyone were looking for a sign that students had bought in to the importance of oratory as a group learning experience, this was it.