One of the four classes that every Middlebury first year takes during their first semester is a first year seminar, a writing intensive class capped at 15 students designed to prepare students for the writing-intensive Middlebury curriculum. Each fall, around 40 seminars are offered for our September admits, ranging from The Art and Life of Andy Warhol to Literature in Exile to The Geology of National Parks to The Story of Geometry. My first seminar, elegantly titled Oratory: Winning the Soul with Words, was one of the most academically transformative experiences of my Middlebury career.
Taught by theatre professor Dana Yeaton, the seminar was divided into three parts. During the first part, we read Aristotle’s book “On Rhetoric” and studied the theoretical components of constructing a powerful speech. The middle third of the class was focused on reading great speeches throughout history, from Pericles’ Funeral Oration to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to MLK’s I Have a Dream. During the last few weeks of class, we wrote and delivered a number of our own speeches, culminating in a TED Talk presentation.
The class was incredibly rewarding precisely because it was unlike anything I had ever done before, or after, for that matter. Since it was the first time he had taught the class, Professor Yeaton experimented with different methods of teaching and various kinds of assignments. He always brought an energy to the room that made the 75 minutes fly by in the blink of an eye. And because of the personal nature of our final TED Talks, the 15 of us got to know each other very well by the end of the semester.
In the January following that fall semester, Professor Yeaton invited a few of us from the seminar to participate in the College’s annual Martin Luther King Day Celebration in Mead Chapel, an evening of song, dance, and oratory that commemorates the life of the civil rights hero. Together with a few other theatre students, we performed a condensed reading of MLK’s famous I Have a Dream speech. Relying on the projection of our voice and the acoustics in the chapel, we tried to capture, without microphones, the cadence of King’s speech and project its power to the standing-room only crowd. We even added a touch of Middlebury flair by reciting one section of the speech in various foreign languages.
This past Martin Luther King Day, I returned to the chapel to watch the oratorio for the first time since I participated in it three years ago. Professor Yeaton helped direct the show again, this time with students from his Speechmaker’s Studio J-Term class and members of the newly formed Oratory Society. Together, they read a series of quotes from MLK and other civil rights leaders to begin the show and like us, performed a reading of the I Have a Dream speech. Sitting in the pews, with a tinge of nostalgia, I felt incredibly proud of how much Professor Yeaton’s oratory program has grown at Middlebury. This was the second year in a row that he has offered the Speechmaker’s Studio as a J-Term class, attracting students ranging from political science majors to varsity skiers to international first years. His Oratory Society hosted an “oratory slam” in the fall and conducts workshops open to anyone wishing to improve their public speaking skills.
In his quest to bring public speaking to the fore of the liberal arts curriculum, Professor Yeaton has struck a chord with students who recognize the importance of that skill in today’s digitally connected world. The oratory program is yet another example of how the liberal arts continues to evolve here at Middlebury.