A Sense of Self as Audience

My freshman composition class just wrapped up a three-day series of speeches, where students present and share their research to the rest of the class in a relatively formal address, before a video camera. After they’re done, they have to field questions from the class. Later they will write reflections based on their analysis of the videotape. I like this exercise because it gets some early research (and critical thinking) done on their final term paper, while doing double-duty as a way of learning oral presentation skills.

I always evaluate these speeches by typing out my responses to both their delivery and content. But this semester I tried something different: at the end of each class, I had the entire class take a moment to write a letter of support to the person they thought gave the best speech — or a letter of advice for the weakest speaker. If they gave a speech that day, they had to write a letter to the entire class. I collected these, tore off the names of the writers, and handed them back the next period…and read the letters to the class out loud.

It worked out better than expected! The students liked the quick peer feedback, and the process was enhanced by the anonymity of the approach. Normally, it’s a risk having students single out “the best” or “the worst” students, but I wanted to increase attentiveness to the speeches by the audience and engage them in critical responses. I was pleasantly surprised to find that only one student singled out “the worst” — most letters were supportive pats on the back. And while the better speakers got the most letters, there was still a wide range of different recipients, so it seemed fair. But the main reason I did this was to not only reward those who put in the most effort, but to break the wall between the nervous speaker and the typically apathetic audience. Formal speech delivery in a class environment often is approached as an individual, rather than a dynamic, performance, and with the camera on and the teacher sitting in the back of the room, taking notes, it would seem as though the speech was a singular effort, rather than collaborative affair. Just as I try to get students to break out of the habit of just “writing for the teacher” (a one-to-one communication) I tried to get the speech event to go beyond being a student-to-teacher delivery. Using something akin to a dialogic listening approach, I wanted to help the students in the class as a whole to recognize their responsibilities as active listeners, to increase their attentiveness, and to help them develop an awareness of audience. And from the class reactions to this exercise, I really think it worked. Hopefully, this experience will help them develop a sense of audience for their papers, too — and to internalize the dynamic required for meeting the diverse needs of multiple readers. And to think of their peers as scholars.

Now that students have this first experience giving speeches in front of a video camera, I want to remember to try something else new: to have them record speeches with a camera outside of class next term.

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Michael Arnzen

Professor of English, Seton Hill University.

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