Saturday, September 23, 2006

What Is 'Teaching' Rhetoric?

The third week of class has ended and I'm preparing to update grades before the fourth week. It is amazing to image a quarter of the semester is over and done. Time does matter in any course, since it always seems that we need more than we have. I would love to work on a single speech in class for a semester, honing and improving the speech, but that's not the time allotted.

What does it mean to "teach" oral rhetoric? I can have students memorize terms and theories, but there are only 15 weeks of class. I might try to work on delivery, but that would mean working towards the ideal speech instead of working on a variety of situations. More complicated, there aren't formulas as in math or tested theories as in science. Public oration is a matter of learning your personal approach to presentation and persuasion.

The only way students can learn to speak professionally is to practice the art, receive feedback, and practice some more. This means the grade in the course is based on the pursuit of the personal best, not the pursuit of a single ideal. For each person, what works is unknown before the practice.

I want the students to feel like professionals -- to realize they will soon be professional speakers if they are not already. They have been persuading people for as long as they've been able to speak, and even before. Now, they must learn to present to larger and more formal groups. There is nothing that a "teacher" can do to make the experience easy: no easy guide, no simple rules to follow.

What I really hope students learn is how to listen. I think their ability to listen to others is more important, in our current civic structure, than the ability to speak. Not many of us will be on television, radio, or operate nationally known blogs. What we will do is listen to others. As a result, rhetorical analysis becomes the key to participating wisely. Let us hope that is the one thing everyone takes from a speech course -- listening skills.

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