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Dignity for the Freaks
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Dignity for the Freaks

In the mid-1980s, when I was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Michael Leff organized a series of informal summer reading groups for rhetoric graduate students. During one of those summers, at Leff’s suggestion, the group met weekly to enjoy some Leinekugel’s beer and discuss the founding documents of our discipline—the key articles published in the Quarterly Journal of Public Speaking from 1915 to 1923. Leff always emphasized the importance of understanding the institutional and pedagogical history of the communication field, and the exercise of reading those founding documents was, for me, formative.

Thus, I appreciate enormously Professor Sproule’s effort to discover and illuminate a vital chapter in the “communication discipline’s own creation story.”1 His essay explores the multifaceted origins of the “quintessential modern speech book”2 that emerged in the early twentieth century from an eclectic theoretical and pedagogical ancestry stretching back over the previous two centuries. To Professor Sproule, the evolution of the modern public speaking text is revealing of a lively disciplinary fermentation and stands as the chief manifestation of both a new paradigm of speech pedagogy, and of a “growing confidence”3 in the youthful speech discipline. In the texts that emerged from this evolution, and especially in James Winans’s “widely influential”4 Public Speaking (1915), Sproule witnesses the materialization of the discipline’s rejection of its elocutionary heritage and its embrace of a mode of public address “that was plain, practical, idea-focused, extemporaneous, conversationally direct, audience-adapted, outline-prepared, and library-researched.”5 [End Page 147]

Sproule is also exactly right to emphasize how, early in the last century, a term we now take for granted—“public speaking”—generated widespread disciplinary angst, demanding considerable “cognitive energy”6 from those involved in the contest over its meaning. James O’Neill’s 1916 review of the Winans text is revealing of that cognitive and semantic struggle. “Some will perhaps regret that a more restricted title was not used,” he wrote. “Since no one has yet proposed for our departments a title that has gained general acceptance over the common one of ‘Public Speaking,’ some will question the desirability of calling a single volume by this name.”7

And yet, as fascinating as is the history of the selective recombination of antecedent textbook elements, culminating in a model of “what public speaking eventually became,”8 there is more to the story. Without question, Sproule’s research convincingly documents how Winans and others discovered “a path out of a 200-year pedagogical quandary.”9 However, the detailed attention to the theoretical substance and pedagogical ancestry of public speaking textbooks puts the disciplinary forest out of focus. Even if we grant that “gradually coalescing text genres spawned new departments of public speaking by supplying an innovative theoretical basis for academic speech study,”10 we are, I think, understating the disciplinary significance of these first modern public speaking texts.

To be sure, Sproule is right to maintain the “impossibility of understanding the new speechmaking without specific reference to prior textbook genres.”11 However, as he meticulously assesses the stages of public speaking textbook evolution, he remains principally focused on the implications of competing paradigms of speech pedagogy. His work traces the textual emergence of new instructional frameworks that are informed variously by theories of voice physiology, argumentative invention, persuasion, compositional style, audience psychology, and other scientific ideas that distinguished the modern speech discipline from its oratorical and elocutionary forbears. But, why were these developments so important for public speaking teachers, especially those who would never write their own textbook?

I would contend that Sproule’s emphasis on textbook theory leaves the mistaken impression that the developments he chronicles were mainly theoretically driven. He seems to be suggesting that the gradual sifting and winnowing of theoretical approaches and textbook elements is what ushered the discipline out of a nineteenth-century elocutionary dark age. As he writes, “Substituting purposive communication for artistic expression provided [End Page 148] a foundation for important theoretical-pedagogical innovations in an emerging speech discipline.”12 The story he tells is one of “a generation-long period of authorial experimentation...