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Creating a History for Public Speaking Instruction
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Professor Sproule’s 2012 essay is a superb piece of history, providing a robust account of where public speaking instruction came from and how it has evolved.1 Sproule’s account reveals that just as there is no single source or precursor for the public speaking tradition there are also a number of different ends toward which public speaking instruction might aim. The virtue of Sproule’s retelling of the history is that there is no one necessary or inevitable telos toward which the tradition of public speaking bends; instead, he finds a number of disparate social, pedagogical, and political goals woven into the fabric of the public speaking tradition, each one arising from the cumulative choices made by teachers and authors throughout the history of public speaking instruction. Our focus in this response will be to address the shallowness Sproule finds in the contemporary theoretical understanding of the term “public speaking,” and, further, to argue that teachers of the tradition ought to recover and return to the civic and humanistic mission of public speaking pedagogy. Specifically, we would like to take up the claim that if the theoretical discourse around public speaking has become “banal,” that the time may have come to reinvest public speaking in its civic mission, and simultaneously to inject some theoretical vigor into the tradition by putting the “public” squarely at the center of “public speaking.”2

Why? One cannot argue for what the public speaking tradition should be, or what it ought to do, without understanding both where it has come from, and equally importantly, by conceptualizing what it should do, or, more directly, where it should be going. To argue that one is teaching a “good” or “better” public speaking course, a common tendency (and one made impossible by the rich historical account Sproule provides) tempts advocates of the tradition to pull a few threads from a dimly perceived history, and further, to argue that the resulting story is “the” history of public speaking. This impulse is not, in itself, wrongheaded; predicating a pedagogy on a vision of classical rhetoric, elocutionary insights on delivery, or social scientific data about presentation can all make good sense. But the temptation is to take each approach as uniquely justified by an historical account. Many approaches can be justified, because, as Sproule shows us, there are many histories. As a result, it is incumbent upon us to actually take up and argue for the relative merits of the pedagogical tendencies of our favored versions of the tradition as one choice among others. In other words, we would like to suggest that we be deliberate about using the history to define the current and future mission of public speaking. In the face of a complex history, our choices will not be compelled; we should instead ask how we can choose to use the history as an argumentative force in defining a future shape and importance of the public speaking course. What resources from history—and what theory—can we muster to account for the future of this pedagogy?

Of course, if current textbooks are theoretically barren, there might be structural reasons for it. Their writing is driven in part by market forces that value imitating successful books (even the less sensible parts of successful books), and it is a market that responds to instructors who don’t easily decide to change their teaching; since almost everyone learns to teach public speaking by apprenticing in graduate school, without their pedagogy being particularly informed by the scholarship studied in their coursework, there is little training or motivation to reflect about the public speaking course. (The situation in composition is of course quite different, since there is a substantial and lively literature on teaching writing and its relationship to its own disciplinary history.)3

Nonetheless, there is enormous potential to reform the basic course, updating it by fertilizing it with resources drawn from various theoretical traditions. There are numerous candidates for what ought to be the overarching goals of public speaking instruction. Public speaking might be best conceptualized as a course dedicated to clear communication; or in the social science-informed tradition and compelling personal and professional interactions; or in the...

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