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From the Bridge: The Oral Communication Program at Twenty-Five -- Reflections on Living Out Loud

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If you ask me what I came into this life to do, I will tell you:  I came to live out loud. - Émile Zola

Zola’s raison d’etre has been the motto of the Oral Communication Program since its inception in 1996.  You will find the quotation printed on our “swag” over the years:  on water bottles, sticky notes, tote bags, and even squeezed onto pens from 2005 when our Speaking Center was in the now-demolished Meyer Library.  However, ever since I was hired in ’96 to create the program at the Center for Teaching and Learning, I have been increasingly preoccupied with silence or perhaps, more accurately, with “the ocean of the unsaid,” to borrow Rebecca Solnit’s phrase. In my work with students and faculty on their oral communication skills, I have been drawn again and again to the part of their story where silence—or the feeling of being silenced—plays a role in their experience as communicators. Consequently, although I have worked my way through a library of books from the field of speech communication, I have turned more often to the psychology, the sociology, and the neurolinguistics of self-expression for pedagogical guidance that goes beyond a superficial skills orientation; guidance suggesting, instead, that “to find one’s voice” we must understand our silence in the larger context of our family, our education, and our cultural identities, among other influences.

In the early days of the program, before I had the privilege of hiring Tom Freeland in 2000 and, later, Helen Lie and Janet Kim, an undergraduate scheduled an appointment with me to talk about her participation in a seminar.  We discussed the topic of the class, the professor’s approach to discussion, the other students, etc., and then she shared something that surprised me at the time.  She said that she had always enjoyed class discussion and public speaking, but since coming to Stanford she had become more reticent and self-conscious about participating in class discussions. On some level, I understood the phenomenon: the stakes seemed higher, the other students seemed so confident and articulate, and the terms of the discourse were unfamiliar.  She was experiencing a steep learning curve.  Yet, I also perceived that there was something less circumstantial and more existential involved; a sense she had that her way of looking at things, her way of expressing her observations and opinions, was different and, thus, less valuable—her own self-assessment of difference as deficit. In the weeks that followed, we discussed some concrete strategies for joining seminar discussions, but we also talked about how she might shift her perception of inadequacy and begin, instead, to try trusting her own point of view and her individual way of expressing it, knowing that it would get easier with practice.  What I learned from this encounter about the complexity of linguistic agency significantly informed not only my approach to helping students manage speech anxiety, but also broadened my vision for the program as it evolved to encompass new colleagues, a growing body of Oral Communication Tutors, and a wealth of collaborators across the university. This experience strengthened my commitment to developing a program based less upon the formulaic prescriptions found in public speaking manuals and more upon a multidimensional approach to speech pedagogy that would foster self-awareness, experimentation, and rhetorical dexterity.

Over two decades later, with the Oral Communication Program now a part of PWR, we have fresh opportunities to refine how we teach speaking and writing to empower our students’ voices by modeling the range of linguistic possibility. Adam Banks spoke to this potential during September Sessions when he encouraged more exploration of the vernacular in our teaching. I am repeatedly impressed by the expertise and insight the Lecturers bring to the oral communication components of their PWR2 courses, and I feel so fortunate to be in this partnership with you and to learn from you.  Similarly, the Speaking Center’s integration with the Hume Center for Writing in 2013 invited us to probe more deeply the synergies between writing and speaking, bringing these disciplines together with storytelling, performance, and digital media to create a constellation of the communication arts in one dynamic Center that is a far cry from the very first speaking “lab,” which was in a storage closet on the first floor of Sweet Hall.

Yet, despite all the positive changes that have come with the maturation of the program, the silences still preoccupy me—the ways we are silenced by others, by the norms of academic discourse, and by our own protective instincts. Although the OCP continues to quote Émile Zola in our promotional materials, to “live out loud” is not as straightforward as he makes it seem. Perhaps, then, our philosophy as a program is more aptly expressed by Audre Lorde when she writes in her essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” "I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood….My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.” I might be mistaking the comfort I find in Lorde’s words with what our students will take away from her message, but if not comfort, then they will surely find wisdom.

In closing, I express my gratitude to Dr. Michele Marincovich who made the first home for the Oral Communication Program at the Center for Teaching and Learning; to Adam, Marvin, Christine and Zandra for their generous leadership, and, of course, to Tom, Helen, Janet, and our many OCTs who remake the Oral Communication Program every day and inspire our mission.

Below: The Oral Communication Program's first Speaking "lab", circa 1998, Sweet Hall, first floor ... the first cohort of OCTs! For a further glimpse into the early days of the Oral Communication Program and how Doree Allen has shaped it from the beginning, read this 1999 Stanford Report article**

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