(Skilled) Self-Presentation

Timothy Burke wonders whether students -- despite all the speaking they do in college -- learn how to talk about themselves and their ideas.

November 23, 2009

Our associate provost recently organized a workshop to talk about how (or perhaps whether) we teach presentation and speaking skills in our courses.

I was glad to see the workshop come together. I think it's a really important issue.

I worry a lot about many of our students in this respect. While they're here their writing may improve, their skills in using various academic disciplines may deepen, their knowledge of a particular subject or field may grow very impressively. But many students who grow in those ways do not necessarily become better at speaking or at presenting themselves effectively, not even in the controlled environment of classroom discussion.

To be honest, I think some of our students become worse at self-presentation and speaking skills in their time here. Some adapt too strongly to the narrow particularity of academic conversation. Other students get too used to political or social engagement with a community that politely indulges most of their demands or arguments or has a fairly strong consensus culture, never really experiencing serious disagreement or plurality of opinion. I've occasionally suggested, semi-seriously, that I feel like we train some students as the speaking and presentation equivalents of baby seals on the ice, waiting to get clubbed.

I think this is a generic problem at a lot of colleges and universities, mind you. The only distinctive aspect of it I see at Swarthmore is the intense value that students and faculty put on being mutually supportive and not seeming to want to show up other students with showy or critical comments. (This is not to say that we completely lack students who are flamboyantly talkative, but I feel as if there's a bit more reluctance here to stand apart.) In a lot of ways, this is a good part of the culture of the college, but it hobbles students a bit when the time comes closer to graduation, when they have to present themselves as confident, capable individuals whom someone should fund, admit or hire.

In general, this is why setting out to teach self-presentation is a tricky business. It's genuinely difficult to assess or grade self-presentation or speaking. The major pedagogy you need is more akin to the pedagogy employed in performance or studio art, where the professor needs to react in the moment, and where some of the feedback needs to be as public and shared as the speaking itself was. That can get very sticky or emotionally fraught for many students. If you're in a performance class, you expect that kind of judgment. If you're in a small discussion class focused on an academic subject, you might not be so willing to go through that gauntlet.

More importantly, effective presentation of self is really not reducible to "public speaking" in the old way that this subject was once taught. When schools like Swarthmore tout the virtues of critical thinking and a liberal arts education for the long-term job prospects of our graduates, we tend to stress the value of flexibility and adaptability, that the liberal arts graduate can change as circumstances change. I think that's basically correct.

Effective self-presentation is a big part of that adaptability, however. If you can't do that, it doesn't really matter whether you can think well. Arguably, you can't think well unless you can speak and present well.

Presenting knowledge or arguments effectively involves putting together a lot of different sub-skills on the fly. You have to understand the context in which you're presenting, you have to be able to very quickly read the organizational sociology of that context. You need to be able to quickly pick up cues about the psychology and habitus of your audience and adjust when it's not what you planned for. You have to know when what you're arguing for is impossible or implausible, and whether there's something else to ask for, when you're setting the stage for a long-term objective or just making a temporary response to a situation that won't repeat itself, when to yield and when to hold firm.

This is all very difficult to teach, not just because it can be delicate to give real-time feedback to students, but because it involves some interpersonal, emotional and psychological skills that are not commonly made explicit or discussed as skills. You can't just teach about those skills in a classroom setting, either. Students have to do other things to learn them fully: get involved in organizations, work in a group, play on a team, take responsibility for a decision.

On those rare occasions where ideas like "emotional intelligence" receive pedagogically explicit attention, they tend to be constrained to painfully bland normative managerial discourses, to be entirely about how we should get along well with others, play nice with other children, be good citizens, and so on. This is deadly. It's better not to talk about this stuff at all than talk about it in these terms.

If you teach skills in an academic environment, you've got to be prepared to make those skills intellectually lively, contentious, open to interpretation and argument. When I teach writing or reading, I'm not just teaching how to write or read, I'm asking whether and when to do those things, studying why we read or write, discussing what the limits to writing or reading might be. Skills have to be as open to the question, "So what?" as any other subject matter, and you have to teach with a willingness to accept a wide variety of answers to that question.

If we're going to teach something like "emotional intelligence" as a part of skillful presentation of self, one explicit premise from the outset needs to be that we are not teaching how to be a good person or play nice in the sandbox. There are people who are highly skilled at purposeful self-presentation who present as eccentric or as gadflies or as disciplinarians. Effectiveness as a speaker or a presenter is not a function of how nice or respectful or caring you are.

In his working life as an attorney, my father was extremely skilled at reading situations and "dialing in" the self-presentation that would most effectively push for the outcomes he was professionally committed to seeking: he could be just another guy with the guys, he could be the bullfighter jabbing and inciting an opponent, he could be light and funny or volcanic and volatile.

Like more than a few highly effective professionals, he didn't have the same nimbleness and flexibility when he was outside the focused environment of his workplace. The key point as far as higher education goes is: that's your problem, your life, work it out yourself.

What we're concerned with is the competencies you have as a thinking, educated person. Personality can be an issue in learning skillful self-presentation: a narcissist or neurotic by their nature has a hard time with critical parts of the skill set, such as being able to imagine how you sound to other people or how you're coming off in the context you're in. But personality shouldn't inhibit most people from a baseline competence in self-presentation. Shy or bold, introvert or extrovert, quiet or talkative, nice or asshole: those are not limit conditions.


Timothy Burke is a professor of history at Swarthmore College.


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