Shaking Up the Lecture

April 24, 2012

What comes to many of our students’ mind when they hear the word "rhetoric"? Specious arguments that are all glamor and little substance? Or perhaps stodgy old professors lecturing on and on about Cicero this and Quintilian that?

As a teacher of writing, and as a proponent of active learning, I have always disdained the traditional lecture. Yet, each term, for each course that I teach — from freshman "basic writing" courses, to graduate courses in teaching (and learning) college writing — I have always included a somewhat traditional introductory lecture on rhetoric. Sure, I give it all I’ve got in order to not only provide students the information I want them to use in their analytical work (content), but also to enact a living model of delivery (form) — what the greatest of the Greek orators, Demosthenes, declared the most important part of any speech. But this term I decided to shake things up a bit. I wondered what would happen if I turned over the reins of my prized rhetoric-lecture thoroughbred over to the hands and minds of the students to ride (deliver).

Like Mike Garver, I wanted to explode the way the lecture typically works rather than, like some of our colleagues in math, attempt to do away with lectures altogether. But I also wanted the students to have a much more active role in the actual generation and delivery of the lecture — a form of instruction I do believe can have merit. Would this experiment result in witnessing my tame lecture turn into a wild stampede? Or would (as I hoped) the students buck up, plant their feet firmly in her stirrups and, like Alexander with Bucephalus, make this beast their own?

The Game Plan

I began my plans by dividing the lecture into parts, depending on how many students were in each of my three classes: for my basic writing course of 10, I had them work in pairs; for my intermediate composition course of 21, teams of three; and for my graduate course of 14, also pairs. Each group was responsible for delivering their section of the lecture in about 10-15 minutes. I told them they had the choice of how they wanted to deliver it. As they buzzed, frenetically strategizing and planning together in class, I fielded their many questions, but tried not to give too much direction. I explained that I wanted them to work on this "problem-situation" with their partners as much as possible. I encouraged them to try not to make too much out of this, that this was a low-stakes assignment designed mostly to prepare them for later work.

The day of the presentation I began by explaining to students that the ancient Roman classroom (especially training in the carefully scaffolded progymnasmata as detailed by Quintilian) was a very interactive place where peer critique was the name of the game. So I let them know that the audience was going to actually be the most important part of the presentations. As an audience we would be critiquing the presenters. We decided that since I had provided most of the content, the assessment criteria would all hinge upon elements of delivery. We agreed upon three broad and interpretive categories: creativity, clarity, and energy. Each category would be scored on a scale of 0-to-5, 5 being the highest, for a possible total of 15 points overall.  

Judgment Day

I must say, I was beyond pleasantly surprised by what followed. The first class to go was my intermediate-level class in groups of three. The first group made a valiant effort to get our momentum off to a good start. They were strong in creativity but fumbled many of their lines, and overall stuck pretty close to the lecture script I had provided. Two of the presenters also delivered in somewhat monotone voices with relatively low energy. The second group, however, came ready to deliver. Michelle DelGuidice and Adam Aluise, as well as Alyssa Barnhart (all students' names used with permission) who was not in class this day but did contribute her ideas, creatively took Kenneth Burke’s concept of the five dramatistic terms — act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose — and applied them to a real-life event.  The act: "O.J. Simpson (allegedly, as Michelle would dark-comically interject) kills two people." The scene: "O.J. and Nicole Simpson’s home."  The agent: "O.J. Simpson (allegedly)." The agency: "He stabs them both to death." The purpose: "Jealousy." Each term came complete with an actual picture from the trial. All other groups fell somewhere on a continuum of these two types of presentations. Some really filtered the assignment and lecture notes through what Burke called their interpretive "termistic screens." Others stuck pretty close to the script, perhaps adding some sort of visual element via the projector or the dry-erase board.

The basic writing students also surprised me. The first group, made up of Jahnea Farquharson and Ashley Tremblay, delivered what I often call a "you had me at hello" presentation ("Jerry Maguire"). They had a PowerPoint wherein they delivered their section with significant visual addendums, they projected their voices loud and clear, and they spoke with passion and emphases. This first group even added some additional information involving Aristotle’s three types of rhetorical arguments: deliberative, forensic, and epideictic. Of course, the rest of the class knew that this first group had set the bar extremely high. I played the role of good facilitator and assured them that they would all do just fine and to have confidence. Like the intermediate-level students, the rest of the groups fell along the same sort of oratory-continuum, from low-talkers, to folks who pretty much just read off the paper, to students fumbling with audio-visual buttons and screens.

I had high hopes for my graduate students. And, just like my undergraduates, they didn’t disappoint. The entire class and I sat enrapt and entertained as group after group delivered presentations abounding with thoughtfulness and overflowing with great energy and humor (and this is an evening class, from 7:35 to 10:05 pm). One of the key differences in the performances of the graduate students was how much they drew on the power of acting.

Several groups created characters as the conduits for their delivery. For example, the first group introduced us to the characters of Logos, Pathos, and Ethos. Logos (played by Charles Hamlin) was very matter-of-fact in his speech as he talked of some ways he deploys himself in the service of argumentation. Pathos (played by Jake Goldman) was an energetic and emotional speaker who talked of the significance of the sentimental value of a dinner plate heirloom from his grandmother that he brought in to show and tell us about. Ethos (also played by Jake Goldman) presented an authoritative figure who was actually an expert in the arts of persuasion. He had written many books on the subject and had an impressive way of linking his argumentation to his previous partners’ talks comparatively. After watching my graduate students perform so excellently, I was left to ponder the ancient rhetorical admonishment from the most renowned of Roman orators, Cicero: "The habits of actors must be studied if we wish to perfect our delivery." 


For each class, I let them know that each group, at least from me, had received a full score of five on creativity. I let them all know that they all did a good job of making the lecture their own. I told them that if they think they are not "creative" then they had better guess again. (I have had many students say that they are "not creative.") I explained that I believe all humans, and most animals, are creative. I said I have three dogs and I have watched them all solve problems and try to figure things out … creatively. I praised them all heavily, telling all students that they did a much better job overall than I had ever done. And that everyone had some strengths and weaknesses — some groups that may not have been as “energetic” were good with "clarity" for example. By the time I had experienced all three classes, I could report back the results to all my students comparatively.

Sure, maybe I could have been more critical of the students’ performances. Yes, perhaps more critical scrutiny would have been more edifying for the low-talkers, or the underprepared, or the obviously nervous. But what is most important for young, or older, active minds to hear? Since, as a class, we assessed and critiqued each group, everyone knew how they had performed in the eyes of their peers; from our interaction, they knew/learned what they might have done better, more, less. I don’t think they needed me spurring them on any more than that.

Most of my in-class lesson plans do involve collaborative interactivity. And, along with other essays I have written for Inside Higher Ed, this essay has attempted to respond to an argument I recently made regarding teachers of writing holding themselves up to the same rigorous performance expectations and standards (habits of mind) as their students. So when I foresee the chance, I will try to make all of my activities in class reach for the stars like this one.  I will consider my students as colleagues more carefully, and I will try to imagine what might happen if I let them ride a wild-horse activity out of the gates from time to time. Maybe they will do their part to put the word “rhetoric” back in the proper intellectual tradition (albeit with an energetic modern twist) that it deserves. (For a lively introduction to the study of rhetoric, created by Clemson grad students, see the YouTube video "In Defense of Rhetoric: Not Just for Liars.")



Steven J. Corbett is assistant professor of English and director of the composition program at Southern Connecticut State University.


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