Learning to Use Our Dart-mouths

by Lee Cooper | 11/20/07 1:26am

Since my first-year seminar during my freshman fall, I have often been shocked by the speech and oratory skills of Dartmouth students as a whole. From sufferers of "like" syndrome to arrogant abusers of overly complex vocabulary and syntax, too many of us fail to express ourselves concisely or precisely through speech.

I would never expect that everyone (or anyone) among us would achieve the oratory status of Cicero, Martin Luther King, Jr. or Tiki Barber, but I do hope that we all realize the ways in which we regularly portray ourselves as inaccessible and even ignorant through poor patterns of speech. Ultimately, the College needs to take responsibility for our collective deficiencies in verbal articulation, because poor speech, if nothing else, prevents Dartmouth students from being perceived as the intelligent individuals that most of them are.

Dartmouth, according to its mission statement, aims to "prepare [students] for a lifetime of learning and of responsible leadership." Two specific ways that the College works towards the goal of "responsible leadership" through academics are our distributive requirements and our first-year writing courses. Dartmouth makes it clear that the first priority for all students is to develop "college-level" writing skills, before moving on to completing a liberal arts education. But what about speaking?

I need not elaborate when I say that our interpersonal skills, including speaking, will be crucial to our becoming leaders later in life. When a classmate raises his or her hand and peppers the commentary with an abundance of "likes" (except, of course, when using a simile), I almost immediately tune out, and struggle to consider any points to be serious intellectual thought. Alternatively, I can't pay attention to a peer's presentation in class when they mumble words or fail to organize their thoughts and present any sort of "thesis" idea.

This problem can be solved in numerous ways, the simplest of which would be to change nothing in our class structure or College requirements, and would merely be to encourage professors to treat speech the same way as they do writing. In my personal experience, most in-class presentations have been students' highest grades of the term, and not because of awe-inspiring quality across the board. Only once have I felt that I was truly graded thoroughly on my performance in front of the room rather than on my general ideas. Why do professors grade speech so leniently compared to papers, for which we receive demerits for each blunder in precision or clarity? Spoken language is infinitely more intimate and personal -- and thus more uncomfortable than writing for many people. But this is not legitimate grounds for omitting speech as an academic skill in need of development. Changing this standard will undoubtedly increase the incentive for focusing more attention on the way we speak.

A slightly more radical change -- but one that I deem necessary -- would be to alter the first-year seminar program to incorporate more rigorous training and grading of presentation skills. By rigorous, I mean that just as Student X could receive a "C" for verbose writing and convoluted syntax, Student Y could also receive a "C" for speaking with too many "likes" or too many five-syllable vocabulary words that detract from the presentation. As for the education piece, students can and should be taught the fundamentals of rhetoric in oratory, just as they are for writing. Again, we will not all be world-class orators, but everyone should learn, just as we do in all other subjects, to maximize our natural endowments in the field of oratory as best we can.

I am not attempting to revive the debate regarding the status of speech as an academic department at Dartmouth, mostly because it is a larger and more complex issue than I am willing to tackle. My belief, rather, is that we could find ways to incorporate speech into our current system because it is simply too important to ignore. We are lucky to be at a school with enough small classes that many of us regularly give presentations, so why not maximize the opportunity?

Whether attracting wealthy clients to a bank, orchestrating international diplomacy, presenting a scientific paper, or convincing a gallery to display our artwork, we will all be in situations that demand a mastery of spoken language in order to effectively communicate. Further, we must incorporate more speech into our formal education at Dartmouth in order better our lives right now -- no one should have to sit through another class discussion while others raise their hands: "Like..."