Speaking Across The University by Joseph Farrell

In every discipline and at every level of instruction, speaking is central to the business of teaching and learning. Many courses are defined in terms of speech-acts, either as "lecture courses" or "discussion courses." The teaching reputations of many faculty members depend largely on their speaking ability. For students, too, effective speaking is an important measure of academic success. From freshman seminars to senior capstone courses, the curriculum demands that students express their ideas, whether in open discussion or in formal presentation, through cogent and persuasive speech. And it is obvious that whatever our students may do after college, they will do it better if they possess effective speaking skills.

The other side of speaking is listening. Without effective listening, there can be no effective speaking, no communication; and without communication, no learning. And, no matter how much speaking a student may do in any given class, he or she will obviously spend much more time as a listener. All of us want to help our students become better speakers and better listeners. But in most courses both of these goals, especially the latter, remain implicit, so much so that students may not clearly understand the value that we place on them.

The question thus arises: what are we doing to help our students acquire these skills?

Providing Oportunities, Creating Expectations

On one level, we are doing a lot. The push to create more seminar-size classes throughout the curriculum has been popular with students. In such classes, students have the opportunity to speak their mind, and are in fact expected to do so. When it comes to formal assignments, many courses, in addition to substantial research and writing requirements, call on students to present their research orally. Such expectations are built into hundreds of courses in all four undergraduate colleges. Another very common approach is to assign an individual or a group of students to investigate a topic of interest that goes beyond readings required of the entire class, and to present the results orally, without producing any written text for separate evaluation. Some courses and instructors provide excellent support for these efforts by running prep sessions for individual students or for groups. The burden of providing this support can be substantial, however, and our efforts at the moment are by no means well coordinated or uniformly distributed throughout the curriculum. As a result, students can often find themselves unprepared on the day of their presentations, with the equivalent of a rough draft at best, no real survival skills suited to the occasion, and perhaps a low-grade panic attack into the bargain. Most of us would agree that these are unlikely ingredients for a successful learning experience.

The Students Have Got It Right

Recognizing that opportunities and expectations have outstripped the support that we are currently providing, the leaders of SCUE petitioned the faculty for a new program that would enhance existing efforts to teach speaking skills and expand them wherever possible. The result is a pilot program called Speaking Across The University, or SATU for short. With support from Dr. Richard Beeman, Undergraduate Dean of SAS, and Dr. Peter Conn, Professor of English and Faculty Director of the Writing Center, as well as from the Office of the Provost and the Annenberg School for Communication, SATU borrows both its name and some of its organizational structure and pedagogical values from WATU, one of the most visible components of Penn's extremely successful Writing Program. Two years ago in this column Al Filreis wrote about the effort to create a "culture of writing" in the University, an effort that has already produced impressive results. SATU adds an important new dimension to this effort, aiming to create what Kathleen Hall Jamieson has called "a culture of rhetoric" at Penn-a culture characterized by clarity of expression, readiness in response, and vigorous, open exchange, in writing and in speech.

Now in its second year, the SATU pilot project has already put in place the basic elements of a successful speaking program and developed a cogent plan for the future. SATU's first mission is to provide flexible support that extends to all schools at the University. This semester, such support is being provided through a new Speaking Center. Located in 413-414 Bennett Hall, the Center will open its doors on February 1. Among the services it will provide are:


  • Regular appointment hours every weekday outside normal class time (4-7 p.m. Monday through Friday)
  • Supervision by a professional administrative staff
  • Experienced undergraduate peer advisors trained in all aspects of developing and delivering oral presentations
  • Individual or group consultations
  • Full audio-visual recording and playback equipment to facilitate self-critique


Plans to expand these services are already in place, and depend on efforts to increase the number of qualified peer advisors. To this end the pilot program created a new course. Offered this semester as Classical Studies 135, "The Art of Persuasive Speaking," the course is being taught by Dr. Jeremy McInerney, who is a tenured member of the SAS faculty, a specialist in Ancient History, and a popular lecturer with an extensive background in forensics and debate. Admission to the course is by consent of the instructor, and successful applicants were selected on the basis of demonstrable aptitude for speaking and advising. Because a major purpose of the course is to train future SATU peer advisors, substantial attention is given to drilling students in the specific techniques that they will use to help others improve their speaking, including frequent sessions for preparation, peer review, and performance. Members of this course will work under the tutelage of experienced SATU advisors to serve students in other courses who seek support from the Speaking Center. Ultimately, the eighteen students in ClSt 135 will be certified as speaking advisors and will join the staff of the Speaking Center. These new recruits will enable the Center to extend its hours later this term (just in time for final presentations!) and to affiliate a number of official SATU courses next fall.

What Comes Next?

The SATU progam is still new, and my purpose here has been mainly to announce its existence and present its basic rationale. But the possibility already exists for faculty to take advantage of the support that SATU offers in their efforts to teach effective oral communication. Some specific techniques will be taken up in a later column, and it is certainly possible for members of the faculty to contribute their ideas on other ways to support speaking instruction. I will also just mention a point that may be more appropriate for full discussion in a different venue, namely, the important ways in which SATU can strengthen extracurricular student speech. For now, SATU invites both your response and your participation in our efforts to teach students these essential skills and, beyond that, to foster the new culture of rhetoric--a culture of informed, incisive public discussion, both in and out of the classroom--that is even now coming to life at Penn.



This is the fourth essay in the 1998-99 Talk About Teaching series, now in its fifth year as a

joint project of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

Dr. Farrell is Professor of Classical Studies and was chair of the Provost's ad hoc committee to evaluate the SATU

pilot project. For more information on Speaking Across The University and the Speaking Center, please contact

Dr. Deborah Rossen-Knill, Director of SATU (

Almanac, Vol. 45, No. 17, January 19, 1999