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Communication Within the Curriculum

by Ralph M. Rosen

One of the recurrent jokes in the 1960's sit-com Bewitched was the anxiety Darren--an advertising executive married to a witch named Samantha--experienced every time he had to prepare a presentation for his formidable boss, "Mr. Tate." Except perhaps for Darren's ongoing fear that the neighbors would discover his wife's true supernatural identity, nothing consumed as much of his emotional energy in the show as his desire to please his boss. In Darren's fevered imagination at least, all Mr. Tate seemed to care about was how he would comport himself in the meeting room, how persuasively he could present his ideas around a table of humorless businessmen. Obviously these scenes were parodies of corporate America in the 'sixties, but the fears that kept Darren awake at night remain painfully funny today because they are still so familiar: in just about any profession one can think of an ability to communicate orally, to present ideas cogently and persuasively, is highly valued and often essential to any kind of success.

Examples from the workplace abound, from the formal presentations we associate with (to name only a few) boardrooms, courtrooms or academic lecture halls, to the more informal contexts of the classroom, the focus group or the department meeting. Then there are the many areas of civic activity where one's influence rises and falls according to how effectively one can communicate with an audience--politics, for example, town meetings, public hearings, school boards, etc. And how about the last time you found yourself having to compose a toast at a wedding, or a eulogy at a funeral? Indeed, competence in oral communication is so central to everyone's daily life that it tends to be taken for granted, as if an ability to speak somehow also implies an ability to speak well. A moment's reflection, of course, would disabuse anyone of such an assumption, but isn't it ironic that very few undergraduate curricula these days offer any systematic opportunities for students to work on their speaking skills? And isn't the irony compounded by the popularity of classroom assignments that actually require reasonably well developed skills in performance and oral communication?

I am no exception. I always like students to be able to interact with the material and with each other in active ways. I like them to facilitate discussions, to summarize and analyze complicated material for their peers, sometimes even to present research papers in a formal setting. In a Pilot Curriculum course I'm teaching this semester on scandalous arts in ancient and modern society, I'm looking forward to hearing the students perform satirical rants they've composed in imitation of such distinguished models as Aristophanes, Juvenal, Lenny Bruce or Eminem. And it goes without saying that I expect a high level of performative competence from my graduate students, who before long will be delivering papers at conferences and themselves standing in front of students, departments and academic committees. But how often have I been disappointed to find that students do not necessarily come to us with a real understanding of what it means to run a discussion or to make diffuse and complex material intelligible to a live audience in "real time." Anyone who has ever taught will remember the student who may be brilliantly articulate in writing, yet tongue-tied when called upon to present the same material in front of a group.

Fortunately, the importance of speaking skills has not been lost on Penn undergraduates either, and several years ago the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education (SCUE) recommended that the undergraduate colleges investigate ways in which speaking might be self-consciously integrated into the curriculum. From their wise initiative was born a program originally called Speaking Across the University (or SATU), which aimed at encouraging faculty to incorporate explicit attention to oral skills into their classes. Rather than focusing on public speaking in the abstract, SATU attempted to foster a culture of speaking within specific disciplines, and directed at specific content. SATU was eventually renamed Communication Within the Curriculum, or CWiC, in part to distinguish it from the WATU program, which furnishes writing advisors for faculty, but also to make it clear that speaking takes many forms, depending on context, occasion, and audience.

CWiC's core service is to train a select group of undergraduates to serve as speaking advisors for faculty members who wish to affiliate their courses with the program. My colleague in Classical Studies, Professor Jeremy McInerney, designed a special course--part history, part practicum--to train such students. Dr. McInerney is himself a spellbinding speaker who exudes charisma and intellectual power in front of any audience, so he was clearly an ideal role model for the students in his CWiC class. After taking the class, students are assigned to interested faculty and deployed by faculty as they see fit. Some faculty already have clear ideas about how they would like to integrate speaking assignments into their classes; others prefer to brainstorm with their CwiC advisor as they construct their syllabi. My own involvement with CWiC began when I had heard that Jeremy had "graduated" his first class of advisees, and I was looking for ways to improve the speaking skills of students in a course I was teaching on ancient Greek medicine. I chose to have my advisor work with my students initially on strategies for facilitating classroom discussion, and then later in the semester on presenting their research in a more formal manner. Positive results were immediately apparent, and it was quite exhilarating to watch the students grow not only increasingly comfortable in front of an audience, but also increasingly cogent. This initial experience also helped me to understand more clearly than I had previously that effective speaking is as much an intellectual activity as a performative one.

The success and popularity of CWiC among faculty and students over the past three years enabled us to appoint a full-time associate director last year, Dr. Bruce Lenthall, who will offer the advisor training course himself this spring semester, and coordinate the various other activities that CWiC has become known for, such as occasional series of workshops on special topics related to speaking, or walk-in advising hours for students working on class projects that involve speaking. With Bruce's appointment, CWiC will now be able to enrich the undergraduate curriculum even more broadly and systematically than it could in its formative years. CWiC is always eager to explore new course affiliations, and to collaborate with faculty in creative ways to make students more effective communicators not only within a specific discipline, but also as productive citizens of the world. For further information see

Dr. Ralph M. Rosen is Professor of Classical Studies and CWiC Faculty Director.

This essay continues the series that was recently revived and had initially begun in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

See for the previous essays.



  Almanac, Vol. 50, No. 12, November 11, 2003