COMM 460
Fall 2007

About the Course

The Study of Public Discourse

Who is the course for?

What knowledge should you have before you come into this course?

What will the course be like?

Learning Resources

Office Hours

Participation and Attendance

Recommendations to you from previous students in the course

What are the keys to success in this course?

Home Page

The Study of Public Discourse

Of all the things that people do with speech, perhaps the most important is making the communities within which they live. If you listen and study the speech that reaches your ear, you will hear a rich tapestry with which you and those around you accomplish the day-to-day acts that form your lives. To participate in a community is to understand how to use your voice to effect your life. Different communities – Americans in different times and different places – have different speaking habits and styles to accomplish these day-to-day activities. This course is about the variety of ways in which Americans have used their voices to live their lives in communities. Over the 265 years covered by this course, the variety is a rich mix of voices which in different ways understood and responded to the world they experienced. We are interested in studying these voices.

If I were to recommend an attitude toward the course to you, it would be to try to learn about the communities that these people constructed, and the way in which their talk constructed these communities. Imagine yourself living in each community on an ordinary or a special day in their time and place. Hear what is being said and who is saying it. When you can generate the oral discourse which would allow you to be a part of that community, you will have mastered the material.

There are three major perspectives that we will comingle as we work with American public discourse. First, we will study the character of public discussion in each community. Who does the community recognize as legitimate speakers, granted authority to influence them? What was the audience these speakers would seek to influence and what was that audience's role in the community? How did the discourse construct public space, the places where the community would come to understand and decide on action? What parts of civic life were the subjects of public discourse?

Second, we will study the discourse forms with which a community shapes institutions. What was the typical language used to frame the experience of each community? What metaphors, figures, and motivations shaped the community's reaction to the experience? How do these rhetorical characteristics meld into the institutions of the society?

Finally, we will study the great speakers and speeches of American history. You will read some of the most famous speeches of American history. We will discuss them.

A final word on the contradiction hidden in the three perspectives above. For decades history in this country was dominated by an elitist perspective that saw the sweep of history as controlled by great men. The History of Public Address was no different. Lately, the prominence of social history – a concern with how ordinary people accomplished their lives – has increased. We hope to make this move, but one of the problems in doing so in public address is that our documents tend to privilege the speeches of elites. Thus, we will be studying the third perspective as merely an element within the context of the first and second. Since you will naturally remember the speeches most as you learn and study, you will need to work harder to project these great speakers into an image of the community which gave rise to their voice.

Who is the course for?

Some courses in speech communication are heavily laced with pragmatic advice on the invention of messages. "What can I do with this stuff I am learning?" is easily answered. If that is what you are looking for, you are in the wrong course. Drop immediately and find another course that will better meet your needs. I will even help you look.

But if you find history fascinating or love to hear the various ways which people in your world talk differently about the events of their lives, you are definitely in the right place. This course is in the tradition of the humanities -- particularly history as a humanity. My objective is to give you a sense for other times and places -- a sense for communication in the lives of Americans of earlier times and places.

There is a practical angle here, however. From an undergraduate organization to a concern about an unpopular war, the modes of effective participation in democracy are a constant problem for today’s citizens. Often there is frustration with our current arrangements for democratic participation. This course is about how earlier communities of Americans met this problem. It provides some clues about how we might approach public problems today. If you are interested in such a quest, this course will be very practical.

So this course is for someone who is curious about other places and times, who marvels at the power of language to define our lives, who wishes to understand the potential of the human speaker in public life.

What knowledge should you have before you come into this course?

Some knowledge of American history will aid you. You may have acquired that knowledge in a history course or through some other method including your own reading. This is not a course in history but in the place of orality in American history. Your understanding of the material will be fuller if you have an understanding of the context.

Some understanding of how people use language to accomplish objectives by working with others will also give you a step up. If you do not understand this power, you probably will by the end of the course. If you do understand it, you may get into the swing of the course earlier. There are a number of courses in speech that should have introduced you to that idea including COMM 401.

In addition, the course will be easier for those who have had either COMM 401 or another course which teaches you something about the criticism of discourse. If you have not had COMM 401, drop by after class and talk to me a bit about other things you have had that may compensate.

What will the course be like?

The primary modes of instruction in this course will be lecture and discussion. There really is not a textbook in this course in the normal sense. Our major book has only short background essays and speeches. The other will study a particular speech in depth. In short, your reading and the lectures will not duplicate each other. The lectures will contain unique material for which you will be responsible. Most of the material you read will be speeches. Some of our class time will be spent in discussing and analyzing that discourse. Thus, the material of the course merges rather than duplicates. You will want the entire experience.

As we consider each community, we will work through two steps: (1) I will try to set the scene for you, describing the speech community that gave rise to the discourse we will be studying. (2) We will discuss the discourse in class to learn its characteristics. I expect you to prepare for the discussions by taking the material from (1) and apply it to (2) to aid your discussion. In addition, for one of the units you will research beyond the normal class reading to contribute to the discussion.

Learning Resources

  • Ronald F. Reid and James F. Klumpp, eds. American Rhetorical Discourse. 3rd ed. Long Branch IL: Waveland Press, 2005. ISBN: 1577663675
  • Gary Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992. ISBN: 0671867423

Reid & Klumpp will be our primary book. You should generally bring this to class every day whether you anticipate our using it or not.


Additional material for the course will be placed on the website. The website will also include outlines of lectures. You will not need to consult the website everyday, but we will want to consult it regularly.

The Importance of Participation

Participation in this course, and therefore attendance, are important. Let me convince you of this with multiple approaches.

Let me start by appealing to your intelligence. Attendance is more important in this class than some others because of three facts. First, material on the exams will not all come from the readings. You are responsible for material from lecture. Second, exams require understanding beyond information, and notes only record information. Although some portion of the exams will test your mastery of information, a large portion of the exam will go beyond information to require that you have mastered the feel for a time and a place and to generate discourse that might have been heard in that community. To do this, you must acquire an ear and a voice of a historical moment. Written notes cannot capture nor communicate that. Third, the class asks you to analyze discourse. The only way to master that process is to articulate your analysis and the class will provide you that opportunity. You will need to aggressively take advantage of it.

If you cannot be reached by intelligent reasoning on the need for attending and participating, let me address you more frankly. There is a culture at Maryland that values non-attendance based on: "I paid for it, so I can go or not, as I choose." This is dumb "consumerism." If you insist on a business metaphor for your education, the following variation governs: you have not paid for my performance; you have instead entered into a contract with me that says I will teach you about the oral tradition in American communities if you will seek to learn. Part of your obligation in that contract is to attend. Of course, you may opt not to enter such a contract. You do so, by dropping this course today.

Finally, there is the blunt side of this trauma that "consumerists" choose to ignore: the old saw if you fail to attend you will be punished with a lower grade is true in this course. Over many semesters students have told me after the semester is too far along for them to recover they realize that this course is not the kind that merely requires mastering information. Statistically, they are correct. I calculated some statistics over several semesters of this course. During those semesters, the correlation between number of absences and grade is .80.  Laid out more minutely:

  • Students with < 3 absences getting A or B 72%; with >10 absences 12%. Thus, your chances of getting an A or B are 6 times as great with < 3 absences as with > 10.
  • Students with < 3 absences getting D or F 0%; with > 10 absences 38%. Students with < 3 absences have practically no chance of getting a D or F. Miss > 10 times, over one-third get C or D.
  • Average absences for A students 3.25; for B students 4.0; for C students 6.94; for D students 10.67. Number of absences predicts your grade in the course better than any other factor. 

Remember, you are not graded on attendance, but attendance does effect what you learn and therefore your grade for the course.

So, if you are in the "attendance optional" school of studenting, drop this course for another.

I will be taking attendance. My major purpose in doing so is to collect data that along with test responses help me identify problems mastering the class. I need no excuses when you are not in class. Even if you have the best excuse for missing class, you are going to miss the same material as students who simply skip. So, no need to explain your absence except for days when assignments are due, pop quizzes or exams given.

Of course, I spoke of participation, not just attendance. Being involved in the class, asking questions, and trying out your ideas is what participation in the class is about. You will master those aspects of the course that go beyond the acquisition of information with participation.

If I sound like your attendance is important to me, it is. I will put a great deal of effort into teaching this class and expect your effort in return. Other instructors may not care as much and may have developed methods of teaching that do not depend on attendance. Find those instructors if they fit your lifestyle better than mine.

What are the keys to success in this course?

You will learn the material a number of ways. Following are the keys:

  • Attend class. People who do not, do not do well.

  • Be prepared for class. Do not just read the speeches for class discussion, study them.

  • Contribute to class discussion. Exams do not just demand recall they demand that you produce discourse. You practice that in class.

  • Use the study aids on the website