COMM 461
Spring 2015


About the Course

What is the Course About?

People do many things with speech. They create intimate and working relationships with others. They teach and they learn various kinds of technical and personal knowledge. They entertain and annoy. Of all the things that people do with speech, perhaps the most important is public speaking: speaking that weaves personal experiences into texture of community. With voice people make the communities in which they live, and use them as a way to share and improve the experience of life with others. 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 public lives.

Action by a community requires public leadership. Frankly, in the twentieth century, under the influence of the mass media with its stark contrast between active speaker and passive listener, we came to think of leadership too directionally. Effective leaders do not do things to their communities, they do things for and through their communities. Those who lead communities use their voices to organize, to motivate, and to enhance the power of people to affect their public commitments. Our focus this semester is on the history of these voices in the United States in the twentieth century and how the leaders have empowered the communities they have led to achieve and advance.

We have two objectives in listening ever so carefully to these voices of leadership. First, we want to understand the moment in which these people led. They have a faith or a vision that they feel deeply should guide their community. Those in that community – you for instance – share that faith and vision. You (and they) can influence your own life only with the leadership that motivates others to join with you to make your community better – as you see better. Those we study need not be political leaders. Communities empower many who are not involved in politics. So we study these leaders at their moment of influence. What sorts of problems did they face? How did they use their voices to address those problems? What can we learn about providing leadership for a community through such moments?

Second, we want to understand the historical context of the twentieth century. Many of you will serve your communities in large or small moments of leadership. A large portion of the role of a leader is to connect the activities of the community with its history and traditions. Leaders help us see the relationship of our moment to our past. What makes us a community? What are we trying to accomplish together? How does our present fulfill our past and our vision of the future? Understanding the character of motivation and power in American communities will help you when your moments of leadership arrive.

Who is the course for?

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 also a practical angle here, however. Since ancient times, studying exemplars of effective speaking has been a recognized technique for learning to think through and perform in moments when speaking is demanded.

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?

Not a lot. 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. Unlike some other instructors you may have had, I will encourage you to use wikipedia occasionally. That is about the level of knowledge you need to have.

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 communication that should have introduced you to that idea including COMM 401. 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?

There will be two major activities that will dominate the class. First will be discussion of discourse. This will dominate. You will be responsible for this discussion, but I will lead. Since half of all exams will be on questions that employ the methods of these discussions, your participation in them is essential to your preparing for the exams.

The other major activity will be lectures to inform these discussions and guide you in framing them. The lectures are designed to stimulate your historical imagination about the speaking of particular times and particular leaders during the century. There is little coverage of this material in the readings. If you miss the class, you have missed the material. I will encourage your questions.

Readings and Other Learning Resources


  • Ronald F. Reid and James F. Klumpp, comps. American Rhetorical Discourse. 3rd ed. Prospect Heights IL: Waveland, 2005. ISBN: 1577663675

Several notes on the book. The speeches that you will encounter in the book (and internet) will take you longer to assimilate than mere reading. You will not read them like you do a textbook, there are no textbooks for this course. You will learn what you will from the classroom and from your own analysis. Nor will you read them like an information source, you are reading for much more than information. Rather, you will need to study these pieces of discourse to understand their moment in time. You will not be able to scan them at the last minute. You will need to read them many times through, take lots of margin notes, and contemplate the relationship of these speeches to their time. The speech abstract assignment should assist in achieving the reading required.


You may access the course website through ELMS or use the URL ( in any browser. Additional material for the course will be placed on the website. Some of your readings will be accessed there. The website will also include outlines of lectures. You will not need to consult the website every day, but you will want to consult it some time between classroom sessions. If you encounter the need for an ID and a password they are at the top of your written syllabus.

Advice from Previous Students of the Course

Each semester I ask students as part of evaluation (you will be asked too) to make recommendations to future students to help them prepare for the course. Following are some of the comments offered by former students in this or similar courses:

  • Really concentrate on looking into speeches and discourse and not just look at the surface.
  • As the semester proceeds, make connections while you are studying the speeches and in class discussion. Be intentional about this. Do not take it for granted.
  • This course makes you look at the big picture. I found myself rereading the packet material in order to make correlations. Take this course seriously, and do your readings and be prepared to re-read.
  • Read all material several times throughout the semester so you don't forget! Be prepared for all quizzes. Being in class is a must!
  • Read the speeches and take excellent notes. Ask questions because this professor is willing to answer them.
  • Read carefully and be an active participant in the discussions to learn the most from this class.
  • Read and come to class. Really think about the situation the speeches are addressing and they will be much easier, and more enjoyable to read.
  • This isn't a course where you can just memorize facts. You need to think.
  • Read the speeches at least twice. Use the questions provided at the beginning of the course for each speech. It gets easier over time.
  • Really read the text, 10 times if you have to! Understand it and bring questions for discussion.
  • Come to class. It is very helpful in understanding the material you read in more depth than you ever thought possible.
  • Come to class every day because what is discussed in class is always relevant and useful.
  • Go to class, take careful notes, and use the study notes on the website. They are so helpful!
  • In your abstracts, write a clear thesis. Then use the rest of the abstract to provide textual support for your argument relating the speech to concepts we've learned in class. Do not simply provide a summary of the content of the speech.
  • Apply what you learn in class to your abstracts! This is the key to getting a passign grade on them.