Fall 2008

About the Course

The Nature of the Course

Learning Objectives

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


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The Course

This course is in the tradition of public orality. The character of our culture is shaped by leaders, and particularly by dramatic moments of leadership. These are times when we quite simply expect leaders to speak to us. Writing will not do. When they do, we respond to them by transforming our society. We are moved by the artistic qualities and the compelling arguments presented to us. The ability of our leaders to respond to their situations with compelling speeches is one of the marks of their leadership. This course will study such leadership and such moments.

We also want to study such leadership in a particular way. A speaking moment is a combination of many factors. An important one is the biography of the speaker. Each of us has our viewpoints and our abilities developed in a long process, the results of which we bring to the speaking moment. But, to understand the ways in which speeches in such moments alter the trajectory of history, we must understand the history to which the speaker responds. So, we must place the speeches in history, both the long term sweep of history and the immediate situation to which the speech responds. Finally, we are interested in tracking what happens because of the speech.

Obviously we are selective. We will study only seven speeches this semester (I had planned to study eight, but that just made too tight a schedule). We will study them in depth.

Which brings us to our second major objective in the course: to help you understand how it is that scholars who seek to understand leadership study the power of speaking. You will be doing the scholar's work. This will be a research course. These speeches will come to you not by hearing about them from me, but by learning about them through your research. I will be your partner in this research along the way, but you will be learning the process of research as well as learning about speaking.
So, enjoy the semester. Let me know if there are ways that I can help you.

Learning Objectives

  • To understand how great leaders respond to the situations they confront in a way that moves others to join in their causes and efforts.

  • To learn how biography, the historical moment, and the power of discourse come together at key moments when speeches make a difference in society and culture.

  • To learn skills of research that deepen understanding of historical moments.

Who is the course for?

It seems to me that you need to love two things to make this course enjoyable for you. First, you need to love history or the place of speaking in history. You will be doing a lot of historical digging. If you don't find it really interesting, perhaps compelling, to find out how people of other times and places lived, then you will probably find the course more work than enjoyment.

Second, you need to love the process of learning by digging up answers to questions. If you primarily believe in a "pitcher" analogy for education – the instructor opens your brain each day and pours in the stuff – then you are not going to enjoy this course, because here you will learn by doing research yourself. The curiosity and the satisfaction of learning that it stimulates has to be important to you.

One other characteristic I should mention. You will be doing lots of work with research groups during the semester. So, you need to be comfortable working with others in a group and contributing through group work. If your schedule does not permit group meetings outside the designated class time or you just don't believe in shared work, the course probably is not going to work for you.

So, who is the course for? People with a curiosity about leadership, speaking, and history who think it would be kind of kool to dig around in historical documents and to work with other students to learn about leaders rising to their moment.

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

I suppose 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, however, but in the power of orality at moments in history. Your research will be marginally easier to get underway with some historical knowledge, but ultimately that will not be a great barrier.

Some understanding of how leaders use language to accomplish objectives will also give you a step up. You certainly will have acquired plenty of understanding of this process if you have had any one of a number of communication courses including 401, 453, 460, or 461. But here again, this is primarily an advantage early in the semester. Later in the semester, you will have acquired this through the course itself.

What will the course be like?

You can think of the course as divided into two parts. In the first four or five days we will learn how to approach research and discussion of the speeches through which leaders influence our society. Then we will repeat a set process for studying seven such speeches, basically in three day cycles.

You will spend a lot of time working in groups and with me to develop material to present to the class. I will give you some class time for this, but you will probably also need some time outside the classroom each week. You will have four presentations, generally spread evenly across the semester (approximately every three weeks) that will be developed by the groups. There will be eight groups and four will work on each speech.

We will use class time in a number of ways. Early in the semester, in those first four or five days, I will primarily be in charge. I will give you some pointers on doing your work.
Then we will move into studying the speeches. Each study will begin with a day for meeting with your research groups. You should use this class time to refine your research strategies on your specific assignment, and to finalize your plans for your presentation to the class. I will circulate among the groups, helping in any way I can to plan your research strategy and answering questions you may have about your presentation.

On the next day, we will have reports from each of the groups on their findings. Each group will have fifteen minutes to report to us. You will decide how best to do that, splitting up the task or having a single spokesperson for the group. These will help the half of the class not researching this particular speech on things they need to know to work with the speech the next class.

And then things will climax with a discussion which I will lead on each speech. We will draw upon your research to draw conclusions about the speeches that we study.

Learning Resources

  • Browne, Stephen Howard. Jefferson's Call for Nationhood: The First Inaugural. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2003. ISBN-13: 9781585442515.

  • White, Ronald C. Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. ISBN-13: 9780743299626.

The Importance of Participation

Obviously, attendance will be important in a course like this because so much depends on others in your groups. You should plan on attending.