About the Course
Many commentators have identified Barack Obama as an effective and inspiring speaker. They have identified his speaking as one of Obama's primary assets as a political and cultural leader. We are going to test that thesis this semester. But we will go beyond mere test to ask: What defines effectiveness and inspiration in speaking?
When you enrolled, this course had two concepts built into its title: special topics and seminar. Why special topic? Well, the course differs from any other in the Department of Communication because it focuses on only one speaker. I hope that this focus will allow us to see the many dimensions of speaking that come together in any speaker. We can see Obama in many different situations and using many different strategies to appreciate a little more the possibilities and limitations of his speaking abilities and the many demands made on a leader who is a speaker.
Why seminar? The word denotes that much of the work of analyzing the subject matter of the course rests with the students. They are expected to generate hypotheses to understand the subject matter and the instructor is to provide guidance. Thus, a seminar is different than a lecture course. Many of the courses I teach are hybrids, part lecture and part discussion. My hope is that I will not lecture this semester. You will enter discussion freely and voluminously and we will work with your insights. I will try to provide you some readings to inform those insights, but I will depend a lot on you. A seminar of 35 is going to be very difficult to pull off. How often will you get to speak? But I hope you will aggressively offer your insights and we will worry about traffic jams as we go along.
A couple comments on attitude. In our polarized political world we sometimes take a Manichean view of our leaders: they are either good or bad. I hope your and my treatment of Obama will be more textured than that. This course is designed neither to praise nor condemn Obama's speaking. I hope that we will acknowledge his strengths when we find them, but will also offer commentary on his failures when we identify them. Try to leave your Manichean biases aside and free yourself to see strengths and weaknesses. Our goal should not be balance, however, but reasoned judgment. If the theses are right about Obama's abilities as a speaker, the overall weight will be positive in the course. But we want to be open to criticisms as well as praise, and be ready to defend judgments that each of us makes.
This attitude of openness should carry into our classroom discussion. Respect each other's judgments. Respect certainly means that we can and should challenge those judgments. So, don't take someone disagreeing with you as a sign of a position on Obama. When you forward a judgment frame it in the language that you are learning that allows you to talk about Obama's speaking as a practical art linked to cultural and political leadership.
There is a second danger we want to guard against. There is a tendency when we look intently at speaking to perform an autopsy. An autopsy is lifeless. The corpse has been carved up but all that is left is the memory of life, not the life itself. We must make certain as we apply our ways of understanding Obama's speaking that we do not lose what gives those speeches their quality that has inspired so many. Don't be afraid to be inspired. Sense your response and seek to explain it.
So, I hope you enjoy the semester looking at the speaking of a leader who has inspired many, and irritated many as well. What can we learn about him, about leadership, about rhetoric, through the study of his speeches.
I think there are actually two kinds of students for whom this will be an interesting course. One kind admires Obama and wants to understand more about the qualities of leadership that they see in him that leaves them inspired. I believe such faith in leadership can survive the process of more detailed understanding that I hope is the result of our study.
But the other type of student is the student of leadership and/or rhetoric who sees Obama as an interesting exemplar of one or the other or both. For them, this course is a case study in a speaker that can tell us much about how the many aspects of speaking come together in someone for whom speaking is the center of their profession.
Who is the course not for? Well, I will assume if you hate politics and you hate thinking about current events you would not be here. If I am wrong, drop fast. This course is about politics and current events and you will be immersed in them.
But I would also point to the method of the course. There are some habits of studenting that you should be comfortable with, or seek an alternative course. I defined seminar above. This course more than most requires your active participation in discussion. If you are more comfortable with soaking up knowledge as a sponge, this may not be the course for you. There will be less structure than you may be used to in courses. Remember! It is a seminar.
And, finally, as the section below on attendance indicates, if you have a hard time making it to class every time, you will have a very difficult time succeeding academically in this course. Look for another more attuned to your style of studenting.
What knowledge should you have before you come into this course?
Some knowledge of politics will also be useful. Most of the history we will be talking about here is within the last three years, so you have lived it. If you did so with awareness and interest, you should be fine in this regard. If you hate politics and ignore the news and current events, then, as I indicated above, drop. It is going to be drudgery.
As I have indicated, I hope this will be primarily a discussion course. You will be expected to do some preparation before each class meeting. This will involve reading and/or viewing material that will form the basis of our discussion. Before each class I will ask you to process what you have read or viewed into discussion points. Those will then serve as the basis of our in-class work.
I can go at this another direction that may help you get oriented. The semester will divide in two parts. In the first part we will look together at many of Obama's most important speeches. I will lead these discussions, but you are the discussants. These sessions should hone your skills as analysts of discourse. Then in the second part of the semester, seven groups will lead the class in looking at speeches they select from Obama's time as president. We will then end the semester by summarizing what we have discovered about Obama the speaker.
This course does not have a textbook in the traditional sense. You will have two kinds of materials. First, you will have some material that is about speakers, speaking, and rhetorical theory. The discussions during the application section of the course will sometimes require your reading articles posted on ELMS. These will provide some perspectives that we can apply to our subject: Obama's speaking. You should read these to formulate ideas for questions that we might ask about his speaking. These vary a great deal in sophistication. Some may be tough for you to read. But hopefully our discussion will help make them fully accessible.
The other artifacts we will work with are Obama speeches. Obviously you do not just read these for ideas. You view them as performances that you will study to make cogent comments about their quality and qualities. You will go over these several times, no doubt, and will formulate claims from your study. We have them all in video format as well as text. You will work with both. The only limitation we must overcome is that they are read out of the context of their delivery. Your task will be to put them back into that context.
I am not a great fan of ELMS. I have been using websites in my teaching for well over a decade, but ELMS seems to crash too often and some of its restrictions on the things one can do are silly. But it does have some advantages in terms of collaboration and ongoing communication. Since this course is about things happening every day I think we can take advantage of some of these as learning resources. For example, I have established a class blog (not to be confused with your journals). Here I will post some things that I see in papers and on line that I think are relevant to our learning. I hope you will do the same. When you make entries write a short (paragraph or two) text to put the piece into context for us. You may also comment on anything that you want to see if others are perceiving. This is our class blog. We will see if this is useful. I don't expect you to consult this every day or on an ongoing basis, but let's see how useful it is.