Skip to main content

Helping our students learn to speak persuasively

In a recent essay, I wrote about Grinnell’s mission statement. In response, David Feldman ’71 asked the following question: Not much to disagree with in the mission statement. One phrase stood out to me: how seriously, in practice, do we take the mission of ensuring that our graduates speak persuasively? That’s a good question, with a somewhat complex answer, so it’s probably worthy of an essay in response.

It is, of course, not possible to teach every skill in every class, and perhaps not even every major. For example, I would argue that quantitative literacy is essential for a student to speak or write persuasively and to understand the ideas of others. But I would not expect my colleagues in Religious Studies to devote significant effort to building those skills, since their primary goal is to help students understand the human condition through the lens of religion [1]. Similarly, while we in computer science do ask our students to write regularly, our focus is not on teaching writing [2]. Do I think all students should understand the human condition through multiple lenses? Certainly. Do I think all students should have some measure of quantitative and computational literacy? Definitely; after all, I’m a computer scientist. So how do we ensure that students develop all the skills they need?

Many institutions address this issue through general-education requirements. However, Grinnell’s individually advised curriculum carries no general-education requirements beyond Tutorial. Hence, even if we have a wide variety of courses in which we hone some set of student skills, there is no guarantee that students will take those courses. We hope that close advising helps students choose such courses, but we don’t guarantee it.

Ideally, we should be starting to help students develop speaking skills in Tutorial, and most of us do. In my own case, I expect students to participate actively in discussions, have them lead at least one discussion, and have them give at least one semi-public presentation. However, not all faculty feel the need to cover every skill in Tutorial; I have at least one distinguished former colleague who felt that if writing is the core of Tutorial, then he really had no time to teach anything but writing. And, of course, even if we start working on speaking skills in Tutorial, we need to build on those skills in other courses.

In my experience, most courses have some component that helps students develop their speaking skills, whether through discussion, class presentations, what I’d call Paper Chase lite recitation, and so on and so forth. We don’t always make such practice explicit, but we do make it part of the course. My students have certainly seen my version of Paper Chase lite recitation, in which I challenge students to build algorithmic arguments, calling on them somewhat randomly.

However, surveys of alumni [3], at least of a few years ago, suggest that we are less successful and building speaking skills than we would hope. If I recall correctly, in responding to questions about post-Grinnell competencies, Grinnell graduates rate their speaking abilities lowest. Now, I will admit that there can be some kinds of perspective bias [4]. After listening to the incredibly persuasive Grinnell faculty [5], how could any Grinnell graduate think that they, themselves, are persuasive? Of course, the same should apply to writing, so perhaps my argument is specious.

So what can we do to help improve student speaking skills? One thing that has been shown particularly helpful is to have them serve as peer educators. Evidence suggests that our peer educators build significant speaking skills, particularly as they run mentor sessions, but also as they work with students one-on-one. We’ve certainly worked to increase the number of peer educator positions on campus, and that will affect some number of students.

But you know what? I think part of what we need to do is to help students understand how and where they are developing their skills in speaking persuasively. Large numbers of Grinnell students take advantage of self governance, and part of self governance is knowing how to advocate for yourself, your peers, or a cause. Certainly, we empower students to take leadership roles that should require them to argue for their perspective. But I think our approach to self-gov also makes it harder for students to realize the skills that they are building. In particular, at most other institutions, student groups would have faculty advisors, part of whose role is to help students think about the what they learn from being in those groups. Since most of our major groups have, at best, informal faculty supervision, it’s not clear that students understand quite what they gain.

So, does Grinnell really teach students to speak persuasively, and even eloquently? I think it does, both in the classroom and in co-curricular activities. Do our alums realize what they’ve learned? It appears not. But, in the end, I think it’s an issue in which we have not ourselves persuaded students that they can be persuasive, which means that the institution [6] itself needs to learn how to be more persuasive [7].

[1] Yes, I realize that’s a simplistic view of Religious Studies, but i think it suffices for this essay.

[2] We do try to teach students how to write persuasive proofs and eloquent code. But I don’t think that’s what most people mean when the say speak and write persuasively and even eloquently.

[3] I think the surveys are called alumni engagement surveys. I’m not even sure if we still give them.

[4] For example, we’ve seen similar bias in NSSE, in which comparisons of Grinnell student responses to University of Iowa student responses would suggest that Grinnell faculty are much less available than Iowa faculty. I don’t think that’s really the case. It’s just that Grinnell students have much higher expectations of what availability means.

[5] Not me; people like John Stone and Erik Simpson.

[6] Whatever that means.

[7] Given the quality of administrative writings, other than the mission statement, we also need to work on our eloquence.

Version 1.0 of 2016-12-27.