The Public Speaking Initiative (PSI) at the University of California, Santa Barbara illustrates how faculty can join together to magnify the value of the humanities for developing crucial skills. PSI unites and strengthens efforts across various departments—including Communication, English, Feminist Studies, French and Italian, History, Spanish and Portuguese, Theater, and Writing—to teach undergraduates public speaking skills.
Jody Enders, a historian of theatre and rhetoric, launched PSI in 2006. “I’ve always been interested in what you can do with rhetoric—which is everything,” says Enders. She built the initiative around her perpetually packed public speaking course for 90 undergraduates, which collapses the distance between theory and practice. Students learn a wide variety of rhetorical strategies through Enders’ lectures that they practice in front of their peers in weekly subsections led by teaching assistants.
Aware that other humanities faculty were teaching public speaking skills, Enders created PSI to raise the visibility of their collective efforts on campus and strengthen them through mutual support. PSI faculty exchange ideas through regular meetings and a bi-annual conference on pedagogical strategies for fostering public speaking skills. “Administratively, it’s relatively simple,” says Enders. “You don’t need a building. All it takes is an umbrella to feature what your university is already doing”—and a website helps to elevate the profile of all the activity gathered under that umbrella. Enders recalls how easy it was, with a little help from Web Services Manager Eric Copsey, to create PSI’s impressive site, which announces PSI’s mission, courses, and events.
PSI’s website also demonstrates the initiative’s impact through powerful student testimonials that highlight the value of the humanities for cultivating crucial skills. “This class has molded me for the better with skills I will use for the rest of my life,” wrote one student. “Thank you for helping a young woman find her voice...with that comes great power.” In Enders’ course, humanities majors are consistently a small fraction of the class. Her humanities-centered approach to public speaking gives both her and these humanities students invaluable opportunities to demonstrate the practical value of the humanities to students in more strictly vocational programs.
Testimonials also demonstrate how PSI courses facilitate deep peer learning experiences through exposure to distinct perspectives on sensitive topics. “It was a place where I could learn from other [students] and be moved by their message,” wrote another student. “My fellow classmates have taught me so many new and different viewpoints.”
PSI challenges the mistaken “notion that anything vocational is a sell-out,” says Enders. In PSI courses, humanistic aims and vocational utility reinforce one another. “If you go out to the community and ask—‘who do you want to hire?’—they all say people who know how to communicate,” says Enders. “But this is pure humanities: the discipline of rhetoric is millennia old; it’s an amazing discipline.” Enders’ course also showcases the social value of humanities disciplines; she uses the analytical tools of the discipline to lay bare the incendiary nature of our contemporary public discourse and offer alternative models that other societies have used to wrestle with challenging issues. “One of the things I most aim to teach is civil discourse,” she says. “We sure need it!”
PSI’s visibility and clear professional and social value have increased appreciation for the instruction Enders and her colleagues provide throughout the university and beyond. For example, popular PSI courses have boosted enrollments in foreign language departments struggling to attract students. And Enders has been invited to present to various internal and external audiences, including the local Public Works Department of the City of Goleta. With a nimble structure and minimal overhead costs, PSI highlights crucial skills the humanities provide to both individual students and our society as a whole.