Although I have been assisting students with their oral communication skills for the past several years in my capacity as a Writing and (then, later) Communication Fellow at the Schwartz Institute, it is only recently that I have begun more directly engaging in the development of my own oral communication skills. Since February, I’ve been hosting a podcast called Topical Fever (the latest episode of which features our own Hillary Miller talking about her part in producing the web series AmericanMD), and the experience has already taught me many lessons about the relationship between thinking, speaking, and notions of “performance.”
Sitting in front of a microphone, alone in the small office of my apartment that I call “the studio,” with headphones blaring the sound of my own voice right back into my ears, in real time, produces a bizarre kind of self-consciousness. In the same way that students preparing to give oral presentations have the opportunity to view themselves rehearsing these presentations on digital video at the Schwartz Institute, the instant digital mirror that podcasting forces into view was, initially, a shocking experience. And this shock has been shared by many of my guests thus far, who have repeated the commonly expressed idea of “hating the sound of their own voice,” and, I’ll admit, I’ve felt that aural self-hatred my entire life. But producing and editing Topical Fever has forced me to listen to myself, talking, for hours on end. And after the initial horror, the more I’ve listened, the more I’ve noticed all sorts of things about the way I express myself, and have grown more and more comfortable with my voice and how I use it.
How can we help our students develop comfort and confidence with their own voices? One idea might be to create a framework through which students have frequent opportunities to speak in “low stakes” situations during class time. In recent semesters I’ve begun engaging this idea by doing much more group work, which allows me to walk around the class and talk to students in smaller groups (and, often, one-on-one). I find I’ve been able to have direct discussions about class material with far more students than I’ve reached in the past, and that these interactions allow the students a chance to practice talking without the formal pressure of speaking in front of the entire class. This informality also allows each student’s personality to emerge more comfortably, which is, for me, a critical component of the larger process of locating and developing a sense of confidence and authenticity. As I continue to work on my own “authentic” voice, I’m learning that, like a musical instrument, the voice is something that grows more powerful and resonant with constant practice. It makes sense, then, that as educators we should provide as many sites as possible for those student voices to be heard.