New Writing Center speaking program in early stages

Speaking Associate Lindsay Dolan works with Erik Heaney in preparation for the new SPA program, which aims at aiding students in honing their public speaking skills. (Julia Carleton/The Phoenix)

Within the next couple of years, Swarthmore students will likely see the addition of another acronym to the school’s distinctive lexicon. Since 2008, the Writing Center has been working on developing the Speaking Associates, or SPA program. Currently in its pilot phase, the goal of this program will be to help students hone their skills in public speaking and in giving presentations.

The program is not currently advertising services but has worked with select courses during the past semesters in order to develop its future staff, structure and approach to working with students. Jill Gladstein, program director for the Writing Center, described the program as going though an “experimental process through which a core group of six WA’s are being trained and the structure of the program is being set up.”

While initial training sessions for SPAs taught the fundamentals of giving good presentations, later sessions saw the SPAs themselves shaping the directions the program will take. “The sessions that followed focused more on discussing our role as SPAs, and the strategies we could use in order to fulfill that role. Because the SPA program is a pilot program, Jill had us discuss these ideas so that we could figure out the greater purpose of the program,” Erik Heaney ’14 said.

Once implemented, this program will offer three kinds of services to students. During regular Writing Center hours, individual SPAs will give students advice on the process of planning their presentations.

Required meetings with SPAs will be also integrated into particular courses in which presentations and speaking play a prominent role. Hour-long practice sessions will also be available, involving two associates acting as a mock audience and providing feedback on rounds of practice presentations.

Specifically, SPAs will work with students on developing and improving the organization of their presentations. Students will be urged to structure their presentations according to the classic hamburger model, consisting of a well-developed introduction, middle and conclusion.

SPAs will help students improve aspects of their delivery, such as eye contact and body language, and aid them in creating effective visual aids, such as posters and slideshows. By providing a practice audience for students, the program seeks to provide a means by which students can gain greater confidence in public speaking.

The SPAs themselves have reacted positively to the effect that the program’s training has had on their own speaking abilities. “For me, speaking has always been a challenging skill that requires constant practice and attention. Speaking is hard. So I think that any help you can get with your ability to speak, the better. I am very glad to be able to offer this service,” Heaney said.

Senior and current Speaking Associates Coordinator Lindsay Dolan further elaborated on the significance of this program to the school’s pedagogical philosophy. “This program is part of a bigger process of critical self-examination that Swarthmore is currently going through. Swarthmore’s teaching philosophy does not focus on presentation as much as it does on writing. Thus, the Writing Center wants to help students recognize there is a process one must go through that is necessary for creating a good presentation, just as in writing a good paper,” Dolan said.

Dolan further noted that most of the classes she has taken at the college have not featured oral presentations or the teaching of effective oratorical and rhetorical skills as salient aspects of their curriculum. The only exception was a class she took at Haverford, entitled “International Relations Theory: Conflict and the Middle East” with Barak Mendelsohn. Dolan is an Honors Political Science major and Economics minor who will be pursuing her Ph.D. in Political Science next year.

Gladstein states that the response to the SPA program so far has been good on all fronts and that even in its limited pilot state, the program has a lot of potential. “It seems to be getting the necessary attention and the board of managers is interested” However, the program is not yet ready to open its doors and offer services to students; “We do not yet have the resources to take the program where it needs to go. We need a physical space for this to occur so that students can have a place to practice their presentations. We also need to train quality SPAs before the program can take off,” Gladstein said.

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