Free speech has its benefits, drawbacks

Editor’s note: This is a series of columns by John Malcolm on his “50 years at Fredonia.” Retired, he is a professor emeritus at Fredonia State.

I won’t characterize this as my last act since I do get asked from time to time to fill in. One event was the first “J Term.” This was a two-week session held during the time between terms. Happily it was public speaking. I can’t imagine teaching a lecture class for five hours a day for 10 sessions.

In this class I tried to do things a bit differently. Instead of assigning a text book costing $75 I went to the library and pulled all the speech texts we had and had the students select one. (I was a bit surprised that two of the students did not know how to check out a book from the library.)

Since it was intersession I had no problem scheduling different locations. For example the “lounge-reading room” on the top of the Reed Library Annex is a great place for a seminar. Of course I used the radio and TV studios but I was also able to use a newly-equipped distance learning laboratory in Thompson Hall. I labeled the course “Public Speaking in the 21st Century.”

One location caused me some difficulty. I reserved the private dining room that then existed in Cranston Hall and had the students purchase a two-week lunch meal ticket. (It was less than the text would have cost.)

One student felt that he was being taken advantage of and I was visited by a dean who interrupted class one morning. I hadn’t had a class visit from a dean since 1965. I explained to the dean that this was just one more location for the class. They were to get together in groups and make presentations in a typical luncheon setting. I guess that argument and 40 years experience and tenure convinced her.

The class had their final exam on the stage of the Opera House downtown. They had to invite two friends to make up an audience they didn’t know.

The students told me that they enjoyed the class but I didn’t pass out the evaluation forms. I don’t like forms that have no name attached. When I was chair I lost a very able faculty member because of one student’s negative comments.

I often use the argument that the U.S. Constitution guarantees that we be faced by our accusers. That was the topic of the final speech. It was ceremonial or what Aristotle would call “epideictic speaking,” “to praise or to blame.” The students were told that this was the purpose of what we would call a ceremonial speech and this was their chance to evaluate the course.

Some comments stung, but it was out in the open.

John Malcolm is a Fredonia resident.