Editor’s note: Dr. Laura Greenfield is the founding Director of the Transformative Speaking Program at Hampshire College, where she is a Faculty Associate of Communication and Education in the School of Critical Social Inquiry. I asked her to share with us about Hampshire College’s Transformative Speaking Program and their first “Conference on Communication Centers for Peace and Justice.”
I work at a really cool school—cool in the sense that the people are pretty great, but also cool in the sense that it does a remarkably good job at creating conditions for radical social change. Like any institution it still has a lot of work to do, but its unusual history has been a fruitful context in which to pursue my own radically-oriented work. Several years ago, inspired by my work with writing centers, I founded a speaking program as an experiment to push the boundaries of the discipline but also to speak back to writing center work in ways that will hopefully shake things up for the better. As a part of that work I created a new conference this past fall. I want to invite you to join us in the future—but first, a bit of context:
An Experimental College
Hampshire College is an unconventional small private liberal arts school in western Massachusetts. A group of visionaries from nearby Amherst College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst founded the school only four decades ago as a radical experiment in higher education. These leaders wanted to push the boundaries of their liberal education ideals otherwise limited by their existing institutional structures. This new school boldly instituted narrative evaluation in place of any letter grades, self-designed concentrations in place of any predetermined majors, large interdisciplinary schools in place of traditional single-subject academic departments, and pay equity and contracts in place of the tenure system, among other strategies. The school recently garnered national attention for happily getting kicked off the U.S. News and World Report’s rankings lists by refusing to accept standardized test scores in its admissions process. Seeking to be an explicitly anti-racist institution, Hampshire was the first in the U.S. to divest from South Africa during Apartheid and this past year officially agreed to change its policies to exclude investment in private prisons also in response to persistent demands by student activists.
In other words, Hampshire’s counter-cultural leanings, expressed commitments to social justice, and beat-of-one’s-own-drum ethos was not just my personal dream place to work/teach/learn but also the ideal place for a writing center enthusiast such as myself to try something different…
An Experimental Program
In fall 2013, an alumn and trustee gave a gift to the college to fund a series of public speaking workshops for students in response to the observed disconnect between the students’ extraordinary ideas and their less-extraordinary oral communication skills. After leading a series of such workshops, I proposed a multi-year pilot plan for launching a sustainable speaking program. The proposal was met with enthusiasm, donors funded its launch, and my visiting faculty position was eventually converted to a regular position with the assumption that the program was here to stay.
Comparable to our writing center cousins, the Transformative Speaking Program (TSP) is home to a vibrant staff of undergraduate peer mentors who work with students in speaking-intensive courses and in a drop-in center in the library, in addition to hosting workshops and faculty pedagogy support across the disciplines. Unlike many writing centers that focus exclusively on student development, the TSP sees its work not only to make individual “better writers” (or in our context “better speakers”) but in fact to be transformative change-makers in the institution and beyond, particularly in resistance to systems of oppression including racism, sexism, imperialism, and so on. The scope of our mission is comprehensive and collective: to promote radical dialogue to change the world.
Accordingly, the transformative aim of our speaking program is enacted through a commitment to “critical pedagogy,” which is a philosophy and practice of teaching that works from the premise that education is never “neutral,” that injustice is never “natural,” that oppressive systems can be changed, and that students (and faculty and staff) can be change agents. The program believes in the change-potential of powerful speaking as well as radical listening, responding, and acting. This means doing the challenging work not only of helping students to find and use their voices but also of changing the curriculum, changing teaching practices, and changing institutional norms.
An Experimental Conference
On October 17, 2015 the Transformative Speaking Program hosted on the Hampshire campus the first “Conference on Communication Centers for Peace and Justice.” We designed this conference after traveling regularly with peer mentors to IWCA, NCPTW, and NEWCA, and coming to see that while the discussions of writing centers offered there were instructive and necessary for us, our speaking focus and explicitly radical lens did not have a clear disciplinary home. Creating our own conference was a way for us to build relationships with other speaking and writing centers across Massachusetts, to center speaking education in conversations where it is usually on the periphery, and to consider our work purposefully through a social justice framework.
Approximately 35 directors, faculty, and student mentors from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Harvard College, Bay Path University, Merrimack University, Westfield State University, and Hampshire College participated in the day-long gathering. The event started with (coffee and) a full-group opening session where Yaniris Fernandez, the Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs, offered a welcome on behalf of the college. Next, Hampshire students Anna Domings and Samara Rosen facilitated an ice-breaking activity inspired by the game Taboo.
Representatives from each school then briefly introduced themselves and talked about their
respective programs. The morning was brought to a close with a reflective writing and discussion activity intended to set the stage for the rest of the day. Questions explored included the following:
- What systems of violence and injustice do you feel passionate about eradicating?
- In what ways do you see conventional writing or speaking center work, despite our best intentions, implicitly or unintentionally reinforcing these systems?
- What is your vision for how your center/program might more purposefully be a catalyst for transformative change? What does it mean to do speaking/writing center work for peace and justice?
- What questions do you have? What are you hoping to learn today?
After a buffet lunch, participants broke out into three sets of concurrent group discussions facilitated primarily by students—no papers, no reading. Topics ranged from programmatic to pedagogical:
- Transformative Mission and Vision Statements
- Transformative Facilitation/Managing Difficult Discussion Dynamics
- Ethics and Standardized Language/Speech
- Connecting to Broader Social Justice Movements
- Sustainable Change versus “Band Aid” Activities
- Complicating Student Silence
- Microaggressions and Implicit Oppression through Speech
- Radical Listening
- Politics of Campus Partnerships
- Talking Back to Textbook Public Speaking
- Transformative Discomfort
- Mental Health and the Writing/Speaking Center
After the discussions, we offered a snack break of popcorn with sweet and salty mix-ins, which provided the final umph of energy into the closing session, where participants revisited the questions from the morning and looked to possibilities for the future.
We also discussed where to go from here as a conference. Participants provided overwhelmingly positive feedback about their experiences and expressed consensus about a desire to repeat the conference again next year, perhaps growing and rotating school hosts.
Margie Zohn, who runs Harvard College’s speaking initiative said “This was a unique opportunity to interrogate our assumptions and reinvision our practices around speaking, listening, and writing. I emerged with many ideas and enhanced energy. Thank you!”
Kathleen Shine Cain, the Writing Center Director at Merrimack College, said “The dialogue among faculty, directors, professional tutors, and students reflected the conference theme—hierarchies were challenged, positions of authority shifted continuously. This was a model learning community.”
An anonymous writing center director shared that “The Conference on Communication Centers for Peace and Justice allowed me and my students to engage in supported dialogue around issues of oppression and injustice while working together to enact change on our campuses.”
Putting on the event was certainly a collaborative effort. Thanks especially to Hampshire students Charlie Carey, Anna Domings, Bryan Li, Nat Gilsdorf, Ben Kiem, Samara Rosen, and Fangzhou Zhu who helped run the conference from start to finish. Thanks also to Merrimack students Myriam Philitas and Sandra Hovsepian and Westfield State student Paul Falcone who helped facilitate sessions.
Given the positive response, we plan to continue discussion about the possibilities of expanding this conference in future years. Come talk to us this spring at NEWCA or send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have ideas or would like to be involved!