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.