Off the Script — into the Heart
Students in Rafael Cervantes’ “Speaking to Lead and Influence” class are practiced and proficient. At their final class presentations, each student stands at the podium — script firmly in hand, shoulders back, diligently delivering a disciplined, well-researched talk. And yet, Cervantes still feels like he hasn’t totally succeeded in preparing them. What could he do better as a teacher? Was there something missing in the curriculum?
“I found myself trying to figure out how to get students off script,” says Cervantes. “I wanted them to truly speak authentically — that place where you’re the most powerful and effective.”
So his challenge was to help students learn how to get to that place.
Cervantes has been teaching public speaking for more than 12 years and “Speaking to Lead and Influence” at St. Kate’s for eight. The 2011 winner of the University’s Faculty Teaching and Advising Award, “Dr. C,” as he is affectionately known, is recognized across campus as a caring and engaging professor who puts students first. His students worked conscientiously all semester on every assignment and participated in lively discussions in class. He knew his students were fully engaged in the course, and yet, his doubts dogged him.
It wasn’t until Evening/Weekend/Online (EWO) student Bri Byram ’17 made her final presentation in the class that he had his eureka moment. Her topic was the visceral challenge of public speaking — the physical act of standing in front of an audience and communicating with an authentic voice. Her source material was “The Laugh of the Medusa,” a 1975 essay by Hélène Cixous, a French feminist writer, philosopher and literary critic. Byram describes Cixous’ essay as highlighting the importance of women’s writing as a vehicle for possibility and change.
So when Dr. C. proposed a collaborative research project, Byram jumped at the opportunity. The pair agreed that the current skills-based curriculum didn’t address the bigger systemic issues. They wanted students to be able to identify how social and cultural pressures impact women’s voices, and how to express themselves authentically in a supportive and safe environment.
Research on women, public speaking and gender inequality is found everywhere — from scholarly articles via Yale School of Management faculty (“Who Takes the Floor and Why: Gender, Power and Volubility in Organizations”) to a survey commissioned by Ripley’s Believe it Or Not (a London Daily Mail headline screamed, “Most women are more scared of public speaking than they are of dying!”). To revise the “Speaking to Lead and Influence” course so it would address students’ needs more closely, Byram and Cervantes split their project into two parts. First, literature reviews of women and public speaking and critical feminist pedagogy; then qualitative research interviews with EWO communication studies alumnae.
No small endeavor. The class is a requirement in the communications studies major at the University and it is an important elective for many other departments. Any curriculum revisions must be well-researched, present compelling evidence to support proposed changes, and be reviewed by faculty committees charged with maintaining the University’s academic excellence.
Their project got underway in 2013. During their literature review, Cervantes and Byram found a clear gap and an opportunity. “The sources we found all used a skills-based approach and didn’t account for the ways that patriarchy impacts the ways that women express themselves,” says Cervantes.
“Be more confident” was the recurring message Byram gleaned from the books and articles they collected. She wrestled to overcome her own insecurities during the early days of the collaboration.
“I was really intimidated by the scholarly idea of this work, and didn’t think I had a lot of credibility,” says Byram. A single mother, she came to St. Kate’s to finish a baccalaureate degree in elementary education. Her passion for the project and Cervantes’ mentorship transformed her. She is now pursuing a communication and women’s studies double major, and thinking about graduate school.
“The quality of this work has helped me engage, discuss and argue in a way I wouldn’t have done before,” she says. “I’ve become really passionate about education and the way it works — especially higher education, especially for women.”
Cervantes and Byram sought assistance from the University’s Alumnae Relations office to find alumnae to interview for their research. Getting subjects to participate was not an easy matter.
“Nearly all of the women initially dismissed the idea that they could make a contribution to the project,” says Byram.
Even when she reiterated that each was being contacted because they met the project criteria, it was difficult to get them to agree to an interview. However, once she got them talking about the barriers and obstacles they experienced when speaking publicly a set of themes emerged: the importance of women’s education, connection to and passion for the topic, embracing vulnerability, and self-awareness.
“Over and over again, women I interviewed commented on the value of the [‘Speaking to Lead and Influence’] class in terms of helping them recognize the inequity women experience and seeing public speaking as a way that can be addressed,” says Byram.
“As a teacher, I found the insights shared by former students so interesting and useful,” says Cervantes. “It was great to learn about them and find out where they were and what they were doing.”
“I never met a former student who didn’t say that he [Cervantes] had a profound impact on them,” says Byram.
During this year’s Summer Scholars program, Byram and Cervantes will complete the curriculum revision and co-write a scholarly article to submit to a national conference
and academic journals.
The fall 2015 “Speaking to Lead and Influence” class will feature Byram as Cervantes’s teaching assistant, funded by the Assistantship Mentoring Program. The course will include assigned readings, and incorporate reflections into the writing process as they draft speeches and presentations.
Their collaborative research project is a testament to the ongoing need and enduring relevance of women’s colleges such as St. Catherine University — women and student centered, based in the liberal arts and committed to producing ethical leaders who are unafraid to speak their truth.