New York Times November 2007
CHRISTINE STUART, a communications professor at Pennsylvania State University, stood at the chalkboard and taught her students strategies for mingling at their forthcoming class party. “Don’t monopolize,” she said cheerfully. “You need to get around the room.” She listed the three easiest forms of conversation — clichés, facts and opinions — on the board and urged students to make index cards with opening lines for starting conversations: “Gee, this sangria is great, don’t you think?” or “Sure is humid today.”
Although one student let out a little snort when asked to think of every conversation as having an “intro,” “body” and “conclusion,” most of the class quietly wrote down everything scrawled on the board.
When Dr. Stuart asked a question, she got, at best, monosyllabic answers uttered at low pitch. The nervous tension in the room seemed tangible as students handed in their homework, a detailed list of their personal goals for the semester: talk to a stranger, go to professors’ office hours, sound more confident on the phone, offer three opinions in class, greet an authority figure, learn to enter conversations.
“Sometimes I’m like, ‘Wait, how old are we?’ ” said Elena Kashkan, a sophomore, after class. She had avoided seminars her first year, opting instead for large lectures where she would never have to speak. “I need to learn to care less about what other people think of me,” she said. “It’s not like I want to be that quiet girl in the corner.”
Although the class, “Speech Anxiety,” sometimes resembles therapy, it serves a practical purpose: helping students graduate. Penn State’s first “reticence course,” taught in 1965, consisted of 16 students who were going to drop out rather than take the university’s required speaking course. Today, there are three courses a semester with some 20 students each, and more than a dozen other institutions have adopted or designed similar programs.
Because speaking well is often crucial to getting a job — and to sounding educated — nearly half of American colleges and universities require a public speaking or communications course, according to the National Communication Association. Even universities without a requirement have put more emphasis on speaking in class, developing courses labeled “speaking intensive” in departments not associated with class participation.
“Speech Anxiety,” which fulfills Penn State’s requirement, allows undergraduates to ease their way into public speaking, first in groups, then in front of the professor, and finally in front of the class; on rare occasions, students can bring friends to stand next to them for support. To be admitted to the course, students must demonstrate in an interview the extent of their reticence, defined as “chronic silence due to a fear of foolishness.” If they waltz into the interview, hold out their hand, smile and introduce themselves, they’re usually deemed not right for the course.
Some students are simply shy or experience stagefright; others are paralyzed in social situations. In extreme cases, an instructor might suggest a visit to university health services. Communications professors aren’t equipped to provide counseling, and they make an effort to avoid talking about their students’ feelings. They don’t try to identify the root of a student’s anxiety. Instead, they focus almost exclusively on behavior.
“These are the quietest classes you’ll ever be in,” says Beau Bingham, an assistant lecturer at the University of Wyoming. The reticence course he teaches, which covers social conversations, group discussions and public speaking, began seven years ago because of concerns students would drop out. “There’s a whole population of students out there who go through their college career and don’t get their degree because they can’t bear to take public speaking,” he says. He lets people into the class based on their scores on the Personal Report of Communication Apprehension, a widely administered test that asks students to rate their identification with statements like “Ordinarily I am very tense and nervous in conversations” or “While giving a speech, I get so nervous I forget facts I really know.”
Some campuses hold speech labs to teach calming techniques, like deep breathing, positive visualization and systematic desensitization. In the last five years, more than 20 campuses, including Hamilton College, Randolph-Macon College and Arizona State University, have opened labs where students practice speaking and receive individualized feedback.
“I’ve had students stop speeches halfway through because they’re sobbing or vomiting,” says Meg McConnaughy, director of the Communication Assessment and Learning Lab at Arizona State University. “If you’re too scared to speak, you’re not going to get your ideas across, and that’s an absolute tragedy.”
Ms. McConnaughy and others in the field maintain that speaking anxiety can be as debilitating as any formally recognized learning disorder. According to research published in the academic journal Communication Quarterly, the average college G.P.A. of students with communication apprehension is a half-point lower than that of students without it.
“It’s a big disadvantage,” says Ashlie Boltinghouse, a junior at the University of Wyoming. “I’d be sitting in class and I’d think, ‘I have a question, but I’m not saying it in front of all these people, so I’m just going to have to figure it out by myself.’ I refused to go to office hours.”
She says she became more comfortable in Mr. Bingham’s class because the stakes were low and everyone was openly nervous; before speeches, students were encouraged to meditate, take a relaxing walk or smile for five seconds while holding their breath. Now she works as an assistant in Wyoming’s Oral Communication Lab, where she gives other students feedback on their speeches. She says she now freely talks in her classes.
While class participation isn’t the only goal, it is one tangible way to measure progress. In “Public Speaking Apprehension,” a course at Northern Kentucky University, Vicki Abney Ragsdale tells her students to bring their journals to other classes and mark down what happens when classmates give the wrong answers. “It’s quite stunning when they realize no one cares,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll say, ‘All right, how many of you remember what someone in this class said yesterday? How many of you spent time thinking about someone else here?’ That seems to be a big moment for them. You’ve got to realize, everybody is self-absorbed.”
In “Speaking Confidently,” a class for reticent students at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, classmates look one another in the eye before speeches and repeat scripted positive statements: “No one is perfect or fully competent in all aspects of life,” “They can’t feel my heart beat,” “I can be myself.”
Some experts question whether it’s really possible, or necessary, to ease the anxiety of highly apprehensive speakers. A new branch of thinking, called communibiology, argues that the problem is one of nature, not nurture. “For most people, there is no solution,” says James C. McCroskey, a professor at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. “Except maybe for gene replacement,” he adds with a laugh.
A leading scholar in the study of communication apprehension, he says forcing students to talk in public can be counterproductive. His research, he adds, shows that students nervous about speaking learn less if they anticipate having to communicate in class. Rather than paying attention, they fret about whether they’ll be called on and what they will say.
John A. Daly, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, teaches a 500-student lecture class on interpersonal communication. He says the benefits of talking in class are overstated. “There’s a theory in this culture that class participation is the way to learn, and I don’t know if I buy that completely,” he says. “Unless you can make a really strong argument that the ability to talk about the topic is vital to understanding, you’re doing this population of students a real disservice, causing them incredible discomfort.”
And yet, students clamor to get into the reticence courses — this year, Penn State had to close interviews two days early because all openings were filled — and many describe the class as a turning point in their time at college.
“It was much easier to learn to talk when I was in a big room of people who had my problem,” says Nathan Belanger, a junior at Penn State. He used to lose track of his thoughts, fall silent for periods of time and contemplate giving up and walking out of the classroom. He says his grades have improved.
“Not being able to voice my own opinions really hurt,” he says. “I never figured out what I’m so afraid of. I’m just relieved I found a way to get around whatever it is.”