HL90 DR: American Speeches

A returning favorite HL90 seminar! Drew Faust talks to us about what she learned from being the President of Harvard and how it impacted her class, “American Speeches.”

Tell us about your class!

American Speeches will explore speeches across the sweep of American history both as windows into their historical moment and as texts in and of themselves — in other words, as both history and literature. We will be asking how people across four centuries have sought to persuade others, so in many ways this is a course about an essential tool of leadership. 

What made you want to teach this class?

When I was contemplating my return to teaching after 11 years as university president, I thought about what I had learned in that role that might be shared in an undergraduate class.  I had spent a lot of time writing and delivering speeches, and I found that I often reflected on speeches I had encountered in my work as a historian and what had made them effective—or not.  I got excited thinking about how that might be captured in a course. I also knew that students in the College had expressed great interest in having more opportunities in the curriculum related to speaking—in addition to existing courses and requirements on writing, reasoning and calculating.  I imagined designing a course that reflected self-consciously on oral communication — not as a public speaking course but as a more general investigation of how speeches work.

You brought in guest speakers last year; any visitors planned for this year?

I am pleased that in the course of the semester our guests from last year will return to share their insights again: Mitch Landrieu, former New Orleans mayor, whose speech on Confederate monuments gained widespread national attention; Professor David Gergen of the Harvard Kennedy School, who served as a speechwriter for three presidents, and Diane Paulus, Tony Award winner and Artistic Director of Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre, who will help students develop and deliver their own speeches, the course’s final assignment.

What do you hope students will take away from this class?

I hope students will leave this course with a deeper understanding of the traditions of American oratory, with insight into how effective speaking works, and with new critical self-consciousness about the speeches they hear and the speeches they will almost certainly be delivering over the course of their lives.

For more information, see the syllabus on Canvas.

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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