Sabalis on Museum Education and Public Speaking

English PhD candidate Samantha Sabalis discusses her pedagogical tactic of using museum education to improve students' public speaking. Sabalis will discuss her findings at the College English Association Annual Conference in Denver in March.

Creating the Museum Experience: Using Museum Education to Teach Oral Presentation Skills in the Composition Classroom
By Samantha Sabalis

One of the biggest challenges I face in the Composition and Rhetoric classroom is teaching students to give the same level of attention to their oral presentations as they do to their written assignments. In the past, many student presentations have been disjointed, confusing, or monotonous, with presenters who were crippled by shyness or showed no evidence of practicing their material beforehand. I tackled these issues through a new final project: a series of readings and written assignments that culminated in an oral presentation on a work of art, given on-site at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In this project, I wanted to combine my experience as a teacher of Composition and Rhetoric at Fordham with my training in museum education, first as a docent at the Morgan Library and Museum and later as an intern at the Rubin Museum of Art. Focusing as much on engaging a diverse community of visitors as it does on teaching scholarly content, museum education offers many techniques for creating presentations that are both informative and engaging. Most notably, its focus on object-based learning can be easily adapted to teach students how to better integrate evidence and visual aids like Powerpoint into presentations. By using museum resources, I also wanted to expand my classroom to include the cultural landscape of New York City, drawing on Fordham’s motto that “New York is my campus.”

As well as training my students as apprentice museum educators who did not simply memorize their research but instead made it comprehensible and engaging to a diverse group of listeners, I also encouraged them use their experiences as audience members to prepare their presentations. On a class trip to hear a museum tour, students considered not only the content but the rhetoric of the tour, reflecting on how the docent increased their interest in the objects on display or how she confused or alienated them, and developing their own techniques based on their experiences.

In their final presentations, my students rose to the challenge of the new public setting, tailoring their material to suit their audiences and giving confident and fluent interpretations of objects that included an Yves St. Laurent jumpsuit, a Colt Revolver, a Chinese Buddhist mural, and an Etruscan chariot, alongside the more conventional Monet paintings and Classical sculptures. Though initially daunted by new space and by the prospect of strangers listening to them, they all thrived in the museum setting and said the additional listeners only increased their confidence.

In March, I will introduce fellow Composition teachers to my project at the College English Association Annual Conference in Denver. Through my description of my project and through students’ reflections on their experiences, I hope to show how incorporating museum education and using a museum as a class location can enliven and enrich students’ oral presentations, improving their skill and their confidence as presenters.