The Institute for Writing and Rhetoric is proud to announce that Professor Josh Compton has accepted a tenure-track position in Speech with the Institute.
Compton is a world-renowned scholar of inoculation theory—a form of rhetorical analysis that examines how audiences may be made resistant to arguments they encounter in the future, much as vaccines prevent a host from succumbing to a virus. As Compton's impressive list of publications demonstrates, inoculation theory is a powerful means of analyzing a variety of important discourses including those on public health, economics, education, politics and sports.
Institute director Professor Christiane Donahue speaks highly of Compton's scholarship and teaching. She writes that he is “moving forward national conversations about Dartmouth's unique, powerful dialogic model of teaching speech. His investment in Dartmouth students and willingness to share his work with colleagues are transformative.” Without question, Compton will be a core asset in the Institute's ongoing mission to create “writing and speech programs without peer.”
To re-introduce him to the College community, we've conducted a short interview with Professor Compton to discuss his views on speech, his teaching, and the future of his scholarship:
Q: I'm interested in your vision for Speech at Dartmouth. How will you work to transform the study of speech in your new position?
JC: It’s an exciting time for Speech at Dartmouth. Since 2008, when speech was brought back as part of the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric, we’ve nearly quadrupled our speech course offerings; grown our Speech faculty with new expertise in corporate and legal rhetoric; created speech and argumentation workshops for Dartmouth faculty, staff, and students; and led conversations about speech as a rigorous, academic study—particularly how we theorize public speaking as something more like dialogue than monologue; how we celebrate speech as an active, collaborative process between speakers and listeners.
I think that’s probably my most important goal, then, for my vision for Speech at Dartmouth: to sustain and grow our creative, thoughtful, innovative approaches to how we teach, theorize, study, and do speech. We have the benefit of a storied tradition of rhetoric, with roots in ancient studies—rhetoric is, after all, one of the original liberal arts—and in particular, Dartmouth’s historical commitment to teaching rhetoric. We graduated Daniel Webster and Theodore Geisel. We were the academic home of giants in the field of communication, including James Winans.
And it’s an ancient study with modern relevance, as we develop rhetorical flexibility to respond to changing situations, as we face challenges and opportunities to solve some of the world’s most important problems, whether in politics, business, healthcare, social justice, education—anything, anywhere, anytime, really. Our College’s mission statement compels us to prepare our students for “a lifetime of learning and responsible leadership,” and we can’t fully do that without attention to the fundamental processes of communication.
Q: What are you working on right now and what is the future of your scholarship and research?
JC: I have a number of projects in various stages right now, including some collaborations with colleagues here in the States and some with colleagues at the University of Western Australia in Perth. The research with my friends in Australia is exploring ways that inoculation theory can inform more effective health communication efforts, especially in the areas of nutrition and physical activity, and we’re particularly interested in how we can build adolescents’ perceptions of self-efficacy to prepare them to work through challenges and discouragements in maintaining healthier lifestyles.
I’m also studying whether—and if so, how—inoculation could inform strategic communication that promotes better understanding, and ultimately, prevention, of child car seat hyperthermia deaths. These accidents are tragic, heartbreaking, and often, very misunderstood. It’s not so much that parents and caregivers are forgetting their children in car seats, it’s that they’re misremembering, letting routine fill in the blanks of their memory, with deadly results. I think inoculation might be able to inform strategic messages that clear up some of the misunderstandings about these tragedies, and educate parents and caregivers in ways that we haven’t yet.
My work in public speaking has lately been centering on how the process of exploring counterarguments leads to better critical thinking, better rhetorical strategy, and better understanding of both speakers and audience members. I’m also looking at relationships between writing and speaking—how we often write in preparation to speak, and we often speak in preparation to write, and we write in preparation to write some more, and we speak in preparation to speak some more! My students and I have been working on weaving these processes together more carefully, so that we’re not writing a speech, then practicing saying it, but instead, using writing and speech together, one after another, back and forth, to use multiple modes of communication in a way that each informs the other—and each informs the speaker (and eventually, the listeners). If our goal is dialogic speech, then dialogue should play a more prominent role in our speechmaking.
And in a nice merging of many of my research lines: We’re about to start a project to see whether we can inoculate against negative effects of public speaking anxiety.
Q: What do you enjoy most about teaching? And about teaching at Dartmouth in particular?
JC: One of the things I’m realizing more and more is that I can’t talk about my research for very long without finding myself talking about my teaching, and vice versa. I have a really hard time drawing a line between the two. How I think as a researcher is how I think as a teacher—asking questions, trying to find some answers, scrutinizing those answers, rethinking my questions. All of this is an active, communicative process, with deep roots in active learning principles, and it really seems to capture what I love most about teaching.
Dartmouth students have been eager to join these conversations, to ask tough questions and offer thoughtful answers, to think and then rethink what it means for speech to be at its best. They don’t approach my speech class as an opportunity for simple skills training. They’re ready to dive into the rich nuances of the discipline, to study theory, to build conceptual models, to engage in reflective self-evaluation. They become active participants in their classmates’ speech successes, too, as helpful, thoughtful rhetorical critics. And this approach to speech—an approach based on dialogue, on theory, on academic study and active learning—goes well beyond the walls of my classroom. I’m reminded of this each time I hear from a Speech 20 alum—about their continued study and practice of speech in their careers, in their communities, in their studies, in their lives.
I’m really excited, too, about how Speech at Dartmouth fits into the larger initiatives across campus. Speech is an active, helpful partner in intradisciplinary efforts, in clusters of colleagues and students focused on some of the most important issues and opportunities. Speech is inherently a process of experiential learning—of making meaning through the practice(s) of communication and the value of reflecting on how theory informs practice. And not only that, but speech is often a part of experiential learning in other disciplines—whether the processes of discovery, the products created from the experiences, the learners’ reflections on what was learned and how. We make these discoveries through communication—through speaking and writing.
Q: Any concluding thoughts about Speech at Dartmouth?
JC: Speech at Dartmouth is more than public speaking—but even if it weren’t, it would still be worth teaching, learning, studying, theorizing, doing. Taught with innovative approaches and academic rigor; drawing on the larger discipline of Communication and specific research areas like attitude change, information processing, and affect; welcoming students who are curious, committed, and interested in deeper understandings of what it means to make meaning—in a course like this, with students like that, amazing things happen. Sure, my students become better speakers, but they also become better critical thinkers, better listeners, better rhetorical critics—eager to use their voices to change the world.