History of Speech Communication Research Paper

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I. Introduction

II. Evolution of the Speech Discipline

III. Rhetorical Studies

IV. From Speech to Communication

V. International Links

I. Introduction

The field of speech emerged out of changing teaching practices in US higher education in the early twentieth century. Between 1880 and 1920, many of the academic fields in the US formed associations and university departments. University education, with the rise of the research university and the land-grant schools, was becoming accessible to a larger and more diverse group of Americans. Higher education was outstripping its traditional function of reproducing an elite class, qualifying them only for the “gentle professions” of the clergyman, the lawyer, and the politician. Speech instruction had traditionally been integrated into the general, liberal education of the private colleges, with students writing and speaking as part of the study of classics and philosophy. But as the nineteenth century came to a close, speech instruction, focused mainly on delivery, became a separate course in the curriculum. Speaking as a performance art, that of the “platform entertainer,” had become lucrative and popular, and college instruction reflected that reality.

The resulting pedagogy, called elocutionism, focused almost exclusively on delivery and performance aspects of speaking, and was perhaps more closely related to theatre than to public address. Elocutionism harmonized with a middle-class culture of oral and musical performance, but remained in tension with the civic traditions of public address. In 1890, the National Speech Arts Association (NSAA) was founded, with the intention of bringing together both private and university elocution teachers under the term “speech,” allowing them to include diverse activities involving the voice.

II. Evolution of the Speech Discipline

In the universities, speech instruction was evolving from traditional patterns. A precursor to the field of speech was “oral English,” which included courses (or sometimes parts of courses) that focused on students reading out loud or interpreting essays, stories, or poetry that had been written; speaking was understood as a complement to writing instruction. This resulted in a kind of second-class status for those who taught speaking; they were paid less than others and typically were not eligible for promotion. Oral English was short-lived, as most of the people who taught these courses moved to speech departments when they were formed. The relationship between speech teachers and English departments was generally unstable, although there were attempts at professional cohesion.

In 1910, the Eastern Public Speaking Conference (called until 1914 by the unwieldy name “The Public Speaking Conference of the New England and North Atlantic States”) became the primary organization for college teachers of speech. Paul Pearson officially called the first meeting at his institution, Swarthmore College. The idea of a conference of public speaking teachers in particular came from James Winans of Dartmouth College, later a renowned teacher at Cornell University; Winans was concerned about differences between NSAA teachers and the emerging group of speaking teachers and debate coaches. The journal of the conference was the Public Speaking Review, a curious mix of teaching tips, professional news, and reports from the conference. Yet speaking instruction was flowering all across the country, and at the national level, speaking teachers met as a section of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), an organization which supplemented the research-oriented Modern Language Association by being focused on teaching and including secondary school teachers.

The meetings became increasingly uncomfortable, as the tensions between speech teachers and their English colleagues increased. At the 1914 meeting of the public speaking section of the NCTE in Chicago, Illinois, James O’Neill of the University of Wisconsin suggested a post-convention meeting of the speech teachers, and at this meeting they decided to create a new association, the National Association of Academic Teachers of Public Speaking (NAATPS), along with a journal, the Quarterly Journal of Public Speaking. O’Neill would be president for the first five years, with Howard Woodward of Western Reserve University in Cleveland as the treasurer. The first years of the NAATPS saw the widespread change in universities from departments of “oratory” and “elocution” to departments of speech; partly this was a change underway already, but the Association also encouraged members to form separate departments when they could.

The new field was more than public speaking. The most common pattern for speech departments, sometimes called the “Midwestern” or “Illinois” model (after Charles Woolbert’s design for the department there), included every activity that involved human speech. Courses included public speaking, debate, persuasion, physiology of the voice, diction and vocal expression, theatre, and interpretation (of literature), the new name for what had been called “reading.” The early field did not view these as separate areas simply thrown into a department (as had been the case with speech in English departments) but as a unified course of study, beginning with the voice mechanism and proceeding to the various uses of human speech. Sometimes the “psychology” of speech was included as a unifying perspective, while sometimes classical rhetoric was invoked to provide a common thread.

The curriculum also included some novel areas. Rhetoric became a standard part of the curriculum due to the many PhDs produced by the program at Cornell University; sometimes the focus was classical, sometimes on the emerging idea of “rhetorical criticism,” but most often on a study of British and American public address of the last two hundred years. Speech pathology, devised by Smiley Blanton (who had an MD from Johns Hopkins) at the University of Wisconsin, became a staple of the field until the 1960s and 1970s, and the early journal has a fair number of articles on lisping and stuttering. Consistent with the unified vision of the field, improvement of “speech” by addressing lisping or stuttering was of a piece with improving speech by “normalizing” a student’s accent, or improving his or her interpersonal skills. This last function was often glossed as “social hygiene” or “speech hygiene.” Teachers by the late 1920s assumed that civil society was organic, and that there was a normal, “healthy” function of individuals in social groups. Rather than a simple-minded conformity, they had in mind a kind of civic humanism inspired by John Dewey, where the democratic functioning of groups large and small required individuals who possessed the skills of both contributing their individual points of view and helping the group to function overall.

The NAATPS changed its name in 1920 to the National Association of Teachers of Speech (NATS), which conserved the pedagogic focus that defined the early field while accommodating the move to teaching the full range of courses involving speech. In 1947, the name was changed to the Speech Association of America, recognizing the growing research component of the field, demonstrated in the Quarterly Journal of Speech and Speech Monographs (now Communication Monographs), established in 1934. The Speech Teacher (now Communication Education) began in 1952 as a forum for teaching methods, and later published mainly social scientific work on communication pedagogy.

In the post-World War II era, the speech discipline began, slowly but steadily, to lose the integrated structure that had characterized its early years, in several ways. First, and most obviously, the “Midwestern” model of the departments began to break up. As speech pathology (or “speech science” or “communication disorders”) became increasingly professionalized, it had less and less in common with speech departments. Their focus was on research in the physiology of speech and hearing and treatment of speech and hearing disorders, and on the production of accredited audiologists and speech pathologists for private practice and schools. Theatre, in many cases, had more in common with other performing arts such as music and dance, sharing the need for performance spaces and having their faculty evaluated for their artistic output rather than publications. In departments with mass media, radio, television, or film components, the level of student interest and the increasing scholarly and professional profile for media scholars and practitioners led in many cases to the formation of a separate department where there wasn’t already one.

But the loss of the integrated vision also happened on deeper levels, both methodological and epistemic. To an extent speech scholars in the 1930s and 1940s had seen themselves as answering empirical questions in different forms, sometimes about the historical context of speeches, sometimes about the causes of stuttering or the correlates of effective speaking. Increasingly, especially with the development of sophisticated experimental and statistical techniques, some speech scholars began to emulate researchers in psychology and sociology and adopt a more clearly social scientific approach to communication research. A rift between humanistic and social science research would continue to grow, and by the 1970s debates on the relative merits of each approach were common.

III. Rhetorical Studies

At the same time, humanistic scholars in communication increasingly identified themselves as “rhetoricians,” those who study rhetoric, a general theory of persuasion. With their discovery of Kenneth Burke’s writings in the early 1950s, they merged a classical tradition of rhetoric with symbolic interactionism, developing a general approach to the human use of symbols. Through the 1960s, they expanded their notion of public discourse beyond speeches by politicians to include pictorial and nonverbal rhetoric, protest rhetoric, and the rhetoric of social movements, while in the 1980s and 1990s, literary theory and cultural studies decisively influenced the course of rhetorical theory and criticism (Rhetoric, Nonverbal; Rhetoric and Social Protest).

Even though the term “rhetoric,” since the eighteenth century, had been a synonym for style instead of content, and in the early twentieth century was associated in the US with writing courses (the “freshman rhetoric”), a more dignified and intellectually satisfying account of rhetoric has been natural to (speech) communication departments. From Henry Hudson’s “The field of rhetoric” (1923) to Donald Bryant’s “Rhetoric: Its functions and its scope” (1953) and the proceedings of the Wingspread Conference in 1970 (Bitzer & Black 1971), scholars in this tradition sought to illuminate the social, cultural, and intellectual value in the study of persuasion.

The Wingspread conference, held in Racine, Wisconsin, was sponsored by the Speech Communication Association (as part of its National Developmental Project on Rhetoric) and organized by faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. An interdisciplinary group of scholars responded to the question “What is the essential outline of a conception of rhetoric useful in the second half of the twentieth century?” In a superb set of essays and responses, participants outlined an expanded notion of rhetoric, which went far beyond the public address tradition. In light of the political unrest of the time, contributors noted that a starting point must be the inadequacy of traditional conceptions of political discourse as a foundation for rhetorical theory and criticism. In the wake of the Wingspread proceedings, called The prospect of rhetoric (Bitzer & Black 1971), some common threads connect rhetorical scholarship. Rhetorical analyses are not empirical studies or theories about the effects of persuasion; these are left to social scientists, marketers, and mass communication researchers. Rhetorical theory and criticism must account for common speech as well as the speeches of politicians, lowbrow discourse as well as highbrow, science as well as popular culture. Rhetoric is never merely technical, never just a set of means to an end; rhetoric is always both style and substance, ornament and argument. The moral dimension of rhetoric cannot be separated from its technical aspects, and rhetoric is not only a conveyer of knowledge but is constitutive of knowledge.

IV. From Speech to Communication

On the social science side of the field, the quickly growing body of research on persuasion and influence in psychology and sociology stimulated parallel lines of research for speech communication scholars. Expanding on the Yale studies of persuasion, communication research in both speech and media departments began to take a variable-centered approach to studying interpersonal and public influence. In the mid-1940s a group of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, led by the social psychologist Kurt Lewin, began to study group interaction (“group dynamics”) reflexively, having group members simultaneously participate in and observe groups. These researchers established the National Training Laboratory (NTL) in Bethel, Maine, as a site for intensive summer studies of group process. As the NTL evolved, it began to move away from strictly group process and toward interpersonal communication more generally. This focus on personal relationships was actually somewhat novel. Speech scholars who attended the NTL summer sessions came away with not only a new framework for studying communication but a new ethic for communication. Some of them became part of what was sometimes called the human potential movement, an approach that sought to maximize the possibility of authentic and transparent communication. This approach represented an extension and transformation of social hygiene, and was typified by textbooks such as Virginia Satir’s Peoplemaking (1972). In addition, other contexts of communication became standard parts of speech pedagogy and research, including professional communication and organizational communication.

As more and diverse topics were included in the curriculum, the term “speech” began to seem restrictive, and the more general term “communication” seemed more appropriate, since it easily accommodated nonverbal, written, and mediated communication, as well as the perspective that focused on human relationships generally, rather than the parts of them conducted through speech. In 1968, a conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, was sponsored by the US Office of Education and the Speech Association of America, resulting in proceedings called Conceptual frontiers in speech-communication: Report of the New Orleans Conference on Research and Instructional Development (Kibler & Barker 1969). At this conference, the recommendation was made to change the name of the field to speech-communication, and this name, minus the hyphen, was adopted the next year, resulting in the Speech Communication Association (SCA).

The conference’s recommendations were made in recognition of the expanding understanding of the field, so that communication, a more general term that encompassed diverse channels, media, and modes of human interaction, was a more appropriate name for the field than speech, even though the conference adopted “spoken symbolic interaction” as the focus of study. The report acknowledged some old themes: the field as basically interdisciplinary, the importance of speech processes to democratic decision-making, the necessity of speech instruction for people to become functioning members of society. But these themes developed a new urgency due to the recognition of the plight of the underprivileged in society. This conference also marked the emergence of applied communication research, serving the needs of both society and (later) business.

Speech communication as a field of undergraduate instruction underwent explosive growth in the 1970s (Craig & Carlone 1998). Students wanted to study in the many “new” areas of communication: interpersonal, organizational, group, and others. In fact, the diversity began, gradually, to outgrow the bounds of the term “speech” and the term “communication,” as cultural studies and media studies became integrated into the field’s teaching and research. So, despite being shared by other departments, including media and speech pathology, “communication” seemed increasingly a better fit. Another name change, based on the results of a vote by the membership, created the current National Communication Association in 1997.

V. International Links

In most ways, the speech communication tradition was a peculiarly American one. While speech pathology, linguistics, classical rhetoric, and the social psychology of interpersonal relationships were studied in Europe and Asia, the configuration that brought them all together was found only in the US. Granting that oral communication instruction (in the elocutionist tradition) long survived in Europe, in Asia speech instruction was unknown until recently, and in neither case were there academic units devoted to the study of speech. Yet by the 1980s, US speech communication scholars were forging links with their European counterparts on several fronts.

In the late 1970s, conversation analysis, a qualitative methodology from sociology, made its way into communication departments, and with it contact and collaboration with an international group of conversation analysts. In 1985, a group of Dutch scholars, led by Rob Grootendorst and Frans van Eemeren (as well as the German scholar Norbert Gutenberg and, later, Canadian informal logicians such as Anthony Blair and Ralph Johnson), made contact with US scholars of argument, attending a biannual conference in Alta, Utah. In 1987, the US conference on argument was joined in the off year by a large, heavily international conference in Amsterdam, sponsored by the International Society for the Study of Argumentation (ISSA), and later by conferences of the Ontario Society for the Study of Argumentation (OSSA). Contacts with Finnish communication scholars resulted in an international conference in University of Jyvaskyla, Finland, in the summer of 2000. All of these conferences represented significant contact among scholars from many countries.

See also:


  1. Bitzer, L., & Black, E. (eds.) (1971). The prospect of rhetoric: Report of the National Developmental Project, sponsored by the Speech Communication Association. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  2. Bryant, D. C. (1953). Rhetoric: Its functions and its scope. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 39, 401–424.
  3. Cohen, H. (1994). The history of speech communication: The emergence of a discipline, 1914–1945. Annandale, VA: Speech Communication Association.
  4. Corbett, E. P. J. (1985). The Cornell school of rhetoric. Rhetoric Review, 4, 4–14.
  5. Craig, R. T., & Carlone, D. A. (1998). Growth and transformation of communication studies in U.S. higher education: Towards reinterpretation. Communication Education, 47(1), 67–81.
  6. Hudson, H. (1923). The field of rhetoric. Quarterly Journal of Speech Education, 9, 167–180.
  7. Hunt, E. L. (1958). Herbert A. Wichelns and the Cornell tradition of rhetoric as a humane study. In D. C. Bryant (ed.), The rhetorical idiom: Essays in rhetoric, oratory, language and drama. New York: Russell and Russell, pp. 1–4.
  8. Keith, W. M. (2007). Democracy as discussion: Civic education and the American forum movement. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
  9. Kibler, R. J., & Barker, L. L. (eds.) (1969). Conceptual frontiers in speech-communication: Report of the New Orleans Conference on Research and Instructional Development. New York: Speech Association of America.
  10. Murphy, J. J. (1989). Implications of the “renaissance of rhetoric” in English departments. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 74, 335–343.
  11. Oliver, R. T., & Bauer, M. G. (1959). Re-establishing the speech profession: The first fifty years. University Park, PA: Speech Association of the Eastern States.
  12. Philipsen, G. (1995). The invention of discussion. In J. Lehtonen (ed.), Critical perspectives on communication research and pedagogy. St. Ingbert: Rohrig Universitatsverlag, pp. 95–105.
  13. Satir, V. (1972). Peoplemaking. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books.
  14. Wallace, K. (ed.) (1953). The history of speech education in America: Background studies. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

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