Thursday, March 27, 2008

I believe ...

NPR has (or had, it may have been discontinued) a segment called "I believe." It features essays by various people, famous and not so famous, on a core belief they have. If I were to do one, it would believe, "I believe in story."

Story is especially important to public speaking. "Your ability to communicate is in direct proportion to your ability to tell a story." My freshman speech teach, Steve Euler, told us that, and it has stuck with me for over 30 years. Never forget the power of story, I tell my freshman (in an homage to fromage, it is reminiscent of the power of cheese commercial).

That being said, stories must be relevant; well told, that is, sufficiently detailed to engage the audience but not so detailed it takes so long and takes over the speech, and told with energy and timing; and placed correctly. Not all stories are public speaking appropriate. They must be practiced and their effectiveness not taken for granted. They must be based around incidents not so foreign to the audience that they can't relate to them. They must be plausible; for me that means public speaking appropriate stories must be true, and if not, the audience should be informed of their fictiveness. The best are personal ones, if possible, but there, too, certain principles apply. Humility and credibility demand a balance between narrating one's accomplishments and one's failures.

Stories can be in the beginning, middle, and end. A story can be cut in two and used for the introduction and conclusion. Story is not just a string of happenings. Stories have people, plot, and a point. Stories must be about people we can possibly care about, even if we don't (we still have a choice, don't we?). They must be about believeable happenings. And the point must not be stretched; in fact, the point should be clear without being stated.

I believe in story for its own sake, of course. Nothing is as wonderful a find as a new fable, parable, tale, or anecdote, especially of foreign origin that reveals a different way to responding, experiencing reality, or seeing nature. Story does not have to be didactic; in fact, that's where you lose an audience. "The moral of the story" is as deadly as "in conclusion."

Friday, March 21, 2008

Real Purpose

What do I do for a living? In the tradition of St. Augustine, John Adams, and some great thinkers, I teach rhetoric, better known and dumbed down as public speaking. And this week I started a new, elective, one-hour class in 20th century American political rhetoric. I'm enjoying it, but as with any new course, it's a lot of work.

Since I named this blog partsofspeaking and since I teach public speaking for a living, it seems that I should have blog entries about public speaking. I surely do have a lot of wisdom on it, after 30 years of teaching.

Of course, the first thing people think of with public speaking is fear. I hesitate to say that I am often not all that empathetic or understanding about my students' fears. These young people have been told they are the center of the universe since they were babies--what terrifies them so about public speaking if they supposedly have great self-esteem? (Of course, self-esteem doesn't come from being told one is the center of the universe when all reality tells one differently!) And to my older students I want to say, "You've been through a whole lot worse than a speech." But that's cynical. I know what the source is: fear of failure and fear of rejection. Fear is irrational, so my sardonic feelings have no value. People fear public speaking, and this isn't about to change.

So what's the solution? Just do it, as the Nike ads say. Any0ne who seriously wants to get over his/her fear of public speaking, as opposed to whining about it, should take every opportunity to get in front of an audience possible. Of course, do the fearful really want to get over it, or just avoid public speaking no matter how much it cripples their lives, stifles their careers, and hampers their civic involvement? Like almost everything, it becomes a matter of will.

I used to be an introvert. I am an extrovert now, due to public speaking training. To let oneself be limited by an habitual fear is sad and foolish. Life is too short and the problems of our world too severe for us to be worried about what people might think.

I do know this: there is no such thing as perfect in public speaking. Therefore, if your fear is that your presentation will be less than perfect, it's guaranteed it will be, so that becomes a nonissue.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Systematic Theology

Since 1976 I have been aware of and sometimes embroiled in the typical controversy of Calvinism/Arminianism (as if a Christian had to be one or the other), also known as the sovereignty of God vs. free will of man controversy (and who would win in that debate?) Why do people who hold to election say that they are Calvinists, when they have never read the Institutes and probably would have been imprisoned or executed in Calvin's Geneva?

I think it's silly for us to be using these terms and discussing doctrines as if (1) we had really studied them, (2) just because it was a theologian's position in the 16th century doesn't make it the end-all and be-all, and (3) we had to be so dichotomous about such positions. As I have noted in my former comments about conversativism, one should not have to lockstep. Critical thinking means nuance is necessary. I don't believe the Bible teaches Calvinsim nor do I believe that the Bible teaches against the foreknowledge and election of God or the total inability of men and women to initiate a relationship with God.

Baptists forget they were reformed at one point and closer to Calvinism than not, and I will always fall on the side of grace in any argument. But 450 years is long enough to be beholden to a Frenchman! A man can be brilliant and still be wrong, can contribute great ideas and yet not see the total picture. I think we would do better to approach the Bible with eyes not tainted by preconceived theologies.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Memorial Stones

The Old Testament tells many stories of "called characters" (I'm not sure saints is the proper word for some of these folks) who set up stones as memorials. It's a wonderful concept. Our assistant pastor challenged us with this idea Wednesday night. The existence of a physical time and place with memories of how God touched us, shook us, got our attention, hugged us, or woke us up. Of course, being humans, we tend to either miss the point or get the point and miss the LORD. We start to worship the experience, or the stone, or our feelings about it, instead of the God who made the stones possible.

1993 was a horrible year for me. My hours and pay were cut dramatically, my husband was unemployed, we had no health insurance, my son "came down" with seizure disorder, we were living in a bad neighborhood, and my brother-in-law got out of rehab and came to live with us. After it was over, I started having post-traumatic stress and had some health problems. But we got through it, and now all of those "problems" are gone, in a sense. Immediately after my response was, "Wow, I'm a strong person." Wrong. It took me a while to get the real lesson--we only got through all that through grace. 1993 is my memorial stone, even though it's a time rather than a place.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Latest happenings

What's been going on in my life?
1. I had my first colonoscopy two days ago and thankfully will not need to again for ten years.
2. I had the flu and a cold for two weeks.
3. I went to two academic conferences in two weeks.
4. LOST. It’s been five good episodes. These writers know how to yank our chains. I’m hooked and will stay with it to the last show. And oh, no, I found out we can watch it online now! That’s too tempting. However, I have nothing intelligent to say about the shows, no theories, no character analysis.
5. I haven't seen my son in eight weeks, but we are going to see him tomorrow.
6. I have been extraordinarily busy at work, putting in 50 hours plus a week, even when sick, and my head is spinning just to think about it. No wonder I'm tired. I haven't spent any time on creative writing.
7. Speaking of tired, now that it's down to Obama and Clinton and McCain, I'm having a hard time keeping interested. If Obama is elected, America will wake up a month after the inauguration with a hangover. The conservatives are saying his followers are cultlike, and the liberal pundits are saying conservatives are the same about Reagan. But there's a difference. Reagan first of all had been a governor of California for eight years, and had spent several years building a base of supporters. Obama has been in the Senate for three years and been running for President the whole time; he gave a speech in 2004 at the convention that put him in the spotlight and people are jumping on a train for heaven knows what reason. Not that he isn't attractive and charismatic, but I fear Obama is going to show himself to be more and more arrogant until he's unbearable. His policies and character are more a concern for me than the rumors about Farrakhan (although those are odd, too). However, I believe in the American constitution enough to believe if Bill Clinton didn't ruin this country, Obama can't either. And, of yes, there's that matter of the sovereignty of God, too.

Theological Conundrums

One of the oldest and most divisive debates in the history of Christian theology (and probably of others) is that over the free will of man and the sovereignty of God. Greater minds than mine have tussled with the tension between these two clearly Biblical teachings, trying to reconcile them or at least keep them in balance. And usually we fail. I know I have. In 1976 I was introduced to reformation theology and it made sense to me, has made sense, for 32 years. To talk about the sovereignty of God is a redundancy. To be God He must be sovereignty. But in practical terms, I think we can take it too far.

This post comes out of studying Jacob. This cheater figured, I suppose (it’s really foolish to project our motivations on these Old Testament characters) that if his mother had been given a prophecy that the younger son would rule the older, then, shoot, why not make sure it happen? Why not hasten it? Does it matter if I am a cheater and a louse if ultimately God’s will happens anyway? Jacob had no trouble justifying his means by God’s ends. God therefore used Jacob’s sin to advance his kingdom, in such thinking. I have actually heard people who should know better say, “God used the Holocaust to bring Jews back to the Holy Land and make Israel a nation, etc. etc.” Outside of the historical inaccuracy of that (there were already Jews there, and more Jews live in the U.S. than in Israel), the theological significance is heresy.

God does not use our sin to accomplish a purpose. He is not Machiavellian. He redeems us. He cleans up our mess, so to speak, but not in such a way that we are free of consequences. A lot of us would like to be free of consequences, but it doesn’t work that way. The mystery and miracle of the sovereignty of God is that His grace does bring good out of our sin, but not as an instrument. Otherwise, we might as well conclude that God made us sin.

God’s goodness is part of His sovereignty, just as his holiness is part of His love. Our words and finite minds can only go so far in describing God, but I know this: that we sometimes must walk a fine line with how we talk about His working in the Bible and our lives. We are far too glib, assigning God motives and methods that dishonor Him and frankly should embarrass ourselves. We speak like children, not adults, in our understanding of God.

Text of my presentation at Southern States Communication Conference on Open Educational Resources

On April 8 I spoke at SSCA on the subject of Open Educational Resources.  Here is the text of my remarks. The University System of Geo...