Every fall I teach a course for new graduate students that has some boring name involving research and teaching, but I informally refer to the class as “How to be a graduate student”. We do many different things in the course, including required training on discrimination and sexual harassment, lab safety training, learning how to use LaTeX and BibTeX, preparing fellowship applications, practicing classroom delivery (presenting techniques from Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion), discussing research ethics and different academic cultures about co-authorship, TA rights and responsibilities, the role of the TA union, and so forth.
One of the more idiosyncratic exercises involves speaking loudly. Not yelling or screaming, but speaking loudly and clearly. I’ve posted about speaking loudly before, but I got a query by e-mail about exactly what I teach in the exercise, so I thought I’d go over it again.
I introduce the exercise with complaints about speakers who mumble at conferences and point out how ludicrous it is that many people seem to require microphones even in small rooms with good acoustics. I teach them how to work with a lapel microphone (not turning their heads relative to their shoulders, but keeping a constant distance from mouth to mic) and the various failure modes of electronically amplified speaking.
I then teach them about using the low pitch end of their vocal range (relaxed vocal cords), opening their mouths, and breathing deeply from the diaphragm. Facing the audience is also important, both for keeping the audience’s attention and for optimal sound transmission (it also benefits the lip-readers, if any). I also tell them about judging their volume by the reflected echos off the classroom walls (room-filling voice). This mini-lesson on voice projection would not be adequate for theater arts students, who have a professional interest in getting nuance conveyed at volume (I don’t talk about stage whispers, for example), but it is adequate for grad students who will be giving conference presentations and may end up as professors or giving industrial training talks.
Near the end of class, we go outside into the redwoods to practice, where there are no echoes, and they have to use a louder voice than they will ever need in classrooms or conference venues. I suggest that people do an extemporaneous or memorized spiel, rather than trying to read something, since reading results in a lot of students looking down, pausing unnaturally, and mumbling.
There is usually one student in the class with a strong voice, and I then challenge that student to a contest where we go further away from the class and see who can remain intelligible at the greatest distance. I have twice had students who were as loud or louder than me, both older students who had some previous training in projection (one had been an avid amateur actor for decades and had done classroom teaching).
I have not been entirely successful in getting students to speak clearly and loudly in all their later talks, but they are aware that it is important. We give them lots of opportunities for feedback on their presentation skills (including recording the lab rotation talks, so that the students can go over their presentations alone, with friends, or with their advisers to look for ways to improve the presentation). By the time they finish their grad training (giving at least 3 lab rotation talks, an advancement to candidacy talk, and a thesis defense) most have gotten pretty good at delivering research talks. Classroom skills tend to be less developed, as not all our PhD students have the opportunity to be TAs and even our TAs do not do much lecturing, usually running labs or moderating discussions in bio-ethics classes.