Christine Stuart, a communications professor at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), stood at the chalkboard and taught her students strategies for mingling at their forthcoming class party.
"Don't monopolize," she said cheerfully. "You need to get around the room." She listed the three easiest forms of conversation - cliches, facts and opinions - on the board and urged students to make index cards with opening lines for starting conversations: "Gee, this sangria is great, don't you think?" or "Sure is humid today."
Although one student let out a little snort when asked to think of every conversation as having an "intro," "body" and "conclusion," most of the class quietly wrote down everything on the board.
When Stuart asked a question, she got, at best, monosyllabic answers uttered at low pitch. The nervous tension in the room seemed tangible as students handed in their homework, a detailed list of their personal goals for the semester: talk to a stranger, go to professors' office hours, sound more confident on the phone, offer three opinions in class, greet an authority figure, learn to enter conversations.
"Sometimes I'm like, 'Wait, how old are we?'" said Elena Kashkan, a sophomore, after class. She had avoided seminars her first year, opting instead for large lectures where she would never have to speak. "I need to learn to care less about what other people think of me," she said. "It's not like I want to be that quiet girl in the corner."
Although the class, Speech Anxiety, sometimes resembles therapy, it serves a practical purpose: helping students graduate. Penn State's first "reticence course," taught in 1965, consisted of 16 students who were going to drop out rather than take the university's required speaking course. Today, there are three courses a semester with some 20 students each, and more than a dozen other institutions have adopted or designed similar programs.
Because speaking well is often crucial to getting a job - and to sounding educated - nearly half of American colleges and universities require a public speaking or communications course, according to the National Communication Association. Even universities without a requirement have put more emphasis on speaking in class, developing courses labeled "speaking intensive" in departments not associated with class participation.
A CRUCIAL SKILL
Speech Anxiety, which fulfills Penn State's requirement, allows undergraduates to ease their way into public speaking, first in groups, then in front of the professor and finally in front of the class; on rare occasions, students can bring friends to stand next to them for support. To be admitted to the course, students must demonstrate in an interview the extent of their reticence, defined as "chronic silence due to a fear of foolishness." If they waltz into the interview, hold out their hand, smile and introduce themselves, they're usually deemed not right for the course.
Some students are simply shy or experience stage fright; others are paralyzed in social situations. In extreme cases, an instructor might suggest a visit to university health services. Communications professors are not equipped to provide counseling, and they make an effort to avoid talking about their students' feelings. They don't try to identify the root of a student's anxiety. Instead, they focus almost exclusively on behavior.