The Spoken Word: Pomona's New Speaking Partners Help Students Hone Their Skills

Musa Kamara '22, wearing glasses, leading discussion with group of speaking partners

Writing is an almost universal element of a college education. Speaking is taught less often, particularly at large universities with packed auditorium classes.

At Pomona College, with its many small seminar-style classes, the art of discussion and speaking to groups is part of the experience. It’s also a crucial job skill, more so than ever in the era of Zoom and remote working.

In recognition of the importance of versatile communication skills, this year Pomona is launching the Center for Speaking, Writing and the Image after a three-year expansion of the Writing Center led by Director of College Writing Kara Wittman and supported by a $250,000 grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

A sneak peek at the new CSWIM will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. on April 29 in the Smith Campus Center during the Writing Center's open house, along with an open-mic session and the launch of essay, Pomona's student-led journal for first-year and transfer student writing.

Peer-to-Peer Mentoring

Modeled on Pomona’s paid student writing partners, the first speaking partners started training in 2019 and are in their third year working directly with students on oral presentations, participating in discussion-intensive classes, and more. A new group of image partners began training in visual literacy and visual culture in 2021.

“Some people that come in, they have trouble with anxiety, which is understandable and never goes away, but we do what we can to assist, maybe working on breathing techniques or different things that help with the actual act of speaking,” says Musa Kamara ’22, the head speaking partner this year.

“Some people come in because they have to lead a class discussion. They’re nervous about fielding questions. So we work on that or how to structure their class discussion. I think that’s the beautiful thing about it, is that everybody has different concerns. So we just do our best to help people with whatever they bring to us.”

Pipi Gao ’22, a math and media studies major, recently sought help to prepare for graduate school interviews. Others are getting ready for a job interview or a class presentation.

“Yes, we help with interviews,” Wittman says. “Yes, we help with public presentations. Yes, we help with traditional forms of oral performance and public speaking. We also help with leading class discussion. But the most important part to me is we’re also here because this is a speaking-intensive environment, a liberal arts college. Many classes have participation grades, but also a tacit assumption is that we learn by talking to each other on this campus and we want to support that dialogic learning.”

Transitioning to College

Such skills begin to develop almost as soon as new students arrive at Pomona through the first-year critical inquiry seminars known as ID1 classes that help students adapt to the culture of rigorous reading, writing, discussion and collaboration that is embedded at Pomona.

David Rodriguez ’23 remembers making an appointment with Jaime Gonzalez ’21 as a first-year student because his professor required a visit to a writing or speaking partner before a presentation his ID1 class.

“For me, I was like, oh my God, this is such a burden,” Rodriguez remembers. “I ended up going and I met Jaime. I chose him because he was another Latino student and I thought, all right, we have something else to talk about in case it gets awkward.”

The two hit it off so well that Rodriguez decided to become a writing and speaking partner himself, helping coach students through making presentations and leading discussions.

“I tell them, look for somebody who is nodding at you and stare at that person, because that can give you so much confidence when you look into a crowd of people,” Rodriguez says. “Sometimes you can even ask your friends to just look at you and nod at you or ask questions. You can also work through a passage on the screen that everybody can annotate together. So you're not really asking a question of a student that is going to be a right or wrong. It just gives students a chance to voice their opinions, and it makes the whole ambiance a little less risky to them.”

Discussion and writing don’t only apply to the humanities. Michelle Garcia ’22, a chemistry and computer science major, serves as the center’s head partner for science. She’s also a Goldwater Scholar, evidence she is well versed in explaining research and writing lab reports. There’s also more to computer science than writing code, and Cynthia Li ’22 is an attached partner for an introductory course in that field.

Extensive Training

All of the center’s partners begin their training by taking English 87, a course titled Writing: Theories/Processes/Practices. They move on to one of two paid, noncredit seminars that draw on the expertise of people around campus: Seminar on Oral Communication is offered in the fall, and Reading the Image in the spring.

While in training, the speaking partners heard from Carolyn Ratteray, an Emmy-nominated theatre professor, on how to have presence on Zoom. Another theatre professor, Jessie Mills, shared methods for memorizing lines or speeches. Joanne Nucho, a filmmaker and anthropology professor, talked about interviewing skills. Kyla Wazana Tompkins, an English and women’s studies professor, spoke on leading classroom discussions and how to ask questions that generate insight and discussion. David Divita, professor of Romance languages and literatures, presented on language and gender. And Travis Brown, director of the Quantitative Skills Center, discussed the history of Black oratorical traditions and sermon culture. This April, Phyllis Jackson, a professor of art history, officially launched faculty collaboration in the Reading the Image seminar with a session on how to write and talk about visual culture and art.

Student partners aren’t chosen because of a pre-existing expertise, but for their ability to listen and read openly, thoughtfully and carefully, and for their willingness to take on the work and learn.

“I never really saw myself as a great speaker,” says Molly Wu ’23. “But I think through being in class and being able to observe and take in stuff, I learned eventually how I want to present myself and how I want to get my points across and in what ways other people were good at that. I felt that I was equipped to show other people how to do that because I was on that journey myself as well.”