NMU students tackle complex topics in The Speech

Competition gives students a forum for civil engagement

Fischer Genau

Students will give persuasive speeches on topics including the Willow Project, critical race theory and toxic queerness at “The Speech” Thursday, March 30.

The event, hosted by the communication and media studies department from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Black Box Theatre, is part of NMU’s Civility Week and aims to give students a forum for civil engagement. Six student finalists, chosen from a pool of video submissions, will take the stage and speak for five to seven minutes on a topic of their choosing. 

“The idea here is to encourage people to express their first amendment right but do so in a civil manner,” said Dwight Brady, professor of communications at NMU. “We had some folks step up, literally to the mic, and they’re now in the finals in the running for some pretty good money and hopefully a really good time.”

Students giving speeches will be assessed by a panel of three judges for the chance to win a $200, $150 or $100 gift certificate to the NMU bookstore; Silas Sommers will speak on civility and sesame street, Jack Teichman will discuss ghosting, and Paige Meisel has prepared a speech on toxic queerness. 

Joshua Ewalt, assistant professor of communication and media studies at NMU, said the speeches will resemble TED Talks, and sees them as an opportunity for students to confront complex topics. 

“We’re living in a really complicated world and we have more access to talk about things than we ever had in the past,” Ewalt said. “A public speech compared to something like social media gives you a little bit longer to develop the content of your address. You can develop a claim, you can develop strong evidence.”

Ewalt, who teaches a public speaking class, said he wants this event to be a safe, friendly space for students to practice their oratory skills and engage in the art of persuasion.

The three other students who will try to persuade their audience on Thursday are Midori Budd, Freddy Sims and Samantha Nash who will speak on the Willow Project, diversity and critical race theory, respectively. 

“If you can master that ability to get on a stage and convince an audience of your position, and do so with really strong evidence and strong speaking skills, that can take you a really long way in life,” Ewalt said. 

Ewalt added that those who attend also stand to benefit. 

“If you’re watching it, I think it gives you a sense of what does a good speech look like? How do I construct a speech? How do I get that confidence to give one?” Ewalt said.

In addition to listening to the speakers, those who attend have the opportunity to win prizes that will be given out to the audience. NMU’s first ever Civility Week features several other events that promote civil engagement, and was conceived of by the Academic Affairs office and the Olson library. Brady said it hopes to address a number of issues. 

“First and foremost, we are very well aware of the political divisions in our country and the fact that civility is being diminished even as we speak,” Brady said. 

Brady said he hopes that “The Speech” can set a standard for civil discourse that runs counter to the “vitriol” that dominates national news.

“It can be done a better way,” Brady said.