Speaking Fellows in the press!

Speaking Fellows were proud to see a shout out to the program from Barnard First Year Class President Rose Reiken in a recent Columbia Spectator Article:

“The Barnard Speaking Fellows consistently dedicate their time to showing me and other students how to end sentences firmly when public speaking—without the doubt or questioning tone to which so many women habitually fall victim.”



Debate Barnard’s Future


Two weeks ago, on Thursday, April 13th, the Speaking Center hosted a debate to discuss the resolve, “Barnard’s next president should have experience in the corporate world.” The event featured two teams, each comprised of two debaters, discussing the values and background experience they hope to see in the next Barnard president. Hannah Seymour and Joanne Kim argued on behalf of the affirmative against Rosie Flatt and Talisa Jasmin Ramos on behalf of the negative. The affirmative team advocated for a president with corporate experience who would build on President Spar’s successful fundraising strategies, bolster our endowment, and propel Barnard towards a financially secure future. The negative team respectfully disagreed, espousing the idea that a president  of Barnard should come from the academic world in order to represent a comprehensive portrait of the school’s student body and its aspirations to increase diversity and inclusiveness on campus. Ultimately, the debaters and the spectators in the audience faced the question: should the president of Barnard be a “face” of the school, reflective of the students and ideas that bring life to our campus? Or, does the job seek someone who will operate behind the scenes and ensure that Barnard’s resources continue growing in the future? The event was not about the emergence of a single winning idea or argument, but rather the cultivation of skills that help women debate, discuss, argue, think critically, and express these thoughts. We hope that all those who attended the event enjoyed the opportunity to watch and participate in this exercise and look forward to similar events in the future!

If you would like to read more about the event, please check out the piece Bwog did on the debate.

Writing the Resistance

It is safe to assume that most of us at the Writing Center value and respect language. It is also safe to assume that our current President of the United States does not.

The way that Donald Trump communicates with the world has been a topic of conversation and criticism since his ascendance to a place of national prominence. But since the election, a disconcerting trend seems to be occurring among protestors and supporters alike: many proponents and critics of Trump’s speech and actions have, consciously or unconsciously, adopted his style of speaking and communicating. However, imitating Trump’s vocabulary and mannerisms, in an ironic context or not, normalizes the things he says. Stooping to his linguistic level and meeting him on his own terms implies that the way he speaks is acceptable and legitimate.

For example, many writers have imitated his use of the expression “Sad!” in posts that poked fun at the poor turnout at his inauguration or at other actions. In addition, the phrase “alternative facts” has been adopted by liberals in both criticism and discourse. I am bringing this up because I think that it is important that protestors make the conscious decision not to speak like him, not to imitate him or use his expressions, not to entertain the words or world he is attempting to create.

Criticizing the way Trump speaks does not imply that only educated, intelligent people have the right to speak – in fact, this article intends to express the opposite view. Cultural vernaculars are vital. Language is arbitrary and constantly changing. But way Trump speaks implies that words are of no consequence, that language is not only without meaning but without implication. He treats language like it does not have a physical form – but it did when he ordered the bombing of Syria. His words affected flesh-and-blood bodies when he banned people from eight Muslim countries from entering the country. He tweeted about the US’s nuclear arsenal, provoking panic – despite the fact that a tweet never should have served as a political announcement.

Many people supported Trump on the basis of the simplicity and straightforwardness of the way he speaks, and in many ways, politicians should be more understandable and transparent when they communicate to the masses. But no one can argue that Trump is transparent – nor is he the voice for a certain group of people. He has no values, no convictions, and no qualms about bending facts and going back on promises. He sold himself as a truth-teller, then went on to break most of his campaign promises, filling his cabinet with Wall Street and Washington elite, bombing Syria despite promises to put America first. 

By protesting Trump, we have to fight against lies – not alternative facts, but lies – and sweeping generalizations that manage to silence entire groups. We have to fight for more eloquent explanations than “Sad!” We have to stop echoing his expressions back at him. Part of this fight will involve the defense of real, objective knowledge and thoughtful communication. Anything spoken and publicized enough times, even language that is subversively reclaimed, becomes a part of everyday speech, and it is important for those who are writing the resistance against Trump to be conscious of the words and expressions they are choosing to publicize and those they wish to leave out.

In addition, we must preserve and elevate journalism and trusted, well-researched news sources over social media. Facebook and Twitter cannot become the primary means of communication – though perhaps they already are, and if this is so, we must redefine the way we read these mediums, choosing to criticize and research everything before believing it. But most importantly, we must realize that language has consequences. Trump sold himself as the people’s candidate when he actually stood for nothing – but just because he has no convictions does not mean that actual lives will not be damaged by the words he speaks.

Language is a flawed mechanism of communication. Words change meaning all the time. Recognizing these flaws creates room for more productive discussions. But Trump ignores perspectives other than his own – he is always certain of his correctness, utterly confident in himself. When writing the resistance, we need to accept the value of many perspectives and dialogues, instead of fighting fire with fire and responding to Trump in his language. Truth, analytical thought, and eloquent communication have always been enemies of totalitarian governments, and preserving these things is now an act of defiance.

When we write about Trump, we need to see him as he is – a concept without any central beliefs or intentions, but who has the unfortunate ability to do significant damage. The time to view him as an absurd footnote to history has passed. We need to approach the power he wields as a legitimate force, but this does not mean we need to start speaking like him. It means we need to defend language by holding it more accountable than ever.

On Fighting Complacency

By: Shreya Sunderram 

Rhetorical Choices is a course that all speaking fellows have to take, to develop their theoretical understanding of the concepts we discuss. But more than that, its a place of like minded students, as enthused as you to study and take on challenges. However, its pretty fair to say that the week of the election was the first time I came to class and felt a sense of universal hopelessness. I wrote this piece shortly after in hopes of reminding myself and others the importance of our voices and how hope is most necessary in the darkest of times. A few months post election, I resurface this, with the hope that it resurfaces the unpleasant emotions of that week. It is easy to grow complacent and forget the dangers that we function under, especially when we grow used it. I hope reading this piece will break us out of comfort, and remind us of our role as Barnard students as vigilant fighters for those who cannot fight.

Reflection on the Election, and how the Speaking Program should address it.

This week has been one of the worst in my entire life, and I am infinitely grateful for the support and love of the speaking program. Just as the Pantsuit Nation facebook group has continued to give me hope and is like an online haven for me, the green couches of the 2nd floor have become a pseudo-sanctuary, where I am constantly reminded that I am valued, loved, and heard. What this election has taught me, is that, yes there is a lot of hatred and anger in this country, but there remains a lot of love and unification. In the reflection wall in the Speaking Center, all the words are of love and support, and action. There is a desperate desire to act. This week I applied to 10 internships solely on the basis that they had something to do with supporting minority groups. This week I wrote a letter to Hillary Clinton and sent it from the speaking Center, thanking her for her service and apologizing for the patriarchal forces that worked against her. I promised her that I would run for office one day, and I don’t know if that was a false promise or not but now Id feel pretty bad if I were to break it so we’ll see where that goes. Ultimately I think this rambling is leading to a thank you. A thank you to the speaking fellows program for giving me the support I need right now, for supporting me with strong women, and women with voices who are going to change the world in some way without a doubt. And I’d like to thank the speaking fellow for giving me the space to listen, for teaching and how to listen and for encouraging the listening process, and for recognizing that the only way we can undo this hatred is through listening. In teaching speaking, we teach the value of every voice—even those we disagree with. I will spend this year and the rest of my life learning how to deal with voices of dissent, and how to acknowledge the humanity in all of us. I still have faith in the world, I still have faith in the United States, and I have faith that if there is a fight for change, Barnard students will be at the forefront. I hope that we can make this right two years from now, and I vow to start working right now.

Lesson Learned

Leora Balinsky, Speaking Fellow


This past summer, I had a scarring speaking experience.

I was spent the summer participating in a fellowship that involved rigorous Jewish textual study and analysis as well as working with the Jewish community of Sharon, Massachusetts. One element of the leadership training of the fellowship was giving the weekly 10-15 minute sermon during Shabbat prayers on Saturdays. I was tasked with speaking in front of over 300 people, sharing my thoughts and extrapolations of the Torah portion of the week.


I did not spend enough time preparing beforehand, and was not exactly sure of what I was saying until the morning of. Once it was time for me to speak, I arrived at the podium at the edge of the women’s section of the sanctuary, facing a large crowd of people about to listen to me. I started speaking, and someone from the back yelled “LOUDER!!” I heeded his command, and raised my volume. Someone else yelled “NOT THAT LOUD!!” and some people laughed. I nervously continued, shaken by both interruptions. I began speaking faster and faster, feeling at every moment that all I wanted was to be away from the podium, standing in the back of my room, uttering the holy words of the apex of the Jewish prayer service in near-silent supplication, mouthing them loudly enough only myself and God to hear, as is prescribed by Jewish law.

But alas, I was stuck at this podium, trying to convey a message that I had not worded carefully enough beforehand, stumbling over my words and not finding the right ones to make my point. Finally, it was over. I returned to my seat, shaking and disappointed in myself.


After the prayer service ended, as people were mingling in the social hall, many well-meaning adults came up to me and offered unsolicited advice. Multiple people told me I had to stop speaking so quickly. One strongly suggested that I take a public speaking course.


The experience was humiliating, but truly educational. I learned two main lessons about speaking:

  1. Practice, Practice, Practice. I was very tripped up because I was not yet sure of what I was saying, or how to say it.
  2. Do not be afraid to take up time and space. Part of the reason I rushed through my sermon was because I was unused to speaking for such a long period, unaccustomed to hearing my own voice uninterrupted for over ten minutes. This was precisely what was desired of me in my role, and even though I knew that on a cognitive level, I could not shake a sense of anxiety over taking up so much time, of forcing people to focus solely on me for so long.


Thankfully, as part of being a Speaking Fellow in Training, I did have to take a public speaking class in the form of the Rhetorical Choices course. I cannot help but imagine how the incident would have transpired had I had the tools that I have now from Speaking Fellows, and the encouragement to make my voice heard that the program provides.

If a story moves you, act on it

After Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Danger of a Single Story” came out in 2009, storytelling entered the mainstream – for good reason. It is a powerful tool that has inspired me and many others (including my fellow fellows). Certainly storytelling was not a novel idea in 2009, but its recent steady rise in popularity is something I’ve often reflected upon as a writer, organizer, and consumer of stories.

But is diverse storytelling the answer to injustice?

Sisonke Msimang, head of programs at the Centre for Stories, would answer no. In a recent talk, she uses her experiences as both writer and activist to remind us that stories, while extraordinarily valuable, actually don’t make the world a better place. They have to be supplemented with a host of other things: reliable media, factual analysis, skepticism, curiosity, and perhaps most importantly, action. This talk manages to simultaneously tell a story while warning against the dangers of storytelling, all without devaluing their importance. This is certainly a complicated task, and an incredibly relevant one in this complicated moment. She accomplishes it with resounding success. You can find her talk here – it is well worth a listen.


Empathy – fueling connection

“Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.”

Both inside and outside of the cube today, we need empathy. Empathy is the foundation for listening. Our community needs it now more than ever.

In “The Power of Empathy,” Dr Brené Brown explores the four key tenets of empathy. We often hope for empathy, but deliver sympathy.

  • Brown believes that empathy requires perspective-taking; in the cube, what the writer holds as their truth, is truth.
  • Staying away from judgment allows for empathy to listen instead of categorizing or assuming.
  • Empathy demands feeling with people: you have to remove the layer of “otherness” or “peer tutor.”
  • Finally, empathy means truly listening and communicating to people that they are not alone. Sit with people in the allegorical cave of “stuck, dark, and overwhelmed.”

If you have a spare two minutes, I can’t recommend enough watching this video; it has shaped my understanding of fellowing.

2017 feels vulnerable for so many. The next time you find yourself in a difficult conversation, you don’t need to know exactly what to say. Empathy is a choice. Rather than starting a response with “At least…” or “That sounds hard,” know that it’s okay to say, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m so glad you told me – you are not alone.” This is our work as Fellows.