Spencer Prize in Oratory finalists, from left: Jeremy Navarro, Katie Marshall, Treasure Brooks, Amanda Werner, and Simone Edgar Holmes.
Each of the five finalists worked from the same prompt: “Connect something you learned in class to something you care about.” Simone Edgar Holmes, the Ross Commons champion, spoke about the connections she was discovering among music, math, and science that gave her a new perspective on arts and sciences. Katie Marshall ’21, of Brainerd Commons, spoke about “The Liberal Artist” and her discovery of new and different ways of learning at Middlebury. Jeremy Navarro ’21, of Atwater, spoke about how what he had learned in his introductory Arabic course taught him about cultural acceptance. And Amanda Werner ’21, Wonnacott champion, reflected on “The Death of Languages” and what can be done to preserve them.
Brooks said she loved the experience of preparing and giving the speech, especially after she wrapped her brain around the assignment. “The process was initially a bit daunting because the prompt was very open-ended and left so much up to the imagination. When I stopped thinking of the prompt’s vagueness as a hurdle and began to see it as an opportunity to think in an abstract, yet critical way, the fun began.”
“We assumed the speakers would put in the time and do their best, but I think everyone in the hall was shocked by the quality of those speeches,” said Assistant Professor of Theatre Dana Yeaton, who directs Oratory Now. “Every one of them was thoughtful, probing, self-aware, and delivered with the kind of confidence you simply don’t expect from an undergraduate.”
Co-masters of ceremony Khan Kim ’19 and Nia Robinson ’19 chose the order of speakers at random from their “bucket of truth.”
In between speakers, masters of ceremony Khan Kim ’19 and Nia Robinson ’19 gave the audience tidbits of information about the contest’s namesake, John Spencer, an African studies emeritus professor of history, who taught at Middlebury for 35 years. Spencer was known, loved, and sometimes even dreaded, by students for his meticulous attention to public speaking. Kim and Robinson read from alumni emails that recounted Spencer’s playful intolerance for students’ use of “um” in their speech.
The panel of three judges included Spencer’s son Theo Spencer ’88, who serves as policy advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric James Sanchez and Literatures and Cultures Librarian Katrina Spencer rounded out the group, which was given two minutes at the end of each speech to ask the speaker questions.
The Spencer Prize is a project of Oratory Now, Middlebury’s student public-speaking organization. The contest is modeled on the Ward Prize for first-year student writing. As with the Ward Prize, candidates for the Spencer contest are nominated by faculty members. Forty-eight faculty members nominated 120 first-year speakers for the inaugural competition. Oratory Now also sponsors the Parker-Merrill Speech Competition, which is open to all students and will take place later this spring.
Reporting by Stephen Diehl; Photos by Todd Balfour