Dashiell Shulman ’21

March 15, 2019

Dashiell Shulman ’21 won first place with his moving speech about his own struggles at Amherst. It is titled “The Best Defense Is Probably Not a Good Offense.” [Transcript]

You’ve probably seen this affectionate-but-snarky saying: “Amherst: Where Only the ‘h’ Is Silent.” Like the townspeople, Amherst College students aren’t shy about sharing their opinions.

Yet, in truth, they used to be much more vocal—at least in a formal sort of way.

In 1827, for instance, Rhetoric became a required subject and remained so for decades. In the 19th century, several speaking competitions were funded by alumni (like the Bancroft, Gilbert and Kellogg prizes). And, into the 20th century, the College introduced other elocutionary extravaganzas, like the prestigious “Grove Oration,” given by alumni such as Calvin Coolidge, class of 1895.

These prizes, though, and these official occasions for speechifying, had all but faded into oblivion over the years. Until now.

On Feb. 21, “Truth: Amherst College’s Speaking Competition,” made its debut, pronouncements and prizes and all. Call it a reclamation of declamation.

The Writing Center sponsored the event, which it hopes will become an annual one, and Susan Daniels, the College’s public speaking associate, played host, coach and booster. The competition drew 31 contenders. Ten finalists were chosen to present at Johnson Chapel.

Dashiell Shulman ’21 won first place with his speech “The Best Defense Is Probably Not a Good Offense.” Tessa Levenstein ’22 took second with “A Better Way to Grow Up.” And Jeremy Thomas ’21 came in third with “…by any other name…” Video of these three speeches is included here.


Tessa Levenstein ’22

March 15, 2019

Tessa Levenstein ’22 won second place with her impassioned call for mandatory public service for young people. Her speech is titled “A Better Way to Grow Up.” [Transcript]

Each student had to speak entirely from memory, without notes or props, for under seven minutes. Three faculty members judged the competition: Mara Bollard (philosophy), Darryl Harper (music) and Leah Schmalzbauer (American studies and sociology). Each winner received a cash prize.

In this debut year of the competition, the field held forth on the topic of truth. Several spoke of personal truth, and several took a more sociological or political tack. There were plenty of surprises, and the range was impressive.

A few honed their text, well beforehand, with instructors at the Writing Center. A number also sought one-on-one coaching from Daniels. As Levenstein said after the competition, “My biggest takeaway from the rehearsal process is that it always helps to have a director.”

I sat in on three bouts of coaching, where Daniels offered unshakable encouragement and a raft of tips on everything from body language to voice to how to jettison the jitters. (Here’s one: practice in the same shoes you’ll wear to the event, since different shoes, on the day of, can distract you).

Daniels worked with Konstantin Larin ’21 (“The Rocky Road to Truth”), on how to maximize his speech’s big reveal, for example. Larin, who is from the Russian city of Volgograd, told a Coen Brothers-like story about a rock in a Moscow park that President Putin swore contained a spy listening device. Westerners deemed this absurdly paranoid—but the truth fell, you might say, between a rock and a hard place.


Jeremy Thomas ’21

March 15, 2019

Jeremy Thomas ’21 took third place with his heartfelt speech about what he learned from the incarcerated people he met during a prison research project. It is titled “…by any other name…” [Transcript]

“Any time you’re talking about these circumstances, slow down and look at the audience like ‘You get it, right?’” said Daniels to Larin. She also suggested that he annotate his notes with stage cues (a smiley face for a funny bit, for instance, a wavy line to indicate slowing down).  

In rehearsing Megan Root ’19, Daniels sat in a back pew at Johnson Chapel to see if her voice carried. After Root said a few opening lines to her speech, “The Value in our Limitations,” Daniels called to her: “On a scale from 1 to 10, your voice is at a 6. Let’s take it up to 8. You’re going to feel like you’re shouting. But remember, the purpose of your intro is to grab the audience by the throat.”

Root also came onstage with her hands behind her back. “Try putting your hands by your side,” Daniels advised. “That shows people you have nothing to hide.” In working with the female speakers, Daniels also gave some special guidance: “When I teach females I teach them not to say ‘I think that’ or ‘I feel that.’ It weakens their case.”

The other speech-givers included Ahliaa Moore ’21, Lauren Lamb ’21, Cole Graber-Mitchell ’22, Gregory Kaplan ’21 and Silvia Huang ’22. As Daniels said of all 10 after the last speech came to a close: “You have displayed amazing intelligence, courage and heart here today.”  

Afterward, giddy with having gotten through the event, several students talked about the camaraderie they felt with one another, and the delight they took in hearing so many charismatic speeches.

“I loved the things that people talked about, things I couldn’t have even imagined,” said Cole Graber-Mitchell ’22. And what surprised him about the overall experience? “It was incredibly inspiring—in a way I couldn’t have known before I was a part of this.”