Bicci di Lorenzo, Saint Nicholas Resuscitating Three Youths, 1433-35. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As he puts it, Paul LePage, former governor of Maine, is a product of his environment. His father was physically abusive, his mother terrified to intervene. He grew up in poverty, one of eighteen children, and the only one to complete formal schooling beyond the eighth grade. By age eleven, sick of the abuse, he decided to leave home and fend for himself. He spent two years homeless, sometimes sleeping in horse stables in the frigid Maine winters. LePage shared many of these autobiographical details with the audience when he recently came to speak at Colby College, where I teach. He sees his approach to politics as no-nonsense; I think he just says a lot of ignorant and bigoted things. For this reason he’s not a good choice of campus speaker, though an unexpected factor made the LePage event a success: the student protesters.

I have at once a deep sense of compassion for LePage, given the circumstances of his upbringing, and a low opinion of the man he’s become. I can feel sympathy for LePage while recognizing that he often invokes the horrific circumstances of his youth to provide cover for all the ways his words and efforts today make life harder for Maine’s most vulnerable people.

Even if you don’t live in Maine, you might have heard of LePage, who’s made news for making such comments as “Black people come up the highway and they kill Mainers”; or “You shoot at the enemy. You try to identify the enemy and the enemy right now, the overwhelming majority of people coming in, are people of color or people of Hispanic origin”; or “I want to find the Portland Press Herald building and blow it up.” LePage has also made unsubstantiated charges that undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers bring “ziki fly” (meaning, presumably, Zika virus) and other diseases into the state. Meanwhile, as governor, LePage did all he could to end Maine’s role in helping asylum seekers and refugees, including terminating the Maine Health and Human Services Department of Multicultural Affairs, which oversaw refugee resettlement (and was responsible for screening refugees for infectious diseases).

For these reasons LePage would not be at the top of my list of conservative campus speakers. In fact, I’m not sure he’d be on my list at all. It’s not that he’s a conservative that disqualifies him in my view; I’ve argued for more and better conservative campus speakers. I think LePage is a poor speaker choice because of how he comports himself when his views and policies are challenged, the way he disrespects and dehumanizes people—as in the quotes above—who are different from or disagree with him.

But I understand that for others—including the Colby College Republicans, who invited him—LePage might be a desirable speaker, someone with serious political and policy experience. I can live with that. So the question then becomes: How can a college make the best of an event featuring a less than admirable speaker?

The rationale for entertaining such a speaker in the first place is that hearing and contesting opposing views strengthens the intellect and allows better ideas to triumph; to subject ideas you already know are bigoted, shoddy, or misguided to scrutiny. Even for speakers with more moderate views, the primary benefit of co-curricular campus talks is the opportunity to share, discuss, and debate ideas.

The problem is that most headlining campus speaker events aren’t designed to subject the speaker’s ideas to the audience’s scrutiny. Rather, they’re designed to let the speaker deliver prepared, often rehearsed remarks to a docile audience for an extended period of time, after which the speaker may take a few questions. This format favors the unidirectional expressions of visiting speakers, who get to orchestrate a speech performance while everyone else remains silent upon pain of punishment. This way of doing things doesn’t suit the putative purpose of campus talks—to inform and engage—much less the limited value of bringing a high-profile bigot or demagogue to subject their views to scrutiny.

Even events with deliberate question and answer periods built in frequently rely on heavily regulated questioning protocols, as with Jeff Sessions’ recent talk at Northwestern University, where attendees had to submit their questions on notecards so the moderator could choose which to read out to Sessions.

We could eliminate much of the recent strife over free speech on campus, de-platforming, and speaker disinvitation simply by rethinking the format of campus talks for controversial speakers. Instead of centering campus speakers, we should be centering their audiences. We should do away with the staid custom of letting a star on the stage talk at us for the better part of an hour, while everyone else waits silently to address errors, lies, specious claims, insults, or propaganda.

Instead, speaking events should allow the speaker a few minutes of opening remarks as preamble to a moderated question and answer session for the rest of the time. If we truly want debate and discussion—the contestation of ideas—then campus speakers should be prepared for spirited audience engagement and disagreement.

The suggestion that campus speaking events should be built around Q&A rather than the speaker’s solo act is based on a simple but profound idea: The performance of a prepared speech is actually more stifling of free speech than an exchange of ideas that involves challenging the speaker’s claims in the moment. In a brilliant and original paper on heckling, NYU political philosopher Jeremy Waldron argues that “heckling a speaker—disconcerting him, disturbing the composure he has worked up for the occasion—is often and characteristically a good thing for the exchange of ideas.” For Waldron, interruptions and exchanges productively disrupt “the choreography of political occasions,” opening up the conversation and freeing the audience from the undue burden of passive reception.

Waldron is careful to distinguish between “disruption,” a productive way of “throwing out of gear the careful staging of an event,” and the kind of disorder that would thwart an event from going forward. For Waldron, speakers don’t have “a right to any particular quality of audience… Speakers have to take their chances with whatever audience assembles to listen to them.” Some audiences may be receptive and docile, others may be unruly, “showing by their demeanor, their facial expressions, their whispered asides to one another, or their hissing… that they are unconvinced and offended by what is being said.” And the function of such behavior—including shouted, brief interjections (“You lie!”) to call speakers out on lies or evasion—is to communicate to the speaker and the broader audience the faulty or misleading elements of the speech.

We can follow Waldron’s convincing case for making talks unrulier, more interactive, and less scripted toward a new kind of format for campus talks. If the expectation is not that the speaker is entitled to an extended period of time to address (or harangue) a docile and complicit audience, we could recognize barbed interjections, asides, and incidental verbal exchanges between speaker and audience for what they are: not disruption, but a lively exchange of points and ideas.

The Colby student protesters at the recent LePage event already modeled some of these productive tactics. For one, a student leader of the protest against LePage addressed all protesters before the event, asking them not to disrupt the event to the extent that it would inhibit LePage’s ability to give his talk. “We just ask that, in regards to this protest, and in regards to any opposition, that you do so respectfully, thoughtfully and in a way that does not impede the event’s proceeding,” the student said. Once the event was underway, student protesters lined the auditorium, standing silently throughout LePage’s remarks with signs that contained LePage’s most unsavory quotes and other messages of protest.

Crucially, when it came to the question and answer period, students interjected without prohibiting LePage from speaking. For example, when LePage was asked about his comments regarding Black people “coming up the highway” to “kill Mainers” and deal drugs, and LePage answered evasively, going on about his concern for the drug problem in Maine, a student interjected “white people do drugs too!” Much of the audience laughed and cheered, because the interjection exposed the bigotry behind LePage’s response without preventing him from speaking further. It communicated to the audience that LePage was bullshitting, and those in the audience who agreed showed their agreement with brief cheers. In another moment, when LePage trotted out the well-worn defense of virtually every politician caught in bigotry—“I don’t have a racist bone in my body!”—the crowd laughed and mocked the cliché.
These tactics were particularly effective because, like many experienced politicians and public speakers, LePage excels at changing the subject of controversy, pivoting to a personal story that favors him or makes him sympathetic. He can speak at length in rambling answers to pointed questions. Though the event was designed—admirably—to allow for as much time for Q&A as for LePage’s opening speech, LePage deftly monopolized the Q&A. Without interjections and heckling, in other words, a Q&A with a laissez-faire moderator can turn into a second or third speech at the audience.

If we want campus talks by provocative speakers to fulfill their ostensible purpose, then we need to fundamentally reconceptualize the genre of the campus talk. While shutting down an invited speaker or preventing the event from going forward is counterproductive, that doesn’t mean the only other option is to require audiences to sit there and take it. We should develop campus speaking events that neither coddle speakers nor shut them down, and instead treat them as opportunities for audiences to engage speakers. We’ll see more exchanges of ideas, and fewer provocateurs and demagogues using campus platforms for recruitment or PR purposes. As someone who teaches for a living, I understand that facing down a classroom of students with informed views and questions—much less an auditorium full of them and their professors—has a way of separating reasonable and substantiated claims from bullshit, intellectuals from empty suits.

In practice, then, colleges and universities should restructure campus speaking events to favor more interaction. Tell invited speakers up-front that they’re not invited to give a speech, but to converse with the audience. Change the format so a majority of event time is dedicated to Q&A. Identify and train faculty and staff who are or want to be effective moderators, so that politicians and celebrity speakers can’t get away with filibustering or haranguing in response to questions, and so audience members can’t attempt longwinded speeches of their own. Not all campus talks have to adopt this format, but those whose express purpose is to discuss and debate—as opposed to, for example, sharing new research findings—should be designed to match their ostensible purpose.

Campuses are already filled with people who practice and specialize in pedagogy and discussion management, who do this for a living. It’s time to draw on the resources we already possess and develop real opportunities for the exchange of ideas.

Aaron R. Hanlon

Aaron R. Hanlon is an assistant professor of English at Colby College. His book, A World of Disorderly Notions: Quixote and the Logic of Exceptionalism (University of Virginia Press) is now available. You can find him on Twitter @aaronrhanlon.

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One Comment on “Anatomy of a Successful Campus Talk

  1. Well thought out article. As a graduate of a great books college, I value lively, vibrant discussion. The guidance provided by the student protest leader was very much on point. Thanks for this contribution to the our civic discussions.

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