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September 22, 2004

Sowell's Memoir: The Mercator Speech

Thomas Sowell's memoir, A Personal Odyssey, is very good. It actually reminds me of the memoir of his advisor, George Stigler. Despite his fame, Stigler had very few students, probably because his wit and his blunt criticism intimidated people (I wouldn't be surprised if a blunt Stigler letter was one reason for my tenure difficulties at UCLA back around 1990). After reading this memoir, I can see that a willingness to get into fights is a theme in Sowell's life, as both his strength and his weakness.

I read the library's copy, but will be buying my own. I forgot to note down the page number before I returned it, but here is a story that gives the flavor of the book...


The delicious thing about this story is that in the end, the joke is on Sowell and the students, not on Mrs. Collins. Sowell *did* deliver a model speech, and for exactly the two reasons she told them.

First, he had complete command of his subject-- such complete command that he didn't even need to do special preparation. That's OK-- this speech wasn't supposed to be a research project. (It reminds me of another Sowell story, of how in the Marines he was so clever about handling his duties as a warehouse helper that he both got more commendations and did less work than the other workers, who complained about that.)

Second, he paused and let his audience understand what he was saying. He did not speak faster than in ordinary speech, as is so common (even for me!) but more slowly. To be sure, the reason was that he was trying to figure out what to say next, but what counts is results, not reasons.

I wonder what would happen if I used this as a teaching exercise for my class? I could put them up front with a slip of paper they would open to see the topic on which they would improvise. I've some recollection that speech classes actually do this-- and, of course, this is exactly the stuff of improv comedy.

At any rate, I'll use this weblog entry for G492 next semester, and for my graduate students.

Posted by erasmuse at September 22, 2004 12:44 PM

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