Skip to content
Blog post feature image

Back to blog


September 27, 2023

Recitations and Rhetoric Declamations: What & Why

Discover the difference between recitations and rhetoric declamations at New Saint Andrews College.

New Saint Andrews is not a large college, with only 272 undergraduate students. The current student-to-faculty ratio is 10:1. This means the college is a place where students and faculty know each other and are not lost in a sea of faces. The college believes building a rich community is imperative to help students thrive in their academic studies. A key way the college fosters academic excellence at the college is through recitations. 

The majority of classes at NSA incorporate weekly recitations. In the first half of the week, the professor will offer a lecture-style meeting, and then, in the second half of the week, the students are broken into small discussion groups. These small groups are made up of about seven to ten students who gather with the professor for the purpose of discussing that week’s assigned material and readings. These weekly meetings are in addition to regular class lectures, assigned readings, and other class assignments.  

Recitations provide time and space for professors to mentor students in the academic material of the course. In such contexts, students are forced to winsomely and reasonably own or dispute the ideas under discussion with guidance from their instructor. This recitation work demands academic excellence of the students in the course material. It also enables students time to ask questions of their professors and to see how these instructors apply the material to their own work and life. 

Often, universities are not able to have discussions at all because the classes are so large–filled with hundreds of students–which prevents real interaction between professors and students. At NSA, however, recitations allow students to work side by side with their professors. In these small groups, the instructor is able to push students to greater depth of understanding, increased clarity of expression, and more thoughtful interaction with the ideas central to the class. Recitations often include detailed discussions on the material, as well as time for student questions. Some include a time for an individual student to present material to the small group. 

“The goal of Rhetoric is to produce an act that is a speech.”

One pivotal way these small groups function is to allow students a place to practice what they have learned. One key example of this happens in Rhetoric class with their declamation exercises.

In a recent podcast, Exploring the Arts, Mr. Brent Pinkall, who teaches Rhetoric at NSA, said, “The goal of Rhetoric is to produce an act that is a speech.”

Mr. Pinkall explained that he has reviewed modern textbooks on Rhetoric and has also looked back at classical Rhetoric texts by Cicero and Quintilian. Through this in-depth study, Mr. Pinkall has come to see that Rhetoric aims to teach students the ability to speak well. He says, “The goal isn’t just to memorize the principles; the goal is to be able to speak persuasively.” 

He explained that he wants students to understand the theory of oratory, but he also wants them to be able to do it on their own as well. He says, “To know how to speak and to be able to speak are two very different things.”

Rhetoric is not about trying to trick people or deceive an audience. Rhetoric is about speaking well and communicating clearly with an audience so they both understand and are moved by what the speaker says. 

“The goal isn’t just to memorize the principles; the goal is to be able to speak persuasively.”

Key exercises for the Rhetoric class happen in small group recitations. This smaller setting is a place for students to practice and polish their Rhetoric work. At the beginning of the year, students work on preliminary Rhetoric exercises called progymnasmata which practice specific fundamental skills of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. After these exercises, students then start working on declamations which are larger, more formal speeches. These declamations are capstone exercises that reinforce all of the skills previously studied in the progymnasmata.

In the first type of declamation, students focus on suasoria, a speech of advice addressed to a fictional or historical character on the verge of making an important decision. Students then work on the second and most challenging type of declamation—controversia, a speech arguing for or against a defendant in a fictional trial. Through these advanced exercises, students are honing their abilities in style, memory, and delivery.

After students have practiced declamations in small group recitations, they go on to prepare for a declamation competition in front of the whole school. In this school-wide competition, which draws from all the classes at the school, the best students from each of the three school halls compete for points. This declamation competition features the best Rhetoric work from across the student body. 

Mr. Pinkhall says, “What I strive to do here at NSA is to teach Rhetoric as an act.” The goal is to shape students so they know how to give a thoughtful, clear, and winsome speech. To achieve this end, it is necessary that students practice and exercise their speaking abilities. Recitations and Rhetoric declamations are important spaces at NSA where students grow academically by working closely with their professors and other students.