By Sydney Leibfritz, Staff Writer
When you first enter Dr. Melody Lehn’s office, it’s hard not to notice the sea of books decorating the room. Bookshelves mask one wall entirely from floor to ceiling and piles lie methodically across her desk for quick access. If you ask her for a favorite, she’ll quickly name Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. This novel, which centers on a young girl’s struggle to overcome childhood poverty through education, serves as the perfect example of Lehn’s passion for her career
“What I like so much about the main character is that she takes what she reads and learns back to her family, hoping to bring them along even though they have not had the same advantages,” said Lehn.
After only a year at Sewanee, Lehn has already carved out a place for herself by using her own experiences to create an environment where students can push themselves and ultimately conquer their fears. She arrived as an assistant professor of rhetoric and women and gender studies, for which she was recently awarded the Dwight L. Freshley Early Career Excellence in Teaching Award by the Southern States Communication Association.
In addition to her role as a professor, Lehn also works as the Assistant Director of the Center for Speaking and Listening and is heavily involved in the development of the University’s rhetoric curriculum.
Although admired as an eloquent, confident professor today, Lehn’s first exposure to the world of rhetoric came as she struggled to overcome childhood shyness. Having just moved from Pennsylvania to South Carolina, Lehn was still adjusting to the transition when her fourth grade teacher encouraged her to branch out and become involved in the school’s competitive speech program.
She wound up loving speech and stuck with it through high school, participating in a myriad of activities and even winning third place at a national competition in her senior year. She performed in categories like reader’s theater, duo acting, dramatic interpretation, and oral interpretation of poetry.
Looking back, she noted how important it was for her to speak in categories that were out of her comfort zone and how she ultimately gained more because of the work she had to put in.
Lehn has translated these experiences into her teaching over the years. “I’m always conscious of students who come into the classroom with a different set of experiences and expectations,” Lehn explained.
While she said that some students come in with high levels of confidence and practice, many come in more reserved. As she helps her students find their own voices, she emphasized, “We’re not striving to make perfect speakers, we’re striving for improvement.”
After teaching at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, Lehn found her way to Sewanee in the Fall 2017. “When I came on campus last spring to interview, I was struck by the really authentic energy from the people I met,” Lehn said. Seeing how important the community, tradition, and passion was, Lehn knew Sewanee would be the right place for her.
Along with colleague Dr. Sean O’Rourke, she has turned the previously almost non-existent opportunities for rhetoric into one of the growing areas of study at Sewanee As part of the University’s five-year Quality Enhancement Plan “Learning to Speak, Speaking to Learn,” a lot of her time goes into enhancing interdisciplinary work with the Speaking-Across-the-Curriculum initiative, expanding courses in speaking and listening, and continuing to develop the Center for Speaking and Listening.
“One of the things that sets Sewanee apart from other institutions is that our Center’s mission explicitly emphasizes both speaking and listening. It’s not enough for a student to improve as a speaker. The goal is for them to also become a better listener,” said Lehn.
Aside from her work in laying these foundations, Lehn also conducts research focusing on the intersection of rhetoric, gender, and politics. “In other words,” she elaborated, “I’m interested in how women who are politically active become rhetorical by finding and creating opportunities for to speak, even when it is unpopular or dangerous to do so.”
The bulk of her research focuses on American women as political candidates and spouses, including First Ladies. Because First Ladies are unelected, there is a certain level of suspicion surrounding their contributions, even as they are often in a position to conduct and encourage humanitarian work. One of Lehn’s favorites is Eleanor Roosevelt, who used her platform to speak out in favor of human rights, racial equality, and women’s political progress.
Yet, Lehn finds some of the best speakers are those with little previous experience. From Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer’s lack of a formal education but voice of raw power to Lady Bird Johnson’s struggle to overcome crippling public speaking anxiety, Lehn notes that any speaker can improve through careful study, preparation, and practice.
So, for those who think they could never excel at public speaking, Lehn advised to simply sign up for one of her classes. “It is always an opportune moment to hone your abilities, investigate various controversial issues with your peers, and think about all the different sides to any argument or controversy,” she said.
In a world where fear of public speaking is rampant, Lehn and her colleagues are working to alleviate such fears by enhancing rhetorical opportunities at Sewanee. In just less than a year, Lehn has already begun to leave a mark on our University that will only deepen with time.