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Northwestern School of Communication

Department History

cumnock-at-desk001.jpg“Let me hear from you, for Annie May Swift Hall is the dearest spot on earth to me.”

-Robert McLean Cumnock, 1922

In 1868, Robert McLean Cumnock was hired by both Garrett Theological Seminary and Northwestern University to teach classes in elocution and oratory. A Scottish immigrant, Cumnock had recently graduated from Wesleyan University, where he specialized in speech, taking courses in public speaking, debate, elocution, oratorical writing, declamation, and forensics. In 1869, a year into his teaching career, it was clear that Cumnock’s classes were a hit. Not only were his classes among the university’s most popular course offerings, but he also was in demand as a private speech tutor. That same year, Northwestern began admitting women to the university, many of whom took Cumnock’s classes.

In 1878, Cumnock began offering his elocution curriculum as a two-year certificate, which featured robust studies of gesture, vocal inflection & emphasis, grammar, rhetoric, English literature, poetry and poetics, and Shakespeare. In 1891, the program was expanded into a non-degree diploma. Meanwhile, student interest in elocution continued to expand and soon there was, quite literally, not a lot of room. Cumnock had been operating out of a single classroom in University Hall, which also housed his office. In 1895, after years of cramped quarters, Annie May Swift Hall opened as the official home of the fledgling School of Oratory (designated as such in 1891-92). For over a decade, Cumnock had been the only faculty member in oratory. Adelaide Laura Murphy (hired in 1889) and Lulu Electra Jones (hired in 1890) were the first faculty members to join the School and it wasn’t until 1893 that another man, Burr Miller Weeden, was hired. The expansion of the Cumnock curriculum into its own separate School was proof that, unlike some other institutions, Northwestern was giving speech a prominent place in its academic culture. Harold F. Williamson & Payson S. Wild, writing on the early history of Northwestern, remark that. “The appointment of specialists in…[nontraditional] fields demonstrated the university’s willingness to accord the new disciplines equal status with the traditional ones” (1976: 56; qtd. in Miller Rein 1981: 13). And yet, Robert Cumnock was quite recalcitrant for being such a trailblazing figure. He rarely attended national speech conferences, seemingly uninterested in the latest work in the field. He was deeply uninterested in teaching speech beyond oratory & elocution, vetoing proposals by students to include public speaking and forensics in the curriculum. James L. Lardner, a colleague of Cumnock, mused on the maestro’s stubborn devotion to his art: “He thought he had no time to write articles and textbooks, and to attend speech conventions. […] Much talk about theory bored him, but an artistic interpretation of a great literary masterpiece gave him the keenest pleasure. ” (qtd. in Miller Rein 1981: 18).

In 1913, Cumnock stepped down as the head of the School of Oratory, succeeded by Ralph Dennis, a graduate of the program and Cumnock’s former student. Dennis, though an admirer of his teacher’s approach to speech education, felt that expanding the scope of the curricula available would be an asset to the university. From 1909 to 1919, the School added a number of new faculty, widening the courses on offer. James L. Lardner (hired in 1909), shifted the curriculum towards public speaking, with less emphasis on elocution, while Susan Burdick Davis (hired in 1914) brought expertise in rhetoric and children’s literature. Winifred Ward (hired in 1919) taught creative drama and storytelling, later founding the university’s Children’s Theatre in 1925. Northwestern’s present-day reputation as a vital hub for theatre for young audiences (TYA) stems from Ward’s influence on the School. The years 1920 to 1925 saw the development of courses of study in public speaking & forensics (originally housed in the College of Liberal Arts due to Cumnock’s refusal to teach in these areas) and theatre (with the addition of courses in dramatic art, playwriting, and stagecraft). By 1921, it had become clear to the faculty and the trustees that the “School of Oratory” was no longer a particularly accurate name, leading to it being renamed the School of Speech.  In 1927, the School of Speech awarded its first Bachelor of Science degrees.

As Dean, Ralph Dennis was famous for hosting a weekly luncheon during the summers, which featured performances by students and faculty, as well as guest performers. The poet Carl Sandburg was a regular attendee, reading poems & playing guitar for the audience. Notably, James Weldon Johnson was set to give a reading at the weekly gathering, but was killed in a tragic collision three days before he was set to visit. Dennis was actively involved in developing a sense of intellectual, creative, and academic community among the different parts of the School of Speech. He prioritized the importance & centrality of teaching: “The school is yours. The faculty is here to serve you. We want to help you. If you have problems to solve, talk to us about them. Let us work together to make this a great year for all of us. We can do it” (qtd. Miller Rein, 1981: 44).

The latter half of Dennis’s nearly thirty-year tenure as Dean saw the beginnings of informal departmentalization, with distinct areas of focus in public speaking, theatre, voice & interpretation, speech re-education, and radio. The graduate performance recital requirement in the current Department of Performance Studies seems to have its origins in the Platform Test, a Dennis innovation widely reviled by the student body. The Platform Test was established after the university eliminated the vast majority of its private instructors, who gave one-on-one tutorials in voice & speech. For the test, all students had to deliver a fifteen-minute exposition, tailored to their area of study. A student in interpretation would present a performance of a piece of literary text, then offer an analysis of both the text as a literary document and the choices they made in performing their interpretation. Since at least the late 1930s, the School has emphasized the need for both deft skills as a performer & public communicator and the capacity for rigorous, theoretical analysis. The search committee tasked with interviewing replacements for Dennis, after his retirement in 1942, stated that the School of Speech “translates knowledge into action. It is not alone the play in the book but the play on the stage; not the scientific discovery which ends abruptly and finally with a new theory of resonance but that theory put into practice in developing better speaking voices” (qtd. Miller Rein 1981: 70).

As Lynn Miller Rein notes, “From its beginning, the school had emphasized the field of interpretation” (1981: 71). However, by the end of Dennis’s tenure, the not-yet-formalized Department of Interpretation had shrunk to two full-time faculty members, C.C. Cunningham and Alvina Krause, who taught all of the classes in interpretation. Occasional help came from Winifred Ward, who taught storytelling, and Lew Sarett, a professor of public speaking, who taught a popular class on interpreting and performing prose text. Luckily, the following years would feature a significant turnaround. In 1945, Charlotte Lee, the first woman to graduate with a Ph.D. in interpretation from Northwestern, joined the faculty. In 1948, Robert Breen and Wallace Bacon were hired, marking a shift in the focus and aim of the department’s course offerings and mission. While Cumnock had prioritized elocutionary performance as a mode of aesthetic entertainment, directed to an audience, Breen & Bacon’s hiring signaled that change was coming.

In 1942, the course catalog still largely hewed to the Cumnock model. In the coming thirty years, the Department of Interpretation would hire both Lilla Heston (in 1962) and Lee Roloff (in 1968) and the course catalog foregrounded a commitment to a vision of interpretation that, in many ways, doesn’t seem that far removed from the mission of our contemporary Department of Performance Studies. The department engaged in “instruction in the full understanding of written texts—especially literary texts—through the medium of oral performance […] The aim is liberal and humanistic rather than professional” (qtd. in Miller Rein 1981: 80). Bacon’s scholarly writing is not suggesting a mode of engagement with texts that is solely concerned with aesthetic judgment and literary formalism. The performance of texts, he argues, helps develop “that sense of the other so crucial to any concept of education as a humanizing, liberalizing experience” (qtd. in Shepard 2016: 168).

Bacon taught classes on interpreting Shakespeare, shifting the pedagogical focus from solo performance to ensemble work. Breen’s Chamber Theatre explored the dramatic qualities of literary fiction, experimenting with point of view & the psychological interiority of narration. The department’s classes were engaged with contemporary literature and politics, including courses focused on contemporary American poetry, Black literature & interpretation, new media & aesthetics, and interpretation of biography & history. Interdisciplinary thinking was also on display, as evidenced by Breen’s statement that, “To insist that a play is a play and a novel a novel and never the twain should meet makes less sense than to say music is music and drama is drama and never should opera have been born” (qtd. in Miller Rein 1981: 82). While we might have critiques of (neo)liberalism and the dominant forms of humanism founded on a Eurocentric, colonial, and patriarchal concept of Man, the emphases on engaging seriously and ethically with difference, working collaboratively & co-creatively, merging theory and practice, and thinking across disciplinary borders give us echoes of the foundations of our current-day Department of Performance Studies. The biggest difference, on the level of the archive, is the shift away from Breen & Bacon’s overwhelming textualism, which would begin, slowly, in the 1990s. 

In 1991, the department is renamed, shifting to its current moniker, the Department of Performance Studies, under the leadership of Dwight Conquergood, whose scholarly & creative work bridged oral interpretation, ethnography, and activism. In a 1995 lecture, Conquergood set out a vision for performance studies as an emerging discipline, calling for “performance-centered research [that] takes as both its subject matter and method the experiencing body situated in time, place, and history” (qtd. in Shepard 2016: 162).

By Nathan J. Lamp


Dean of Northwestern’s School of Communication:

  1. Robert McLean Cumnock (1878-1913)
  2. Ralph Dennis (1913 – 1942)
  3. James H. McBurney (1942 – 1972)
  4. Roy V. Wood (1972 – 1988)
  5. David Zarefsky (1988 – 2000)
  6. Barbara J. O’Keefe (2000 – 2020)
  7. E. Patrick Johnson (2020 – present)


Other important dates:

Early 1920s: Student theatre then, as now, was robust, with organizations including the Prentice Players, the Campus Players, and the Thalian Dramatic Club staging shows on campus.

The North Shore Theatre Guild, a community theatre company, put on plays featuring local actors. Northwestern students were often enlisted to provide production support and to serve as run crew members. 

1926: The University Theatre was founded as a home for all theatrical activity on campus. Students who participated in productions earned academic credit.


Works Cited & Bibliography for Further Reading

 Bacon, Wallace A. The Art of Interpretation. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and     Winston, (1966) 1979.

Bacon, Wallace A. and Robert S. Breen. Literature for Interpretation. New York, NY: Holt,          Rinehart and Winston, 1961.

Bahn, Eugene and Margaret L. Bahn. A History of Oral Interpretation. Minneapolis, MN:            Burgess Publishing Company, 1970.

Breen, Robert S. Chamber Theatre. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1978.

Edwards, Paul. “Drift: Performing the Relics of Intention.” Theatre Annual 56 (2003): 1-   53.

Edwards, Paul. “Unstoried: Teaching Literature in the Age of Performance Studies.”        Theatre Annual 52 (1999): 1-147.

Jackson, Shannon. Professing Performance: Theatre in the Academy from Philology to   Performativity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Kimber, Marian Wilson. The Elocutionists: Women, Music, and the Spoken Word.           Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2017.

Miller Rein, Lynn. Northwestern University School of Speech: A History. Evanston, IL:   Northwestern University Press, 1981.

Shepherd, Simon. The Cambridge Introduction to Performance Theory. Cambridge, UK:        Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Simpson Stern, Carol and Bruce Henderson. Learning to Perform: An Introduction.         Evanston, IL:   Northwestern University Press, 2010. 

Thompson, David W., ed. Performance of Literature in Historical Perspectives. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983.