Hosting A Visiting Speaker

What is the challenge?

Why and how do we host speakers on this campus? The default model for academic talks is a lengthy, one-way delivery of information, followed by a very few questions. In a digital era, this model is no better than watching a TED talk or YouTube video. With a few notable exceptions, we spend a lot of money on events that have few attendees and that offer little engagement among audience members.

There is another way. The invitation to our campus could be seen as an invitation into our community. Speakers do set the initial agenda, and they should have a reasonable amount of time to present to the audience. Yet these events offer the opportunity to create ongoing campus conversations and build durable relationships.

A different type of event

The goal of this new format is to create a better conversation and stronger relationships. Productive dialogue about complex ideas and difficult topics requires time and trust. A different format for speakers can create spaces in which we can listen together, understand a wide variety of arguments, reflect on our own views and experiences, and build a conversation that will continue beyond the single event.

Small changes can yield big results. Below, we offer some ideas of questions and techniques to build audience engagement. This new model may feel strange at first, but these techniques are similar to what many professors do to create a great class.

An experimental phase

We are testing out this model, using the two-page guide below.

View New Speaker Format

We invite you to use this format if you invite a speaker or if you give a talk.  In 2020-21, we do not have outside speakers physically on our campus, but a lot of events are being organized over Zoom.  Breakout rooms are a great option for post-talk audience engagement!


The events on our campus differ in content and size. The new speaker format has informed the structure of the following events:

  • December 4, 2019: Alison Bechdel, VHC First Wednesdays talk
  • November 1, 2019: “Green Room” Q&A with Brian Currie ’83
  • October 2, 2019: Bryan Terrell Clark, art and activism (with VHC)
  • April 24, 2019: five student panelists on their reactions to a controversial, cancelled event, ~100 attendees. Described here
  • April 19, 2019: Charlie MacCormack ’63 discussed the future of international relief and development with 40+ students
  • April 8, 2019: David Palumbo-Liu addressed “Education, Activism, and Freedom of Expression” to an audience of ~80 in Dana
  • March 14, 2019: The Margolin lecture on Thoreau (this year, a dialogue) began with small group discussions of Thoreau quotes.
  • January 9, 2019: Frank Bruni of the New York Times discussed free speech and identity politics (in partnership with VHC) to an overflow audience of 400+. Middlebury users can watch the talk here
  • November 5, 2018: Wendy Pearlman presented from her new book on Syrian refugees to 40+ students and faculty
  • November 7, 2018: DeRay McKesson tackled political activism and Black Lives Matter (in partnership with VHC) to a full house in Wilson Hall (capacity 356). Watch the video here.

Thank you and Partners

This new format was designed by a wonderful advisory team, including Nia Robinson ’19, Lynn Travnikova ’20, Violet Low-Beinart ’19, Steve Viner (PHIL), Marion Wells (ENAM), Shawna Shapiro (WRPR), Dana Yeaton (THEA), Mark Orten (Chaplain), and Sarah Stroup (PSCI).  The Vermont Humanities Council has employed these ideas in some of their talks.

If you’d like help with designing and facilitating these events, please email