The University of Michigan was among the first schools in the nation to formally incorporate instruction in the field of speech into its curriculum. The subject’s inclusion was largely the result of Thomas Clarkson Trueblood’s (A.M. Earlham ’86 Litt.D. ibid. ’21) work. In the later nineteenth century, Trueblood made his living traveling from university to university offering short courses in speech. He first came to Ann Arbor in 1884 and his six week course was so popular with students that he began to return for longer and longer residences. Finally, in 1889 he became a permanent faculty member. In 1892 the Department of Elocution and Oratory was created, with Trueblood as its sole member. By this step, the University of Michigan created the first separate department and also the first professorship in speech in any of the large universities in the United States.
African American Eugene Joseph Marshall was permitted to compete in Trueblood’s debate competitions and won the university debate championship in 1903. The Ann Arbor Argus reported: “For the first time in the history of American Universities a colored man has won his highest honors in oratory in fair and free competition with all comers. The announcement of his victory will be read with pleasure by all who are working for the betterment of the colored race.”
It is generally believed that the first course in newspaper writing in the United States was the one instituted at the University of Michigan during the academic year of 1890–91. The course was devised and taught by Fred Newton Scott (’84, Ph.D. ’89), Assistant Professor of Rhetoric. The work of the course seems not to have been the ordinary news reporting and editing, but rather a study of current news stories to inform the writing of editorials on subjects of prominent public interest. The department went steadily forward to a position of prominence in journalism, creative writing, and graduate work in rhetorical theory and criticism. Students interested in these subjects were attracted to the University of Michigan from all parts of the country.
In 1903, Scott and the new Department of Rhetoric took up quarters in the old West Hall. The building was later repeatedly condemned, but was not abandoned for over twenty years. It had no private offices and sometimes as many as four instructors would be holding conferences in the same room at the same time. It was so crowded that a passageway less than ten feet wide was used as a classroom, and another of the same sort as office and library.