New Cac Post: Palm-of-the-Hand Speeches

Just posted something new to my favorite teacherly blog, See the thing in its glossy original here.

Throughout his long career, Japanese Writer Yasunari Kawabata wrote a series of short short stories, which he referred to as his “Palm-of-the-Hand Stories.” Kawabata produced 146 of these stories, becoming a true “palmist,” even if his notoriety in the West is focused on his novels.  As described by the editors of the published collection, Kawabata believed that these little stories expressed the “essence of his art.”

I first read these stories in an experimental prose writing course a bunch of years ago, and the concept of these one-to-three page gems intrigued me. I was reminded of these stories this past semester, when, through my work supporting Advanced Accounting, a Communication Intensive Course, I found myself confronting palm-of-the-hand speeches. When I first learned that students had only two-to-three minutes to present their assigned material, I was skeptical. Two minutes to discuss a contemporary concept in accountancy?

As the semester progressed, and I struggled to help students condense the finer points of recording intangible assets on balance sheets, I necessarily focused on the benefits of these l’il speeches. Just as Kawabata’s stories are deeply complex while also being succinct, shorter speeches have the same potential. Translator J. Martin Holman could be talking about ACC 4100 speeches when he writes of the relationship between Kawabata’s small stories and his longer works:

“The palm-of-the-hand story appears to have been Kawabata’s basic unit of composition from which his longer works were built, after the manner of linked-verse poetry, in which discrete verses are joined to form a longer poem, the linkage between each dependent on subtle shifts as the poem continues.”

While longer speaking opportunities are still crucial for our students, these palm-of-the-hand speeches can give students a better familiarity with the basic units of composition required for larger speeches. I used to think of two minute speeches as a good exercise in summarizing, editing and brevity, but they do have their structural benefits, as well.  According to Holman, Kawabata mastered this form using certain elements (the same ones that would make any Palmist speech exiting); “juxtaposition of images,” “unique perception,” and “intriguing and memorable” plots– not reductions, but distillations of larger worlds.

There are clear positives and negatives to assigning such a short presentation, but on certain days, the luxury of having a lot of time to concentrate on just two minutes of material did seem like a very Palmist exercise. Students themselves, however, don’t always see the merits of this, and, rather than viewing it as the essence of their art, are more apt to view the assignment as the gnat buzzing around their schoolwork.  How might it be possible to elevate and enliven these palm-of-the-hand speeches to the place that Kawabata realized they deserve?