Instruction in oral communication, at least to some degree, has been included in the curriculum since Cal Poly opened its doors in 1903. At the time, oral communication had yet to evolve as a discrete academic discipline; instead, the normal practice was for English departments to house instruction in composition, literature, drama, and oral communication. The first official reference to oral communication in the Cal Poly curriculum is found in the 1904 course catalog, where a description of the subject matter addressed in English courses includes "oral communication . . . oral discussion and debating."
When the school formed disciplinary units in 1936, the English curriculum included a single course in Public Speaking, which involved instruction in public address, discussion, and debate. Over the next decade, oral communication instruction expanded to a point where the university renamed the department English and Public Speaking, followed a few years later by the name English and Speech. By the mid-50s, oral communication courses had their own academic prefix (SP) and separate listing in the college catalog under the heading Speech.
In 1969, the college formed a standalone Speech Department, introducing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Speech and an academic minor. The new department included seven faculty, thirty-four majors, and a thirty-three course curriculum including offerings such as debate, discussion, oral interpretation, persuasion, public speaking, rhetorical theory and criticism, speech pathology, broadcasting, and drama (the drama courses ultimately formed the core of a new Theatre and Dance department). The department and degree program were renamed Speech Communication in 1973 in response to the program's broader objective of preparing "students planning to enter many other fields related to the communicative arts and sciences."
In 2005, the university approved a long overdue change in the name of the department, degree program, and academic minor to Communication Studies. The curriculum currently includes thirty-nine courses, nearly thirty faculty, and more than three hundred student majors and minors. The Communication Studies degree program is now among the most popular in the College of Liberal Arts, with more than 1,200 applicants vying for approximately fifty annual admissions slots.