Who is the Audience?


Who is the Audience?

Earlier this semester a friend confided in me that he was having trouble writing, and I callously guffawed, “It’s just a blog post”. How those words haunt me now. I have experienced an inordinate amount of consternation, conflict and ultimately exasperation in my previous three attempts to compose this post. Each time I wrote about a page, and then decided that I couldn’t, wouldn’t or shouldn’t publish it on Cacophony. I felt like I was sinking into intellectual quicksand, the more I struggled, the deeper I sunk into a certainty that the writing I had spent an embarrassing amount of time on – literally hours – was for naught. As I sank lower and lower into the mire I began to ponder the thoughts and emotions that I felt were stopping me from blogging. I had set out to write a quick post about my research on blogging and I felt as though the very concepts that inspired me to conduct my research were the same forces that were making it difficult to write about this research. In brief, my work focuses on how the medium in which students compose expressive writing – on a blog as compared to in MS Word – interacts with their cognitive and emotional processes and the ways they write, and I am subsequently exploring how these differences can be measured, and ultimately making an argument for why these differences matter. After discarding the first draft of this post I chuckled at the thought that I couldn’t blog about my dissertation on blogging but hours later – still with nothing to show – I wasn’t laughing anymore.

First I attempted to write about my preliminary results.  stop#1

What I’m noticing is that over time the participants are using more evaluative language – meaning they were investing more meaning and effort into their work. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath poised to compose the next sentence. All of a sudden I was in front of my dissertation committee, a stern silverback professor hand on chin in the thinker pose questioned, “But in that blog post you wrote, you stated that evaluative devices would increase and now it seems that is not the case. Can you explain this?”

you suck porsche

I woke sweat drenched in a dark room, a red streak where my  face had pressed against the keyboard. No, no, I decided I  certainly couldn’t blog about my preliminary results.

Well, I thought, what if I write about my coding schema.stop#2

That seemed like a safe idea. I’d even begun describing it in cursory terms in my never to be published preliminary results. I again began banging away at the keyboard, this time describing the syntagmatic narrative-coding schema. But how could I describe this coding schema in a way that seemed relevant and meaningful to an audience not from my mini-niche discipline? How could I convince readers that the system I had spent hours fine-tuning with my adviser and research assistants was meaningful and worthwhile? Should I cite numerous theoretical and research articles in my blog post? If so, should I use APA, MLA or Chicago style and if Chicago would this be Chicago I or II? Even these questions seemed like they would bore readers to sleep. Furthermore, wouldn’t readers want to know at least what my preliminary results of this schema were? And I was still collecting data – what if some of my participants happened upon this post and then changed the way they were writing? No, oh no, I thought, this post on my coding schema would not do. Let me try something new.

Finally, I thought let me describe my methods.stop#3

Ah yes, I can just use some of what I’ve already written in my proposal and this will come easily. But of course it didn’t. The excerpts from my proposal were too dense and psychology specific. I decided to rewrite the methods with more accessible language. When I was nearly finished I realized what I had written was in fact better than my proposal and therefore could serve well as at least part of the method section for my final dissertation draft. And if I wanted to use it for my dissertation draft or perhaps for future publications than I had best not web-publish it. Why not a reader might wonder? As a psychology PhD candidate I’ve though a lot about whether to digitally publish my dissertation. What’s pushed me towards a traditional paper dissertation is the American Psychological Association guidelines, and subsequently any APA journals, that state a manuscript should not be more than 30% similar to work that is previously published. Without getting too far into the gritty details if I blogged my methods section it would make it difficult to use similar wording for future publications.

I’ve used this post to work through and make sense of my thoughts and emotions.

After writing about these fits and starts my audiences seem much less intimidating than when they were bottled up in my mind. In truth, unless I send them the link I don’t think my professors nor my participants will read this piece – and even then… Nor is it likely that whatever I wrote about my coding schema or methods would be identical to what I will write for future journal articles. One question is – does it matter that in “real life” these scenarios were unrealistic? In real life, I was wrestling with these thoughts and they were enough stop me from being able to or at least made me feel as though I couldn’t blog – which is sort of the same thing in the end. The power of these imagined audiences was literally paralyzing. Perhaps too, I was struggling to write about my dissertation because this work is so important to me, and I have yet to figure out how to distill the main points into a concise and accessible blog post. The struggle described in this post has likely moved me closer to being able to do just that.

There is also something very real about imagined audiences. And the commonality between my three false starts was my struggles with these audiences and the very real – though perhaps difficult to exactly define – audience of Cacophony readers. I was struggling to imagine Cacophony’s audience and therefore I was having trouble framing my argument in concise and accessible language. And what do those words really mean? Concise and accessible to whom? Business faculty, communications specialists (I’m not even sure what that means), psychologists, educators, linguists? I should admit I’m new to Cacophony this semester and though I did browse through some previous posts – it was by no means an exhaustive search – so maybe this has been answered. And maybe I’m feeling a bit of what Sarah Ruth Jacobs described on this blog in 2011 as The Academic Crisis of Audience. But enough caveats here’s my question to you reader: who is the audience for this blog?

Think! Think and wonder. Wonder and think.

Think! Think and wonder.
Wonder and think.

Challenges in Writing Across the Curriculum at CUNY

Following up on Kristina’s post about her experience as a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) fellow at Baruch this year, I thought I’d report on a meeting I attended recently that gave me a glimpse into the state of the WAC fellowship across different CUNY campuses. About a dozen current WAC fellows working at different colleges got together at the Graduate Center at the beginning of April for an unofficial information session to share our experiences with each other and with incoming fellows. The portrait that emerged from the discussion was that of a WAC program that is implemented inconsistently across campuses and of wildly different experiences for WAC fellows.

(A bit of background for those who are unfamiliar with the CUNY system: Most of the CUNY colleges have a WAC program; CUNY graduate students with five-year fellowships are assigned to work as WAC fellows at a particular college in their fifth year, following their stints as Graduate Teaching Fellows [GTFs] in their second through fourth years.)

The tasks that WAC fellows work on at different colleges vary greatly. Perhaps one of the most common things WAC fellows do is work with faculty to help them incorporate WAC principles in their classes. While fellows at many colleges represented at the session I attended undertook this type of work, at some campuses this did not happen at all. Moreover, several fellows reported that it was difficult to recruit faculty to participate in WAC programs, especially in cases where their professional development was not being remunerated, and that senior faculty sometimes expressed discomfort with being advised by inexperienced graduate student fellows. Among many other specific responsibilities, WAC fellows worked one-on-one with students at writing centers, created websites for their college’s WAC programs, edited publications for student writing, and collaborated with faculty from different departments to implement a “linked” course environment. My work at the BLSCI this year offers examples of yet other duties to which a WAC fellow might attend. It was essentially divided between: (1) working with small teams of students in Management and Society courses to help them polish the delivery of their in-class debates; and (2) exploring themes relating to WAC, communication, pedagogy, technology, etc. through my contributions to this blog.

While I don’t think that the diversity of WAC fellows’ work is inherently problematic, one of its main drawbacks, as I see it, is that fellows receive vastly different levels of immersion into the world of WAC. It appears that in well-supported programs where fellows were able to work closely with receptive faculty to revamp their syllabi according to WAC ideals, the fellows themselves came away with lots of resources for their own teaching. On the other hand, tutoring students through writing centers did not seem to give fellows the opportunity to learn deeply about WAC strategies. Personally, even though I did provide the professor whose students I was coaching on oral presentations with some WAC-inspired ideas about low-stakes writing and grading rubrics, my work at Baruch wasn’t centered specifically on WAC. I got some cheap laughs at the meeting by introducing fellows at the other campuses to the acronym that had guided most of my work at the BLSCI, which wasn’t WAC, nor WID (Writing in the Disciplines)… but CAC (see the title of this blog).

Another issue that arose at the meeting that is related to differing responsibilities for WAC fellows is that of uneven workloads. While some fellows felt that their supervisors were squeezing every possible work hour out of them, others had a large amount of idle time due to disorganization in the program at their college. Fellows at more than one campus (including at senior colleges) reported that lack of adequate compensation for the WAC coordinator positions was resulting in a high rate of turnover for this role and leading to frustratingly chaotic conditions for them.

It seemed evident from our discussion that there is a great need for a re-examination of how WAC is implemented at the different colleges and for a forum where the strengths of each program can be shared. Another important point that was raised by numerous fellows was that they felt that they would have benefited enormously from learning about WAC during their prior assignments as GTFs. An idea that I found compelling was that GTFs should get good training in WAC principles after their first year of teaching and have the opportunity to experiment with different WAC strategies during their next two years as instructors. Then, by the time they take on the WAC fellowship in their fifth year of graduate studies, fellows would have a much stronger and personally tested grounding in WAC pedagogy that would not only enhance their own teaching but also put them in a much stronger position to advise other faculty on how to implement WAC. In the past, CUNY WAC fellows had the opportunity to develop their skills more profoundly and offer continuity to their college WAC program over the course of two year appointments. Since the prospect of getting funding from CUNY for two-year WAC positions seems dim, allowing five-year fellowship recipients to engage with WAC ideals earlier in their careers could bring back some of the benefits of the two-year appointment. This change could help address the uneven exposure to WAC that fellows at different colleges receive and provide for a much stronger training than the inadequate CUNY-wide training for WAC fellows that was provided at the beginning of the year (which was also the subject of a good amount of griping at the session).

In light of the challenges faced by WAC fellows, the Doctoral Students Council agreed to discuss the concerns presented at the informal session at one of their plenary meetings, and a DSC working group might be created to evaluate the WAC fellowship.

Speak to Learn: faculty speak their mind in video on oral communication

The classroom is abuzz with students jotting down notes and eagerly inserting themselves into a fast-paced full-class discussion.  Observant comments from every member of the class forward the conversation towards a collective higher understanding of the topic at hand.

This is my go-to vision of ideal classroom discussion.  But as I have immersed myself in conversations about communication across the curriculum here at the Schwartz Communication Institute, I have come to realize that A) this vision is sometimes hard to achieve, and B) it is only one of many models for meaningful oral communication in the classroom.

Why do we urge students to speak in class?  What does success look like when they do so?  What unique roles does oral communication play in the many diverse disciplines that Baruch students study?  These questions are at the center of two projects I’ve been working on this year at BLSCI.

The first is a short video that speaks to the role of spoken communication across the disciplines.  I interviewed three professors here at Baruch: Mathematics professor Peter Gregory, Business Management professor Ed Kurpis, and English professor Cheryl Smith.  I asked them about the role of spoken communication in their disciplines and in their classrooms.  While their responses reflect the particular demands of their disciplines, they all highlight the centrality of speaking to developing ideas and mastering knowledge in the classroom, and to communicating authentically and effectively in the outside world.  See what they have to say here:

The second project is a faculty development workshop that I am leading later this week (Thursday, February 27, 12:45-2:15pm) with Law professor Valerie Watnick.  We’ll be covering a wide variety of strategies for facilitating meaningful, focused and lively discussion in the classroom.  You can find details about this workshop, and all BLSCI workshops and roundtables, here.

Team-Based Learning… and Teaching Communication Skills: Incompatible?

Last spring, while serving in my last semester as a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Brooklyn College, I attended a workshop introducing faculty to Team-Based Learning (TBL), a pedagogical approach that has been gaining steam in the academy over the last couple of decades. I had just completed my first few years of university teaching, during which I had tried—drawing on piecemeal sources and largely following my own intuition—to find alternatives to the “sage on stage” teaching model with which I was most familiar. Although I thought that I had had some successes in restructuring many components of my courses to promote a more participatory environment, I still felt frustrated by the concentration of participation among a relatively small number of students, and by the haphazard-seeming quality of some of my group activities (not to mention the outright hostility with which some students reacted to group projects).

Kasia’s recent post discussed the concept of “flipped” classrooms, in which students get their initial dosage of “content” outside of class and then spend in-class time doing the higher-order cognitive work of applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and discussing the material. The same basic philosophy underpins TBL, although the touted benefits of highly structured teamwork are obviously a key aspect of the latter. According to the TBL literature, the worst teams typically outperform the top students in TBL classes.

There are four key design principles to TBL:

  1. Strategically formed, permanent teams: Instructors form teams of five to seven students and distribute the class’s strengths and weaknesses evenly among them. This can be achieved by administering a survey early in the course that asks about work experience, previous course work, number of credits being taken concurrently, intercultural experience, etc. Groups work together for the remainder of the course.
  2. Readiness Assurance Process: As with the “flipped” approach, students are expected to acquire the foundational knowledge for each class unit before it starts, usually through readings. Students’ preparation to engage closely with the content in subsequent activities is tested at the beginning of each unit. First, students do a short multiple-choice test individually; they then do the same test in teams with the Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique—a type of “scratch-and-win” card where students keep trying until they uncover the correct answer. Teams are then encouraged to appeal some of their wrong answers with evidence from the readings. The process concludes with a mini-lecture by the instructor to review particularly difficult concepts.
  3. Application Activities: Activities in which the course content is applied are supposed to take up the majority of class time in TBL courses. Application activities are guided by the “4 S’s” principle: they should heighten student interest by focussing on a significant problem; promote inter-team discussion by assigning all teams to the same problem; ensure comparability between team answers by requiring a specific choice; and require simultaneous reporting of answers by all teams—this can be done with voting cards, or now with numerous technological aids—as a way for both the instructor and students to gauge contrasts in student thinking and use them as starting points for discussion.
  4. Peer Evaluation: One of the most significant drawbacks to group work is that one or two better-qualified students often end up carrying the group while others get a “free ride.” While the collaborative structure of TBL application activities is supposed to eliminate the possibility for individuals to do all of the work, integrating peer evaluation into the grading scheme will also help motivate students to contribute to their team.

My main concern with TBL at this point is about how to include an emphasis on developing communication and writing skills in the course structure. The FAQ on the Team-Based Learning Collaborative site is unequivocal in its stance on group writing and presentation projects:

In many ways using “good” in relation to “writing assignments for groups” is an oxymoron.

It goes on to say that while group presentations might be somewhat beneficial to the groups doing the presenting, they don’t foster dynamic learning for the whole class the way “4-S” activities do, and are therefore, it is implied, out of step with the overall approach. I agree with TBL advocates that much of the group work we assign students is little more than individual assignments requiring minimal student coordination. But surely there is educational value in having students build “lengthy products,” something TBL philosophy proscribes. Of course, it’s not like entire departments are switching over to TBL en masse, so plenty of opportunities remain for implementing writing and communication strategies in other courses. But are substantial written assignments and oral presentations really incompatible with teamwork, as TBL guidelines would have us believe? Is the only way to include these important educational aspects in a TBL course to disrupt the conventional course design—and potentially compromise its pedagogical benefits—to make room for them? Learning about TBL made me look forward to getting back into the classroom to try it out, but working in a communication institute makes me wonder if TBL needs to be adjusted to meet broader academic goals.

Speaking to Learn

Like many of my colleagues in the PhD program in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, I’ve spent a lot of time in the first five years of my program teaching (and even more time learning to teach!) college writing to undergraduates. I’ve taught freshman composition at Borough of Manhattan Community and Queens Colleges, completed a writing fellowship at Medgar Evers College, and currently teach research and writing in the humanities and social sciences to juniors and seniors at York College. What was less familiar to me as a new Communication Fellow with the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute at Baruch College is the Institute’s focus on formal oral communication in the classroom. Of course, students in both my composition and literature classes spend plenty of time — at least half the period — talking to each other. Like most English teachers, I assign discussion prompts along with readings and put students into small groups to hash out these questions before responding to the whole class. Yet, I seem rather to have inherited these practices from my old teachers than to have thought about how to structure them into my syllabi and align them with my learning objectives. It occurs to me that, until this year, I’ve never tried to teach my students how to speak in class, nor made that teaching part of my syllabus.

So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to structure class discussions around a specific set of learning goals — especially how students can use what they are saying in class as pre-drafting exercises for their more formal communications. One of the core principles of Writing Across the Curriculum is the use of writing throughout the syllabus as a pedogogical tool rather than merely as an instrument to assess student learning — what’s known in WAC lingo as “writing-to-learn.” Likewise, in a truly communication-intensive course, the goal of classroom discussion and oral presentation should be more than simply to demonstrate what students have learned at the end of a reading, unit, or course. More than that, oral communication in the classroom can be — should be — an opportunity for students to practice the rhetorical moves they will use in their formal writing and public speaking. Students should be speaking not simply to demonstrate prior learning, but also to activate new learning. After all, the elements of persuasive writing we teach in the classroom — argument and evidence, audience and tone, clarity and structure — have their roots in the Classical rhetoric of oral argument. Moreover, I suspect, students already have a sense of what these things sound like, even if they don’t always know how to translate that sound into their own writing. Indeed, even before my conversion to CAC principles in the classroom, I have long suspected that much of the “jerkiness,” the lack of fluency, in students’ writing comes from their never having spoken about what they’re writing — perhaps never even having read their writing aloud, even to themselves.

With these considerations in mind, while designing the theme and choosing readings for my new Research and Writing in the Majors course at York College in Jamaica, Queens, I thought about what would not only engage students’ interest, but also provoke strong opinions and stimulate lively classroom discussions. Our theme (arrived at after some trepidation, which I will discuss later) is “Policing the City,” and the readings revolve around U. S. District Court judge Shira A. Scheindlin’s opinion in the the case of  Floyd v. City of New York – the “stop and frisk” lawsuit against the city and its police department — which was filed just two weeks before the start of classes at CUNY late this summer.

The attractions of this theme were two-fold. First, not only was the case much in the news and, therefore, already familiar in its basic facts to most of my students; many of my students are African-American and Latino youth from high-crime neighborhoods in the city and, therefore, much more likely to be the targets of stop-and-frisk policing than their cohorts at, say, NYU or Columbia, as Judge Scheindlin’s opinion explicitly finds. Second, ever since my own undergraduate years as a Human Service Advocacy major with a minor in legal studies (I worked as a client advocate in community-based HIV/AIDS service), I have come to believe that the study of legal reasoning and research is the best education in persuasive writing. I learned to write (to the extent that I can write) by drafting hypothetical legal briefs — finding applicable statutes and case law and applying them to a set of facts, always with an ear to what would make a compelling oral argument. Even today, as a second-career, PhD student in English, I still have an easier time with the difference between “probable cause” and “reasonable suspicion” than with the distinction between metaphor and metonymy.

I have said that I began this course with some trepidation. Like all my anxieties, this one took the form of two polar opposite fears: either my students would bristle at the presumptions of this middle-aged, white guy with his New England speech patterns, and shut down before the conversation even began; or else they would be so animated (not to say agitated) by the subject and their personal experiences with it that they would be unable to analyze and discuss the readings with equanimity. I am happy to report (albeit only 3 weeks into the term) that the sentiment of the class has tended toward the latter extreme: the push-back against personal anecdote and emotional appeal has provided many “teachable moments” already this term. To be fair, I give students the opportunity to pose an argument of their own in the second essay. But at first, I ask them to straight-jacket their opinions, and simply to analyze the Executive Summary of the judge’s Opinion in light of Jeffrey Toobin’s  New Yorker article, which provides some background to Scheindlin’s history of judicial activism. During classroom discussions, to facilitate this dispassionate analysis, I provide a template for students that is inspired by some of the templates in Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s composition text They Say, I Say, which guides students to a three-part full response:

  1. Introduce the source (either the text or the student to whom she or he is responding);
  2. Summarize or paraphrase the source’s argument; and
  3. Respond to the source with his or her own argument — either in agreement, disagreement, or something in between.

For example, when one student argues that the city’s stop-and-frisk policy has been an effective tool in fighting crime, another student might be prompted to respond:

I hear you say, based on your understanding of the city’s testimony, that the intrusion on individual liberty is a reasonable price to pay for increased security. While there is a certain ‘common sense’ truth to this argument, as Judge Scheindlin argues, this case is not about the effectiveness of the practice, but rather about its constitutionality. What’s clear from the testimony and the judge’s decision is that there is a clear violation of the the 4th Amendment, and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U. S. Constitution in the prosecution of this policy. Either of which is intolerable, even in the face of the public’s fear of increased crime rates.

While some might argue that such templates restrict students too closely to a particular rhetorical form, I have found them to be effective means for students to gain initial entry into academic discourse. Even while students are working on the nuances of their arguments, they can begin to think of their oral responses as full rhetorical structures, rather than simple “I agree” or “I disagree” responses.

It’s early in the term. In fact, I’m writing this blog post in between writing the guidelines for our first peer review, which we will be conducting tomorrow! But, based on the classroom discussions our course has generated so far, I expect to see some lively and thoughtful analysis of this judicial ruling. What I hope will come of our guided classroom discussion is that students will have a bank of analyses to draw upon as they write their own opinions of the case in their next essays. Moreover, through their readings and guided classroom discussions of ancillary texts, I want students to have learned a pattern of quote-and-respond — oral and written — that will serve them in their individual disciplines, throughout their college and professional careers.

Anything You Tweet May be Used Against You in a Court of Law…

As is becoming increasingly clear, the United States government is laying claim to virtually all forms of electronic communication. The latest revelations tell us that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been, since at least 2007, working with private corporations to monitor and archive the emails, phone calls, text messages, and internet browser histories of millions of people. The secret program, called PRISM, is part of a disturbing pattern of government surveillance in the years since 9/11.

While the details of these programs are still in the process of being disclosed, many Americans, as this New York Times piece suggests, have become resigned to the idea of a total lack of privacy in the digital age, assuming that nearly anything they type into an electronic device could be subjected to government snooping.

I’m certain that our students have internalized this notion. As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, young people are increasingly aware that their internet activities, including on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, may be viewed by potential employers and factored into hiring decisions. This thought is horrifying enough, but the reality is that more than just employers are interested in mining your data:  corporations want that information for advertising profits, and the national security apparatus wants to run your Tweets and status updates through A.I. keyword algorithms, collecting and archiving justifications for your future arrest and incarceration. Do I sound paranoid? Maybe. But with the New York State Assembly currently considering a law making it a felony (like, prison time) to “annoy” a police officer, please excuse my cynicism.

So, how do we address these issues as teachers of communication? Since it’s basic psychology (and physics) that the act of being observed alters a subject’s behavior, we can assume that the wide cultural awareness (whether conscious or unconscious) that our digital life is being observed by forces potentially hostile to our interests (whether those interests be securing employment, maintaining realities free of personally-tailored consumer propaganda, or avoiding being black-bagged and subjected to extraordinary rendition by private security agents) changes the way we and our students behave online. Since I’m the type of person that frequently experiments with charged political language on social media, I’m often running my thoughts through a legal processor in my mind before clicking “Post,” wondering if what I write might be projected on a screen in front of me someday while a cigar-chomping investigator asks me accusingly what I meant when I posted a photo of a kitten dressed up as Che Guevara on Christmas morning, 2008.  And I’m afraid I won’t have a good answer.

Are my fears overblown?  Again, maybe.  I’ll concede that, being a historian of the Cold War era, I’ve internalized a certain amount of pathological distrust for giant security states. And I’m definitely pre-programmed to become immediately concerned that government surveillance intimidates and silences people that are working for social and economic change, exactly the kind of voices that we need to be listening to and honoring at this moment. But beyond the political stuff, I suppose my main concern for our students is that they will be even more cautious in their digital lives, fearing that they might not “get a job” if they post anything deemed offensive. While it’s important for them (and us) to be thoughtful about the ways that we communicate online, that impulse should not come from fear of punitive action from companies and governments. It’s frightening and disheartening to think that, at the very moment that humanity develops technology with seemingly infinite potential to foster connection and innovation, particularly for young people, elite forces are hard at work creating the practical and psychological frameworks to put severe limits on that evolution.

Finding Your Objective

I was a shy kid.  Participating in theatre helped me gain confidence and find my voice, or at least a voice—or, more likely, many different voices.  I was aware of many of the freedoms theatre afforded, such as a path leading beyond inhibitions and a space to explore alternate identities.  But I wasn’t cognizant of one of the central lessons imparted: that whenever you communicate, you occupy a certain position, you have an audience, and you have an objective.

As the academic year comes to a close and I reflect on my work supporting Business Policy students as a Writing Fellow, as well as teaching Speech Communication, it occurs to me that one the most important skills I’ve worked on with students is that of speaking with purpose and awareness of audience.

Who is your audience?Photo: the Globe Theatre, London, 2008, by Poliphilo.

Who is your audience?
Photo: the Globe Theatre, London, 2008, by Poliphilo.

It is a common practice in various offshoots of method acting for an actor to identify the objectives that drive a character’s every statement and action.  The idea is that people speak and do in order to get things from other people: things as concrete as money, or as abstract as sympathy, affection, affirmation, respect, etc.

Yet so many classroom presentations seem to flounder in the face of this question: what is the speaker’s objective?  What does she want to get out of the communicative act at hand?  In a classroom context, this question sometimes seems irrelevant.  Students, after all, know they are fulfilling required tasks for educational purposes.  I’m becoming a great enthusiast of presentation assignments that simulate a context, audience, and set of objectives more specific than those implicit in a classroom exercise.  Without this clear premise of situation, role, and audience, classroom presenters are often at a loss as to how to present with “professional demeanor” and “awareness of audience.”  I suspect it can sometimes feel that the expectation for them to do so is contrived and unnecessary.

The final group presentation for Business Policy 5100 is an interesting example.  While the assignment varies from professor to professor, many versions require students to inhabit the position of some kind of consultant, and to speak to a particular audience such as a company’s board of directors or potential investors.  Students this semester, mostly graduating seniors, told me that while they had given plenty of presentations throughout their years at Baruch, they had little or no experience embodying a professional role and speaking to a simulated professional audience for a classroom assignment.  This is no easy feat.

I wonder now how the exploration of this role-assumption could be practiced in class throughout the semester, rather than just in this last assignment.  After all, discussing what someone should do in a particular situation is different from embodying the scenario itself—a lesson that I suspect any academic discipline could borrow from the realm of theatre and performance training.

“Here, YOU write this down”

Photo by City Year

During the first several years of my teaching career, like many other teachers, I became very accustomed to using the white (or, in the case of some CUNY classrooms, the black) board to underline key points of lectures and discussions.  A typical class period might have seen me leading a discussion about a particular piece of reading material, periodically turning my back on the students to write out pieces of what they are saying. Although I always liked the idea of visually underlining the knowledge we collectively created using the board, I’ve also always felt a bit disconnected from students when spending so much class time busily taking dictation. Plus, all that writing is tiring!

So, in the past few semesters I’ve started handing off the task of writing on the board to the students themselves. I bring about a dozen dry-erase markers to every class, leave them on the front table, and invite the students to get up out of their seats, grab a marker, and put something up on the board for all to see.  Since I started incorporating this technique into more formalized exercises, I’ve noticed a few immediate, and unexpected, benefits:

1.  First, it loosens things up. With the class divided into small groups, with each group responsible for writing a few notes or arguments or quotes drawn from readings, students become more physically active, moving about the room, and talking to each other. The atmosphere of the room feels more exciting, like a learning laboratory. Rather than acting as a disseminator of knowledge, my role is transformed to that of a guide, helping students along their own path of critical inquiry.

2.  Because of the prevalence of social media, students are increasingly comfortable with the idea of “public postings.”  By duplicating the framework of a Facebook status or a tweet, but layering in a more rigorous and critical element to the production of such writing, I’ve found students to be generally very receptive to the idea of complicated knowledge condensed through careful composition. During a recent exercise in my U.S. History survey, for example, I asked students to imagine that they were administrating the Twitter account of different figures from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. After reading pieces from Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Ella Baker, Stokely Carmichael, and others, I found many students eager to approach the board to attempt to fashion a tweet that accurately reflected the complex arguments made in these readings. As I surveyed a board full of these tweets, I realized that the exercise was really just asking them to draw out the main points of the work; there is nothing groundbreaking about that. But the marker in their hands, along with the form of social media, unquestionably helped many students to make connections that they hadn’t noticed before.

3. While students are writing on the board, I often take the opportunity to ask them about what they are writing and why they chose to put it up on the board. This is perhaps the most unexpected and rewarding element of the exercise.  Since the other students are working on their own readings, I have the time to have a one-on-one discussion with the student at the board, and since so many students are uncomfortable speaking in front of the whole class, I’m able to make contact (and actually get to know) a wider section of my class than ever before.

4. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, putting the marker in students’ hands transfers power from the instructor to the students themselves. They are the creators of knowledge, and the recorders of that knowledge, and because they are sharing their thoughts in writing with the rest of the class on the board, aiming for those thoughts to be useful for everyone else, they are forced to become very critical and selective about their writing, and that’s exactly the point.

As I continue to experiment with these kinds of exercises, I’m realizing that I find the idea of students writing on the board appealing mainly because it transforms the classroom into a different kind of space, a more active space, in which the process of knowledge creation becomes the subject of the class itself.

Hearing the Sound of Your Own Voice

Christian Slater, Pump Up the Volume

Although I have been assisting students with their oral communication skills for the past several years in my capacity as a Writing and (then, later) Communication Fellow at the Schwartz Institute, it is only recently that I have begun more directly engaging in the development of my own oral communication skills. Since February, I’ve been hosting a podcast called Topical Fever (the latest episode of which features our own Hillary Miller talking about her part in producing the web series AmericanMD), and the experience has already taught me many lessons about the relationship between thinking, speaking, and notions of “performance.”

Sitting in front of a microphone, alone in the small office of my apartment that I call “the studio,” with headphones blaring the sound of my own voice right back into my ears, in real time, produces a bizarre kind of self-consciousness. In the same way that students preparing to give oral presentations have the opportunity to view themselves rehearsing these presentations on digital video at the Schwartz Institute, the instant digital mirror that podcasting forces into view was, initially, a shocking experience. And this shock has been shared by many of my guests thus far, who have repeated the commonly expressed idea of “hating the sound of their own voice,” and, I’ll admit, I’ve felt that aural self-hatred my entire life. But producing and editing Topical Fever has forced me to listen to myself, talking, for hours on end. And after the initial horror, the more I’ve listened, the more I’ve noticed all sorts of things about the way I express myself, and have grown more and more comfortable with my voice and how I use it.

How can we help our students develop comfort and confidence with their own voices? One idea might be to create a framework through which students have frequent opportunities to speak in “low stakes” situations during class time. In recent semesters I’ve begun engaging this idea by doing much more group work, which allows me to walk around the class and talk to students in smaller groups (and, often, one-on-one). I find I’ve been able to have direct discussions about class material with far more students than I’ve reached in the past, and that these interactions allow the students a chance to practice talking without the formal pressure of speaking in front of the entire class. This informality also allows each student’s personality to emerge more comfortably, which is, for me, a critical component of the larger process of locating and developing a sense of confidence and authenticity. As I continue to work on my own “authentic” voice, I’m learning that, like a musical instrument, the voice is something that grows more powerful and resonant with constant practice. It makes sense, then, that as educators we should provide as many sites as possible for those student voices to be heard.

Of Superheroes and Roy Scheider

Working as a fellow, one of the most striking things I have seen while working with students is not the verbal material they present, but rather their non-verbal communication and body language.  Many times students huddle together behind the lectern, which I have dubbed their “Fortress of Solitude.”  Most of those who have a speaking role at given time do so while contracting within themselves, as if they would love nothing better than to dig a hole to hide themselves from the critical eye of the instructor and the rest of the class.  I certainly understand that feeling and remember it from days long past as an undergraduate student myself.  The question then is never why, but how to fix this.  After all, as a fellow, that is my mandate. Given that my training is more in the social psychology side of academia, my solutions have naturally been drawn from that field.  More specifically, drawn from Wonder Woman and the research of Dr. Amy Cuddy.

Dr. Cuddy’s research is focused upon how our body language can influence how we feel about ourselves.  Developing a “high power” pose can increase testosterone production, which promotes confidence, and inhibit cortisol, which in turn inhibits stress.  What is a “high power” pose?  According to Dr. Cuddy’s research, most expansive types of body language would be high power poses.  Leaning back in your chair with your feet propped up and hands behind your head; leaning forward onto the table with both hands planted on the table surface.  Or the one the media has loved most and since labeled the “Wonder Woman” pose: feet apart and planted, hands at your waist, shoulders thrown back and head held high.

Of course, statistically significant peer reviewed research can at times be a hard sell to students.  My constant instruction on the useful properties of the Wonder Woman Pose has tended to result in nervous giggles, some of the students perhaps wondering if their fellow has come with a few screws loose.  Cue hilarious laughter when I actually adapt the Wonder Woman Pose in class, tossing my head back in a mock gesture to shake back a luscious head of hair.  Although I wonder if making it a “Superman Pose” would be any more effective, my adherence to the Edna Mode “No capes!” school of cutting edge superhero fashion would greatly diminish the effect.  After all, what would Superman be without his flowing red cape?  Batman would hardly be better.  Have you heard the guy?  The man rarely talks, and when he does he does not enunciate!  That and Batman slouches slightly within the dark recesses of his cape.  Maybe I could ask them to channel Roy Scheider and shout “It’s showtime, folks!” into the mirror…

In the end, superheroes being of no help, I can only reinforce the message to my students much like how a high school football coach would psych up the team: “Don’t withdraw into yourselves!  Walk into your presentation with your back straight, shoulders back, and head held high!  You know the material!  They don’t!”