Wednesday, May 28, 2008

What? How? and How Well?

Having just read an Atlantic essay entitled In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, I'm a little anxious about reentering the classroom in my formal role as an associate professor of communication studies.

It's not that I've been out of the classroom for too long. Just this spring I taught two Peer Mentor training seminars composed of bright, dedicated, and inspirational students learning to assume leadership roles on campus. Students entering those classes were selected competitively, and even course completion offered no guarantee that they'd become peer mentors. These folks wanted to be present and yearned to succeed.

Summer classes in my home field can be a little different, though. No doubt, many motivated students take these classes. But a sizable number of students show up for reasons that sadden me: The class fits their schedule. They're knocking out core requirements. They want to "get it over with" in six weeks (something like tearing off a bandage).

These folks deserve a useful, accessible, and (dare I say it?) reasonably interesting introduction to the field of communication studies. And yet many have not been adequately prepared for the challenges of an upper-level course. The writing requirements, the technical terms, the abstract theories, and the demand for precision will test students in new and even frightening ways.

That's why I'm spending time rethinking fundamentals about this course. What are its objectives? What are its obligations? What must students be able to do when they complete COMM 101? Providing clear answers to those questions is, I think, the first step for both my students and me. To that end, I'm toying with the following parameters: Students (and professors) should be able to articulate "what," "how," and "how well."

"What" refers to the following question: What are the contexts of communication studies? Contexts include sites of communication such as organizational settings, interpersonal settings, familial settings, and the like. Contexts also include media such as speaking, writing, and online communication. I should add that the most fundamental "what" -- what is communication? -- may be usefully defined as "shared sense-making." Communication, therefore, is the creation of some shared sense through some medium in some context.

"How" refers to the following question: How do we practice effective communication? "How" is tricky because it occurs on at least two levels: the level of the practitioner and the level of the theorist. To practice is to do with purpose and repetition; to theorize is to speculate on the outcomes of that practice. At some level, it's hard to imagine a person who is not both: a person practicing the art of communication in the moment and a person theorizing about what manner of communication will be effective, either now or at some other moment.

Lower division classes such as Fundamentals of Public Speaking focus on practice: how to manage anxiety, how to organize main ideas, how to avoid fidgeting with your hands, and the like. These classes are based in theories that have evolved since the beginnings of human civilization. Yet theories float hazily in the background of most Public Speaking classes. For students at least, doing this speech is the primary concern.

At the upper division, it's more appropriate to explore "how" at a theoretical level. How, for example, does Kenneth Burke's notion of dramatism help us select strategies in various speaking contexts or anticipate the strategies used by others? These questions demand more than an understanding of practice; these questions demand an understanding of method, a way of practicing that exists apart from the practice itself. At this level, "how" refers both to the doing of communication and the doing of communication theory, what we call research.

"How well," finally, calls for us to judge communication in terms of utility, aesthetics, and ethics. Is it practical? Is it artistic? Is it good? "How well" questions invite us to consider communication as more than the mere application of words to problems or theories to words. These questions challenge us to measure our choices according to some standard of quality. Answering these questions, students of communication are invited to explore, articulate, and employ standards that connect doing well to doing right.

I'm cautiously optimistic that "what," "how," and "how well" will help my students get something from Introduction to Communication Studies. It's not so much that these questions are the ideal articulation for the class. There are many other approaches that might work more effectively. But I believe they are clear enough to provide even reticent students some orientation to the purpose of this class. And with purpose comes motivation.

I've seen it work before. I'm sure that students who took COMM 149: Rhetoric and Public Life (here are my blog posts on that course) have probably forgotten our discussions about General Motors at the 1939 World's Fair or Thomas More's attitudes on religion in his Utopia. But I'll bet that most remember the three questions that organized that class: "Who's in? Who's out? Who decides?" Those questions helped students make sense of an admittedly strange experience, one built around a convergence of departmental objectives and personal passions. The questions guided the students, and they guided me.

Maybe these questions (new to me, but hardly new) will accomplish the same goal in COMM 101.

1 comment:

detroit dog said...

Great to read this! While I don't know Communications per se, I do know art. I'm a stickler for history and theory and the understanding of WHY. Why is Courbet important? Why is Rauschenberg important? WHAT, HOW, HOW WELL, and WHY lead us to understanding, which in turn leads to true - and constructive - criticism.

A friend of ours teaches music history at a local university and her students complain that she is "too hard"; students take the class as a "core requirement," and are surprised when they need to learn that music history goes back more than 20 years. sad.