Monday, May 21, 2007

Adventures in College Forensics

(1994 photo by Michelle Holtzman)
Every once and a while I plan to write an autobiographical essay in this blog, describing a few of the formative experiences that made me who I am. It’s entirely self-centered, this activity of personal reflection, and I make no apologies for the presumptuous nature of this writing. I have no idea of whether my recollections matter to anyone else but me, but I’ll post these occasional stories anyway. Some topics likely to follow include my courtship with Jenny, my hitch with the Navy, which included my first road trip and a time I almost got turned into hamburger on a flight deck, and my choice to become a college professor. I’ll write and revise these entries in no particular order. In that spirit, let me begin with a college activity that is responsible for virtually everything I’ve done professionally thereafter: forensics.

Initially I should begin with a note of explanation. Forensics refers to the deployment and evaluation of evidence, often in a legal forum. Yet the concept of forensics has been applied to a wide range of topics, including forensic accounting, forensic computing, and even forensic linguistics. Most commonly you’ll hear about forensics in relation to medicine in shows such as C.S.I., the popular medical procedural. When I was growing up, the television show Quincy, M.E. introduced me to forensic medicine, though I wouldn’t have recognized the term. Either way, wherever people gather, weigh, and debate evidence concerning the truth of a thing or idea, they are engaged in forensics.

I first heard the term “forensics” when I was invited to join a speech team. For these folks, forensics refers to the search for truth through oratory, typically speech and debate. While I was not initially interested in joining a forensics team, I ended up competing for two forensics programs. From 1990 to 1992 I competed at St. Petersburg Junior College, Clearwater Campus (now St. Petersburg College). From 1992 to 1994 I competed at Berry College in Rome, Georgia. I even helped coach the forensics program at Ohio University from 1994 through 1998 while I was finishing grad school. Those eight years were exciting and exhausting. Occasionally I’ll write about some of my speech adventures and maybe even discuss my thoughts about the practical and philosophical aspects of forensics. But for now, let me tell you how I got involved in this activity.

My beginning as a forensicator started in my very first college experience, a speech class in the summer session. I took this particular section from a large choice of options because it fit my schedule. I'd just left the service and had begun freelancing for a few local video production companies during the day, and night classes were my only option. So I showed up to Bonnie Clark’s “baby speech” class, ready to learn the fundamentals of human communication. Really, I was ready to grab my credits and motor out of there. I’d had plenty of experience in various media of public speaking due to my previous job as an active duty Navy journalist, and I wasn’t too jazzed about this particular class. Professor Clark, however, saw something in me right away, and she was determined for me to take this experience seriously.

We all had to give introductory impromptu speeches on our first evening. This activity allows even reticent students to stand up and talk about something within their field of expertise, themselves. For a faculty member, it's a good opportunity to gauge whether some students face profound communication apprehension and to offer those rare students individualized attention. For everyone else, it’s a chance to get to know classmates and realize that the course isn’t so bad after all. I don’t remember the content of my speech, but I remember Professor Clark’s pointed questions afterward: “Do you have a job?” “Do you work every day?” I said yes to both counts and took my seat, feeling a bit self-conscious. She chatted briefly with other students’ speeches, but not with the same vibe. Fairly soon, she told me about the campus speech team, suggesting that I’d really enjoy it. I was polite but firm: No thanks. I was busy trying to handle a job with odd, unpredictable hours, my duties as a young husband and father, my Navy reserve obligations, and my coursework. I’d done poorly in high school, taking my classes lightly, and I was determined not to make the same mistakes again. She left me alone, realizing I was not an easy sell, but she didn’t forget.

By the end of the course, Professor Clark provided everyone an individualized gradesheet. I remember folks leaving the class, knowing how they did. Some smiled, others were less happy. Regardless, the class was over for them. But my gradesheet had no grade. Instead, the paper said something like, “See me.” Waiting to see Professor Clark I fretted plenty. But she quickly informed me that I’d done just fine in her class. I got the grade I expected. She simply wanted to remind me that the speech team met regularly at a certain hour in a certain place, and that she would not tolerate me being late. When given a choice, I could refuse. But when given an order -- well, I had just left the Navy, and I hadn’t yet forgotten how to take orders. It seemed, like it or not, that I’d been drafted.

I am so grateful for that additional duty to my hectic life, because forensics taught me so many things. I learned that I could prepare and deliver a six and one-half minute speech on a randomly drawn topic with 30 seconds of preparation (and months of practice). I learned that I could parse professional journals for evidence to support my original speeches about topics ranging from political correctness to antibiotic resistant bacteria to an analysis of Slobodan Milosevic’s rhetoric. I learned that I could be dropped off on any college campus anywhere in the country, find my way to some poorly marked building, and convince a classroom full of strangers to see the world my way. With forensics I developed a love of literature, a taste for scholarship, and an awareness of many of my own strengths, weaknesses, and growth opportunities. Because of this activity, and the tutelage of forensics coaches Bonnie Clark and Randy Richardson, I decided to become a college professor.

So now I teach public speaking during the winter or summer session, when students are stressed and often just wanting to get through. I can relate to them. Most of my students are working class folks. Virtually all hold down a job, many are first-generation college students, and quite a few are parents or full-time caregivers. These are not necessarily the folks whom you visualize competing against the best forensicators in the country. But with just a little coaching, some can. So I keep my eyes open for that one special person, a student who might be just like me when I was first in school -- somewhat cocky, a bit overworked, and absolutely sure that forensics is only for medical examiners. That student is in for a big surprise!

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