Monday, November 16, 2009

 

Speaking

Last week I had a chance to speak with some local employers who occasionally hire our graduates. They were gracious and supportive, but when asked about our grads' primary deficiency, the feedback was quick and uniform: speaking skills.

They weren't talking about public speaking per se. Entry level jobs generally don't involve a lot of speeches. They were talking about being articulate on the job. As one of them put it, the receptionist is the face of the firm to the new client. When the face of the firm is inarticulate, or scattered, or mumbly, real damage is done. One employer was particularly happy about a recent hire, whom he described as having it all. When pressed, he clarified that she doesn't seem to be any 'smarter' than others he's had, but that she always maintains a professional demeanor, even when things get hectic.

I'm not sure how to teach that, but I'm pretty sure that we don't really try.

We require at least two semesters of composition -- more than that for those who place developmental -- to make sure that students can produce readable prose that actually says something. That skill is reinforced in most of the upper-level classes in most majors. But we don't require speech courses of almost anybody -- theater being an obvious exception -- and in many classes students can skate by without speaking much at all. When they do speak, it's along the "don't speak unless spoken to" model, and very brief, canned answers suffice.

(A rough parallel may exist in hiring people based on their skill at research, then expecting them to just 'know' how to teach. The written word is assumed to matter; the spoken word is an afterthought.)

Students are routinely exposed to professional speech in class, but in a format that doesn't address what the employers wanted. What they seemed to be looking for was something like poise, an ability to banter in an upbeat way, and the ability to keep professionally cool in the face of stress. You don't really learn any of those by watching and listening to lectures, even if the lectures are good. The speaking they have in mind isn't speechifying; it's something closer to 'conversing,' but in a very specific style.

In a sense, a classroom is a uniquely awful venue for learning this kind of speech. In a workplace, the rookie will be outnumbered by the veterans, and will either raise her game or not. In a classroom, the veteran is badly outnumbered, so the students won't get the feel of it as easily. Worse, the classroom is only a few hours a week.

Internships and co-ops are helpful, but at the cc level, they're pretty limited. Four-year colleges rarely accept the credits in transfer, and relatively few students can afford to work for free. Depending on the placement, too, some of them may not lead to the kind of professional development the employers themselves say they want. (I got the Xerox tan over a few summers myself.) If the local economy were in better shape, we might be able to generate more traction here, but outside of a few specified programs, there isn't much.

So once again, I'll turn to my wise and worldly readers for advice. Have you found ways to help students learn the conventions of speech in the professional workplace?

Comments:
1) Parliamentary debate in community college is one of my fondest memories
2) My CC *did* make everyone take speech, which was annoying in that it didn't transfer particularly usefully, but incredibly valuable in that A) if you can write a speech you can write a paper- the format is more constraining and emphasizes the Function of Communication rather than style (since style is supposed to be added in with delivery) and B) it allowed our CC to keep excellent speech professors and therefore sometimes develop a good speech team (like most extracuriculars at CCs, I suspect how good it was in any given year was kind of variable).
3) Easier to implement: ask your local Toastmasters.

Also keep in mind that to some degree, professionalism has to come from seeing it modeled and maturity. Though if there's a class/training program to accelerate the process, I'd be happy to know about it.
 
I disagree with the statement that the classroom is "a uniquely awful venue for learning this kind of speech". A good liberal arts course of any sort is less lecture and more discussion. Professor throws out a question; student answers somewhat coherently; professor asks a follow-up question designed to get the student to think more deeply about the material; etc. This back-and-forth is exactly what students need to develop poise and clear thinking under pressure.
 
I completely agree: shift more emphasis to in-class debate.

My fall course (yes, I have a light teaching load) is for the incoming grad students, and it's meant to teach them how to engage with the literature in a meaningful way. It's also prep for their first qualifying exam, which is oral format. So, they are forced to actually get up, present, and then answer challenging questions from me and the other students. I have a good crop of students this year, and they are very lively with each other. That gives me lots of opportunities for sharpening their ability to think on their feet, and respond professionally to unexpected and complex situations.

I think it's a twofer: it forces the students to be awake and engaged in class, and it also gives them the training your employers say they want.
 
Sorry Dean Dad,

Your local employers are asking for maturity, not a specific skill set. Now students can acquire that maturity in college, but not in any one course. I think Becca and Rick Bales are on the mark. Its about students developing interpersonal skills through toastmasters, debate team, student clubs, and really well run discussions with a professor.

But these same qualities: maturity, professionalism, and an understanding of workplace etiquette, can also be learned in the military or on the job. There is no one way to do learn it.
 
I recently visited Alverno College (WI), commonly noted for instituting outcomes assessment many years before anyone else. One of the 'abilities' that they cite as necessary for graduation is an ability to converse effectively, argue points and give presentations. They actually videotape Freshmen giving speaking assignments and discussions, then they videotape those same students over the course of their study, documenting changes in their ability to think and speak. Some of the videos I saw were simply amazing. So, it can be taught if it is identified as being important.
 
Does your com department do a small group communication course? That's a good place to get students to work on general team communication skills and self-monitoring behaviors. Also, because of the tie-in with organizational communication I've always been able to work in a unit on general interview and resume skills. Guest speakers are great to help portray the necessity of professional maturity (and model behavior).
 
I suspect these things vary dramatically among individual programs. At my (4-year, not selective--which is a euphemism for open-enrollment--public) institution, our A&S students need not take any speech classes (although some speech classes may be used to fulfill the "humanities" requirement). Our business students (at the other extreme) have to take three (3) speech classes--public speaking, interpersonal communication (small-group), and business and professional speaking.

Also, some of the "how to behave" issues get covered on one of our two (in business) career orientation and job search courses (a total of 3 credit hours). This is, again, something our A&S students can skip.
 
I would look at incorporating formal presentations as well into some of your courses. The more one stands up and speaks in front of a group, whether it's a few or many, the better they will do.

Otherwise, look into something like the "social skills for business-people" exercises that some colleges and universities run. Along with learning how to eat nicely at a table with colleagues, these programs usually touch on exactly the questions your people raise about being articulate, precise and presentable.

Having students peer-review other presentations after having shown them some examples of excellence in brief presentation can be another great eye-opener for the reviewers and recipients.
 
A local technical school has an interdisciplinary lab course. Students from different programs have to design and manufacture an item, then give a presentation on its development. It teaches them to work together. They will quickly find out their weaknesses, as they will be pointed out by other team members.

I'll also mention Toastmasters. I know most areas have clubs that looking for places to meet, to hold contests, and for conferences. You could also form a club for faculty (most professor I know are not that good at public speaking) and or students. Just contact a district or area officer for help and they will assign a club mentor.
 
MY CC has speech courses, but I am not sure how much students get out of them. In my department, art, students are consistently presenting their work on a weekly basis. It is the nature of the field, but I find repetition the best teacher in these circumstances. Occasionally, I change it up and have the students present another student's work. It has proven to be a very useful teaching method in terms of presentation.
 
Now there is an idea! I might try having students in the physics lab describe another group's results using only their lab report.

In 2 minutes.
 
In my uni we require 2 writing intensive courses and 2 speaking intensive course. One of each must be in your major. Both types of classes are supposed to be capped at 25 students. Both need to offer multiple opportunities to engage in the skill as well as feedback. I don't know if it works generally but I know employers are very pleased with the students who graduate from our major. Personally I find our students need far more writing help than speaking help.
 
I have to agree with the previous posters who said that this is maturity and the experience that comes with it. I have students who don't know simple everyday phrases/sayings until they hear them in a lecture or class discussion. In this way, I think that lectures are actually helpful in that the student is out of his/her normal social sphere and can hear how others speak.

This semester, I have noticed that I am a bit stricter when it comes to how my students articulate their thoughts. I always encourage discussions, but now I really push my students to be clear and, sometimes, concise when they speak.

In my remedial English class, I have my students deliver argumentative presentations. I stress the presentation, noting that I do not want them to read off of a powerpoint or piece of paper, but rather to really argue their point of view. Part of their grade is to respond to other groups and this makes for a lively debate. I think it helps with communication too as, we all know, being clear is extremely important in an argument.

I also plan on having my freshman comp students lead class discussion on an essay or short story of their choice. This will be the first time I do this exercise and I'm excited to see the results!
 
You are really a good writer.

Thanks for for posting this, it's good.
 
You're not dealing with academic deficits, per se. You're dealing with social deficits.

"Poise" and "conversing" are no learned only or primarily in school. They are learned in he home and in all of life in human society. People who come from dysfunctional environments (which are of course not linked only to socioeconomic factors) will be at a disadvantage here.

Your blog paints such a sad portrait of a CC, which I fear is more or the less the average for U.S. higher ed.
 
My 4 year Computer Science degree had a two semester "capstone" course that required us to give regular presentations on design, progress etc. Most of the grade was based on content related to the degree, but a small portion was dedicated to professionalism.

Additionally, engineering degrees required a Personal & Professional Development course that touched on these things and others. http://www.engg.ksu.edu/rld/Leadership%20Development/ppd.html
 
I--and employers and career folks at my CC--have noticed the same thing. It's not public speech that is the real problem; whether I like it or not, the formal oration is dying as an art form, and most students won't be called upon to excoriate Catiline at length and with style, as it were. It's private speech, it's what the 18th century called the art of conversation, that is so necessary for students--banter, interview skills, presentations that get interrupted, leading a meeting, arguing politely, etc. I don't know that I have found a good solution, but I've opted to try to find one. I've been forcing in-class discussion and insisting on formal presentations for ages, but I'm embarking on a more deliberate effort this coming semester. I will be teaching a freshman seminar at my CC this spring, and the theme I've chosen is public and private speech in American culture, from the founding to the present, and one of the themes that students will study and identify, and will hone their skills in will be informal, private speech--dialogue, banter, conversation, wit, etc. I'm not sure what will happen, but I'm eager to find out!
 
Two words, my friend:

Improv games.

Well I would take that class...
 
This is exactly the oral skill that seminar courses foster.
 
I often refuse to answer student's questions if they're phrased as a series of mumbled grunts. Hardly a line in the sand, but I don't think I'm asking too much that they use audible words am I? Oh god I am asking too much... I'm a monster. A well enunciated monster!
 
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