I believe college courses have the potential for being life-changing experiences. There are, however, risks involved in creating an environment with a focus on candor and respect.
Let me share a few of my experiences, and you be the judge.
A young and very cute girl was delivering a speech. After she finished, the only word I could find to describe her behavior was “ditsy,” so I used it. She ran from the room crying. The question is whether or not she used that silly, flirtatious behavior in her speeches during the remainder of the semester. The answer is No. Did I use that word again to describe this inappropriate behavior? No.
A second example involves an evening class in communication where at least one-third of the students in the class were in recovery from alcohol/drug addiction or were still active in their addictions.
You ask: How did you know that, Vivian? They were open about it in class discussions: making tribute speeches to honor their sponsors, delivering informative speeches on addiction and arguing in persuasive speeches that addicts options are recovery, imprisonment or death.
One evening in that class a smart-mouthed student blurted out, “I feel like I’m in an AA meeting instead of a college class.”
My response was, “Have you ever been to an AA meeting?”
I was able then to talk about the importance of communication, that we don’t live in isolation, and that if communicating openly in AA meetings helps people turn their lives around, maybe more classes should take what’s best in 12-step programs to create safe learning environments with a potential for participants’ growth and development.
Recently, I completed teaching classes in communication, and, as always, during the first week, I had my students tell stories to each other: stories with a clear beginning, a middle and an end, stories that had an impact, made a point.
Do we all enjoy well-told stories? Yes.
The story telling serves as an ice breaker to help students feel comfortable with each other so that they are more likely to feel supported by me and students in the class. At the conclusion of each story, I remark about how the story can be used effectively in an informative or persuasive speech. By doing this, I am giving them an effective communication strategy as well as demonstrating that their lives and experiences are interesting, significant. Recent research also shows that when we tell our stories, there is a release of dopamine and our confidence soars.
So, you ask, how has that worked? Let me share some recent examples:
A young woman, an honor student, the valedictorian of her high school class, told the class about being the quintessential “good girl” and contracting herpes as a seventeen year old. This led her to an informative speech on STDs and a persuasive speech addressed to young girls about safe sex.
Another student told about being the smallest of quadruplets her mother was carrying. Doctors recommended to the mother that she be aborted. Her mother refused. Can you visualize the possibilities for speeches about subjects such women’s rights to control their bodies, the challenges of multiple births, selective abortion?
A student in that same group told that her pregnant mother was diagnosed with cancer and was told to abort her or risk certain death. The student’s mother opted not to abort her, and her mother died two years later.
You might say that the decision the mother made to maintain the pregnancy was stupid, that she owed it to her husband and other children to terminate the pregnancy and get the treatment to cure her of the disease or, at least, prolong her life. You might say that herpes is a private matter, not something for discussion in a college class.
As a professor, it is never my job to tell students what to think, but it is my job to help get them in touch with their beliefs, to be able to assess the source of those beliefs and weigh them. Further, they should be able to articulate the belief systems of those who don’t agree with them and their reasons for their positions.
Does this involve some risk taking on my part in developing an environment where many are willing to explore topics such as same-sex unions, capital punishment, pornography, sex trafficking, drug/alcohol addiction, sexual morality, discrimination, euthanasia, animal rights, environmental issues?
If you believe such topics are better handled by religious leaders or by parents, remember these are the same people who will be serving on juries, teaching your children, providing your health care, running the businesses you frequent. I have an opportunity to work with them for 16 weeks, and I want to take those risks to make them move toward being the best speakers they can be as they use their critical thinking skills.
Finally, I want them to realize that as Americans we have various points of view on a host of topics that we have the right and responsibility to alter those viewpoints as our age, education or experiences indicate we should. And, always, I want to learn from my students.
And after all these years in education, I still want to be a part of students’ developmental process. Long after students have sold their textbooks, forgotten my name, and moved on with their lives, I want them to say, “Once upon a time I was in a class and….”