Speak up

Marco Benassi, a speech professor at College of DuPage, teaches a one-week Veterans Wilderness Encounter, where former military members returning to the classroom get a unique educational opportunity to study in the Colorado wilderness. Students are able to reconnect and apply the skills they learned in the military to civilian life. (Photo: COD)

Most students want their voices to be heard, but the digital age and reliance on smartphones and computers have led many of them to feel more comfortable communicating via technology.

Balancing employers’ need for skilled communicators with the pervasiveness of technology, however, becomes a challenge when students adept at gifs, memes and texting face the dreaded speech communication class.

Steve Thompson, a speech professor at College of DuPage (COD) in Illinois, and his colleagues are determined to flip this negative narrative. The stigma associated with speech classes is unfortunate, he said, because the skills students learn in class are crucial to personal and professional success, even more so in a digital world.

Oral communication is one of the most sought-after skills in the workplace, with more than 90 percent of hiring managers saying it is a “must-have” skill for job candidates, according to a 2016 survey by the Association of American Community Colleges and Universities. Moreover, 93 percent of employers agree that a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve problems is more important than an undergraduate major.

“The statistics speak for themselves,” Thompson said. “Employers want these essential skills, and it baffles my mind that we don’t require the studying of human interaction from the time that kids are in elementary school all the way to high school.”

An interdisciplinary approach

Believing that students’ own passions and questions about the world could help to bring the speech curriculum to life, the COD speech department began crafting course offerings to cater to students’ areas of study.

“Specifically, with COD’s Fundamentals of Speech Communication class, Speech 1100, one of the things that we as a department do is try to reach students’ interests,” Thompson said. “In turn, we have reached out to colleagues in other departments to offer a variety of different manifestations of Speech 1100 to target different populations of students.”

Currently, COD offers Speech 1100 classes specific to culinary arts, criminal justice, welding and sports communications. All classes are tailored to prepare students for their future careers by targeting discussions and presentations around that field of study.

In addition, the college uses learning communities to reach students throughout various disciplines and relevant topics. For example, COD speech professor Lauren Morgan teaches a Speech 1100 class in combination with career development to help students develop their professional path, as well as a presidential election class in combination with English and political science faculty.

“Students will get a faculty member from speech, as well as a faculty member specific to the integrated subject matter,” Morgan said.

Reinventing the traditional classroom

With student success as the college’s guiding principle, COD speech professors Marco Benassi and Jude Geiger, both former COD students, take a different approach to teaching. Avid proponents of experiential teaching, the two support breaking students out of the confines of the classroom to help them learn about the process of communication in diverse environments.

Benassi likes to provide students with real-world destination experiences, ranging from Africa to Cuba to Hawaii to Costa Rica. Students learn interpersonal and small-group communication through hiking, kayaking, repelling, backpacking and four-wheeling.

He also teaches a one-week Veterans Wilderness Encounter where former military members returning to the classroom get a unique educational opportunity to study in the Colorado wilderness. Students are able to reconnect and apply the skills they learned in the military to civilian life.

Benassi said he is tired of hearing students say they are in classes for no specific reason or they are just trying to reach the requirements for their degree.

“We as educators have to do a better job of showing how crucial the courses’ lessons are to students’ own lives,” Benassi said. “We need to encourage students to want to be there, not feel they have to be there. Getting students outside of the classroom is key because every environment provides unique metaphors relating to the lesson.”

Work in progress

Despite the varied courses that COD offers to fulfill the speech graduation requirement, Benassi said the requisite is still a roadblock many students face before graduating.

“For the last 20 years, I’ve taught an experiential Speech 1100 course which is specifically designed for students who absolutely dread public speaking,” Benassi said. “It includes a field experience in Wisconsin that takes students through a number of group activities designed to build community and help students work through their fears and trust themselves more in all communication settings, including public speaking.”

COD student Xuechao Zhang took Benassi’s class in the spring and said she benefited from the class in many ways.

“At the end of the 12-week class, everyone became close and even felt comfortable sharing life updates,” Zheng said. “He gave me the encouragement and confidence to stand in front of people and let my own voice be heard.”

Despite innovative teaching methods, Thompson said a perpetual struggle is reaching students who would rather communicate through a screen.

“A student’s desire to communicate only via their phone or social media may be their preference, but it’s not going to cut it in the real world,” he said. “When students apply for colleges and jobs, they won’t conduct interviews through their smartphones. When they negotiate pay raises and discuss projects with employers, they must exude a thoughtful presence and demonstrate the ability to think on their feet.”

“When they face significant life decisions, they must be able to think things through and converse with their partners,” Thompson adds. “If the majority of their conversations are back and forth through a screen, how will they develop the ability to truly communicate in person?”

About the Author

Angela Mennecke
is a media relations specialist at College of DuPage in Illinois.