by Michael J. Sharp
I spot a back-row vantage point in my classroom from which I can critique today’s round of student speeches. I wade passed the already glazed-over eyes, ready my trusty stopwatch, pile my speech-critique sheets on the desk, and place my two blue Precise V7 Pilot Rolling Ball pens atop the pile. It’s the sixth week of the quarter and the last day of the second round of these speeches. I teach two sections of this course, which means a total of approximately 50 students: And folks, that’s a lot of speeches to sit through. I breathe deliberately, not so much out of anxiety or exhaustion but because I know what to expect spanning the next eighty minutes—not to mention the same thing all over again in the second section meeting later today. It’s going to be a long, long Thursday, and I know it.
Several uninspired speakers later, John Doe shuffles his way to the front of the class and limps into his “Buy my Condo” speech. Only minutes into it and his words fade into what reminds me of the muffled, trombone-like Wa Wa conversation from a Peanuts cartoon in which Charlie Brown is berated by his teacher. I snap out of my cross-eyed daydream and shuffle in my seat in an attempt to stay awake and interested. But I’m bored, and I find myself looking around the room. I see several students gazing out the window. Others fiddle with their phones. John Doe seems about as interested in his “Buy my Condo” speech as his audience is to hear it.
This is the thirty-fourth speech I’ve heard in two days, and only a few have been more riveting than this one. After realizing that we still have seven more speeches to go (in this class alone!), I leap up, clutch a blue pen in each hand, and—as John the amateur condo salesman continues to Wa Wa about buying his make-believe abode—I scream out in agony while jamming a blue pen, cap-deep, into each of my ears. I rip open the front of my collared shirt, run toward the window, knocking desks and chairs over as I go, and leap with abandonment through the glass. Plunging six stories to my death, with a ballpoint pen sticking out of each ear, seems my only way out. The robotic applause indicating the conclusion of John Doe’s speech snaps me back to reality. I had still been daydreaming.
For several years, I taught speech courses in this traditional way, and while nothing as horrific as the above ever took place, the boredom and monotony that underlies the spirit in this scenario was palpable. UC offers nearly 30 courses designed to teach “effective public speaking.” Ironically, however, these speech courses are almost all taught in the private quarters of a classroom, focused with fabricated topics, and delivered to an audience present for no reason other than to get a grade. And the results are often less than inspiring, not only for the teacher, but for also the students.
In short, no one wins in such a situation, so I began looking for alternatives. As we all know, students “light up” when talking about those things important to them, and so I construct a way for these young, energetic, and often passionate young people to take what they were learning in “Effective Public Speaking” and do the unthinkable: To Speak Effectively In Public! And guess what happened? Students became “learners,” I became a “teacher,” and we all became “engaged citizens.”
What if John Doe the Condo Salesman had an opportunity to speak on behalf of a real organization dealing with real social issues? What if he were able to take the skill sets and theoretical constructs he learned in class and make them come alive within his community? Might he be more inspired to utilize the theories underpinning the class? Would this mean that the other students in the class would be more eager to listen? Would this mean that I would teach with more energy? When faculty and students both see how teaching and learning can directly effect the welfare of their communities, it’s not hard to argue that the answers to all these questions is “yes.”
“Learning must be Rigorous”
No kidding. Really? I’ve heard voices within the academy criticize Community Engaged Learning as not rigorous, not meaningful, not “academic” enough. Some say that it sacrifices perhaps the main function of any university, which is to teach and learn. I believe those voices are wrong. UC’s definition of Service Learning is certainly rigorous:
Service Learning (SL) is a specially designed learning experience in which students combine reflection with structured participation in community-based projects to achieve specified learning outcomes as part of an academic course and/or program requirement. By participating in academic community-partnerships at the local, national or international level, students gain a richer mastery of course content, enhance their sense of civic responsibility, and ultimately develop a more integrated approach to understanding the relationship between theory, practice, ideas, values, and community.
How I Do Service Learning
During the first weeks of class, instead of standing lecturing about the theories of public communication and persuasion, I invite representatives from the community who actually DO public communication and persuasion for a living. (I didn’t stop lecturing. I just supplemented my riveting talks with real-life exemplars.) Some of my partners include The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Project Connect/Faces Without Places, Honor Flight, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and the Animal Friends Humane Society.
Following our community partners’ presentations, my class discusses their presentations in light of what the students are learning in the textbook and lectures. We consider the theories and skills recognizable in the presentations, and we talk about which elements of the presentations are effective and what could be improved. This gives students an opportunity to see some of the theories underlying communication and persuasion in practice.
Students soon begin delivering “warm-up” speeches. Throughout these first weeks, students learn from the textbook, from classroom lectures, and in group activities while always keeping an eye on their final “public” speech—a speech through which they will advocate for one of our community partners. I encourage students to visit the organizations as they research and plan their final persuasive presentation.
During the last two weeks of the quarter, each student delivers a persuasive presentation on behalf of their chosen community partner. They do this in class, but we invite the partners to attend the speeches and to offer feedback. Then comes the hook: If students choose to deliver the same speech in public—yes, actually outside of the confines of a UC classroom—then those students receive clemency on the final written exam (which I have persuasively chalked up as one of the most miserable experiences a human could endure).
Students freely choose the public place and the audience to which they speak, which means that many opt for speaking to their sororities, fraternities, students groups, churches, or in their other classes. And because they are empowered in these choices, a funny thing happens: They come to care about the speech topic…because they care about their community partner…which means they come to care about applying the theories and the skills they’ve been learning …and they want to persuade their chosen audiences because they care about what the speech purpose and the cause for which they advocate… which means they find their voice within community…which means that they “buy into” community advocacy…which means that they become engaged citizens. Doesn’t that sound like rigorous learning to you?
Why I Do Service Learning
I believe that an important part of what students should learn at an institution of higher education is how what they learn can impact their communities and cultural realities. This is especially pertinent for a major urban university like UC where we pride ourselves on diversity, community collaboration, and social justice. Many of our courses can create an occasion for Service Learning, which then become prime opportunities for students to engage with local organizations, communities, and causes. Service Learning offers students an opportunity to serve their community by taking the theories and skills they learn in the classroom out of the box and, as one of my mentors would say, “Take them for a walk around the block.”
And it works! They learn better! You teach better! But don’t take it from me, take it from one of my student’s reflections:
“It took me out of my comfort zone. That is not something I would normally speak on. So I think it challenged me to think outside of the box slightly different than I normally would. When you first assigned this, I thought,…man this is too much work, …this is gonna suck. But that changed. I see why it’s important. It really made me work hard … made me care. I think even for the self-awareness it brings to you, it’s good…and just how it makes you reflect on the issue, or it opens your eyes to something else, …this is what we are learning about.”
By Michael J. Sharp
Associate Director of Academic & Community Partnerships
Office of the Senior Vice President and Provost
University of Cincinnati’s Center for Community Engagement