Saturday, September 23, 2006

Teaching vs. Research

Right before teaching my speech class this week, I was engaged in a discussion with another graduate student -- one completing his dissertation. I mentioned that I was hoping to teach several more courses, including a visual rhetoric and maybe even a rhetoric of fiction or theatre course. I love teaching -- a lot more than I will ever love research as defined by the liberal arts.

"No one cares how many courses you've taught," he said. "So, why would you want to teach more than once or twice while you're here?"

Maybe because I think the world is fine without another "researcher" unless we're genuinely going to research how we can improve writing, reading, and the general teaching practices found in our schools. I'm not interested in "liberation" pedagogy, and I never saw myself working to engage another generation in some pointless political campaign that seem to have resulted in worse, not better, political leadership since the late 1960s.

I want to teach students how to write, speak, and think. I object to the notion that good thinking inherently leads to leftist beliefs, postmodernism, and relativism. I'm getting pushed further and further away from "tolerance" the more I learn how intolerant of most Americans and Western Culture my colleagues are. Then again, they think we can reason with violent radicals opposed to the very liberal ideals Western Culture supports.

I'm not interested in reading journals and adding my voice to the cacophony of intellectual morons. I don't care to engage them, since they aren't likely to pay any attention to me or my experiences. I am already dismissed the moment I object to Marxism. How can I not condemn capitalism, Christians, Jews, the Greeks and Romans, and all things American? What's wrong with me?

And now I say I want to teach? What kind of nut am I?

Of course, if I were a New Age yoga practitioner with "Peace Now" bumper stickers, it might be okay if I wanted to teach. Then, I'd certainly mention my political beliefs and save the world. Of course, then I would also love sitting around reading journals with theories and "science" proving my opinions. I'd be rushing to write about the amazing experiment that is my classroom.

I'd rather stick to traditional ideas and notions of writing, speaking, and public expression. Teach? A radical like me?

What Is 'Teaching' Rhetoric?

The third week of class has ended and I'm preparing to update grades before the fourth week. It is amazing to image a quarter of the semester is over and done. Time does matter in any course, since it always seems that we need more than we have. I would love to work on a single speech in class for a semester, honing and improving the speech, but that's not the time allotted.

What does it mean to "teach" oral rhetoric? I can have students memorize terms and theories, but there are only 15 weeks of class. I might try to work on delivery, but that would mean working towards the ideal speech instead of working on a variety of situations. More complicated, there aren't formulas as in math or tested theories as in science. Public oration is a matter of learning your personal approach to presentation and persuasion.

The only way students can learn to speak professionally is to practice the art, receive feedback, and practice some more. This means the grade in the course is based on the pursuit of the personal best, not the pursuit of a single ideal. For each person, what works is unknown before the practice.

I want the students to feel like professionals -- to realize they will soon be professional speakers if they are not already. They have been persuading people for as long as they've been able to speak, and even before. Now, they must learn to present to larger and more formal groups. There is nothing that a "teacher" can do to make the experience easy: no easy guide, no simple rules to follow.

What I really hope students learn is how to listen. I think their ability to listen to others is more important, in our current civic structure, than the ability to speak. Not many of us will be on television, radio, or operate nationally known blogs. What we will do is listen to others. As a result, rhetorical analysis becomes the key to participating wisely. Let us hope that is the one thing everyone takes from a speech course -- listening skills.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Why Speech?

The first two-minute speeches began this week, but with two fewer students present. Those departing didn't feel that an oral presentations course applied to their eventual professions. That's a difficult claim to counter, because there are two answers that are appropriate yet still insufficient for many students.

Most serious students in the sciences will have to present senior projects. As professionals, they might have to present research to the public, peers, or even corporate boards. In these situations, speech is a professional skill that can contribute to success. This makes the oral rhetoric course a vocational training element. I'm not against a utilitarian approach to speech if that helps the student understand the need for the education.

The second, and what I consider primary, reason for a speech class is to develop critical listening skills that serve any active citizen well. Too many students (and parents) think education is solely a vocational skills pursuit. I'd rather enforce a liberal conceptualization of education: learn to think and participate, then any other job skills can be mastered. Apathy is too easy, though, and questioning your own biases is too difficult for many citizens.

As for the speeches, the students are off to a good start. They don't quite grasp my apparent wanderings, but they will. It just takes some time for the pieces to fall into place.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Week Two Begins

While I hope the students are starting to understand that I value self-motivation and initiative, they certainly prefer being told exactly what to do. I cannot blame them, since it is nice to know exactly what a teacher expects so you can tailor your work to the teacher. I also recognize that they need to become self-directed if they want to stand out in their careers.

My job is to teach rhetoric. You cannot be persuasive if you are waiting for someone else to lead you. Students need to learn they can be critical thinkers without penalty in a safe environment. I want them to take risks and maybe even fail at a few things. A weak presentation or paper is part of life -- certainly not every day is good for a teacher!

We'll have to see how the first speeches go this week. I'm not too worried; these students have a lot of confidence.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Week One, Weekend, Weakened

As the first week of the semester concludes, I have a handful of minor observations:

1) You can tell which students take which approaches to a class. Some turned in the first assignment in pencil on wide-ruled paper. Others typed the assignment, having researched the terms used and making sure they answered the question asked.

Students do make a first impression. When I hear a teacher deny this, or claim that his or her long experience as a teacher enables a magical objectivity, I know this is a matter of self-delusion. However, it isn't self-deluded to say that I want to help the students learn to make a better impression in the future. My job is to raise the awareness of the sloppy pencil workers so they don't make similar mistakes in their future careers.

2) Public speaking isn't difficult for this particular group of students.

Many of the students delivered polished introductions of classmates. At least two were what I would considered rehearsed, but not phony. This is great because it frees us to concentrate on issues of accuracy, reliability, logic, and ethics. These are much higher-level skills and those that most teachers enjoy more than mechanical issues. In writing or speaking, the thought process is admittedly more interesting than issues of grammar or nervous delivery.

3) Weekends are still needed.

It will take some time to revise my approach for the coming week. Every teacher fine-tunes his or her approach after the first week. In my case, I need to develop a few minor routines that will help the students since they seem to want more visible signs of structure. I want to force them to adapt a little to fewer rules and guidelines, but they seem to want guide rails. A weekend will be time to rethink some teaching choices.

4) Am I weakened or strengthened?

Ah, the major issue is if a university instructor, especially an undergraduate instructor, is weakened by being something other than "Professor / Dr. Expert" in terms of persona. Letting students use my name and not "Sir. / Mr." is a decisions I've made to teach code switching. However, does this also reduce their respect for the instructor? In a era of Google, MySpace, and personal Web sites, I don't think instructors can be distant. It takes little effort for a student to learn all about another student or an instructor.

I think students realize there is a power structure. I also think they also realize that I understand the power is shifting in ways that might make an older generation uncomfortable. What happens when a student finds family photos or a resume online? What happens when they know what articles you have written and your positions on issues?

Since I have a large amount of online content, hiding makes little sense. I will have to see how this is changing the dynamic of teaching.

5) Course issues I need to address:

The students didn't quite grasp persona. They still assume it means personality and nothing more. We need to explore persona a lot more. We also need to explore how persona is both an act and authentic.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Back to the Classroom

The first day in a new job is always an occasion for nervousness and some anxiety. Having relocated to complete my doctoral studies, I'm teaching in a completely new environment, not unlike taking any other job in a new state. The benefit, however, is that it reminds me that students experience the same sensation, if a bit more magnified by youth and the looming "real world" that might be only a year away.

I can't say that the first day went smoothly, nor was it particularly rough. I think the challenge is that I prefer an atmosphere for the particular course I'm teaching: oral presentation. Most of us don't care to be on stage, especially in an academic or professional setting. As a result, I want the classroom to be as relaxed as possible while still maintaining a sense of order and predictability.

The students, with one minor exception, were early to class. This is that need to know where the room is -- and to avoid losing a spot to someone crashing the course to meet a requirement. I must admit, it was far less likely to have students on time and prepared at the previous institution, so this makes a very good impression on me.

Because the students have certain expectations of what a class is like, namely a lecture and little interaction with the instructor, they seemed a bit stunned to have to immediately begin working in groups, discuss random issues with the instructor, and not listen to a long introduction to the course content.

So far, I have only assigned groups and the two easy assignments. During the next session, each student will "formally introduce" another student. They will have to use formal, professional language, but I'm not expecting most to adhere to formality. This will take some time, as they need to learn how to shift from informal to formal when speaking. That code shift is something I'm "sneaking" through by being informal yet expecting formal presentations. It will be interesting to see how they handle the language requirements.

I did introduce a conceptual rhetorical framework. I just wanted to remind them that this is an academic course with its own jargon and mandates. They will have plenty of time to learn the terms, but it never hurts to constantly expose them to the language of rhetoric.

Most interesting will be to see how they evaluate the "persona" of my first day speaking to them. For all I know, they imagine the course to be taught by an insanely relaxed goof.