I wrote this little piece to respond to some concerns voiced on the Basic Course List and I thought it might be relevant more generally.
The recent posts about increasing class size and the new student learning objectives/outcomes are alarming. And, as the economic pressure on colleges continues, it only looks like it’s going to get worse. Now may be the time to reconsider and reconceptualize the basic course.
Traditionally, the basic course in communication has been a course designed to teach the skills of public speaking. Then in the early 70’s courses in interpersonal communication were developed, again to teach basic skills. For those who wanted a broader spectrum of skills, there was the hybrid course, designed to teach the skills of interpersonal communication, interviewing, small group and leadership, and public speaking—with varied emphases.
These skills courses are most departments’ “bread and butter.” Consequently, it’s not an easy sell to argue against courses that at least in many instances sustain a department by supporting additional, more advanced, courses and, in many ways, make a graduate program possible by providing teaching assistantships.
But, there are several built-in difficulties with the basic skills-focused course and this has subjected communication departments to problems and criticism from a number of sides.
Teaching skills is time consuming and so the classes must be kept relatively small so that students can give speeches, engage in interpersonal exercises, or conduct group discussions. And, as administrations are charged with reducing costs, these courses with 25 or even 30 students, are a luxury some colleges are unable to or just don’t want to support. It’s simply not financially viable, given the resources the college has and the various needs it wants to meet. Even with small classes, there is never enough time to do what needs to be done. It’s not a problem that more rigorous scheduling would solve; it’s a problem created by having to cover too much in too short a time with too many students.
We ask a great deal of our students, perhaps too much. We ask not only that they learn the theory (though admittedly minimal in a skills course) but that they become effective public speakers, for example. The introductory psychology course doesn’t expect the student to become a psychologist or to diagnose psychological problems. The sociology course doesn’t ask the student to become a sociologist. Rather these courses focus on teaching the research and theory of the discipline.
Another difficulty (and criticism) with the current course skill emphasis comes from the academic side and centers on the appropriateness of skills training within the context of a liberal arts environment. Here they are renewing Plato’s “objection” to rhetoric as akin to cookery. It’s relevant to reflect on the times when these courses were developed; it was a time when there was virtually no research and no theory in communication, certainly not enough to provide a solid defense for a course on the level of other social sciences. To be sure, there was rhetorical scholarship and studies of great speakers and speeches but these seemed not to have entered the skills courses with any significant impact. And, for the most part, these were largely one-shot research efforts and not sustained research programs based on well-developed theory. And so, skills courses were the only courses “communication” departments could offer uniquely. But, this, happily, is no longer true.
Still another criticism comes from within the discipline of communication and that is that skills really can’t be taught without a firm foundation in the principles of public speaking, interpersonal communication, small group, and so on. Of course, we do provide instruction in the principles and theories of these areas but it really is minimal—largely because so much class time must be devoted to actual communication experiences. And, as we’ve seen in the recent posts, administrators are increasing class size to a point that makes it impossible to achieve realistic skills goals. A case in point is Andrea Patterson’s post to the Basic Course List noting that her university “is attempting to increase our public speaking classes from 20 to 50 students.” If increases like this do go through, is there any point in trying to teach the skills of public speaking?
Most people in communication recognize that skills need to be built on a firm foundation of theory and yet given the restriction of only one course with an increasingly larger and larger enrollment, it becomes an impossible undertaking.
One way of responding to these objections and to the inherent problems of our current conception of the basic course is to establish a new basic course in the theory and research of communication. It would look very much like a hybrid course without the skills, an introductory communication theory course, or the survey course where each week, say, is devoted to a different area of communication theory and research. This would not preclude the inclusion of practical communication skills; it would just exclude the actual class practice of these skills.
This first course, then, would be a theory/research course akin to those of any other social science. This course would be prerequisite to additional courses which would be of two basic types. One branch off this theory course would be additional and more advanced theory/research courses. And so, after completing this new basic course, the student might take a course in nonverbal communication, persuasion, leadership, gender and communication, mass communication, and so on. The other branch would be skills courses in public speaking, persuasive speaking, interpersonal communication, interviewing, small group communication, and so on.
There seem to be economic, educational, and image advantages to this approach. This course can more easily be taught in large sections and online and would be as economically feasible as any other social science course. Subsequent skills courses would still be economically expensive but probably could be offset by the large enrollment in the basic theory/research course.
Another advantage is that the students taking skills courses would already have a foundation in the theory and so could concentrate on skills in greater depth than they could in courses split between theory and skills.
Still another advantage is that it would give the discipline a new, more academic, more respectable image. Communication would not be a “social science” that emphasizes skills but a social science with its own theory and research and one that also teaches valuable skills.
With social media so much a part of everyone’s life, communication is recognized as central to the human experience in a way that was not recognized or appreciated earlier. It’s the perfect time to at least consider the advantages (and, admittedly, there are likely disadvantages) of such a basic course shift.