5.19.2019

Public Speaking: Its Place in the Communication Curriculum


I wrote this as a post on the basic course list but I thought others might also be interested.  

For a variety of reasons, it seems useful to periodically review current practices and search for alternatives that might better serve our purposes. So, here I want to review the “basic course” and argue that the basic course in communication—often a required course—should not be public speaking but should be the hybrid/fundamentals course.
As most readers know, NCA was originally established as the National Association of Academic Teachers of Public Speaking, a title that lasted for about nine years (from 1914-1922). The first journal was called The Quarterly Journal of Public Speaking, first published in April 1915. From then to now, the field of communication has changed dramatically—it has grown in both breadth and depth—and now includes areas of human interaction that cannot be subsumed under public speaking and, of course, forms and ways of communicating that didn’t exist in 1915.
          Paradoxically, while the national, regional, and state associations as well as the journals reporting communication research and theory have changed, the largest basic course in communication remains Public Speaking.
There are several reasons why the hybrid/fundamentals of communication course should replace public speaking as the basic course and I here try to spell out some of these. None of this is to question the value of public speaking—we all know it teaches valuable skills. These arguments only pertain to the placement of the public speaking course in the sequence of courses a student takes and why the hybrid/fundamentals course would better serve our students and our field. The hybrid/fundamentals course as envisioned here would be a theory course that covers the major areas of communication. This course would provide the foundation principles for the more specialized courses, whether theory or performance-oriented (or some combination).

Reasons for Change

Although there may be many more and perhaps better reasons for change, I here discuss five: (1) Perceived Relevance, (2) Stress, Anxiety, and Apprehension, (3) Showcasing and Defining the Field, (4) Cost-Effectiveness, and (5) Knowledge and Skills.

Perceived Relevance Public speaking is certainly relevant to success in contemporary society. But this relevance, however undisputed by communication instructors, probably cannot be appreciated by the majority of first-year college students. They don’t see themselves giving speeches on political or social issues at the present time. Yet, we persist in trying to get students to see the relevance of public speaking when—at this point in their lives—it isn’t relevant—at least not to the majority of first-year college students. But they do see themselves communicating in face-to-face and online conversation and group interaction. Consequently, the hybrid course is more likely to be perceived as more relevant and more useful to students’ immediate needs.
Going beyond relevance, public speaking is probably not even the most important communication skill that a student should learn. If you look at the ads for employment—certainly not the final arbiter of importance but one not to be dismissed either—especially at the entry level—it is interpersonal communication and group/team communication that are emphasized, not public speaking. And this is even more applicable for community college students who are not pursuing an academic track.

Stress, Anxiety, and Apprehension Public Speaking is stressful and anxiety-provoking for all students and especially for first-year students who find college overwhelming enough without the added anxiety of speaking in public. And when you factor in the number of students with high communication apprehension, the stress is considerable and not to be treated lightly. Further, when the course requires students to assemble and tape a live audience (as many online public speaking courses do), it creates even more stress as well as obligations that the student now has to these audience members. All this (and more) contributes, not only to stress and anxiety, but also to the general dislike of the Public Speaking course by many students and, I fear, its avoidance when it’s not required.
The hybrid course, on the other hand, avoids the anxiety created by having to give a speech. And for a student new to college, this is no small difference. Interestingly enough, the Atlantic (September 12, 2018) recently reported that some students are protesting in-class presentations because such assignments discriminate against those with anxiety. When this is a required course, these students may have a case. With public speaking as an advanced elective course, this objection would have little merit.

Showcasing and Defining the Field The basic course—if it’s public speaking—does not showcase the field as do the introductory courses in sociology or psychology, for example. Consequently, students are not thoroughly informed about the field of communication and its amazing number of relevant and interesting topics. And so, the public speaking course is really not productive for generating student interest in second and third level courses or in minoring or majoring in communication.
Public speaking does not show off the robust theory and research that dominates contemporary communication studies. In fact, there is relatively little research on public speaking that would be even remotely interesting to today’s students, especially when compared to interpersonal, intercultural, or social media communication.
The hybrid course showcases the entire field and thus gives students the opportunity to appreciate the breadth and depth of the field that can be explored in a great array of advanced courses. It serves as a feeder-course in a way that public speaking cannot. The hybrid course includes the best of the research and theory—the research and theory reported in our journals and in those of related fields. It more easily demonstrates the vitality of our field.
Insofar as the basic course defines the field—even if only in the minds of students and ill-informed administrators and colleagues in other departments—communication is seen as a service department helping students to deliver oral presentations for other courses. The hybrid course defines the field as one of theory and research that rivals any of the other social sciences.

Cost Effectiveness Public speaking is an expensive course that is often called upon to economize by increasing the number of students in a class, for example.  And much as academics would want financial considerations to be irrelevant, they aren’t. In fact, financial considerations are becoming increasingly important in academic decision-making. It’s lunacy to see the future and then deny it—whether it’s climate change or the need to economize and make education more affordable. Public speaking courses of 20 or 25 or even 30 students increase the overall cost of education more so than would a hybrid course.
The hybrid course is not any more expensive than any other course in the college curriculum. It is certainly more cost efficient than the public speaking course—a not unimportant factor in gaining course approval from an administration that is always looking to save money. The fundamentals course is relatively easy to teach in mass lecture or online. It’s not quite so easy with public speaking. And as a previous post noted, there is a move in some quarters to prevent online courses from including performance—ruling out the more cost-efficient online public speaking course.

Knowledge and Skills Public speaking relies on advanced skills that first year students simply do not have. And so, in our courses as in our textbooks, we offer mini-courses in sociology in discussing audience analysis, in psychology in our discussions of motivation and emotion, and in English in our discussions of word and sentence choice. How much better would it be if the student came to public speaking after taking courses in these subjects and could apply that knowledge to constructing effective public speeches.
The hybrid course, as visualized here, is not a performance course; rather it would provide the principles of communication and their applications to the more specialized areas of interpersonal, intercultural, nonverbal, organizational, communication theory, public speaking, and a variety of other courses. It would provide the knowledge that needs to underlie the skills.

Implementing the Change

To effect this change, at least two things need to be done:
Internally, we need to consider or reconsider what basic course would best serve the needs of our students and our discipline. Studies on student satisfaction with the various courses and on the number of students who take advanced courses or choose to minor or major in communication (after taking Public Speaking versus the hybrid course) would help us make informed decisions as would studying the number of students who would and would not take public speaking if it weren’t required.
This may not be easy since so many instructors have a loyalty to public speaking and believe that all students should take public speaking. Having it required may seem the only reasonable way to insure that. But students know what they need to succeed—though maybe not in their first year of college—and will take public speaking when they’re ready—personally as well as academically, whether in the college classroom or in some of the many face-to-face and online public speaking workshops.
Externally, we (and NCA as the national organization as well as regional and state associations) need to make the case that a survey of communication concepts and principles is as academically respectable as any course such as psychology or sociology. Yes, we teach skills but these need to rest on a foundation of theory and research. Identifying our field as one focused on public speaking—and the basic course does help (considerably, I suspect) in defining the field in the minds of students, colleagues, and administrators—is simply not accurate and very likely not seen as academically rigorous and respectable (as any of the other social sciences).  It presents an image of the department and the field as one of service rather than substance.
This too may well be difficult especially when departments have convinced the relevant college committees and administrators that public speaking is an essential skill and should be required of all students.  Public speaking is an essential skill and most students should take it, just not as the introductory/required course.
Further, it may well be that public speaking is the only communication course the college decision-makers consider important enough to require and, if no longer required, may remove communication entirely from the required course list.
These are all real problems but it seems to me that we—as a field—must first decide what course is most appropriate for our students and our field and only then decide how to go about effecting the change—if indeed a change is thought an improvement.


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