Continuing public speaking and writing education

While I have expressed my support for subject matter specialization by undergraduate years, I simultaneously support inclusion of certain subject matter into undergraduate curricula regardless of chosen field. Two of these areas are public speaking and writing, as they entail skills that are used throughout all disciplines and careers, as well as in life generally. Proficiency in public speaking and writing can prove beneficial in any job, and beyond.

Looking outside of the humanities where applications are more obvious, let’s consider a software developer. In addition to writing in their programming language of choice, they must write up progress reports and updates on additions to their code. They also must present these updates to team members and team leaders so that everyone understands what has been done and needs to be done. When in a leading role, these skills become more important as these developers pitch their ideas/updates/applications to higher-ups, to clients, and to outside parties looking to invest.

Similarly, those with the greatest success in the sciences are able to clearly convey their work and their ideas to a variety of people. Scientists must write grants to people in their field, to scientists in related areas but not exactly in their field, and to non-scientists representing grant-giving organizations in order to obtain funding. They must also give presentations of their work in conferences, and if hoping to turn their work into a marketable product, then in pitches to potential investors.

Even if these skills aren’t directly applied in job tasks, they can be of use. Good speaking skills can help negotiate for a raise. Proper writing skills can help ensure emails are conveyed correctly. Comfort in speaking publicly can help in befriending coworkers and clients. Aptitude in essay- and story-writing can help people to convey ideas in a logical and interesting manner so that other people understand and appreciate them better. These capabilities might be targeted in primary school, but we continue to grow and develop throughout college. Putting a stop on the growth and development of these skill sets is a great disservice to our potential.

Interactive Teaching

In addition to having a nationwide shift toward a wider grading distribution (see prior blog post), I’d like to see a nationwide shift toward more interactive lessons. By interactive, I don’t mean getting-your-hands-dirty, build-a-volcano-out-of-baking-soda interactive. If your classes lend themselves to hands-on activities then that would be fantastic, but for most classes it’s not feasible and wouldn’t even make sense. What I mean by interactive is engaging the students to think for themselves.

Especially with the ubiquity of PowerPoint in teaching, too many professors have fallen into the easy trap of throwing all the content onto the screen for the students to passively absorb. But therein lies the problem – when the learning is passive, there’s not much absorption happening. Another tricky thing is that students often feel like they are learning it. If they see all the content and nothing confuses them, then they’re more likely to feel content in their level of understanding. However without picking their way through the details and actively turning the concepts through their minds, it is very difficult to know if you really grasp the material.

To force students to grapple with the content in such a manner as to tease out their level of comprehension, professors need to force the students to fill in holes in the content rather than always give them the full story. The good news is, incorporating such interaction is possible in all subject matters, and PowerPoint can even help with this. As the lecture goes on and references are made to previously mentioned points or ideas, professors should refrain from expounding on what those prior points were and instead make the class reference those ideas. Professors can also pause mid-sentence and ask the class to fill in the rest of what they were going to say. PowerPoint can help enact this with the animated feature – instead of putting up the whole content, only show a couple points at a time so that the class must predict the rest. Even the students who are not speaking up can benefit from this change, as they are having to predict and thus think through the unshown material rather than just reading it.