College of DuPage Reforms Traditional Speech Classes by Embracing Innovation

By: Angela Mennecke

experiential learning class with Marco Benassi

Most students want their voices to be heard, but the digital age and reliance on smartphones and computers has led many to feel more comfortable communicating via technology. Balancing employers’ need for skilled communicators with the pervasiveness of technology, however, becomes a challenge when students adept at gifs, memes and texting face the dreaded speech communication class.

College of DuPage Speech Professor Steve Thompson and his colleagues are determined to flip this negative narrative on its head. The stigma associated with speech classes is unfortunate, he said, because the skills students learn in class are crucial to personal and professional success, even more so in a digital world.

According to a 2016 survey by the Association of American Community Colleges and Universities, oral communication is one of the most sought-after skills in the workplace, with more than 90 percent of hiring managers saying it’s one of the job candidates “must-have” skills. Moreover, 93 percent of employers agree that a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve problems is more important than an undergraduate major.

“The statistics speak for themselves,” Thompson said. “Employers want these essential skills and it baffles my mind that we don’t require the studying of human interaction from the time that kids are in elementary school all the way to high school.”

Until 2004, high school teachers in Illinois could be endorsed to teach speech. As the state moved to the English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum, the endorsement was eliminated, essentially eroding speech curriculum in Illinois, said COD Speech Professor Lauren Morgan.

“Since so many students no longer take a speech course in high school, COD’s fundamental speech class may be their first exposure to the field of communication, which is sad since it benefits everyone, no matter their career choice,” she said. “We spend most of our days engaged in the process of human communication, and speech helps students understand this complex process.”

An Interdisciplinary Approach
Believing that students’ own passions and questions about the world could be utilized to bring the speech curriculum to life, the Speech Department began crafting course offerings to cater to students’ areas of study.

“Specifically, with COD’s Fundamentals of Speech Communication class, Speech 1100, one of the things that we as a department do is try to reach students’ interests,” Thompson said. “In turn, we have reached out to colleagues in other departments to offer a variety of different manifestations of Speech 1100 to target different populations of students.”

Currently, COD offers Speech 1100 classes specific to culinary, criminal justice, welding and sports communications. All classes are tailored to prepare students for their future careers by targeting discussions and presentations around that specific field of study.

In addition, COD utilizes learning communities to reach students throughout various disciplines and relevant topics. For example, Morgan teaches a Speech 1100 class in combination with career development to help students develop their professional path, as well as a presidential election class in combination with English and political science faculty.   

“Students will get a faculty member from speech, as well as a faculty member specific to the integrated subject matter”, Morgan said.

COD student Cassandra Wingert said she was frustrated when she learned she was required to take a speech class. But her anxiety eased when she saw the College’s diverse course offerings tailored to her own interests.

“I dreaded my first speech communication course and really resented the fact that it was required for my associate degree,” Wingert said. “However, saying I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement. There were so many classes to choose from, and as my love for the subject matter grew, I ended up taking classes typically outside my comfort zone, including a sports communications class.”

Reinventing the Traditional Classroom
With student success the College’s guiding principle, COD Speech Professors Marco Benassi and Jude Geiger, both former COD students, take a different approach to teaching. Avid proponents of experiential teaching, the two support breaking students out of the confines of the classroom to help them learn about the process of communication in diverse environments.

Benassi likes to provide students with real-world destination experiences, ranging from Africa to Cuba to Hawaii to Costa Rica. Students learn interpersonal and small-group communication through hiking, kayaking, repelling, backpacking and four-wheeling. He also teaches a one-week Veterans Wilderness Encounter where former military members returning to the classroom get a unique educational opportunity to study in the Colorado wilderness. Students are able to reconnect and apply the skills they learned in the military to civilian life.

Benassi said he is tired of hearing students say they are in classes for no specific reason or they are just trying to reach the requirements for their degree.

“We as educators have to do a better job of showing how crucial the courses’ lessons are to students’ own lives,” Benassi said. “We need to encourage students to want to be there, not feel they have to be there. Getting students outside of the classroom is key because every environment provides unique metaphors relating to the lesson.”

Despite the varied course offerings that COD offers to fulfill the speech graduation requirement, Benassi said the requisite is still a roadblock many students face before graduating.

“For the last 20 years, I’ve taught an experiential Speech 1100 course which is specifically designed for students who absolutely dread public speaking,” Benassi said. “It includes a field experience in Wisconsin that takes students through a number of group activities designed to build community and help students work through their fears and trust themselves more in all communication settings including public speaking.”

COD student Xuechao Zhang took Benassi’s class in the spring and said she benefited from the class in many ways.

“The principle of Professor Benassi’s teaching is learning while experiencing,” Zhang said. “I couldn’t believe how easy and simple public speaking can be. His class demonstrates how speech is such a fundamental skill for future success, and it can be done easily. At the end of the 12-week class, everyone became close and even felt comfortable sharing life updates. He gave me the encouragement and confidence to stand in front of people and let my own voice be heard.”

Like Benassi, Geiger thinks students learn best when education extends outside the classroom. He teaches three Speech 1100 classes that have students travel to animal farms, in Springfield studying Abraham Lincoln, and in downtown Chicago studying the intricacies of architectural landmarks.

Through Geiger’s animal communication class, students learn nonverbal communication techniques between animals and humans. Students learn about trainer etiquette and rehabilitation at Willowbrook Wildlife Center, study horse communication at Galusha Farm, analyze human and dog interaction at Consummate Canines, and explore group dynamics in a visit to Brookfield Zoo.

“Teaching and learning can become inherently spontaneous and student-centered when moved from the confines of the classroom into the world at large,” Geiger said. “Field experiences are unmatched in their learning potential.”

Despite innovative teaching methods, Thompson said a perpetual struggle is reaching students who would rather communicate through a screen.

“A student’s desire to communicate only via their phone or social media may be their preference, but it’s not going to cut it in the real world,” he said “When students apply for colleges and jobs, they won’t conduct interviews through their smartphones. When they negotiate pay raises and discuss projects with employers, they must exude a thoughtful presence and demonstrate the ability to think on their feet.

“When they face significant life decisions, they must be able to think things through and converse with their partners. If the majority of their conversations are back and forth through a screen, how will they develop the ability to truly communicate in person?”

For COD alumni Younis Dhaher, COD and the speech faculty paved a path for him he never thought was possible.

“I wouldn’t be this far into my college education if it wasn’t for the COD Speech program,” Dhaher said. “The amount of support, encouragement and resources I received are instrumental. They taught me to put my phone down, be present, be vulnerable. They taught me the value of face-to-face communication, how to make lasting connections. The lessons I learned are invaluable.”

College of DuPage is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. Serving approximately 25,000 students each term, College of DuPage is the largest public community college in the state of Illinois. The College grants seven associate degrees and offers more than 170 career and technical certificates in over 50 areas of study.