Teaching and possibility

I’ve been teaching graduate communications courses for the past year. Evolved from a standard writing course, I teach students to think of communication beyond the page. The texts for the course are Duarte’s (2008) slide:ology and Zander & Zander’s (2000) The Art of Possibility. But, where’s the writing textbook, you may ask? It’s a controversial choice and initially a hard sell to both students and writing colleagues, but slide:ology is my choice for a graduate communications textbook. Like most Ph.Ds, I spent 4 years in undergrad and 6+ in graduate school writing many, many papers and no one ever told me to prioritize my message. As students, we get so caught up in demonstrating proficiency and competence and as teachers, we get so mired in correctness of method and form, that we often forget to consider audience need and our main communication purpose.

My students, of course, take it for granted because no matter what the lesson topic, my first questions for them are:

who is your audience?

what is your message?

A simple and obvious concept once it’s made explicit, but one that’s often forgotten in graduate and undergraduate writing. I know many students who desperately wish their advisors/committee members would comment on their ideas, rather than their grammar. Writing is such a challenging skill to cultivate and often the reviewers have their own hang-ups, which end up as feedback (or no feedback) on graduate papers. Duarte’s (2008) book inspired me to pay attention to the ideas in student work first and then focus on writing/presentation choices as a way to clearly convey these ideas.

During the first class, I talk about the importance of a main message, and then we discuss their target audience. I use an audience needs map from the Duarte Design slide:ology Workshop (which I highly recommend!) which prompts students to answer a series of questions about their audience. In graduate school, I had a vague sense of my audience–professors, people with more experience in the field–but I never really asked myself, why are they attending my presentation? or why are they reading my paper/article? As undergraduates, we often write for an audience of 1, the teacher, who we assume is familiar with the material and is reading because he or she has to. We’re not trying to interest them, we’re not trying to compel them to keep reading. Thus, our writing is often dead.

So, I started thinking about my audience. Why do they sacrifice their lunch hour to attend my brownbag talk? Why do they sacrifice weekends and vacation times to read my writing? What are they looking for? What are they hoping to find? Maybe the answer is still partially because they have to, but I think our readers are expecting more. At the graduate level, professors and other colleagues read our work because they are interested in the topic and maybe because they’re looking for something new…a twist on an old idea, a unique approach…whatever it is, they’re spending time on our writing in the midst of many demands on their time. They’re looking for our message, right? Oftentimes, student writing is lacking just that.

I tell my Environmental Science graduate students to write for a tired executive reading on a plane. The executive is deciding between reading the policy brief, completing more pressing work, sleeping, or watching an in-flight movie. Within a couple minutes, maybe even seconds, he or she is going to decide to skip the reading or turn to the next page. I don’t encourage my students to be sensational, but simply compelling.

Duarte’s book is an ideal resource for a graduate communications course because it guides audience analysis and offers strategies for engagement. I believe it’s possible, with practice, to learn to be compelling. My second text, Zander & Zander’s (2000) The Art of Possibility further complements the unusual focus of this course. I’m teaching my students to represent their data beyond graphs and charts, to communicate their message in beautifully connected paragraphs instead of following a formula, so I need a text that opens them up and makes them feel, well, possible.

My students affectionately call it “the little yellow book” and the day we talk about the assigned reading from it, I can usually tell who has read it, because they’re grinning. This past quarter, we discussed it mid-way through the course and I noticed a marked shift in our interaction: everyone was talking! Zander and Zander’s “lead from any chair” concept had certainly resonated with them. They seemed to finally get why I ask each of them to lead a discussion, post to our course blog, and share their writing materials…because they have a valuable and necessary contribution to make to our learning process. After this class, students become dependably more participative.

Of course, with any course, there’s missteps and material that doesn’t quite catch on, but for the most part, I find the course fulfilling to teach and receive overwhelmingly positive feedback from the students. University-level writing instruction needs to provide more than static writing assignments — we need to provide students with a strong understanding of their responsibilities as communicators and guide them in developing a toolkit that will allow them to be flexible in response to communication tasks in the workplace and life generally.

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