Sunday, October 18, 2009

Some college students really do fear public speaking more than death

Earlier this year Professor James C. McCroskey wrote a long retrospective article titled Communication Apprehension: What We Have Learned in the Last Four Decades. He discusses how he almost began his research on communication apprehension (CA) while teaching and working on his Ed.D. at Penn State back in 1965. Back then Professor Gerald Phillips was beginning to develop speech classes for reticent students, and had enough experience that he could recognize those who needed special help.

“…One evening I received a phone call at home from a Penn State psychologist. He asked me some questions about one of my students, wanting to know if this student was scheduled to present her speech the follow(ing) day. I informed them that she did. I asked him why he wanted to know. He informed me that they had just rescued this student from an attempt to commit suicide by jumping off the top of one of the highest buildings at the university. She had indicated that she just could not face having to give another speech. Needless to say, this shook me up. I had never noticed this student to be any more reticent than any other students. Obviously I could not recognize a reticent when I saw one! Years later, we learned that many high CAs are able to conceal their fears/anxieties. One cannot be sure what students are high CAs by looking at them, unless you have the skills equivalent to those of Phillips.

I talked to Phillips about this attempted suicide, and he expressed concern also. He informed me that there had been a number of suicides by students in recent years. He and I were able to get the administration to identify the students who had committed suicide and the enrollments in required public speaking classes. There were 14 suicides recorded, and all but one of those students were currently enrolled in required public speaking classes at the time of their death. Was this just coincidence? Possibly, but the odds are strongly against it.

In the process of looking at the lists of students in the required public speaking class, we accidentally identified a student who had enrolled for and dropped the class 12 times. He had a straight “A” record in engineering, but could not graduate because he had not passed the required public speaking class. Phillips located this student, got him into his reticent class, and he graduated…”

McCroskey and his colleagues went on to research CA in considerable depth. They developed surveys for spotting it, such as the Personal Report of Communication Apprehension (PRCA). You can find lots more about CA at his web site.

Flippant comments that nobody ever died from stage fright may be incorrect.

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