Friday, February 26, 2016

Is having a mandatory public speaking course at a university a great idea or a terrible one?

The Cavalier Daily is the independent, student run newspaper at the University of Virginia. On February 24th opinion columnist Alyssa Imam had an article there titled We need a public speaking requirement.

I think being imprisoned by a mandatory requirement or course is a terrible idea because of its potential effect on students with a high level of communication apprehension (CA). Back in 2009 professor James C. McCroskey published an article titled Communication Apprehension: What We Have Learned in the Last Four Decades. Professor McCroskey said that:

“Clearly, public speaking classes are very beneficial to most students, those who are not high CAs. Requiring public speaking classes for high CAs may do as much harm, or even more, than they benefit these students.”

He also told the following story about his experiences at Penn State:

“…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…”

Back on October 18, 2009 I blogged about McCroskey’s article in a post titled Some college students really do fear public speaking more than death.

Ms. Imam also claimed that:

“One reason for making this a requirement is how widespread the fear of public speak(sic) is. Public speaking consistently ranks at the top in surveys about our fears, often being named more than death. This causes concern that the people who avoid taking those classes may also be those who need it the most.”

She linked to a November 2012 article by Glenn Croston titled The Thing We Fear More Than Death containing his opening ipse dixit which she raised from commonly to consistently:

“Surveys about our fears commonly show fear of public speaking at the top of the list.”  

In a comment on that article I had linked to an October 2012 post on this blog titled Either way you look at it, public speaking really is not our greatest fear. Another post from last October noted that According to the 2015 Chapman Survey of American Fears, adults are less than Afraid of federal government corruption and only Slightly Afraid of Public speaking. That survey ranked fear of public speaking way down at #26 out of 89 fears!

Universities have all sorts of mandatory requirements. For example, some Ph.D. programs have foreign language reading proficiency requirements. I only had a couple years of German back in high school. Back when deciding where to go for graduate school, I remember eliminating some universities based on wanting to avoid having to jump through that extra hoop.

An image of a prisoner was adapted from an 1898 theater poster at the Library of Congress.   

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