Carol A. Hand
This was originally published on August 25, 2013. I thought of this experience again this morning when I decided to join my class via conference call rather than drive on hazardous snow-covered roads. It reminds me why I decided to return to teaching as an adjunct after my formal retirement in 2011. I love the chance to be a small part of liberatory education.
Years ago, I was a faculty member for a school of social work at a western university. It was not a school that welcomed diversity. Many faculty members used a heavy-handed method for assuring conformity, an approach that was as odds with my beliefs about education as an opportunity to help students learn to unlock their potential. I was astounded when a graduate student related her experiences in a class on human behavior in the social environment. The instructor wanted to teach students to become accomplished public speakers. He noted, “Social workers are so often terrible speakers.” Perhaps, but so are many others from other backgrounds.
The teaching method he used seemed at odds with a program that was purportedly based on promoting a strength-based foundation for working with people. What astounded me in the student’s account was her feeling of humiliation. Public speaking is, after all, the number one phobia of Americans. I still suffer the effects of this phobia. So, I am particularly sensitive to others’ challenges. My colleague’s unique style of teaching this skill quite frankly would make me grow silent.
Rather than focusing on the message, the organization, the audio-visuals, the strengths of voice, facial expression, or a host of other positive attributes, the focus was on a student’s verbal fluency (or lack thereof). That is, the faculty member counted the number of “ums” or “ahs” the student used during his or her presentation. The logic of this approach escapes me. In fact, I found it hard to believe that a faculty member in social work, in a strength-based program, in a program that emphasizes a commitment to social justice, would actually treat students this way. I asked another colleague for confirmation. “Was this practice really happening?” My colleague laughed and said, “Well, yes. But it’s better than it used to be.”
I learned that what used to be was even more troubling, but thankfully students rebelled and the practice was changed. On presentation days, the instructor would arrive with a small instrument, a “clicker.” It was a small twanging instrument with a button that was pressed by the instructor each time a student uttered “um” or “ah” as they presented in front of the class. The audible click each time the button was pressed added to the students’ humiliation. The “clicker” tallied the total number of the deadly space-fillers, and grades were assigned in large measure on the results of the count – the more ums and ahs, the lower the grade.
I listen to public radio regularly and often wonder why there are so many speakers on an auditory medium whose speech is punctuated by hesitations of various sorts, or whose voices are stridently nasal or lackadaisically monotone. Yet I ask the questions, “What is the most important way to judge a message, even on an auditory medium?,” and “What is the purpose of communication?” I have encountered a lot of gifted snake-oil salesmen in my career, and a lot of people with profound messages haltingly delivered. (I would rather listen to meaningful messages delivered inarticulately than the self-promoting drivel of a snake-oil salesman any day.)
As I write this, I shake my head, still in disbelief. What are the real lessons of this exercise? But this story doesn’t end here.
One of the students who had class with “the clicker” internalized the message that she was not good at communication and needed to improve if she was going to graduate. It was not until her second year that she asked me to serve as her advisor. During our first meeting, she told me that she had been told she needed to learn how to communicate. So, I asked her to tell me what she meant by “communicate.” (I knew from reviewing her past classes that she had been studying dance.) Her response was that she needed to learn to speak in front of audiences. My reply was that speaking was one form of communication, yet 85% of what we understand is based on cues other than the words that we hear. How people look, the pitch and volume of their voice, their body posture and facial expressions often tell us far more than their words. I asked her if she thought of dance as a more powerful form of communication than a speech.
She listened politely, but I could tell (not by her words) that she really wasn’t convinced that anything other than speaking in public was real communication. Over the course of the year, however, she had an opportunity to discover the power of movement as a form of communication. It just so happened that she worked as an intern for an agency that was designed to help teenage girls improve their self-image by becoming involved as leaders in local environmental issues. She became aware of the negative images the girls had of their bodies, and how this prevented them from really expressing themselves as leaders. She worked with the girls to design a presentation that involved movement, not words. When the girls performed their creation at the end of the year, their teachers and parents were profoundly touched by the beauty, strength, and pride expressed through dance.
My advisee did graduate. Yet unique among all of the students, she did not use oral argumentation to support her graduate portfolio. She danced. And amazingly, “the clicker” attended and even participated when the audience was invited to join. Although he was deeply affected by her performance, he later decided that no other student would ever be allowed to defend their work in any way other than spoken argumentation.
Fortunately for all of us in this profession, this student has gone on to use movement and dance as tools in her work with individuals who suffer from mental illness. I am truly grateful that I had a chance to work with someone who was courageous enough to break through the taken-for-granted definition of what it means to communicate. Certainly a method that helps young girls overcome the silencing shame they feel about their body image may offer all of us a way to express ourselves with greater freedom and joy
As human beings, we have a simple choice. We can choose to relate to others in ways that are hurtful and oppressive. Or, we can choose to help others find their strengths and the song in their hearts. But we cannot help others until we find the song in our own hearts first.