Communication Studies Course Making a Difference

Posted on May 11th, 2009 by

Introductory courses for many majors tend to follow a pattern: higher enrollment, lecture-style, with a few multiple choice exams to ensure students have learned the basic material in order to proceed to higher level courses within the major. At least one department at Gustavus Adolphus College has decided to do away with that model.

In the fall of 2007, the communication studies department decided to replace the course Public Speaking — one of two required lower level courses — with a new course called Public Discourse. At the core of the course is a semester-long civic engagement project that provides the framework for argument and civic engagement instruction.

Each student chooses an issue in the community, and, through linked, systematic assignments, researches the issue fully, investigates possible ways to address the issue, develops a plan, and takes direct action in the community to advocate for the plan.

The decision to make the change within the communication studies major was unanimous among the department’s faculty members. Department chair Leila Brammer, with the help of her colleagues, came up with the idea for the civic engagement project.

“Public Discourse has been my most rewarding professional endeavor,” Brammer said. “The projects and the passion of students as they engage in their communities are inspirational.”

First-year student Maria Schmidt is taking the class this semester and chose to re-establish a children’s community choir in her hometown of Tracy, Minn., that put on annual musicals for students in grades 3-6.

After gaining community support, finding a director, reserving rehearsal space, and addressing budget concerns, Schmidt has managed to get approximately 40 children to sign up to participate in the program. Auditions will be taking place in late-May. Schmidt will then work as assistant director through rehearsals in June and July with performance dates scheduled for the weekend of July 24.

“Coming up with a project seemed daunting at first, but when I thought about personal experiences in my community that had really influenced my life, my choice became clear,” Schmidt said. “I decided to try and reform the Tracy Children’s Choir because my participation in the choir helped me discover my passion for the arts.”

Many other students enrolled in Public Discourse have similar success stories. First-year student Heidi Rossow decided to organize a citywide musical instrument collection in her hometown of Fairbault, Minn., so that children from families with financial constraints could still participate in their school band or orchestra.

Rossow went to great lengths to promote the event including hanging up more than 100 flyers around town, asking local banks to flash messages on their outdoor signs, writing a letter to editor of the local newspaper, and speaking on a local radio station. In the end, 30 instruments were collected and donated to the local schools in Fairbault.

“I loved this class because it gave me a chance to do something I was passionate about and I had a chance to actually give back to my community,” Rossow said.

Other project examples include first-year student Matt Wasson, who decided to revamp the recycling program at Duluth East High School so that it was run by and geared toward students, and sophomore Sarah Maddux, who worked toward developing bike lanes on streets in towns just outside of Chicago.

Maddux’s project took a particularly challenging turn when several phone calls to the mayor’s office went unanswered. Determined to get through to city officials, Maddux scheduled a flight home and decided to show up at city hall and wait until someone agreed to meet with her. The plan worked as Maddux ended up speaking with one of the mayor’s top advisors, who in turn, presented her plan to the city.

“This course challenges students to reach for their full potential and push themselves to step outside of the limitations they may have set for themselves.” she said. “As students we get so wrapped up in just studying each subject to get the good grade that we forget about true application. In this course we are taught to apply what we learn, to step of the library and into the world to actually make a difference.”

Wasson echoed Maddux’s statement by saying, “I was skeptical of what the class and professors expected me to accomplish in only a semester, but I found out how much one college student can accomplish if they set goals they may have initially thought were impossible to reach,”

While students appear to be impressed with the course, people outside of Gustavus have also started to take notice. In the fall of 2008, Brammer was invited — as one of 12 scholars — to a national forum on the future of public speaking instruction at liberal arts colleges to speak about the innovative course.

Instructors Sarah Wolter and Kristofer Kracht both teach the course and are convinced of its benefits to students.

“Public Discourse is a catalyst for student achievement and success,” Wolter said. “Students experience a genuine opportunity to enact change, which is a hallmark of a Gustavus education.”

“Students leave this class with competence and confidence necessary to engage in meaningful dialogue and are empowered by their ability to be change agents,” Kracht said. “I am confident we are helping students understand their role in a global community, understand they are privileged, and understand they have a responsibility to engage in citizenship.”

While just about every student who has taken Public Discourse comments that the course was challenging, they do not hesitate to recommend it to classmates.

“Public Discourse is a class that all Gustavus students should take,” Schmidt said. “Even though I once dreaded the course, it has turned out to be the most beneficial class I have taken at Gustavus.”

For more information about the Public Discourse class or the communication studies major at Gustavus, contact Brammer at 507-933-6190 or


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin


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