Story written by Alex Gunderson ’15
Public Discourse, an introductory course in Communication Studies, has been recognized by the National Communication Association (NCA) as the recipient of its annual Program of Distinction Award.
NCA, a professional society for communication scholars, is dedicated to advancing communication as an academic discipline. The Program of Distinction Award honors basic course programs at the collegiate level that display distinctive excellence and that can serve as models of best practice for other programs around the country. The NCA selects one program each year that best represents these standards of excellence.
Last year, NCA honored Gustavus’ Communication Studies department as the recipient of the 2012 Rex Mix Department of Distinction, heralding the dedication of the college’s undergraduate Communication Studies department in developing innovative and effective curricula.
Gustavus first implemented Public Discourse into the Communication Studies curriculum in 2007. The new program was designed to emphasize argument, advocacy, speaking, and writing and to give students the opportunity to participate in immersive civic engagement.
The department spent the 2006-07 academic year discussing and developing course materials, and Professor Leila Brammer and Visiting Assistant Professor Sarah Wolter ’02 created the civic engagement project, assignments, and syllabus for the new course. While the course has been refined over the years, in the summer of 2012, with the support of a grant from the John G. Kendall Center for Engaged Teaching, Brammer, Wolter, Assistant Professor Pamela Conners, and Associate Professor Martin Lang ’95 developed a course pack with a text, assignments, and lab exercises to support the student experience.
While those who taught Public Discourse understood its importance from the outset, nobody anticipated the course’s impact on the students and the Gustavus community. “We knew the students would feel like they accomplished something. We had absolutely no idea that they would be so passionate, empowered, and motivated by the course,” Brammer said. “We had no idea that they would ‘catch’ civic engagement and continue their projects and actively seek other opportunities to be involved in their communities.”
This sentiment is apparent in John Baron ’17, a first-year student currently enrolled in the course. “I didn’t exactly believe [Professor Conners] when she described what we would be doing because it seemed nearly impossible,” he admits. “But this class really has taught me to find a problem, and make it a personal priority to fix it.” Baron’s research has focused on E. coli contamination in Lake Minnetonka. He will present a proposal to the Mounds Park Commission in December that would institute a system of decontamination and prevent further contamination.
Communication Studies and Theater major Comfort Dolo ’14, whose Public Discourse project as a first-year student addressed the high number of children on free or reduced lunch in her community, embraces the value of the course, particularly as an introductory level class. “The course became a framework for how I structure my arguments in other classes through writing and oral presentations,” Dolo said.
Innovations in Public Discourse and student response led the department to expand its curriculum and create a Civic Leadership minor. Conners commented that students’ experience with civic engagement “created a demand for new communication courses that help students to grow as public advocates and civic leaders.”
Support for the program extends into Gustavus’ administration as well. Provost Mark Braun has expressed admiration for the program. “The faculty dedication to the success of this pedagogical innovation has been nothing short of amazing, and as a result, this groundbreaking new way to approach the basic course has been a resounding success,” Braun said.
“Public Discourse is transformational education,” notes Brammer. “Students learn to research, use evidence, outline, analyze audiences, and make sound choices about how to address issues; they reflect at every step in the process, and they learn to take action in collaboration with their communities to address issues. These are skills that will help them succeed in academics, in their careers, in their communities, and in life.”
Professors Brammer, Conners, and Wolter will accept the award at the NCA Convention in Washington, D.C.
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