by James Fortney, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center
Earlier this fall, I posted a short entry in The Notebook about the role of communication in developing and sustaining classroom engagement. I described engagement as a “potentially inventive conversation between communities with differences,” wherein members work together to generate new ways of thinking and talking (Deetz, 2008, p. 290, emphasis added). Below, I offer three interactive moments to invite this kind of conversation with students. These moments help raise to a conscious level the role of communication in teaching and learning, with the goal of engaging different identities and experiences in ways that create a stronger sense of community and commitment to understanding.
1. Provide an example of a code of conduct, statement of ethics, or oath of inclusion at the start of the semester as a way to begin communicating about engagement
For example, I give my students a copy of the Credo for Ethical Communication endorsed by the National Communication Association. As a class, we discuss reasons why associations, organizations, and communities might produce this type of document, as well as the ways it may function (or not) in practice. I encourage honest reactions from students to each principle (e.g., “We promote communication climates of caring and mutual understanding that respect the unique needs and characteristics of individual communicators”) and invite examples of each principle as a form of communication practice. My goal is to get students thinking (and talking!) about communication in more mindful and intentional ways. The Oath of Inclusion in the SLU 2015-2016 Student Handbook is another excellent resource to help facilitate this conversation.
2. Ask students to develop and prioritize a list of best principles for engaging communication throughout the semester
We do this first in small groups and then as a class, identifying common threads and clarifying differences when needed. We often select one or two principles from the National Communication Association credo to include on our list. However, we almost always tweak the wording to better capture the course goals and the needs of our specific classroom community. Most of the principles on our list emerge from the open discussion of the credo, which results in an inventive, unique list for our course. I truly value this inductive process because it integrates multiple voices and experiences into the formation of community principles for engagement. Once the list is final, I give each student a hard copy and also post the list online. I encourage students to reflect on the list before, during, and after each class. I commit to doing the same.
3. Revisit the principles as a way to sustain ongoing reflection about the challenges and successes of communicating for engagement
At least twice during the semester, I set aside time for us to revisit the list and discuss how successful we have been at practicing each of the principles. It is important to keep this conversation at the community level and not scapegoat individual students as uncommitted. It is equally important to avoid praising individual students, as it risks diminishing the value of the community practice. Instead, ask students to identify challenges and successes of the entire class – and then work to revise, prioritize, and commit to key principles needed to support mutual learning, growth, and change over time. Communicating in this way can be exhausting, and even frightening. As Stan Deetz (2008) reminds us, there is an element of risk involved because it asks us to open ourselves up to others without knowing where the conversation will lead. I remind students that engagement is a process involving ongoing moments of understanding, reflection, and invention. It is the process that is the reward, and certainly worth the risk.
I hope these ideas for developing moments of engagement will provoke new ways of thinking and talking in your courses. My experience suggests students draw from the list of principles to inform how they participate in the course, but students also find ways to infuse into other course elements the same processes of discussion, collaboration, and creation that helped create the original list of principles (e.g., classroom discussions, group projects, study sessions, etc.). Thus, communicating about engagement is a powerful determinant for supporting its practice.
If you would like to schedule a consultation to talk further about communicating engagement and engaging communication in your teaching, please contact the Reinert Center at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please also consider sharing your perspectives on communication and engagement, or reflections on ideas introduced in this blog post, in the comment section below.
Deetz, S. (2008). Engagement as co-generative theorizing. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 36, 287-297.