It’s Much Worse Than Chemistry, it’s Public Speaking

The Following was written for and published in Grain Valley News

With an enormous amount of anxiety, I walk down the hallway to my classroom for the first day of a new semester of Public Speaking. I’ve worked as an Adjunct Professor in the arena of communication for over 10 years in four different institutions, but it never gets any easier. The students, scattered around the hall, are all buried in their mobile devices. “Here we go again,” I say to myself as I swipe my access card and open the classroom.

Most of the students stagger in behind me like defeated prisoners of war. Under protest, they slump their bodies into their seats. Some choose quickly and strategically while others are forced to take the leftovers. I know the seat they choose today will likely be their seat for the entire semester. In addition, their table will determine their small groups and partners for team speech 4 in week 14. I also know that my capped class of 22 students will likely whittle down to 17 or so. I look around and wonder “who will be the casualties this semester?” I nervously watch the clock and say, “make sure to check your social media because in 5 minutes you belong to me.”

Although I’ve been teaching speaking courses for more than a decade, the first day is always the same. I am more nervous than they are and I let them know this truth. They need to know that we all have an element of social anxiety from time to time.

I hand out the syllabi and say, “my name is Wayne and I want to welcome you to Introduction to Chemistry.” A few students chuckle while a few others have a genuine look of concern on their face. I smile and say, “just kidding—it’s much worse than chemistry—it’s public speaking. I will expect you to get up in front of all these angry-looking people this semester and wow them with your superior communication skills.” Some crack an awkward smile. Some chuckle. Some think, “man, this is going to be a long semester.”

“This syllabus,” I tell them, “is my gift to you. Everything you need to know about this course is in this document.” I know that most of them will disregard my comment and nonchalantly slip it into their notebook and never look at it again.

I feel obligated to pass along some words of wisdom that they can apply to all their courses. I tell them when absent, under no circumstances should they email their prof and say, “I was absent last class. Did I miss anything?” I remind them that the syllabus reveals what they missed. I also let them know that I will probably reply with a snide comment like, “you picked the wrong day to cut class. We solved world hunger, but you were supposed to be our notetaker and now we’re doomed.”

As I begin to lecture, I remind them that I sympathize with them. Most of them are not here by choice. Very few students line up to take Public Speaking. More than likely, it’s a requirement for their degree. I also remind them that I am passionate about the topic. I’m hoping they’ll meet me half way. They want a good, or at least, a passing grade. I want them to be proficient communicators. My goal is a win-win.

In one of our classes, the students stand up and introduce themselves. This allows us to bond as a class and find common ground. It also allows me to weave several themes in the semester. For example, one of the students wants to be a pilot. I announce to the class that this will work well if we decide to take a field trip to the beach. Two of the students describe their love for music and singing. I tell them that I play the guitar and sometime this semester, I will bring my guitar and they can sing a duet. They nervously chuckle. I will mention this several more times during the semester at opportune times. They’re pretty sure I’m joking, but they’re unsure.

As you would expect in a public speaking course, my ultimate goal is helping them speak in public. I remind them, “this is not public test taking.” Equally important is my desire for social interaction. I want them to bond. I work hard to call each student by name and cross pollinate their stories. We do a great deal of brainstorming and teamwork. “You guys are going to be my favorite class,” I announce to them. “Of course, I say this to all my classes, but for you guys, I really mean it.” By now, they’ve gotten used to my strange sense of humor.

As the weeks go by, I notice my students are beginning to gather in a common area to await the start of class. Their devices are still nearby, but they are talking and laughing. The camaraderie continues into the classroom. Sometimes, they gather around a common table to talk or even play hangman on the board. I sometimes join the fun. Strangers are becoming friends.

At the beginning of one class, several of the students talk about how much fun they had at lunch together. One of them announces to the class that this is an open invitation for anyone. “You can come too, professor” he says. I am honored, but I respectfully decline to keep a level of integrity and professionalism.

Week 15 is evaluation week—mine and theirs. The students will present their final, team speeches. “I have nothing left to teach you in this basic class,” I tell them, “today is the day that you will validate my teaching skills or convince me that I should take up basket weaving.”

I watch with pride and admiration as the students begin to speak. I have walked with them through this semester and shared their struggles and triumphs. I have watched their eyes light up when they “got it”. The apathetic, struggling student that got an email from me that said, “don’t give up, we’ll get you through this. No one wants to take this class twice!” is on point. My eyes get a little moist as I watch and listen.

On our final day of class, the students are laughing and enjoying one another’s company. They have been awaiting my arrival. My two “singing students” have made plans to sing karaoke together and they ask, “hey where’s your guitar?” I am surprised and elated that they remembered. I apologize, profusely, that I have forgotten my guitar, but invite them to continue.

After their song one of them says, “man, I would have never done that at the beginning of the semester!” I smile inside and out.

Near the end of class, the students all exchange personal contact information. They also talk about getting together for lunch in the near future. As they leave, one of the students says, “hey professor, I’m gonna send you an email when our class gets together for lunch—will you come?” I smile and say, “of course I will! “You guys are my favorite class!”

The students have exited for the last time and the room is silent. I feel that familiar lump in my throat and sadness in my heart for the end of the semester. I scan the room, seeing the empty chairs and the stories that they represent. I miss them already. I remember that every speech, every story, has an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. So does the semester. One semester ends in order to give birth to the next. Here we go again.  

Wayne Geiger is the Pastor of First Baptist Grain Valley, an Adjunct Associate Professor of Speech at Johnson Country Community College, and a freelance writer.

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