Section Name

Instruction in the Introductory Communication Course


About twenty years ago I reviewed the prescriptive literature related to classroom criticism of students’ oral performances. Basically, it consisted of a set of questions about format, timing and wording of critiques that were answered in terms of each author’s preference: “Here’s how I always do it and it works for me.” Recently I had occasion to review the current literature in preparing the instructor’s manual for a basic public speaking text. I found that not much has changed. The advice that our field has is still largely anecdotal and consists of recommending techniques for universal application. The scant research that exists still seems directed toward building a general theory of what constitutes effective criticism of oral performance. In that same ambitious spirit, I presume here to give the final answer to all of the following troubling questions: Who should criticize students’ presentations (instructor, peers, or self)? When should criticisms be given (after each speech, at the end of the class session, or at the next class)? How should comments be presented (written, oral, computer generated, during class, or in private conferences)? What should be said in a critique (content or delivery comments, negative or positive evaluations, personally or impersonally phrased)? My answer to all of these questions is “It depends.”

In order to unpack the implications of this flip response, I invite a deeper scrutiny of our goals in the introductory performance course. This paper argues that much of the controversy over the effectiveness of various specific methods of speech criticism has been clouded by the absence of a consensus about goals. It seems that our research in both instructional communication and communication education has centered far too much on technique and far too little on questions of educational purpose. Pedagogical theory cannot develop without a strong strand of critical and philosophical work that provides standards against which to evaluate the practical techniques generated by teachers and scholars. Besides urging us to engage in on-going philosophical discussions of our purpose and priorities, the following discussion recommends some ways to examine our present classroom critiques as significant texts. Specifically, a close reading of written comments or transcriptions of oral comments can reveal instructors’ assumptions about educational goals, instructional roles and communicative functions. The discourse analysis I suggest may be undertaken formally as part of systematic instructional research projects or it may be used more informally for purposes of self-reflection, curricular review, or training new faculty and TAs.