A university education used to be available only to the elite few who had been groomed for it. As the economy has shifted from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy, more adults need advanced critical thinking, information retrieval skills, and literacy to thrive in a flattening world.
Reading and writing remain central to academic success, but the glut of information flooding from diverse media 24 hours a day, seven days a week, dictates other skills necessary for success. Critical thinking skills, the ability to retrieve and evaluate information, to collaborate effectively with others, to communicate orally, and to use digital media in communication are also central to success in the 21st century.
It will sound simplistic, but the best way to improve one’s writing is to practice writing – just as to become a better musician, one must practice, and to become a better athlete, one must practice. That also means being willing to write poorly before one writes well. Quality writing emerges from revision – skilled writers know this.
I usually offer a mix of completion and qualitative writing grades in my courses. A writing journal can be simply a practice journal – its purpose akin to running scales on a piano. In answer to a prompt, thoughts form sentences and the hand moves on paper or on a keyboard and the student’s mind becomes more adept at putting words on a page. Writing becomes easier. A student’s ear for good writing improves.
A good ear is the best tool I know for revision. Rewarding students for showing up on the page has been a fruitful way to encourage students to improve their writing skills, particularly those who worry about their grades on academic writing assignments.
Reading is also essential in my teaching. Since Gutenberg invented the printing press, solitary reading has been dominant in Western education. Reading teaches logical thinking, the thinking necessary for rhetorical argument. Reading provides a model for writing. Reading about ethical issues or about different creative approaches for media work can expand student perceptions of what is possible; it is one of the best ways I know to deepen student understanding and appreciation of media. Reading can also create mental imagery more evocative, complex, and powerful than a photograph. Reading is a powerful tool in education, but it is not the only tool.
When teaching core academic skills, I design units that are deceptive in that students practice skills like working collaboratively with others while learning about audio documentary or improving oral communication skills while debating the controversy surrounding fine art appropriation of documentary photography. Skill-based learning can happen with any content. I like to choose content that is inherently interesting, usually with ethical implications, and that encourages asking questions that lack simple answers.
At Longwood University, I taught three sections of COMM 101: Public Speaking, which included the formal writing of speech outlines, repeated practice in speech delivery, and a basic introduction to rhetoric and argument. I posted the syllabus from the spring section of COMM 101 under Course Design.
A core skills class I taught at VCU was UNIV 200: Writing & Rhetoric Workshop II. In Fall 2011, I taught my 8th section of this particular course, which is a rigorous sophomore-level academic research and writing course. I posted the syllabus from the fall section of UNIV200 under Course Design.
At Longwood, I also taught two sections of COMM 200 : Introduction to Communication Studies and two sections of COMM 366 : Conflict Resolution (taught online as a summer session course). Introduction to Communication Studies introduces students to a range of Communication Studies theories, but more importantly helps students develop academic writing and research skills. Conflict Resolution both introduces students to global political issues in conflict resolution and provides opportunities for improving interpersonal conflict resolution skills.