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Columns

Feldman ’15: Speaking up to succeed

By
Opinions Columnist
Tuesday, March 3, 2015

As a science concentrator at Brown, it is extremely possible to avoid the open curriculum. The open curriculum is designed to allow students to pursue their passions, whether those passions lie in several disciplines or in a single one. Nowhere in my concentration requirements was I forced to learn about seemingly unrelated subjects such as politics or literature, but I was given that opportunity regardless. An additional writing requirement is the only graduation requirement, which potentially ensures that students have an effective medium to express what they learn. But without offering ways to improve students’ verbal communication, Brown and other universities limit the media in which students can succeed.

Writing is an extremely important skill and as a columnist, it goes without saying that I value learning how to write. But even if I hadn’t wanted to go out of my way to improve my writing skills, writing assignments were often integrated into several of my courses. Whether a class required short one-page reflection assignments or a 20-page final paper, some amount of writing was incorporated in the class infrastructure. However, never was I forced to take classes that required presentations or even active class participation. Especially in large lectures, oftentimes a student’s responsibilities to learn and process information never require having to speak. Had I wanted to, I could have gone through several semesters without ever saying a word in a single class, and my grades would not have been affected. 

Upon graduation, not every student will depend on writing for their livelihood. While I truly believe that writing enriches future employment success, many industries do not require extensive writing skills. But the vast majority of post-graduation plans do rely on speaking skills. A college graduate will probably need to partake in a personal interview, where polished speaking skills can make the difference between beating other equally qualified candidates for a coveted Wall Street position and living at your parents’ house and baby sitting your younger siblings for a year.

Further, speaking plays a strong role in developing interpersonal relationships, whether it be communicating effectively with a supervisor, teaching new employees or presenting a project. Some of these skills can be reinforced by writing and therefore gaining a better grasp of language, but they cannot completely replace verbal practice. In this day and age, it is essential to be able to work with other people in a group setting, which is not possible without effective verbal communication. This is a skill in which many Brown students are already sufficient, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t benefit from further practice.

Students deserve the option to directly practice a skill that many employers find lacking. A 2013 study by the Workforce Solutions Group at St. Louis Community College reported that over 60 percent of employers found millennial college graduates to lack soft skills such as communication and interpersonal skills. This finding has been supported by numerous studies. American Express and Millennial Branding, a millennial research and consulting firm, found that soft skills were the most important factor in looking to promote employees, followed by hard skills and tech-savvy skills.

Currently, Brown offers a seminar in persuasive communication, which would help develop these skills, but it is quite competitive to get into the limited enrollment course. Students must submit an application to be accepted into one of a few 17-person sections at a school with thousands of students. Making this course a graduation requirement for every student would be extremely impractical and is not solution I would bother suggesting. But just because Brown lacks the infrastructure to adopt a mandatory speaking requirement to supplement its writing requirement does not mean that courses cannot be modified to develop speaking skills. Very minor changes could have a tremendous impact.

The courses at Brown that already incorporate participation requirements do not mandate them to be met through speaking. Many of these classes merely require students to post on an online discussion board to demonstrate understanding of the assigned readings. Assignments such as these don’t actually challenge students to learn about the material. They are simply an easy way to measure a student’s involvement quantitatively.

Devoting class time to ensuring each student answers questions or presents material would be somewhat challenging. There are only a limited number of minutes in each class and occasionally there can be almost as many students in a class as there are minutes. But the benefits far outweigh the difficulties. Whether it’s accomplished by devoting more time during the actual class or by including more teaching assistant-led sections, students will benefit from speaking. As it is often said, one of the best ways to learn about a subject is through teaching it. Much of this additional learning comes from having to speak about a subject and converse about its intricacies — skills that are verbally polished. 

Specifically creating speaking-intensive courses could be an effective way to incorporate speech into Brown’s curriculum. Just as there are currently writing-intensive courses, speaking-intensive courses could be offered in each concentration. These courses would revolve around a certain topic in its respective discipline and require students to consistently debate or present on those topics.

Better integrating speaking into the open curriculum would only strengthen it. This proposal would not force an introverted student to present in front of a lecture of 200 peers on a higher-level topic. The point of the open curriculum is to allow students to pursue their interests and give them an opportunity to learn how to apply those passions to a future career. All this proposal would do is give students that opportunity.


Andrew can be reached by email at 
andrew_feldman@brown.edu but would much prefer to be spoken to in person in order to have a truly effective exchange of comments and ideas.

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