On the last day of class in spring 2015, the first semester after Assistant Professor in Residence of Communication Steve Stifano and his colleagues overhauled their approach to teaching Comm 1000: The Process of Communication, the auditorium’s 350 students rose from their seats in applause.
Now, more than a year later, the course is being formally recognized by the National Communication Association (NCA) with its Basic Course Program of Distinction Award for 2016.
The award is given to courses that are ‘best practice models’ – programs that teach and organize the course in more innovative ways than other programs or are doing things that go above and beyond typical introductory courses.
“The class made me want to major in communication – well, actually, Professor Stifano made me want to,” says communication major Jamie Sevush ’19 (CLAS). “I think when someone shows you how much they love something, you understand too. It’s infectious!”
The goal of the course is to teach students to be more mindful of their communication and its impacts on themselves and the world. The course’s first segment, the foundations of human communication, teaches students that communication is a science and to understand models of communication as well as principles of verbal and nonverbal interaction.
The second portion focuses on interpersonal communication, which teaches students about two-person and small group communication. The final part on mass communication and communication technology helps students understand the changing landscape of communication and social media.
“Communication 1000 is by far the most unique course I have taken during my college career,” says Levi Green ’18 (CLAS), a communication and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies dual-major, adding that Stifano is keenly aware of the different styles of communication among diverse groups of people.
“This translates into better teaching since he understands unique and diverse experiences his students bring to the table,” Green says.
A Change of Approach
When Stifano started the course overhaul, he asked himself: what would make a “really cool” introductory communication course?
“A lot of times undergraduates are reluctant to take introductory courses, or they feel that since it’s a large lecture, it won’t be very engaging or they won’t feel that important in it,” Stifano says. “They think they’re just going to take notes and take exams. That sentiment was weighing on my mind.”
Stifano and Assistant Professor of Communication Rory McGloin initially made a few key changes to the lecture and exam structure of the course. Then Stifano, the course supervisor, added podcast reflections and two creative projects to students’ assignments; updated their content slides, created a course logo, started playing music before each class, used faculty-created podcasts as supplementary material, and added what they call “discussion challenges” with the help of his Head TA.
In these activities, students team up to develop solutions to various difficult scenarios, like relational strife, ethical dilemmas, and appeasing people when instituting controversial policies in a professional environment. Students are graded not only by their discussion section TA, but also by other students.
“Students might not always like the grades they get during group challenges, but it teaches us how to handle real world scenarios regardless of your major,” Green says.
“Students are practicing communication in discussion, they’re creating things, they’re listening to media that has been created, and we’re doing everything we can to make sure lecture is relevant and culture-centric,” Stifano says.
From Classroom to Career
For students like Sevush, the course steered her studies and professional goals, and she used her experience working in small groups to be effective in her summer PR internship.
“The class really helps you decide what kind of communication you want to go into,” Sevush says. “I realized that communication is something I can be really good at. I now know I want to take the PR route.”
Sevush says that one of her favorite discussion activities required her to Google herself to see how present she is online.
“I didn’t even realize how ‘out there’ I was, and now I’ve changed all my privacy settings!” she says. “What I love most about this kind of activity is that it’s something I know I can use. I’ve never questioned why I had to take this course. It’s so apparent that I need it!”
The communication department is now looking at modernizing some of their other upper-level courses. Stifano says, while many academic disciplines are trying hard to keep up with technology and society, there’s a certain burden on the communication department to be at the forefront of that movement.
“It feels like there’s a bit of pressure on me now!” Stifano jokes. “You can’t just quit and say, we’ve won an award, so now we’re good. It made me think, what’s next?”
Despite the newly added pressure to keep improving the course, Stifano expresses just how great of an achievement winning this award has been.
“I am extremely excited about this award,” he says. “It’s validation that people were willing to work with me and that my students were willing to go on a bit of an adventure with me. But I’m also just proud of everyone who worked on this with me.”
By: Sydney Lauro ’17 (CLAS)