Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Scooby Brownies and Dead Squirrels: Why You Should Run Ideas By Your Prof... and Listen to Their Feedback!

Student wanted to teach the class how to make brownies.

Background scene-setting:  I was in graduate school. As a graduate assistant, I taught a 101-level public speaking course. One of the major required speeches was a demonstration speech. I always encourage students to tell me their topics ahead of time so I can do what an instructor is supposed to do:  Help them with their content, ideas, references, etc. This student was taking my advice. 

"I think your audience may already know how to make brownies," I said. "The goal of a demonstration speech is similar to an informative speech:  You want to raise the awareness of your audience. Teach them something new."

"Like what?" Student said.

"Well, if you want to do something with brownies, what about another variation of brownie? Rocky road brownies? Low-fat brownies? Brownies with cream cheese swirls?"

Student nodded and suddenly looked confident. "I think I see what you mean now," he said.

Student left and I felt pleased with myself. I helped with an "ah ha" moment. I loved teaching communication already!

Fast-forward to the day of the speech. Student strides to the speaking area, lays out his materials, smiles at all of us in the audience. He begins:

"How many of you watched Scooby Doo when you were a child?"

A number of students raised their hand.

Student continues: "I have a few facts to share that I bet you didn't know about the Scooby Doo show. They were all on a psychedelic drug trip. That's right... All those kids were doing drugs."

My students laughed. I think I threw up in my mouth a little.

Something told me that these brownies would not be the ones I've seen on the Food Network.

Student continued:  "Now, of course they couldn't show you the drugs 'cuz it was a kids show, right? No. They did the drugs another way. So, today, I'm going to teach you to make Scooby's Brownie Surprise. You can do it in three simple steps."

Student looks at me and smiles proudly, as if to say, "Ms. B., I took a new twist on the topic--just like you told me! And check me out, nailing my thesis and mapping statement!"

Where the speech went from here (not very far!) isn't the point of this post. Suffice it to say, I intervened, but being a new instructor, I fumbled over the process and learned from it.

Thankfully, Student didn't have any actual "ingredient" ("Like I'm really going to give it away in class, Ms. B!" he said) on him. 

Instead of focusing on what the student was speaking about--definitely a memorable day in the Annals of My Teaching--let's focus on how the communication went down:

Student did the right thing by coming to me early about the topic. However, the alteration required an instructor reconnect. This was not the first time that a student quasi-informed me of what they planned to do and then took a very liberal twist on my advice. Or, worst, completely ran off the rails and just did whatever they wanted, despite my perception that their approach needed a change.

Some examples:

-Two students in the past few quarters who were hell-bent on delivering yet another speech on legalizing marijuana. I told both of them that if they wanted to do this topic, they needed to find a fresh, new angle on the subject. I've been asked about this particular topic so much over the years that one day, I spent part of my afternoon researching "pot news" (yes, on my state computer, but I did check with AT to make sure this was okay) so I could make some suggestions on how to tackle the topic by highlighting new legislation. What did each student do? Deliver yet the same, everyday speech on why we should legalize marijuana. I remember one speech being far more passionate than the other, but no new twist. No new angle. No favorable grade on either, mostly due to lack of quality sources. 

-A student who wanted to bring her pet chick to class to discuss how to raise a baby chick. I said, "Live animals are unpredictable and can distract the audience so they don't listen to your speech." For a little levity, I added, "And, the chick might poop on the floor." The student did bring the chick to class. The students were greatly distracted. And, that squishy chick poop stained the carpet.

-Every student who approaches me each quarter wanting to do a speech on quitting smoking or some form of exercise. My answer is always the same: "The audience knows that they should be doing it (exercise) or that they shouldn't be doing it (smoking). What new angle can you take on this subject so they will listen to you?" Yet again, the same exercise and smoking speech occurs. Wait, I should have put global warming in that topic thread, too.

And, finally, ranking right up there in the Scooby Brownie Hall of Fame ...

-A student who wanted a unique visual to go along with a presentation she was doing on poverty. I suggested an image or maybe a graph with some surprising statistics. What visual aid did Student land on? A frozen squirrel, wrapped in tin foil, in a Ziploc freezer bag. Student asked the audience to imagine the smell if the bag were opened. The stench of the rotting, dead squirrel equated to the stench of poverty. And we'd better do something about it.

(I know what you're thinking. Yes, these stories are all TRUE.)

What's the communication lesson?
First, tell your prof what you plan to do.
I'll elaborate on the issue of students failing to ask for any help in a future blog post. I'll start the conversation here:

Too many students keep their ideas for papers, speeches, and projects to themselves, never gaining important feedback on if their idea is viable, credible, too broad, too narrow, too complicated, too anything. However, if your professor will be evaluating your work, doesn't it make sense to ask that person's opinion on what you are doing to ensure you are on the right track?

You don't want to find out when your grade comes back that you missed the mark just because you didn't run your idea by your prof! 

Again, Scooby Brownie Student did the right thing by coming to me, so I do have to applaud that effort. (In retrospect, I should have supported those mundane brownies!).

One side note: When you tell your professor what you are doing, be confident that it is what you want to do. So many well-meaning students ask me, "Which topic do you think is best?"

My response to the student is always: "Let me turn that around:  Which one of these topics are you most passionate about? Which one can you put yourself behind and feel good about? Which one will have credible research? Which one will meet the time limits for your presentation?"

The whole reason for my existence on campus is not to hear speeches or read papers about things that I love, like, or can even tolerate. I always tell the student that my feedback is not about me. But it is my job to see the bigger picture:  Encouraging the student to pick a topic that they can put their heart and head behind--one that is researchable and viable, and that meets the assignment requirements. 

Second, listen to the feedback you are given!
Although I know that an honest evaluation of what I believe will work and not work in speech topics, papers, etc. can hugely piss students off, I'd rather be up-front with that hard conversation a) before the student has already produced a boat-load of work; or b) before my evaluation is official and requires a grade.

Your prof's job is to help you work with your ideas. You shouldn't have to totally abandon them, but you may have to tweak your angle or find a new approach. And guess what this is going to require? Time and research! This means you need to talk to your prof early so you will have the time to do the research that you need.

When you hear from your prof that your topic won't work, that person should instead tell you another way to bend what you want to do. If that doesn't happen, try to first come up with some alternate ideas yourself and say, "What if I just use this part of the topic? Would that give it the focus it needs?"

Or, if you are totally lost, you could say, "Can you give me some examples of what another version of my topic would look like?"

Keep in mind that your professor does not know everything about every topic. But someone who has access to that information is your favorite neighborhood librarian. Never be afraid to use your campus librarians or even the librarians at your public library, who can help you with ideas that are viable and researchable. 

Bottom line: Listen to what your prof has to say and heed the advice! If your prof is helping you ahead of time, he/she has nothing to stand to gain or lose if you take the advice or not. In fact, that person is spending extra time to ensure that you are successful. If you strongly disagree with the advice, say so and ask for further rationale of the prof's position. See if you can reach a compromise.

If you decide to run with your original idea. Don't be surprised if you receive the same exact feedback that the person gave you already, but this time with a grade that you might not expect.

Will this be because the prof hates you because you didn't accept the advice? That would make a great story, but no. There may have been absolutely nothing wrong with your plan under other circumstances, but it may not have done what it needed to do for this particular class. Your low grade and pointed evaluation will happen because your prof told you what would work for the assignment... and you decided to go with your plan anyway.

Finally, if your plan vastly changes, go back to Step #1.
After you change your approach, don't do what Scooby Brownie Student did and just run with it. Pass your new idea by your professor. Say "I did some research and here is the new angle I've decided to take with this topic. Can you tell me if I'm on the right track now?"

In Student's case, this person probably did not want to hear what I had to say. The idea probably seemed brilliant at the time (and I can only imagine what was happening at that time), and there was a fair chance I wasn't going to go along with it.

I've seen this time and time again:  Either students are so married to an idea that they can't see outside or around it, or they simply don't want to invest the necessary time to give their idea a proper fit for the assignment specs. Sadly, my feedback and their grade tells the final story, and I can't stand the fact that we could have done something about it earlier.

Take a step back from what you want to do. Listen to your prof tell you what you need to do. You'll probably be happier with the outcome.

I have always said that there are as many interesting student stories as days that I spend in the classroom. In all of the situations I mentioned, I hope that the students learned from their decisions. I have certainly learned far more from the times I decided to "go my own way" when I thought I knew it all. I remember many of those instances being painful at the time, however.

As I write these last few lines, I'm laughing to myself:  I just remembered, and it is quite fitting:  My 7-year-old asked if we could make brownies this week to celebrate a camp performance that she had this past Friday.

They aren't going to be your run-of-the mill ordinary brownies.

No way.

We're keeping a little healthier around here and we're going to make the "No Pudge" variety.

The "surprise" ingredient?

Light or fat-free yogurt.

If only Student could have gotten that this twist on the norm was more what I had in mind.

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