by Kristina Ruiz-Mesa
I remember the day when my perspective about myself and my communication radically shifted.
I was a recently hired administrator in a diversity office at a private, elite institution of higher education in the early 2000s. During a work-related event, I was assisting my supervisor, when a high-level university official came by and introduced himself. The next thing I knew, this individual was commenting on my speaking skills and how well I spoke English. In my mind, I was an accomplished individual, with a graduate degree in Communication, who was born and raised in New Jersey and who graduated from a highly selective, private university; so yes, my oral communication skills and my command of American English were pretty darn good.
I was raised in a Caribbean (Puerto Rican & Cuban) household where I was taught that no one would care that my last name was Spanish as long as I worked hard, dressed neatly, and spoke clearly. My parents firmly believed that through hard work and determination, nothing was impossible. While I do believe that hard work is a vital component to self-actualization and professional success, what I, and my parents, underestimated was how others’ assumptions about who I am, what I represent, and what I should sound like as a speaker would influence the trajectory of my career.
The Importance of Inclusive Teaching
Of the nearly 20 million students enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education, more than 56% are first-generation college students (RTI International, 2019), 40% identify as students of color (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2019), and 37% are Pell-grant eligible (Congressional Budget Office, 2018).
As educators, this growing diversity compels us to (re)consider how our teaching is aligned with the unique experiences, and goals of our students. Inclusive teaching means looking at all aspects of instruction and course design through an inclusive lens, from redesigning your syllabi to realigning course content, to the diversity of our examples, creating assessments, and grading.
Inclusive public speaking
Inclusive public speaking is an understanding of communication based in the reality that our world is diverse, in every sense of the word. As educators, we must apply this lens when helping students build and refine effective oral communication skills for in-person and online settings. In this teaching approach, students are taught to understand and acknowledge that, as speakers, what they say and the messages they are trying to convey may not be heard, understood, and interpreted in the same ways by all audience members.
In inclusive public speaking, we frame communication as a strategic endeavor. This approach trains students to make conscious choices about how they interact with the world. It also helps students develop a greater understanding of themselves, and their intersectional identities and experiences, in the larger context of their communication and the globe.
Reflective and strategic communication
Every day we make thousands of communicative choices.
From a quick conversation with a neighbor to a longer discussion at work, people are constantly making choices about which words, facial expressions, and verbal cues to use. We choose who to compliment, when to greet someone with a smile, and whether to ignore the person standing awkwardly close to you in an elevator or in a store.
For each of these specific communicative choices, there are normative assumptions about how each of us ought to behave in a given situation based on a variety of social positions, roles, group identities, and circumstances. These communication norms were, and continue to be, created and steeped with raced, gendered, classed, and ableist assumptions.
For example: We’re in a virtual meeting with colleagues or students and someone comments on the “fancy” virtual background that someone is using. This communicative choice, to punctuate the difference in someone’s personal background, functions to draw attention to, and perhaps raise unasked questions about, whether there is a need for an individual to “hide” their home or location. This is a common COVID-era example of how our everyday communication choices reflect social privilege. Someone who wants to show off their home will do so. Others, however, for a variety of reasons prefer the coverage of a virtual background.
Students across the country have noted concerns on social media about faculty and peers seeing their homes. As an oral communication director who has nearly 2,000 students enrolled in our program this fall, I’ve had conversations with our teaching team about the need to normalize giving oral presentations from bathrooms, closets, cars, and sometimes in empty parking lots. We don’t know the details of our students’ lives and being an inclusive educator means that things are going to look different than in the pre-COVID 19 world. For the sake of our students and their learning, we need to be honest, transparent, and open to change.
American College Health Association (ACHA). National College Health Assessment. Executive summary spring 2019. Retrieved from https://www.acha.org/documents/ncha/NCHA-II_SPRING_2019_UNDERGRADUATE_REFERENCE%20_GROUP_EXECUTIVE_SUMMARY.pdf
Congressional Budget Office. (2018). The Pell Grant Program. Retrieved from https://www.cbo.gov/system/files/115th-congress-2017-2018/presentation/53825-presentation.pdf
RTI International. (2019). First-generation College Students: Demographic Characteristics and Postsecondary Enrollment. Washington, DC: NASPA. Retrieved from https://firstgen.naspa.org/files/dmfile/FactSheet-01.pdf and https://firstgen.naspa.org/research-and-policy/national-data-fact-sheets-on-first-generation-college-students/national-data-fact-sheets
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2019a). Digest of Education Statistics, 2017 (NCES 2018-070), Table 311.10. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=60
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). Fast Facts. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372#College_enrollment