The Great (uhm) Communicators

by Betty Gabrielli

Stumbling around on such verbal crutches as like and you knowis not the way to win friends or influence potential employers.

Mallspeak,the youth subdialect that uses like or whatever to repeatedly punctuate each sentence, is "considered a product of both the urban street scene and the consumer cathedrals of the San Fernando Valley," says the Los Angeles Times.

Regardless of its definition, academics are agreeing that mallspeak's proliferation signifies the woeful deterioration of public discourse. And job-market experts predict that the ability to frame cogent arguments will be even more imperative in the 21st-century workplace than it is in today's. So rhetoric is in, again.

"Now I take time to consider what I really mean and I don't use 'you know' to fill in the space while I'm thinking."

Jung Lee

Scorned since Plato banished rhetoricians from the Republic -- he considered them nothing more than spin doctors -- instruction in speaking, if not eloquently at least fluently, is making a comeback. Not surprisingly, Oberlin was one of the first schools in the country to pick up on the need. More than a decade ago the Office of Student Academic Services decided to en-hance its peer liaisons' abilities to counsel other students by offering classes in communication skills.

"The original idea was to help upperclassmen better mentor first-generation and low-income students," says Linda Gates, director of Oberlin's learning assistance program.

Since then the class has grown into two segments, fall semester's Communications I and spring's Communications II. The courses have become magnets, not only for students who wanted to improve their general speaking and leadership skills, but also for students preparing for careers and those for whom English is a second language.

Students concentrate on developing listening, self-disclosure, assertiveness, and public speaking techniques and on increasing their sensitivity to body language. By critiquing videotaped presentations and role-playing interviews, the class can work on interchanges that clarify language, such as asking others to elucidate before replying.

"Students rave about how helpful the techniques are, in class and especially in roommate situations," Gates laughs. "We use skills that are useful where they live!"

Last semester Gates asked her students to keep diaries relating class readings to interactions they were involved in as well as interactions they observed among other people.

"What I got back were amazingly perceptive observations," Gates says. "I could tell they had gained a new appreciation for what before would have gone right past them, such as how people put up listening blocks."

They also learn "social speak," the ability to match their expression to the situation. "We brainstorm greetings and responses," explains Gates, "and do exercises running all the way from 'how do you do' to . . . well, you just don't say 'Yo' to the president at a tea party."

Students know that speaking effectively will help them in job seeking, an issue that is uppermost in many seniors' minds. Gates recalls that one student, confronted in a mock job interview by the inevitable question, "What are your strengths and weaknesses," returned to the class gleeful that she had answered it. "If I hadn't, I could have easily blown [a real interview] big time," she said.

Jung Lee, a senior biology major, plans to pursue a career in hospital pharmacy. She realizes she'll need be comfortable interacting with the diverse people she'll encounter in a large hospital setting. The feedback she gets in Gates' class helps immeasurably:

"I practiced giving a biology presentation. My classmates told me that when I spoke out of my personal experience I became much more animated. But when I read the prepared material, my voice would go down. I would look so solemn. They said it was like a roller coaster. Thanks to them, I was able to correct my mistakes and do a much better presentation."

Lee says she's also become more conscious of how she talks to individuals.

"Now I take time to consider what I really mean and I don't use 'you know' to fill in the space while I'm thinking."

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