Instructor's Corner #1: The (R)Evolution of the Basic Communication Course
Students from all majors take their first—and often only—look at communication through the basic course, making the course the discipline’s “front porch.” As we enjoy NCA’s centennial year and reflect on this core element of our discipline, we appreciate the important place speech instruction holds in higher education. That status has evolved over time alongside general education, but it now faces a revolutionary moment as the ground under higher education shifts. To help us understand where oral communication instruction is headed though, we must look back to where it came from.
The Old School. Any telling of the story of oral communication instruction has to begin in “classical” times. The central component of education in classical Greece and Rome was oratory, as those civilizations saw good speech as the foundation of a thriving society. The Greeks’ contributions to oral communication are some of the longest lasting. The Greeks gave us a first look at what we now think of as general education in modern-day universities: oratory, composition, history, citizenship, culture, and morality.
During the Roman Empire, Quintilian wrote Institutio Oratoria, which included much of what his Greek predecessors taught, but he added a plan for training that strongly resembles contemporary models of general education. He argued that children should learn grammar at a young age, and then, in their early adolescence, they should be trained in speech. Today, this training takes place at roughly the same time in a student’s development: high school or the first year of college.
In the centuries that followed, training in oral communication remained central to education, although frequent philosophical debates redefined its focus and eventually led to the assimilation of rhetoric and communication by English departments where oral and written communication were taught alongside each other. The pervasiveness of that combination of writing and speaking, however, would not last.
The New School. Several key moments in the early 20th century presented a course correction that moved elements of communication from English back to their original discipline. One of the first significant events was the foundation of the National Association of Academic Teachers of Public Speaking (now the National Communication Association, or NCA) in 1914. The organization arose from a dispute within the ranks of the National Council of Teachers of English when 17 speech teachers broke away because of what they perceived as the reduced importance of speech instruction in English departments.
The move to create our own discipline was prescient. Soon after the break, Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell shaped the modern structure for general education by spearheading the notion of “departments,” and required students to take foundational courses in the natural sciences and the humanities. Within this structure, the basic course found its way back to a central role in higher education.
Over the next several decades, general education became so unwieldy that in 1977, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching referred to it as a “disaster area.” Even though it stimulated lots of mostly superficial reform activity, the Carnegie report essentially resulted in more courses added to the jumble of options students tried to navigate. With its inclusion in general education, the basic course often became just another class on that menu. Despite the “get the class out of the way” mentality this promoted, work to enhance the basic course did not cease.
These efforts included the 1989 proposal at the Midwest Basic Course Directors’ conference for what would become theBasic Communication Course Annual, the creation of the Basic Course Interest Group of the Central States Communication Association, and the establishment of the “Basic Course Listserv” as a means of sharing information about basic course issues. Finally, in 1994, the National Communication Association established a Basic Course Division for its membership.
About this same time, general education encountered headwinds. In 1994, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) criticized the structure of general education for creating confusion and reducing motivation for students to learn foundational ideas and concepts. Since then, the AAC&U has strongly endorsed an outcome-based model for general education, which aims to replace the “menu of courses” approach with one that requires students to demonstrate achievement of core competencies rather than complete specific courses.
Following this lead, regional accrediting agencies in the United States began moving toward requiring achievement and outcome-based models. The idea of communication skills as one of these outcomes remains central to this approach, with both employers and the AAC&U calling for communication as a learning outcome of general education. This clearly demonstrated that members of a broad array of disciplines were concerned with the development of student communication skills. Though seemingly a boon for the discipline, this shift simultaneously raised the idea that communication departments were not the only place to instruct students in these skills and knowledge, placing several communication departments’ basic courses in jeopardy. To be sure, the decades from 1990 to 2010 continued the tradition of the basic course as a primary component in general education, if not in terms of a specific course, then at least with communication skills as a desired outcome.
Today, there is no doubt that deep ties bind the basic communication course to the discipline and to general education. Businesses and organizations such as the AAC&U now identify communication knowledge and skills as essential tools college graduates must have. Indeed, in today’s hyper-mediated environment, oral and interpersonal communication skills are even more vital to personal and professional success. Additionally, many faculty members in communication departments find their instructional start in the basic course.
Given its history and the longstanding connection to general education, the discipline is well advised to pay attention to the basic communication course in terms of content, delivery, assessment, and research opportunities. To ignore the course and its role in general education is to invite peril for the foundation of our departments and discipline. Our “front porch” must be looked after with care so that we can continue to serve the needs of our students, colleagues, and communities well into the next century.