Discovering the Power of Public Discourse

Posted on December 1st, 2011 by

Written by Matt Swenson ’06

Leila Brammer, professor and chair of the Department of Communication Studies, monitors a small-group discussion during the Public Discourse class she is teaching during the Fall 2011 semester. From left are Brittany Knutson '15, Breanna Wagner '14, Brammer, Dave Knudsen '14, and Andrew Lewis '12 (Photo by Tim Kennedy '82).

In 1966, during one of the most divisive years of South African apartheid, Senator Robert Kennedy made a historic visit to Cape Town University that captivated the hopes of a nation yearning desperately for change. Addressing the youth of South Africa, Senator Kennedy delivered a speech that eloquently articulated the potential of each individual to make a difference.

“Some believe there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills,” Kennedy said. “Yet many of the world’s great movements of thought and action have flowed from the work of a single [person]….A young monk began the Protestant Reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France….”

Senator Kennedy’s speech inspired young South African students to find their voices, discover the power of personal courage, and enter a dangerous moral conflict that had bitterly segregated their nation for centuries. Countless individual contributions to the cause of justice over the next decades accomplished what many never thought possible: a free and independent South Africa.

Forty-five years later, South Africa is a much different place. But hate, war, ignorance, and injustice remain prevalent in nearly every corner of the globe. In the United States and abroad, communities still thirst for the inspired voices of youthful impatience. The serious social and economic challenges of this generation still require the courage of young and fearless dreamers. And as the world faces an uncertain future, we still need the light of fresh idealism to lead the way.

Communication studies students at Gustavus Adolphus College are doing their part to pick up the mantle, tackling real challenges in their communities with creativity and confidence.

As a sophomore last fall, Bushra Wahid raised more than $3,000 to help provide a better education for impoverished children in India. During his first year at Gustavus in 2008–09, Matt Wasson implemented a student-run recycling program at his high school, expanding Duluth East High School’s recycling effort nearly 70 percent. And as a sophomore in 2007–08, Sierra Krebsbach ’10 raised awareness in her hometown of North Oaks, Minn., about dangerous carcinogenic toxins that were leaking into the city’s water supply from an illegal industrial dumpsite. Krebsbach then went a step further to encourage community members to pressure corporations responsible for the pollution to address the problem and help deliver clean drinking water for all North Oaks residents.

Each of these extraordinary accomplishments was the result of a new academic initiative in the Department of Communication Studies. In 2007, an intentional restructuring of the communication curriculum replaced Public Speaking 101 with Public Discourse. That experiment proposed one bold hypothesis: if you dare students to engage directly in their communities and find meaningful solutions to complex problems, they will learn lifelong lessons about the power of their own voices.

“Public Discourse provides training in practical public argument along with a semester-long practicum in civic engagement,” says Leila Brammer, professor and chair of the Department of Communication Studies.  “Students still receive training in the skills of public speaking, but they also receive a strong grounding in argument and citizenship.  The result is that they become much stronger speakers and also develop the confidence and skill to engage in their communities.”

Here’s how it works. Each student enrolled in Public Discourse completes a semester-long civic engagement project. The project requires each student to identify an important issue or problem in her or his community. Through linked, systematic assignments, each student is challenged to research the issue fully and investigate possible ways to address the problem. Students then develop a well-reasoned plan and take direct action to address the issue in their communities.

“Our students learn to see the power they can wield to make positive change in the world,” says assistant professor Martin Lang ’95. “In a democracy, the citizens are responsible for the change they want to see. By the end of the semester, our students understand that they have both an opportunity and an obligation to make their communities better, and they have become well versed in the tools necessary to do just that.”

The voices of students enrolled in Public Discourse have been poignant, creative, and effective. From convincing city officials to connect bike paths in one Chicago neighborhood, to strengthening smoke-free ordinances in a local Minnesota park, Gustavus students have used the course to change public policy, change the lives of those around them, and change hearts and minds. Their work has made a lasting difference in communities not just across the country, but also around the globe.

“This class encouraged me to go after big goals, and made me realize that I can make a difference,” says junior Anna Morton, whose project in 2010 helped develop a child sponsorship program to provide food, medication, and school materials for orphans in Rwanda. “The suggestions I made to the directors of the orphanage could shape their program and improve the lives of dozens of orphans in the coming years. By taking Public Discourse, I definitely grew as a person, and as a communicator.”

Student statements such as these are commonplace according to Brammer. She led the department’s strategic planning efforts in 2007. No longer satisfied with traditional methods of public speaking instruction, she and the communication studies faculty began asking important questions about the curriculum and assessing its effectiveness in the lives of students.

Ultimately their discussion focused on two big questions: What does it mean to be a communication studies department in the 21st century, and what skills do our students need to succeed in the world?

Over months of thoughtful discussion, the faculty’s answers to those questions were twofold. They resolved to: 1) renew the department’s focus on research, theory, and practice, saturating those foundational pillars into all classes across the curriculum; and 2) make an intentional commitment to civic engagement, including the development of a foundational course in Public Discourse.

According to Brammer, the outcomes of the department’s new focus on civic engagement have been more exciting and inspiring than she or her colleagues could ever have imagined.

“We took a risk, and it worked,” Brammer says. “The communities served by these projects have been grateful and receptive. And our students are leaving the classroom at the end of each semester with one of the most unique academic experiences in the country. The success of the class, and the success of our students, have put our communication studies program on the map.”

Colleges and universities in many parts of the country are taking notice of Gustavus’s new Public Discourse requirement, using it as a classroom model for their own students. As word spreads about the program, Brammer has been in high demand. She has been invited to speak about Public Discourse and civic engagement at academic conferences, including the Brigance Colloquy in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College and the Kettering Foundation. She and her colleagues have also presented at a number of local, regional, and national academic conferences. Each speaking opportunity has helped strengthen the reputation of one of the most innovative communication studies departments in the nation.

According to Brammer, teaching Public Discourse is “incredibly fulfilling. It’s the best teaching experience I have ever had.” Presenting the course with colleagues at conferences is also fulfilling. “The excitement generated by Public Discourse is remarkable. Others in the field, both college and high school instructors, recognize the strengths of the Public Discourse model in teaching students how to speak and how to be an active member of their communities.”

A number of colleges have adopted Public Discourse in their own programs. Former visiting instructor Sarah Wolter ’02, now a Ph.D. candidate and teaching assistant at the University of Minnesota, has adapted the course to her Public Speaking and Analysis of Oral Argument courses.

Wolter states, “Being part of the team to implement Public Discourse at Gustavus was a transformational experience, both professionally and personally. It is the ultimate model of civic engagement: students are challenged to investigate and create proposals for solving important community issues by directly engaging civility and ethics in a diverse democracy. I knew it would be a part of each and every course I taught at any institution in my career.” As a result of Wolter’s efforts, a number of her colleagues have adopted the methods as well.

Whenever she talks about Public Discourse, Brammer tells her audience that the course is “the epitome of the liberal arts experience,” combining academic disciplines crucial to the success of students after college.

“This course helps students develop strong oral, written, research, and problem-solving skills,” Brammer argues. “Never, in the history of liberal arts education, have those skills been more relevant or needed. The ability to write, speak, and solve problems is essential in to being a member of a global community, and necessary in trying to be good a citizens. Quite frankly, our democracy and way of life are dependent on those skills, and that’s why this class is so important.”

Though Brammer may be Public Discourse’s official spokesperson, its strongest advocates are the students who have benefitted from it. A survey found that 88 percent of those who have taken the class now plan on being more involved in their communities; and one-third say they won’t hesitate to take action in the future.

Derek Lieser, who took the class during his freshman year at Gustavus in 2009, is one of those students. Lieser recognized a growing population of Spanish-speaking immigrants in his hometown of Cold Springs, Minn. He wanted to find a way to improve intercultural understanding in his community by building meaningful relationships. To do that, Lieser worked with school officials in his hometown to establish the ROCORI School District’s first-ever Spanish language curricula for kindergarten and first-grade students.

Lieser’s program partnered students in high-level Spanish courses at ROCORI High School with classrooms at Cold Spring Elementary. Because of his initiative, high school students in Lieser’s hometown now visit the elementary school two to three times a week, using their Spanish-speaking skills to teach young students a new language. By reaching students at a young age, Lieser hopes those new language skills will help build a culture of mutual understanding in his hometown, and help make new residents of his community feel that much more welcome.

“In high school, I took a required public speaking class,” Lieser says. “But Public Discourse was much more than that. As students, we identified a problem we felt passionate about and then worked to develop a meaningful solution to that problem. The class challenged me in ways no class has before. It was a rewarding experience and an opportunity that I will forever be thankful for.”

Before the year’s end, 150 more Gustavus students will take Public Discourse, completing meaningful projects in communities throughout Minnesota, the United States, and the world. Forced to step out of their comfort zones, they will have learned more about themselves and their communities than any traditional ten-minute speaking assignment might ever have taught them.

Like Derek Lieser, Bushra Wahid, and Anna Morton before them, future students will complete Public Discourse with the confidence to address real problems in their communities. They will approach life with a better sense of their responsibility as citizens, and the strong conviction that their voice can and must be a catalyst for change. And they will know the true meaning of what Robert Kennedy expressed to students just like them on the other side of the world:

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself. But each of us can work to change a small portion of events. And in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Tiny ripples of hope at Gustavus Adolphus College are making big waves in communities around the world. It is just one more testament to what young, thoughtful people can accomplish when challenged to believe that their voices, and their lives, truly count. 

Matt Swenson ’06, a political science and communication studies major while at Gustavus, is now communication director for the Minnesota Department of Commerce and the commissioner’s chief speechwriter. He was press secretary for the 2010 gubernatorial campaign of Margaret Anderson Kelliher ’90, which he joined after working for the Minnesota House of Representatives in the House DFL Caucus Media Department.


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