By: Dr. Jennifer Heusel

As a public speaking and communication professor, my students often express extreme statements about their potential as speakers and leaders. On one end of the spectrum, students declare their leadership accolades because they are confident public speakers. On the other end, students refuse to see their leadership capabilities because they are extremely shy. At some point in their lives, each student will be called to serve and be asked to extend faith in the leadership of others. A personal pedagogical goal is to guide students from the extremes and toward a center of empowerment in which each can recognize the usefulness of their
particular talents within particular situations. At times, the language of my discipline doesn’t connect with the lived experiences of students, and their professional goals. I KNOW how the content relates, but translating “how” has been a pedagogical struggle. An answer could be found in the skills and behaviors cultivated from participating in peer feedback.

I was excited to be a coordinator/participant in the January 2021 Study-to-Practice Faculty Development Workshop (S2P Workshop) hosted by Kallion Leadership, Inc., which believes that those who teach in the humanities are leadership trainers. Kallion understands how the humanities are uniquely qualified to assist people in cultivating skills that promote personal empowerment and community growth. In my case, I’ve struggled to translate the practice of political deliberation as training future citizen leaders. Recognizing how the humanities cultivate leaders, the S2P workshop develops strategies for translating theory to practice. In the S2P Workshop, participants listened to interviews and spoke with local leadership practitioners in order to generate ideas toward revising course material to include the language of leadership development.

The first part of the S2P Development Workshop included listening to leadership practitioners from Hartsville, SC. As a scholar activist in Hartsville, I’ve developed a strong network of community partners, and I gladly suggested several names to the S2P team. Our local leadership practitioners included Aimee Cox-King, who founded Cypress Adventures, Inc. and is a strong youth development advocate; Curtis Lee is a retired Marine and also serves on the City of Hartsville Planning Commission; and Darnell Byrd-McPherson, who is executive director of Darlington First Steps and mayor of Lamar, SC. Kallion collaborators, such as myself, recorded a 20-minute interview with each local practitioner. Workshop participants watched the interviews before meeting with them to ask follow-up questions. These practitioners set the tone for the workshop, which can be summarized as empowerment through feedback.

The conversations between local practitioners and workshop participants emphasized relationships as central to leadership, but also to service. For example, Mr. Lee spoke on leading from the needs and wants of the population one wishes to serve. Ms. Cox-King reinforced this suggestion by explaining the importance of feedback, which involves creating and setting community expectations about the giving and taking of feedback. She stressed that the purpose of feedback is to build trust among partners, and setting expectations is part of the process. Mayor Byrd-McPherson concurred and added that leaders need to support and learn from the people you’re working with. A commitment to the process of empowering feedback results in servant-leaders. “Lead from behind,” Mayor Byrd-McPherson told the S2P participants, and “help people understand their capacity to be successful in a challenge.” To summarize, the “bravest” leaders are mentors who give their subordinates authority, and share opportunities for collectively accepting responsibility. Central to leadership is being self-aware about where you are at any moment, and creating community expectations about feedback, which are leadership qualities cultivated within the humanities.

The advice from the local practitioners sounds a lot like “deep teaching” practices, which were recently discussed by Steve Mintz in an Inside Higher Education blog post entitled: “A Career-Aligned Major Isn’t Enough” (3 February 2021). According to Mintz, deep teaching includes being intentional, self-aware, and empathetic while focused on students and outcomes. As a humanities-driven pedagogical practice, deep teaching involves practices of self-reflection and self-awareness so to empower students, but as humans, we are often uncomfortable giving and receiving feedback. As professors, we see this discomfort with our students when they avoid responding to feedback or opportunities to meet with us. During the workshop, S2P participants are lead through a feedback exercise in which we share course syllabi and assignments. We began by sharing what we are proud of with the assignment, what area needs focus, and a goal for revision. Taking these areas into account, each participant sat quietly and received feedback. After all feedback was shared, the floor opened for the participant to respond and then revise their course material.

Although I saw myself cultivating future leaders, I didn’t recognize the value of performing leadership behaviors in the classroom. This semester I implemented a peer response assignment in which students read the short papers of two other students. The first set of peer responses demonstrate undiscriminating and overly positive feedback. Since I didn’t dedicate class time on how to give and receive feedback, this round of peer feedback illustrates a lack of trust with the process and possibly a fear of judgment from others. As Ms. Cox-King stated to our S2P workshop group, “If I’m curious about my assumptions, then I should ask how people perceive me.” Students need courage in order to listen to the perceptions of others, and with careful modeling, the feedback process can empower them to cultivate this courage. For the next paper, I will ask the student authors to share what they like about their paper, to sit with the peer comments, and to respond to feedback by revising. I will ask peer reviewers to consider the author’s stated pride in their work, to articulate what they learn from the peer’s paper, and to encourage reflection on writing choices (self and other). Reflecting on my S2P experience, my struggle wasn’t about translating the language of my discipline; rather, the translation process begins with me role modeling the behaviors central to enacting the course content. Stated in light of my current course, modeling courage and trust as part of the peer response process. Following the examples of S2P local leaders, I have tools to revise the peer feedback process into a source of empowerment.

Dr. Jennifer Heusel is an associate professor of Communication at Coker University, where she teaches in the Communication Program and the African American Studies Specialization. She works with colleagues to develop programs, and involves students in creating and implementing events, such as the bi-annual campus Kwanzaa celebration. Much of Jennifer’s teaching responsibilities are within the general education curriculum, including public speaking. Bringing together her passions for public culture, education, and community engagement, she is an active member of the Hartsville community. She sees her service as opportunities for students to put their education into practice.

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