Archive for June, 2013


Autobiography and Student Empowerment

Status updates, Instagram, “selfies”, Snapchat and in the beginning there was “My Space.” More than ever teens and college students seem to be stroking healthy egos and engaging in lively self promotion that would make PT Barnum seem like a wallflower. Does social media help students frame themselves? That may be an argument akin to my stance that blogging may well be the draft of a scholarly article or the seeds of a book.

Students know well how to “post” information and photos, but can they go a step further and speak well about themselves? I believe that we can draw from the life stories found in biographies to frame our own and to teach students how to think and talk, not about “who” they are but, “how” they are. For years I would ask students in my introductory speech class to introduce themselves. Usually they would say where they went to high school, if they had siblings, any special skills they had and whether they were dreading or looking forward to the course.

But what I really wanted them to talk about were their personality traits and experiences that have shaped who they are and the person they envision themselves becoming. I wanted to know: are they resourceful, hard-working, diligent? What in their lives offers evidence of this? Reading about the lives of others may give students a broader framework to use when constructing their own stories. By reading, for example, that Sandra Day O’Connor, our first woman Supreme Court justice grew up on a ranch and learned to do whatever it took to get a job done, they may be able to draw parallels to their own lives. O’Connor writes that her early ranch life may have fostered her decision later in her life to start her own law firm when no established firm would hire her. Her entrepreneurial spirit was nurtured growing up on the ranch. It was after sharing O’Connor’s biography with students that one student offered: “I learned that getting up early means getting the job done. Growing up on a farm, we had 90% of our work done by noon. As a college student, I still live by that and I think it is why I’ve earned Dean’s List every semester so far.”

ImageDrawing on experience as a published biographer of young adult biographies and work as a teacher-educator, Jacqueline Edmonson in her article, “Constructing and Engaging Biography: Considerations for High School English Teachers,” raises important critical questions and shares ideas for encouraging students to read and write in the biography genre. As a speech communication professor, I am interested in having students read, write and also speak about themselves using biographies as a basis of idea formation. In the introductory speech course at Penn State in recent years students were asked to make a “this is who I am speech,” record it and post it to YouTube. They were encouraged to make it as professional as possible, drawing from their lives as young children and experiences that formed their personalities. Reading biographies gives students a broader spectrum of ideas and helps them to connect the dots of how their early life experiences may have shaped their personalities, passions and life choices.

Parents are often encouraged to bring their children to meet new people as an important part of socialization and the development of self-awareness and communication skills. No doubt travel and social opportunities enhance young people’s ease in groups and creates confidence for them in social situations. By reading biographies, young people can also begin to construct interesting ways to convey their passions and identity when in social situations and as they transition from school into professional careers.

As Edmonson points out: “Lives are crafted from perspectives that serve various groups in certain times and places. Texts are constructed according to choices that authors and publishers make, and these have multiple justifications that result in sometimes competing accounts of a person’s life.”[i] Indeed, students must gain a sense of audience when they present who they are in a “this is who I am” speech. By drawing on the lives of others students can begin to speak more interestingly and with ease of themselves and how they make a contribution to the world. In this way biographies may serve as a vital tool for self discovery.

[i]Edmondson, J. (2012). Constructing and engaging biography: Considerations for high school English teachers. English Journal, 101(5), 44-50. Retrieved from


Shapeless in the hands of fate, Thou didst mold us

As the Penn State alma mater goes: “When we stood at childhood’s gate, Shapeless in the hands of fate, Thou didst mold us, dear old State, Dear old State, dear old state.” For me, that sentiment has special significance.  I was relatively young when I lost my parents: 19 when my dad died and 28 when my mom died.  Certainly not a ‘child’ as the lyrics state, but young enough to still be looking for (and certainly in need of) some guidance, ‘shaping,’ if you will.  For me, Penn State and many of you here were surrogate parents (even if you didn’t know it), and I’m so very grateful for what you have done for me. In 1990 Mary Hutchinson (then Landis) hired me over the phone to teach the basic speech class for Penn State Allentown at St. Luke’s School of Nursing.  As she made me the offer she remarked, “You speech comm. people are hard to find.”  Right from the start, this campus made me feel special and valuable. It was so great when a year later I got the chance to teach at the “main” Penn State Allentown campus in Fogelsville – I can still remember meeting Loretta, Sue and Kathy Eck for the first time.  To me, you represent the best of this place–quiet, unsung heroes just doing your jobs to the highest level and not looking for attention or glory. I have so many memories, but here goes, these are my “top ten.” 1. Wednesday, July 10 1991– Our son Ian’s arrival into the world (7 weeks early) and also the start date of my summer class.  Geoff left my bedside and was dispatched to campus to distribute the syllabus, assign readings and to tell the class that I was ‘under the weather’ and would return on Monday.   I did, taught the class and the final class date coincided nicely with Ian’s release from the NICU at Lehigh Valley Hospital.  Right on, Helen Reddy! 2. Soon after, Sue Snyder encouraging me-—in Sue Snyder style — to “stick around.” 3. 1995: sitting on a picnic bench while receiving the irresistible offer to work full time by teaching 3 sections of speech, being the evening administrator and handling public relations.  I knew a good deal when I heard one. 4. Working on my PhD; one time driving to State College for class when the professor announced: “There is no class – Creamery ice cream for everyone instead!”  It was his way of rewarding us for completing a rather long writing assignment.   I really love ice cream, but even I thought that was quite a trip for an ice cream cone. 5. Our DAA and then CEO Gene Slaski encouraging me to get a “back stage pass” to interview Elizabeth Dole.  I did and that started a research agenda that Penn State would ultimately recognize and reward with promotion and tenure. Fast forward to Penn State Lehigh Valley. 6.China with Mike Krajsa is an incredible memory I will carry with me for a lifetime.   The man is one in a million.  It was transformative for the  students, yes, but even more for me. 7.The Women of CAS meetings with Sandy Kile and Steph Derstine – we know we have the best class at Penn State to teach!  The memories of my thousands of students giving their speeches over the years run through my mind on a constant loop.  It has been such an honor to teach so many wonderful people. 8. Running The Orchard Press and then starting State of the Valley with Glenn Kranzley. Taking our students to Capital Day in Harrisburg every year. I learned at least as much as the students. What an honor to work with Glenn. 9. Two summers ago I was teaching and for the first time ever in my career a student’s behavior frightened me.  I did as I was trained:  I picked up the phone and I said, “Jack Cooney.” And you know what happened? John Toney, Ann Williams and Ken Thigpen came running up the steps to save the day. And that’s the kind of back up I’ve always had at this campus.  I could never have the opportunity before me without the support I have had from all of you. 10.  Being here right now with all of you — thank you so much for coming today.  It means so much to me. So I have this great experience ahead of me at Schreyer Honors College, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I am thrilled about it.    But just like the irresistible offer from Gene Slaski all those years ago sitting at that picnic table, when Dean Christian Brady called me and offered me this new chance to impact students, develop honors courses and to work at University Park, what else could I say? Irresistible.  I admire Dean Brady and believe so fervently in the Schreyer Honors College mission and now I am going to be part of it.  A dream come true, as Geoff pointed out the other night. But let me just say that if Mary Hutchinson thinks that we speech communication folks are hard to find, let me assure you that we are even more difficult to get rid of.  We are all Penn Staters.  And as the Robert DeNiro character in the movie “Meet the Parents” said to Ben Stiller’s character:  “I’ll be watching you.” Thank you so much for making me feel so special and valuable. I love you all.Image

June 2013
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