A conversation I had recently reminded me of the importance of the setting in which a speech takes place, and why a speaker should exercise whatever control s/he has to get the physical setting right.
Over the 20 years I have been at my college, there have been three “eras” of teaching at a particular branch campus. The first was soon after I came to the college, over 15 years ago. The branch campus at the time was housed in a former elementary school. Though it had been upgraded for use by adult learners and had the generous support of the community, it still “felt” like an elementary school. That, coupled with the fact that most of the students had gone to high school together, gave classes there a particular challenge.
One class in particular illustrates the challenge. They treated classes (or at least my class) as if it were grade 13–cutting up in class, passing notes, even bullying the same kids who had been bullied in high school. One miscreant even put on a rubber Halloween mask while I was lecturing. I have no patience for people who have no investment in their own learning, and refused to teach at that campus again for a long time. I actually drove right by that campus to get to the college’s main campus 20 miles further away.
The second era began about 5 years ago, when for a number of reasons I needed to get classes closer to home. In the intervening decade, with changes to the job market and a generational shift, students were more serious and I was more skilled in classroom management. There were fewer miscreants, and those few didn’t last long in my classes. We still had the elementary school “feel” to contend with, though.
The effect became obvious during the third (and current) era, when we had the tremendous boost of moving to a new campus. This one, too, had tremendous community support, but the major difference was that it was built with the intention of using it for college classes.
I don’t think my skills increased much from one year to the next, and I don’t think the population changed that much, but in the new building everything seems different. Students are more serious, more focused on their own learning, and I don’t have to work at classroom management so much. In fact, the classes feel the way I believe a college class should: we’re all adults working together to help students achieve their goals.
I would like to think it’s because I’m so good, but I really think the surroundings have made the difference–it fosters the mindset that lets that level of learning take place.
Speaker can exercise only so much control over the physical environment. That makes it even more important that you exercise the control you do have. Much of this is just common sense–show up well ahead of speaking time and check to make sure the setting works. In a future post, we’ll consider some of the specific items to control, if you can.