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Avoiding the Pitfalls of the Invited Speaker

Tamara Sniezek

Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice
CSU Stanislaus

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Guest speakers can be effective pedagogical tools in the college classroom. However, there is little information regarding how instructors can best utilize this important resource. In this article, I shed light on how guest speakers are most effectively used in the classroom. To assist instructors in managing and avoiding some of the problems that come with inviting guest speakers, I provide suggestions based on my experiences inviting guest speakers to my Sociology classes at CSU Stanislaus and from those experiences relayed to me by my department.

Research indicates that invited guest speakers can build linkages between academia and the practitioner (Glenwick & Chabot, 1991), improve community-school relations (Wortmann, 1992), provide professional role models for students (Butler, 1997) and greatly enhance student learning (Butler, 1997; Glenwick & Chabot, 1991; Leonard, 1980; Murray & Bollinger, 2001; Thoen & Weiner, 1981).

Guest speakers enhance student learning in a variety of ways. Studies have found guest speakers raise cultural sensitivity (Berlak, 1999; Murray & Bollinger, 2001), enhance practical and technical knowledge in a particular field (Glenwick & Chabot, 1991; Leonard, 1980; Butler, 1997) and challenge studentsí stereotypes (Butler, 1997; Guth, 2000). Experimental research conducted by Guth, Hewitt-Gervais, Smith, and Fisher (2000), for example, indicated students who listened to a guest speaker with HIV/AIDS viewed people with HIV/AIDS more positively than those who did not.

The literature regarding how one should go about using this powerful resource is still sparse. Likewise, instructors receive little or no training in graduate school regarding the effective use of the invited guest speaker. Perhaps this lack of preparation explains why many instructors are reluctant to invite guest speakers or do not use them to their fullest potential.

To complicate matters, guest speakers can be difficult to manage. In fact, inviting guest speakers can have disastrous results. They show up late, report to the wrong classroom or fail to appear at all. They speak off topic or provide incorrect information. They may lack preparation or speaking skills. A colleague related an incident in which a guest speaker delivered a sermon intended to convert students to his religion instead of giving the lecture he had promised to deliver on euthanasia.

Some problems that arise with guest speakers are difficult to predict and, even with careful planning, are unavoidable, but others can be avoided with a modicum of planning. I offer several suggestions based on personal experience that are designed to assist instructors in avoiding pitfalls.

Finding and Screening Potential Speakers

Instructors often know too little about their potential guest speaker. CSU instructors may lack the time, resources or desire for a lengthy investigation of the speakerís background. However, there are several easy ways to gather information that will alert you to possible problems.

Colleagues are excellent sources of information. If the prospective speaker is a local expert or is active in the community, a faculty member in your department will likely have had contact. The quickest way to gather information from faculty is to send a department-wide email or memo asking the faculty if they know the speaker and can comment on his or her suitability as a guest speaker. Those unfamiliar with the speaker may recommend other qualified individuals. In my experience, individuals recommended by colleagues are generally very reliable, especially if used previously as speakers.

Another source of information is local community members or organizations. Community agencies are frequently eager to provide employees to speak at the university. In fact, many have monies or specific employees designated for the purpose of community education. I find, for example, that domestic violence shelters frequently have a community outreach person who will talk to my Sociology of the Family class about domestic violence. Information about community agencies can be found through local directories, through Internet searches or from colleague referrals.

Unfortunately, many instructors stop inquiries after finding a community outreach person or what appears to be an expert on a topic. Not all of those who are experts in the field or who are designated as public speakers are right for particular classes or are effective speakers. I discovered this hazard first hand when I a domestic violence community educator spoke to my class. Her presentation was not at a college level but more appropriate for young teens. I later learned that the organizationís community outreach was generally geared towards elementary and high schools student, and most of the speakerís experience was with these groups. If I had made further inquiries, I would probably have avoided this situation.

More in-depth inquiries should be made to the community agency or by interviewing the potential guest speaker. The questions would depend on the instructorís specific needs and discipline, but I recommend these general questions:

  • Is the individual an experienced speaker in college classes?
  • Is the person familiar with your particular discipline? (I found, for example, that guest speakers on domestic violence often approach the issue from a psychological viewpoint, which is problematic for my sociology class.)
  • What information can the speaker provide?
  • Can the speaker meet beforehand to discuss the presentation?

With this information, you are better prepared to make a decision about the appropriateness of the speaker. However, donít rule out guest speakers with little college speaking experience or formal education in your particular discipline. Some time and care taken to make sure the speaker is fully aware of your expectations and fully prepared may result in an outstanding classroom talk.

Preparing Your Speaker

An appointment should be made before the speaking engagement, if practical, to meet with the guest speaker on your campus. One purpose is to see and talk to the speaker in person, which provides valuable but otherwise unavailable information about professional demeanor and similar matters. By meeting, the speaker learns the location of the university, where to park, and even the classroom and its equipment. At the meeting, you can give the speaker detailed information about your class and your expectations. I recommend that you give the speaker a copy of your syllabus or reading list and explain specific information you would like presented. Discuss how long the talk will last and how formal you would like it to be. For instance, some instructors prefer a question-and-answer session, others a formal lecture.

Inevitably, some speakers with busy schedules will not be able to meet beforehand, but there are alternatives such as email and telephone calls. For hard-to-find classrooms, you can meet and escort the guest immediately before the speaking engagement from a central campus location.

Sending Follow-up Information

After you initially meet or speak with the guest speaker, follow up with a letter or email confirming the date, time, place and material to be covered for the class. This letter clears up any confusion about presentation length and format, and serves as a reminder. You may also send detailed campus maps.

Controlling the Situation

There are creative ways to minimize problems that may occur during the guest speakerís presentation. When unsure about a speaker, do not allot the entire class time for the presentation. A colleague related to me how painful it was to sit through her entire one-hour-fifty-minute class period with a guest speaker whom she continually struggled to keep on topic. I recommend scheduling about half the class period so that, if the guest speaker is problematic, the entire class period is not lost.

Another effective method of maintaining control is to avoid the guest lecture and, instead, conduct an interview. The instructor asks a series of questions to the guest speaker in front of the class. I have used this method effectively in my Social Research Methods course. I ask the speaker specific questions about his or her personal experience with research. I also provide the questions to the speaker in advance. This method allows me to direct the speaker to issues I am most interested in and makes the classroom presentation less formal.

An alternative method is to hold a student question-and-answer session. Students may be asked to prepare questions, the best of which the instructor can pick to be given to the speaker in advance of the engagement. Not only do students have an active role in the process, but there is also greater control over the direction the guest speaker takes. If the speaker answers a question off topic, the instructor can move on to the next question.

The risks involved in inviting guest speakers can be minimized by following the suggestions I have offered, and the benefits are well worth the extra trouble. The practice adds to learning not only in the social sciences, but in any academic discipline. Accounting, for example, is brought to life and engages students in a new way when the accountant practitioner, serving as a guest speaker, imparts real-world practical knowledge to the accounting class. For another example, working artists, dancers or writers can bring incomparable insights and perspectives about their fields to the classroom.

It is important to remember that guest speakers are not only useful there, but also help to build important ties between the university and the community.

References

Berlak, A. (1999). Taking it personally: Encountering racism in a cultural diversity course. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. Montreal.

Butler, R. (1997). Using gender balance to enhance teaching effectiveness. Business Communication Quarterly, 60, 93-100.

Glenwick, D., & Chabot, D. 1991. The undergraduate clinical child psychology course: Bringing students to the real world and the real world to students. Teaching of Psychology, 18, 21-24.

Guth, L., Hewitt-Gervais, C., Smith, S., & Fisher, M. (2000). Student attitudes toward AIDS and homosexuality: The effects of a speaker with HIV. Journal of College Student Development, 41, 503-512.

Leonard, D. (1980). Some suggestions for having guest speakers in a technical writing course. Technical Writing Teacher, 7, 64-65.

Murray, G. & Bollinger, D. (2001). Developing cross-cultural awareness: Learning through the experience of others. TESL Canada Journal, 19, 62-72.

Thoen, G. & Weiner, J. (1981). Creating: A place for women. U.S.: Minnesota. (ERIC Document Accession No. ED215138)

Wortmann, G. (1992). An invitation to learn. Science Teacher, 59, 19-22.

Posted June 23, 2005.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board.
©2005 by Tamara Sniezik.

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