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Teaching about Audience Using Projects for Outside Clients – A Conference Report

Posted by on Monday, January 17, 2011 in News.

by Derek Bruff, CFT Assistant Director

Back in November I attended the 30th annual Lilly Conference on College Teaching at Miami University in Ohio. I thought I’d share some session highlights with my Vanderbilt colleagues. Here’s the first in a series of posts about the conference.

Developing a Signature Pedagogy to Cross the Audience Threshold – Rebecca Pope-Ruark, Elon University

Audience is a threshold concept in writing and communication in that students can’t really progress in those domains without mastering this concept. Too often the students’ only audience is their professor.  That’s not sufficient for students to learn the concept of audience. (I learned this from Gardner Campbell. Great to hear it from someone else, too!)

Rebecca’s comments on the importance of audience reminded me of Nancy Duarte’s audience needs map activity in her book slide:ology. Duarte suggests finding or creating an image of a representative audience member when planning a presentation, then responding to a set of seven questions including “What are they like?”, “Why are they here?”, “What keeps them up at night?”, and “How can you solve their problems?”

In her professional writing and rhetoric course, Rebecca had her students engage in classwide, semester-long projects for outside clients. In the first semester, they created how-to videos for the campus library, which involved not only video production but juggling multiple audiences, including librarians, students, and faculty. In the second semester, her students created a coffee table book and a children’s book for a local exotic animal rescue shelter, the Conservators’ Clinic, which now sells the two books, which means that you could be part of the students’ audience!

One lesson Rebecca learned was that the students needed a “reconciliation day” after receiving their first significant feedback from their clients. In the first semester, the students had particular opinions about their approach to the how-to videos, but when they shared their ideas with their clients (the librarians), they found that their clients wanted something very different. It took a full class period of discussion for the students to reconcile their plans with the needs of their clients!

See Rebecca’s paper [PDF] for more information on her approach to teaching students about audience.

Image: “The Calm after the Show,” Thomas Hawk, Flickr (CC)

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