Learning to Speak Your Mind

byrne_022NAME: Dara Byrne
COLLEGE: John Jay College
TITLE: Associate professor of Communication and Theatre Arts
FOCUS: “Most people hate the idea of public speaking. All your insecurities come up. You’re exposed, you’re vulnerable, your thoughts about competency are the elephant in the classroom.”

Dara Byrne, an associate professor of communication and theatre arts at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says her “favorite place is in a class with freshmen, because I enjoy helping them see what the higher-education environment can do for them.”

And she teaches just the course – the one they don’t want to take.

“Most people hate the idea of public speaking,” says Byrne, who also directs the William E. Macaulay Honors College at John Jay. “They dread being in front of an audience. All your insecurities come up. You’re exposed, you’re vulnerable, your thoughts about competency are the elephant in the room. It’s a great class to have right out of high school.”

Public speaking is part of John Jay’s First Year Experience. Byrne grounds discussion and research in issues that directly affect students, giving them a forum to explore topics in front of their peers.

Byrne asks students to combine aspects of ancient Greek rhetorical practice – the Western standard – with contemporary communication techniques. Emphasizing public speaking as a means to civic engagement, she tells students that if their ideas can improve society, they have a responsibility to present them effectively to others, which takes practice and skill. “It isn’t what you say to people, it’s what they hear, so you need to think about your audience. I see this course as a learn-to-teach model,” she says.

Students write speeches, read famous speeches, watch TED Talks and study research on student engagement. They learn to rewrite and take a different approach if a rhetorical stratagem isn’t working.

She has a clever way to help her students assess their own work. She gives them speeches from prior classes – some As, some Fs, some in between – for them to “grade” before they write their own. They discuss the mechanics of grading, her assessment rubric and college standards, so there won’t be surprises when they are evaluated. Afterward, she says, students are less likely to hand in subpar assignments. “They’ll say, ‘I didn’t get it done and won’t insult you with an excuse.'”

Freshmen need such an introduction to college-level learning to succeed socially and academically, she says.

Junior psychology major Radhalisa Zarzuela says Byrne’s public-speaking course was far from easy. “When we’d give a speech, if we didn’t have enough eye contact, she’d tell us to calm down and relax, try to engage and have a conversation,” she says. “I’d look at her and learn how to look at others. She taught us how to get people’s attention.”

Preparing for doctoral studies via the federal Ronald E. McNair undergraduate program, Zarzuela conducts research with assistant professor Maureen Allwood on how home violence relates to jealousy and aggression. She also tutors public-speaking students who are in the SEEK Program for high-potential, low-income students.

Byrne edited several books in Black Issues in Higher Education’s Landmarks in Civil Rights History series, including The Unfinished Agenda of Brown v. Board of Education. She looked at race, ethnicity and learning on social networking sites for the MacArthur Foundation’s book series on youth, digital media and learning.

She also recently co-authored a paper on cyberbullying with senior John Cusick, who intends to enter a J.D./Ph.D. program. Cusick says Byrne’s public-speaking course “played a major role in my intellectual development.” Calling Byrne “a support system,” he adds that she was readily available to help with work and consider graduate programs and fellowships. “Every time I speak with her, I learn something new about myself,” he says.

Great teaching is at the heart of a great university, and Dara Byrne is among The Princeton Review’s The Best 300 Professors (Random House 2012) selected from among 42,000 submissions and 1,000 semifinalists nationwide.