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Communication Arts in North Dakota: Celebrating a Culture

Keynote Address, 1986 North Dakota Speech and Theatre Association State Convention.

Suzanne J. Hagen, University of Wisconsin-River Falls

Volume 1, 1987.


I was very pleased to be invited to keynote your Speech and Theatre Association's convention this year--especially a significant meeting such as this. Since this is the first time this organization has held a convention, this meeting has special importance. It's professional rejuvenation; it's a starting point for future meetings and activities, and it's an enjoyable time to renew acquaintances, to make new friends, and to socialize.

It also makes the keynote task doubly challenging. There's always a little trepidation accepting such a challenge, being asked to speak to respected colleagues and friends (Speech communication teachers, no less!) And one adds the significance of this particular convention.

But I also accepted with willingness. I always find it easier to speak in situations where I'm familiar with the people, their backgrounds, with the context in which they work and live.

Let me first share a little of my background with you as well as some fond North Dakota recollections. I spent three very gratifying years teaching high school speech and English in Dickinson. As a first year teacher with a "fresh" M.A. and no secondary teaching experience, I felt very fortunate to find a teaching position where I had a debate/advanced speech course that ran the entire academic year and that I had a debate budget (I believe) larger than the University of Minnesota's (granted, it was retrenchment time for them)! The very nature of that position told me something about the high value placed on oral communication skills. I think fondly of my colleagues--teachers who supported me as I worked out discipline problems and developed class activities.

And I recall most fondly those special students who got "turned on" to debate and other speaking events. They were bright students, sometimes ones who often did not get recognition for athletics or some other activity--who took real pleasure in researching topics, perfecting delivery and, most of all--thinking critically to match wits with other fine minds from different schools.

Given all those positives, why am I not still here, teaching in high schools? Let me recount a story--one which I believe many of you can identify with. It was January of 1975 and I and another faculty member--our theatre director--took about 20 high school students to Grand Forks for the UND forensics and debate tournament. We boarded the school bus, had a good (300 mile) trip, checked into the Holiday Inn, and competed in a late afternoon/evening round of events. Now, do any of you recall the phrase "Blizzard of the Century?" Right, we became snowbound--just us, the 20 students, about 50 traveling salesmen, and a slug of air force base personnel trapped at the motel for five days--a long five days. But eventually, the wind died, the sun shone, the bus driver said we could leave after we shoveled out the bus. Fine, but shoveling out the bus meant literally shoveling out the inside of the bus, the snow had drifted so hard.

Now that in itself did not discourage me from the life of a high school speech coach, but it did make me ask the question, "Will I still be able to do this for 20 or 30 years?" And behind that question was the larger issue of the sheer energy it takes to be an elementary or secondary teacher--even discounting co-curricular activities. Teaching 5 or 6 classes a day, September through May, and teaching well (being energetic, enthusiastic, fair, creative, clear, prepared, and up-to-date in content). Frankly, I wasn't sure if I could live up to those demands. To you elementary and secondary teachers in the audience, you have my utmost respect--teaching our young people is so important, and teaching well is an incredibly demanding profession. You deserve sincere and heartfelt appreciation from your colleagues in the communicating arts and from all of us who are parents.

Now some of you are probably saying, "Aha, she got out of high school teaching and into the cushy life of a college professor!" And, indeed, in some ways the college life is less demanding--we're not in class every hour of the day, we don't have to fight discipline problems, we have a lot of freedom in choosing our materials and approaches. But I can also empathize with the college and university people in the audience today. We continually have to cope with budget cuts, we still have unmotivated students (remember the perennial question, "Will I miss anything important if I'm not in class tomorrow?"), we have the actor or debater who misses a rehearsal because of other "more important" commitments, we have colleagues in other departments who think we only teach a "knack" and never quite figure out why we're not subsumed in English departments, and the list goes on. We're also expected to read journals faithfully, and sometimes even to do research while still being energetic, enthusiastic, fair, creative, clear...etc. in the classroom. So although the demands change somewhat from position to position, I believe we as educators, at any level, are involved n a very challenging, energy consuming, and yet rewarding profession. And we need to remind each other--and the public--of that from time to time.

But this is not a convention of educators n general. We're here as specialists in the communicating arts, speech and theatre. And we need to talk about our disciplines and what makes them--and us--special.

What I'd like to do this morning is to first comment on the place of the communicating arts in North Dakota and then I'd like to discuss some issues that I think are crucial to our disciplines today.

What role does communication--everything from public speaking to artistic theatrical productions--play in North Dakota today? And how has the role developed? The answer to those questions really does involve taking a look at the whole fabric of the state and its people--the culture, if you will. In fact, the title of this keynote speech, "Celebrating a Culture" came to me very easily. My first thought, when I learned that this was the first convention for the group, was that a keynote speech ought to remind people of their

heritage, it ought to celebrate some key people and events, it ought to be a foundation for new organizational efforts. And, as many of you know, a current "buzz word" in organizational communication is organization culture--that collection of stories, events, people, settings, achievements to which members point with pride and say, "This represents the strengths, the values, the significance of the group to me--and to outsiders."

My second thought recalled a passing conversation with my husband when we talked about the three states in which we have lived, North Dakota, Minnesota and now Wisconsin. My husband commented on some similarities--all upper midwestern/western, all have a relatively highly educated population and high standard of living, all are unique as the three states which have had a significant third party political movement, all are farming states with pioneer memories not too far in the past. (In fact, the geographical continuity crops up again and again in my professional associates: every day as I walk through the lobby of our fine arts building I pass a portrait of Dr. Eugene Kleinpell, a former River Falls Chancellor and a former president at Valley City State Teachers College.

Now let me take a few moments to weave together what I feel are some important aspects of life in North Dakota with some key events in speech and theatre.

Let's consider the roots of theatre in this state. The pioneer settler's lives included entertainment, whether it was in the one-room r country schools were programs entertained the community and gave children an opportunity to "perform" or whether it was entertainers on the chatauqua circuit. The traveling shows went from community to community with tents, horses, actors, pitchmen, etc. That same spirit--performers worked to entertain and instruct; audience members eager to appreciate and to learn--is still present today in the revitalized chatauqua program sponsored by the North Dakota Commission on the Humanities. That very early tradition has been extended, refined, shaped by such people as Prof. Frederick Koch. Prof. Koch came to UND in 1905 and established the Dakota Playmakers, created the Bankside Theatre, and began a play-writing program (with Maxwell Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright as a star pupil).

There was Alfred Arvold (known as AG, but not to his face, apparently) who came to NDSU (or then North Dakota Agricultural College) in 1905 and was instrumental in seeing the Department of Social Service become the Department of Speech and then Speech and Drama (it's now apparently called MCSCTA!) Fred Walsh of NDSU has worked some 35 years in theatre. He wrote and directed the play "Old Four Eyes" at Medora. And the traveling Prairie Stage he directed was clearly in the best prairie theatre tradition.

Now I know whenever one starts mentioning names, one risks omitting many people who should rightfully be recognized. My purpose is certainly not to do that; rather, it is to charge all of you with recalling those many other people who have done so much to make high quality theatre in the state: to spread their names, to thank them for their contributions, to remind yourselves to learn from them and to further develop what they have begun. The tradition is an important one; let's celebrate it.

What about speech communication in the state? Let's consider our political tradition here (that can verge on theatrical entertainment also, I realize!). A theme of independence and of active, personal, direct participation in politics runs through this and other progressive states. Bill Langer and the Non-Partisan League provide an example of prairie political style and basic communication skill. As you know, the NPL, begun in 1915 was revitalized by Bill Langer in the early 1930's. As a governor in the 30's, his creative and controversial actions stopped foreclosures on many farms and helped raise the price of wheat. After surviving controversies over soliciting campaign funds from federal employees, Langer was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1940 and never again lost a North Dakota election. But what of his communication "On the stump?" According to a dissertation written by Dr. Winifred Stump of Dickinson State College, Langer was a master of interpersonal communication. He possessed an air of gallantry, an unflagging interest in people and a rather rare ability to remember their names. He was a master of the personal touch. Even an opponent, after ripping out a series of oaths to express his opinion of the senator said "You know, when you're with Bill, you can't help but like the old son-of-a-gun." He was described as a skilled speaker. And one of his biographers provided the best description of audience analysis I've run into in a long time: "He cussed everything they were against and praised all they stood for." Similar phenomena occurred in Minnesota with Floyd B. Olson and the Farmer-Laborites and in Wisconsin with Bob LaFollette's Progressive Party. Interesting regional history, perhaps, but what does it say to us about the communication tradition?

It says, I think, that a value was placed on skillful communication--on the compelling public speech; on direct, equal person-to-person communication, on forceful bargaining, on skillful persuasion (perhaps with a little coercion thrown in). It also says that the audience, the listeners in the prairie towns, farms and eastern cities, was important. Politicians knew they had to understand the audience, whether it was Langer giving many of his speeches in fluent German or today's politicians (astute in nonverbal communication) who change from wing tips to cowboy boots when they go west of the Missouri.

Together, the events, the people, the political personalities illustrate that rich history of communication in this state. And this is a tradition that also deserves celebrating. Ultimately, the best celebration is to remind each other of the values of critical thinking and skilled, ethical public debate of issues. But it shouldn't stop there--we should muster our enthusiasm to teach these skills to students with renewed energy, with current examples, with challenging opportunities--such as solid, well-supported debate, forensic and student congress programs. I can cite people from my years in Dickinson who personified this tradition.

Dick Haney and John Paul at Mandan, Rhoda Hanson at Fargo North, Sisters Claudette and Charlene in a small Catholic school in New England who ran a vigorous student congress program, Richard Wilhelmi (a threatre specialist, too) who coached debate and forensics at Richardton Abbey. I even recall Wayne Sanstead at Minot who drove to Dickinson to speak at a debate banquet we held (the fact that he was running for lieutenant governor at the time I'm sure had little to do with his willingness to attend)!

Given that, Bismarck was the guiding force in the North Dakota Speech Teacher's Association. And at the college level John Penn was a chairing the Speech and Rhetoric Department at UND. Pi Kappa Delta chapters were organized here in the 1960's through the efforts of Jim Ubbelohde at NDSU.

Given these traditions and roots, what may the future hold for our two speech and theatre disciplines. We're in the midst of many changes in education, at all levels. Everyone from William Bennett to local school boards, from Ernest Boyer and The Carnegie Commission to the deans and faculty at colleges and universities are raising issues such as teacher accountability, educational quality, what should constitute a general education, how do we define the liberal arts, to what extent do we educate for careers--and perennially, how do we finance it all?

These issues suggest to me that at all levels--elementary, secondary, and college--we should be sure we can define what we mean a by communication competence. We must gear our curriculum to achieve those competencies. We must be sure our teachers in the communication arts are well qualified to teach that curriculum. This requires time, effort, and some financial support from local schools, universities, or departments of public instruction. Finally, we must produce competent students--thus demonstrating to our graduates, to their employers, and to society that competence in communication is a valuable asset. Many of us at the college level are facing dilemmas. Are we a service area providing valuable pre-professional skill training to majors in business administration, health care fields, journalism, etc? Are we a nice artistic adjunct, producing plays once a term for public enjoyment? Are we legitimately included in the liberal arts?

It's a real ego boost to see our course enrollments grow as more and more students take courses in business and professional speaking, in interpersonal communication, in organizational communication, in interviewing, etc. It's nice to read all those surveys of successful MBA's who attest to the value of communication training. But we must also confront some key criticisms. Roger Smitter and Ellen Hay, in a presentation at last year's SCA convention ("Criticisms of Liberal Arts Education: Danger Signals for Speech Communication?") note that "in isolated but powerful instances, speech communication became an example of what was wrong with liberal arts education." William Bennett in a Chronicle of Higher Education article lamented how students can often avoid the substance of the humanities by "taking remedial reading, performing arts, and speech." Another author lumped communication with human services and computer sciences as one of the professional fields to which less qualified students are attracted.

Can we respond to these concerns? I think so. First, we need to remind ourselves of our central place in the liberal arts. Across the spectrum of the communication arts we teach about the creation and manipulation of symbols and, hence, of meaning. We encourage critical thought--whether it's preparing a first affirmative, analyzing a script, or evaluating a presidential news conference. We prepare people to respond to human problems as articulate citizens and as dedicated artists (listen to Bishop Tutu or watch a performance of "Woza Albert"). Finally, I believe we do fulfill the definition of liberal arts discipline cited in a convention paper by Michelle Myers (Vice President for Academic Affairs at Trinity University in Texas): "A liberal discipline must open up a new way of seeing the world...must make it possible to break from present arrangements, to stand outside the here and now, and to discern with greater clarity what is valuable and enduring and what is of only passing significance. If we can agree on the value, goals, objectives of our disciplines and on our key place in the liberal arts, the next step is to communicate that. Communicate it to administrators, who may know little about us beyond the performance aspects. (I always figured a forensic trophy or two helped me communicate with one high school administrator, a former basketball star and coach.) Communicate it to our colleagues in other disciplines. Communicate it to the public and to employers of our students.

And what are some ways to spread the word? Share publications in our field with our peers. Be actively and creatively involved in programs; symposia; team taught, multidisciplinary courses. Be professionally active in organizations like this.

Finally, be excellent teachers. Ultimately, our students are our best spokespeople.

In summary, I think the communication arts belong to an enriching and exciting field. We have a long tradition, from Aristotle to Sophocles. And we have a strong tradition in this state. Let's celebrate our heritage, congratulate our colleagues, and communicate our strengths.