2009 Presidential Address

79th Annual Convention of the
Southern States Communication Association
Norfolk, VA
April 7, 2009

 Jerry Hale

University of Georgia
 President Jimmy Cater told a story when giving the 1997 commencement address at Duke University that I would like to share with you. I have taken some creative liberties with it, but you’ll still get his point.
A man who had been a longtime faculty member in the Department of Speech Communication at the University of Georgia passed away and was suddenly whisked to the gates of heaven where he was met by St. Peter. St. Peter demanded, “name” and the man replied “Jerry Hale.” St. Peter asked “Why are you here?” The man replied "I was a husband, a father, and a decent college professor. I tried to be a good person. I am hoping to get in."
St. Peter asked “What did you ever do for others?” The man said, “Well think of my work! Over the course of my career I molded the minds of thousands of students.” An angel hovering nearby was trying hard to keep from laughing. St. Peter said “Uh, yeah, about that . . . around here, we’ve all seen you lecture. Have you done anything more tangible to help others?”
Professor Hale thought for a while and said, “Well my wife and I wrote a $50 check to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Oh yeah, there was also the time when a fire damaged a neighbor’s home. I dug around in the garage and found some clothing and a chair we gave to them. That stuff had to be worth at least $50.”
St. Peter turned to the angel and said, “go down to earth and check out his story.” The angel left and returned a short time later. He told St Peter “Everything he said is true. What shall we do with him?” St. Peter said “Give him back his $100 and tell him to go to hell!”
I am a Presbyterian by marriage and hope those of you with Judeo Christian religious beliefs will forgive a bit of theological license with the concepts of grace versus works and salvation, and that those of you with very different belief systems will look beyond the unique metaphysical elements of the story and see it for what it is: A call to action in a world desperately in need of social servants and social justice.
What I love most about my chosen field of study is that communication, more than any other academic, intellectual, or applied pursuit, has the ability to improve the human condition. I have reached a point in my career where simply imparting information to young people, and then hoping that they will use what they have learned to benefit the communities in which they live, is not enough to sustain or satisfy me. I have come to believe that the privilege of teaching young people carries with it the added responsibility of encouraging them to engage in uncommon citizenship. This afternoon I want to exhort you to join me in that pursuit by making a for greater emphasis on service learning.
Our institutions of higher learning, our region, and our nation are facing a financial crisis that is the most difficult since the Great Depression. The National unemployment rate is 8.5%. The number of people unemployed in the United States of America is greater than the populations of Georgia and South Carolina combined. Seven states in our region — Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee — are currently among the nation’s top 15 states in rates of unemployment.
Data related to homelessness are lagged by a year, but one year ago when the economy was in better shape than it is now, 3.5 million Americans, 1% of the total population and 10% of the population living below the poverty level, experienced homelessness. 44% of the homeless population is families with children. Most families in the United States are two or maybe three missed paychecks away from being homeless.
According to UNICEF of all the nations in the world, only Mexico has a greater proportion of its children living in poverty than the United States. Moreover, poverty in this country is on the increase.
So there is little doubt that our communities are in need of our energies and our expertise. Learn and Serve America describes service learning as “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.” The field of communication is uniquely positioned to teach theory and practice in ways that integrate meaningful community service, make for more consequential learning experiences, and strengthen communities in this time of great need. Most importantly, every area of our field can adapt its curriculum to include service learning.
Let me give you some diverse examples from my own experiences, those of my colleagues at the University of Georgia, and from other communication scholars that shared their visions and practices with us in Savannah and here in Norfolk.
My colleague Tina Harris teaches courses in Interracial and African American Communication. Her students develop workshops on communication and diversity and have successfully taken them into the community. Her students have put perspective taking and interracial communication skills to work for Community Connections, an organization that assists Athens residents in finding needed social services and in placing volunteers with a variety of social service organizations.
My colleague Ed Panetta teaches courses in argumentation and debate. He and students from his classes have begun a debate program at the Lee State Prison, a medium security facility in Leesburg Georgia. Prison officials view the program as training in alternative dispute resolution and believe it has the potential to reduce violence and recidivism in the lives of participating inmates.
My colleague Don Rubin, teaches intercultural communication. He and his students have helped a burgeoning population of federally placed, youthful political refugees, assimilate into American life often in openly hostile communities. His students have tutored young refugees, and helped them with English language skills, so that they may succeed in school and heighten the chance for academic success and a better life in a new country.
Students in small group communication courses in my department have applied concepts related to group communication and dynamics while assisting the Northeast Georgia Food Bank, a local senior center, the Athens Area Homeless Shelter, Special Olympics, the Department of Family and Children’s Services, and local soup kitchens.
Last year at the Savannah conference, I was reminded of the role performance studies scholars and students played in enriching the lives of Arizona seniors. The Desert Readers performed for us and discussed how they took readers theater productions to senior centers in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Deanna Sellnow and Dick Conville shared with us how they incorporated service learning into courses in public speaking and interpersonal communication, respectively. Yesterday I attended a session featuring Joy Hart and Khandi Walker. They offer students an interdisciplinary, study abroad, service learning course related to health communication in Belize.
My former colleague Kevin DeLuca included service learning in his environmental communication class. A central premise in Kevin’s environmental communication class was the notion that visual images of, and experiences with the environment, influence how we communicate regarding the environment and interact with it. For years his classes maintained a community garden and helped maintain green space around Athens. Consumer advocates indicate that community gardens can save families significant amounts of money while improving their nutrition.
Kevin also taught classes on the rhetoric of social movements. If you are a Department Chair, Head, Assistant Dean, Associate Dean, or Dean, or if you have served in any of these roles, will you please raise your hands? His assignment to students in the rhetoric of social movements was one that would have kept Chairs, Heads, and Deans awake at night. It was simply to “create a social movement.” The occasional phone call I had to make to the University’s Office of Legal Affairs, for example to see if we were subject to litigation for mass produced posters showing consumers in gas masks to protect themselves from the ingredients of a popular Atlanta based soft drink, were more than offset by the benefits of successful student initiated projects. One such campaign included a giant igloo built out of plastic water bottles to educate the community about how few plastic bottles are recycled. The area around the igloo included receptacles where plastic bottles were deposited for recycling. Americans drink an average of 167 bottles of water annually and recycle only 23% of them. Thirty eight billion water bottles end up in landfills every year. Bottled water costs between $1 and $4 a gallon and 90% of the cost is in the manufacturing and labeling of the bottle.
Finally, students in a mass communication classes, interpersonal communication classes, and nonverbal communication classes, took up the Darius Goes West cause that I promoted at last year’s conference. They hosted screenings and other events related to the award winning documentary film and, in the process raised money for Duchene Muscular Dystrophy research.
About a month ago I received an email from a friend who is a member of SSCA and one of its Past Presidents. The email inquired about the content of my Presidential Address. When I said it would have a service learning theme, I got a simple two word response: “too safe.”
The National Clearinghouse for Learn and Serve America surveyed 349 colleges and universities. They found that only 12.2% of faculty members included service learning in their courses. When 87.8% of university faculty members eschew service learning it seems to me the safe thing would be to advocate business as usual. Instead, I want to advocate the unusual: greater community involvement in the learning process.
Research shows that there are four major impediments to wider use of service learning. They are a lack of rewards for faculty participation, a lack of resources to offset costs, the feeling that the service offered is insignificant, and the perception that service learning is not a good fit for a particular course or set of courses.
The late George Carlin did a monologue he called “Free Floating Hostility.” It was a rant about 20 things he detested. I must confess that after 9 years as a Department Head I have my own monologue of Academic Free Floating Hostility. I am pleased to say that my own colleagues rarely push these hot buttons for me, but university faculty members in general are pushing them with greater and greater frequency. One of the hot buttons is the notion that we should only be doing things for which we are tangibly (which is code for financially) rewarded. What ever became of the notion of doing something because it was the right thing to do? What ever became of a norm of social responsibility? To my colleagues in the audience that are Chairs, Heads, or Central Administrators I urge you to build rewards for service learning into your department’s, college’s, or university’s merit pay policies. Because some day I am confident there will be pay raises again. To every professor, and graduate teaching assistant, I urge you to engage in service learning regardless of the financial rewards. Do it because your students, your community, your state, and your country need you to do it.
If you forgo service learning because you think service learning requires personal or departmental resources I say to you that the infrastructure is in place in your communities for useful service learning opportunities. All it will require is your creativity and your time. All of our communities have non-profit social service organizations, food banks, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, senior centers, refugee populations, community green spaces, plastic bottles, or jails waiting for the help that we can bring.
If you are thinking to yourself, “I cannot do anything significant.” I would remind you of one of my favorite quotes. It is attributed to Helen Keller: “I long to accomplish great and noble tasks, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.” My advice is to start where you are and to do what you can.
If you believe your classes are not amenable to service learning, I refer you to my previous list of courses that have successfully incorporated service learning. Service learning can be included in courses from every area of the field from argumentation to health communication, from rhetoric to public relations, from interpersonal communication to performance studies, from mass communication to intercultural communication, from public speaking to organizational communication, and beyond.
I hope when my life is over somebody doesn’t slip me a C note and tell me to go to hell because I haven’t done enough to strengthen my community. With my luck hell wouldn’t be a fiery pit. It would be personalized and I’d spend eternity in a faculty meeting or listening to students ask if “that stuff is going to be on the test.” I am committed to accomplishing small tasks, service learning projects, as if they were great and noble. I am committed to providing my students rich opportunities for learning and reflecting in a context with real consequences, so as to encourage civic engagement and to create stronger communities. Our students, our communities, our states, and our country need that commitment from all of us.
My goal is that one year from now SSCA members will have doubled the number of classes that include service learning, and that two years from now that quantity will have doubled again. I am giving you all an assignment for the next year. It is to create a social movement! And make the social movement a new service learning class.