Robert Danisch: Reflecting on the Practice of Communication

Robert Danisch
By Lisa Kabesh, Communications Associate, CTE

When asked about the role experiential education plays in his classes, Robert Danisch, Professor of Drama and Speech Communication, quips, “I didn’t know there was another kind.” In the courses Danisch teaches at Waterloo — Speech Writing, Small Group Communication, Persuasion, and Communication Ethics — practice is integral to student learning.

Danisch wryly summarizes how Humanities classes tend to work: read some stuff, talk about what was read, then write or talk about it in a more formal way. This, too, is the foundation of his classes, and Danisch establishes this expectation for his students early in his courses. To some outside of the Humanities, how experiential learning fits into this process might not be immediately evident. But as he tries to make clear to his students, everything is communication. Students are always “doing” communication in his classes, as they are in all of their classes.

Danisch seeks to make students aware of the ubiquity of communication and their role in it as active communicators. When he began teaching Small Group Communication at Waterloo in 2011, he brought to the course the unorthodox approach that he had employed when teaching a similar course at Concordia University: on the first day of class, he walked into the classroom and simply sat down. What happened next was up to the students. When Danisch paused the class some time later, he asked students to reflect on the toolkit of small group communication practices they had to resort to when his refusal to lead the discussion gave them no other option. The message was clear: we are all always practicing learned communication skills. Taking the time to reflect on those skills can help us to be more intentional about how we relate to and with others.

In this way, Danisch helps students develop as reflexive practitioners — as communicators capable of reflecting on their practices and making adjustments based on those reflections.

While daunting to some, this cycle of practice-feedback-reflection develops in learners not just a knowledge of theory, or what Danisch calls “know-that,” but an embodied knowledge embedded in practice, or “know-how.”

In his Speech Writing course, for example, students explore a rhetorical device like parallel structure (verbal elements or phrases that repeat to build rhythm, pattern, and meaning) in a speech that they write and deliver to the class. Students receive real-time feedback from Danisch and their peers; as he points out, this class is not for the faint-hearted. While daunting to some, this cycle of practice-feedback-reflection develops in learners not just a knowledge of theory, or what Danisch calls “know-that,” but an embodied knowledge embedded in practice, or “know-how.” It is this know-how that Danisch works to cultivate in students, and he attempts to do so by placing agency in the hands of learners.

It’s not surprising, then, that Danisch sees himself as one of many collaborators in his students’ learning. Group work and collaboration are important components of his classes. To facilitate this, he created a “collaborative course dialogue” assignment in his Communication Ethics course. In groups of three to four, students use Google Docs to develop a claim in response to a dilemma, and others respond. A deceptively straight-forward assignment, it in fact challenges students to develop their own system of citation to support their claims, and, in so doing, recognize and value the important role citation plays in effectively and persuasively communicating a position.

On top of his teaching duties, Danisch is also the Director of Arts First, the Faculty of Arts’ response to the Steering Committee for the English Language Competency Initiative. Through two-first year courses, Arts’ students will build foundational skills in communication and analysis.

While our interview focused on experiential education, collaboration, and student agency, when asked what advice he would give to a new instructor, Danisch didn’t hesitate. “Teach to your personality,” he says, “and not to some other set of expectations of what teaching ‘should’ look like.” Want to get a glimpse of Danisch’s teaching? He has developed over 30 videos about key communication practices, from the somatic-marker hypothesis to nested narratives, in order to free up more time for active learning in his classes.

Read more Teaching Stories.

Tip Sheets

CTE has developed more than 100 Teaching Tips. Each one succinctly conveys useful ideas and practical methods for effective teaching. Some Teaching Tips relevant to the strategies mentioned in this Teaching Story include: