Using Outside Speakers in the Classroom
By Patricia A. Mullins
University of Wisconsin-Madison
When my colleagues hear that I often use guest speakers in my classes, I suspect they conjure up visions of me skipping out for a long weekend or, at the very least, enjoying a relaxing evening without having the next day's lecture to prepare. On the contrary, arranging to have someone speak to my class is often more work than preparing the lecture myself. Why do I do it? Not to abrogate my responsibility, but to enhance the students' learning (and mine-yes, I always sit in on the lectures). Though I may be confident in my teaching, I know that someone with expertise in a particular area will be better at communicating the subtleties of the topic from a position of authority.
A guest speaker conveys current, realistic information and a perspective on a subject that is not available from textbooks. Yet, using a guest lecturer involves more than just arranging for someone to show up at the appointed time. Over the years, I have discovered some general guidelines about using outside speakers. Whether the speaker is a colleague, a professional, or an expert nonprofessional from the community, the following information should help you decide when and how to use a guest speaker.
WHY USE A SPEAKER?
Use the speaker to enhance the material you are covering. We have all coerced a colleague to cover a class when we are ill or are scheduled to give a paper at a conference. This is not the type of guest lecturing I am talking about. The time to use a colleague effectively in your class is when you have a topic planned in your syllabus and the country's expert on that subject is down the hall. Or the person doing cutting-edge research in that area is in another department on campus. You could never cover the material in the same way that they could. Even in your area of expertise, another perspective can add invaluable information. The point is to make sure that the speaker's topic fits into the syllabus on the date of the lecture. And be prepared to reciprocate.
One of my colleagues asks students at the beginning of the semester whether there are certain topics about which they would like more information. Sometimes she gives them a list of possibilities and has them indicate their top choices. Then she tries to arrange guest speakers based upon the students' interests. She finds that students appreciate the opportunity to provide input about topics they would like covered in more depth, and she tries to accommodate them, while being careful not to make any promises. This strategy works best if you know that you will have a few class sessions to spare later in the semester, because you must wait until the semester begins before you can contact speakers.
You don't necessarily have to limit yourself to arranging speakers who are experts in the class topic. Sometimes it may be more interesting to invite a guest to speak on a subject that is only tangentially related to the course. If you know of a captivating, dynamic speaker who would inspire students and make the theoretical aspects of a course more concrete, by all means, extend an invitation. This type of guest can be of great service to the students by providing an additional way to consider the primary topic and its central principles and issues. For example, having a charismatic conductor speak about conveying emotion in music would help enrich students' thinking in a class on emotions; an influential gallery curator speaking about the portrayal of depression in art could facilitate students' development beyond the boundaries of their discipline. College students often don't realize the broader applications of their knowledge, and creativity in planning this type of guest lecturer can have remarkable results.
MAKE SURE THE SPEAKER IS CREDIBLE
Books on teaching tell us how to improve our own skills but not how to insure the skills of outsiders we bring in to the classroom. There are a few points to keep in mind when considering a speaker.
- Do not just settle for the person who happens to be available. The students will be most receptive to a guest speaker who communicates relevant and reliable information. It is easy to insure credibility if the person you are inviting to your class is a colleague or a professional you know or have heard speak. It is more difficult if you are doing "cold calls" to seek an expert in a certain field. If that is the case, decide on the area of expertise you are looking for, then ask your colleagues for suggestions of people or places to call-a well-respected mental health clinic, the local mental health inpatient facility, a child development center, for example-to locate a professional working in that field. Ask the receptionist who answers the phone to recommend someone on the staff who would be an interesting speaker.
- Keep in mind that establishing credibility means both knowing the topic well and knowing how to communicate it to college students. I once wanted to invite a consultant in educational psychology to my class, so I called a reputable consulting company and asked the secretary who answered the phone whom she would recommend to speak to a group of college students. She considered my question carefully and gave me the name of someone on the staff who was on vacation but would be in the following week. That person turned out to be one of the best guest speakers I ever had. Not only was she knowledgeable about the topic, she was able to communicate her passion for her work in a way that excited the students.
- Be on the lookout for good speakers who have specialized knowledge that would be interesting to students. Your neighbor may be an attorney who specializes in working with people with mental illness, or a judge who frequently considers insanity defenses. Your daughter's soccer coach may work for a survey research firm and would be a dynamic speaker on the use of statistics in an applied setting. A note of caution is in order, however: Be wary of individuals who solicit class time from you for the purpose of furthering a personal cause (e.g., prohibiting the use of animals in research, or promoting a product or service). None of us likes to be preached at, even if we agree with the basic premise of an argument.
Arranging outside speakers is a difficult, time-consuming process. Securing commitments from speakers requires an early start on planning your syllabus, determining the course schedule, and recruiting. You need to make calls well in advance to get on a busy person's calendar. Early planning also emphasizes to your speaker the importance of the speaking engagement. On the other hand, make sure to build some flexibility into your schedule to accommodate the speaker. For example, if you have decided that Tuesday, October 4th is the perfect day for a lecture by the local judge who hears insanity defenses, and you find out that Tuesday is her scheduled day in court, it helps to have the ability to modify your syllabus to have her speak on Thursday. If you are too rigid about days of the week or particular dates, you may have a very difficult time scheduling the desired speakers. It may be best to begin with just one outside speaker in a course and then expand that number if it seems to be appropriate. Remember that the speaker should enhance the course material, not replace it. Too many different lecturers can distract from the structure of the class.
Get the Speaker Into the Flow of the Class
Once you have the speaker scheduled at the appropriate point in the syllabus, it is important to insure that the guest lecture fits into the flow of the class.
- First, send the speaker a copy of the related readings that the students will have done in preparation for the lecture. As an alternative, you can ask the speaker for a brief reading list to give the students in advance. Either way, the guest has some idea of the students' background knowledge of the topic.
- Second, send the speaker an outline of the key points you would like covered, or discuss this in detail and have the speaker send you an outline, so there are no surprises. I learned this the hard way when I arranged for a health psychologist to lecture on her choice of occupation, and she shocked the class with tales of her illicit drug use and eventual conversion to a religious cult. I was expecting her to talk about health psychology as a career, and she thought I meant for her to tell her life story. Some speakers know exactly what to talk about, but others are unclear and would appreciate some ideas. A clinician who spoke to an introductory clinical class was happy to include information on salary range, time commitment, and work environment in his lecture, when asked to do so.
- Third, do a brief but meaningful introduction of the speaker and the topic at the end of the class that precedes the guest lecture. This prepares the students for what to expect and enables them to begin thinking about questions to ask the guest. If you take some time in the previous class to inform students about the upcoming lecture, they will not only be more likely to be receptive to the speaker but will look forward to hearing the lecture.
Inform the Speaker
In addition to providing guest speakers with information about the lecture topic, it is wise to discuss teaching style. Talk about the style you use in the classroom and inquire about the style the speaker finds most comfortable. It is perfectly all right if the teaching styles are different, but it does help to prepare the students for this. For example, students who are accustomed to listening to you lecture may be taken aback by a guest with a Socratic style. Their discomfort can be lessened if they know what to expect, and they can be prepared to participate.