DR. LAURA CROWELL
Richard W. Clark
I am a speech teacher. I know that every student who stands before me brings to the occasion a different knowledge of the subject of their speech than I have or than any member of his or her audience has. Each student speaker approaches each performance with a different degree of confidence; in fact, chances are each speaking occasion finds the student in a different emotional state. What the student ate for breakfast, what her best friend said about the way she had fixed her hair, what his girl friend said to him when they broke up yesterday, many such thoughts and feelings are swirling in the heads of the students as they rise to speak and as they are challenged to listen and comment.
I know there are language conventions and principles of argument that are the currently accepted state of the art in the discipline of speech communications. There are ways of using the voice and body that are consistent with both the art and science of effective speaking. There are teaching techniques that are appropriate for different students in different situations. Most importantly I am cognizant that the ultimate mission of the school and of my course is to prepare students to function effectively in a democratic society. Yet with all these certainties the environment in which I work and the processes with which students learn are often uncertain and unpredictable – some would say at times chaotic. I know that I have to adapt what I am doing to the situation or the students will not trust that I understand them well enough to help them. I cannot rely on some prescribed approach to teaching “effective speaking” contained in a textbook or published in a school system curriculum.
I am aided by my awareness of these learning conditions in my speech classes as I think more broadly about the role of the individual educator in relation to the school, the school in relation to the district, and the district as part of a state in this era of growing federal centralization of authority over education.
Where did such beliefs originate? Many people, family, teachers, and friends influenced me but one person in particular stands out as I reflect on my past: Laura Crowell -- professor, advisor, and just plain good human being. She came to be a source of inspiration from her own education and her experiences as a consummate professional.
Dr. Crowell began her professional work as a teacher in rural South Dakota prior to earning her Ph.D. in speech at the University of Iowa. After more high school teaching and a brief stint in the Navy during WWII, she began her college career at Northern Illinois then joined other recent Iowa graduates as part of an expanding faculty in speech at the University of Washington.
Her doctoral studies had been in rhetoric and her analysis of FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech was widely recognized as exemplary. However, at Washington she was best known for her study of and teaching about small group communications and on assisting graduate students with their research skills. In 1955, while I was one of her students, the student body at the University recognized her as one of the outstanding teachers on the campus and in 1989 she was voted as one of the “Most Inspirational Teachers of Speech” in the country by the Speech Communications Association. As was the case with others of her gender she had to out produce most of her colleagues to gain promotion. One study identified that she was the only women nationally among the top ten most published writers in her discipline and another study identified her as the fourth most published author in Communication Studies between 1915 and 1985. Only this prodigious production and exemplary teaching allowed her to break the glass ceiling and become a full professor. Retiring from Washington after 24 years as a Professor Emeritus she continued to publish and serve as a resource to her former students.
I was one of many she inspired during this long and productive career. As an undergraduate I was privileged to enroll in two courses with her, have her as a campus supervisor during my student teaching, and be an assistant during several experimental studies in small group communications. In graduate school she provided a rigorous introduction to research methods and participated as a member of both my M.A. and Ph.D. committees.
As a student, if I turned in a page of written material, I always knew I could expect at least a page of comments back from her – sometimes rather pointed reminders that sloppy scholarship was not to be tolerated. As a student of small group communications who had entered the field as a debater, I found her constant reminders to listen as well as talk to be frustrating at times but in the long-run highly beneficial. But, more than anything, I now value her constant reminders to me (and others) of the need to focus on knowing the student and modeling the kinds of behavior that we wanted from the students.
There are many stories about Dr. Crowell’s personal commitment to her students. One, that I will always remember, is about a student in her early teaching who wasn’t performing well in class. She visited his home and learned that his family had been surviving for several months on nothing but turnips – a condition she was able to get corrected. As she told this story in its entirety, she drove home the importance of knowing well those who are in your care as a teacher. Such personal interventions in the life of students might be seen as signs of a teacher being a soft touch if they were not accompanied by the evidence provided by her body-of-work as a researcher and leader in her discipline.
“Whoever would kindle another, must himself glow,” she would tell us – and she did. Former colleague Tom Nilsen, said of her, “Once she commented, ‘I don’t like to spend time on anything I can’t get excited about.’ For all her…years of teaching…she never stopped being excited.” And, I would add, never stopped exciting others.
Although I have never been able to perform at her level, the knowledge, care, and skills she shared continue to be an inspiration.