Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity      April 1999 Volume XXII Number 1

Out of the Ivory Tower
by Eric Pfeffinger

In some respects, the classroom, with its overhead projector and dry-erase board, is like dozens of others at Indiana University Northwest. Dorothy W. K. Ige, professor of communication, distributes a handout about communication flow in organizations as her students arrange their open notebooks and The Art of Public Speaking textbooks in front of them.

For Dorothy W. K. Ige, professor of communication, Indiana University Northwest, student learning takes place not only within but beyond traditional campus boundaries. --credit

But this classroom isn't on campus. It's in a narrow building at a Gary steel mill, set amid rumbling trucks and pumping smokestacks, and the students are steelworkers off from the first shift or preparing for the third.

Ige is one of several IUN professors who teach in "Swingshift College," an innovative program in its seventh year. Organized by Ruth Needleman, associate professor of labor studies at IUN, it's designed for steelworkers and funded by their negotiated education benefits. As Ige attests, it entails its own set of teaching rewards and challenges.

Some of those challenges are very basic. "When you're away from campus like this, you don't have your own equipment," she observes. "You have to make do with what's available. You have to call upon your basic teaching skills from your old teaching methods class." Not only that, but those methods have to be adapted to learners distinctly different from the typical on-campus college student.

"These students are adults. Some of them are older than I am," Ige says. "You have to know what you're doing. You really cannot wing it, or they will know. But with these students, no matter what course I'm teaching, it's a two-way peer teaching and learning experience. I teach them how to give public speeches; they teach me about the steel mills. It's reciprocal. They find the subject matter fascinating, but I think they're fascinating. I get them to bring in pictures from work. I took a tour of the mill." She laughs. "They say, 'I've been working here twenty years--what's so fascinating about it?' But it is."

Ige, in turn, shares what's happening in the mills with her traditional undergraduates at IUN. "You're out of the ivory tower and bringing it right back to campus," she says with satisfaction. "You don't have to wonder whether what you're teaching is relevant anymore."

Alternating between radically different classroom settings, applying discoveries gleaned from one teaching experience to another one--these are hallmarks of Ige's vigorous and reflective approach to pedagogy. She grounds every step of the process in her exhaustive use of research--both her own and others'--to shape and inform her decisions and strategies. The symbiosis between her teaching, service, and research has existed since she was a Ph.D. student in speech communication at the Ohio State University.

At first, Ige viewed teaching, research, and service activities as separate endeavors with very little overlap. "When I started, I thought, 'OK, I'll show how versatile I can be,'" she recalls. But she quickly found the division between the classroom and her experiences as a scholar to be counterproductive. "I was Jack--or Jill--of all trades, but master of none. So I asked myself why I was in this profession to begin with. To teach." So she shifted her research focus to "whatever is going to make me a better teacher. Research, rather than being something I had to do to get tenure, became something I love. If I want to set up an internship program, for example, I go first to the literature on the subject. After I've absorbed and made use of that, I ask myself how I can contribute to that ongoing dialogue."

Similarly, when she decided she wanted to get involved with the burgeoning field of distance education--"I looked at the information superhighway and didn't want to get left in the dust"--she reviewed the body of scholarly publications on the subject and found it to be lopsided in its emphasis. "There was a lot of literature on computer technology, a lot on getting the information to the students, but very little on presentation skills."

She was ideally qualified to fill that void. "That's what we do in speech communication. We focus on those skills. I believe every discipline has something to offer. We may not all offer the same thing, but as we each take the research and embed it into our pedagogy, that diversity better serves the students."

This diagram is an original model Ige developed to demonstrate the communication process. She created it during the research and design of the first interpersonal communication course taught interactively through distance education video in the United States. --credit

In a field dominated by advanced gadgetry, what Ige had to offer was low-tech but crucial. "If you're teaching a telecourse, you cannot behave exactly as you would in a regular classroom setting. You are on camera. You have to adapt your presentation accordingly." Impassioned by what her disciplinary background could bring to the field, Ige published on the subject. "Directly because of that research, I became, I believe, the first in the country to teach interpersonal communication via a mass communication system. It seems antithetical, doesn't it?" She made it work by combining videotapes and long-distance transmissions with weekend meetings and study teams. "You can't just say, 'Here are your tapes; see you.'"

In the process, Ige has become a believer in the virtues of flexibility and distance education. "We have a different student and a different society. Now everybody goes to school. A student may have a job, may have three kids, may be a single parent, may work in the steel mill. People do everything twenty-four hours a day now. So if they want to ride their exercise bike at 2 a.m. watching their lesson on a tape, OK. As long as we do whatever we can to keep some hands-on in the process, blending the new technology holistically into traditional methods rather than throwing the traditional out altogether. We need to find ways to meet student needs through diverse teaching strategies while maintaining high competency levels. How can we meet the needs of people in this complicated society?"

Such concerns are part of her commitment to the Swingshift College. "People talk as if distance ed is just two-way interactive video. But we also need to take it off campus to the students where and when they need it." The rewards are evident; Ige's Swingshift students are engaged and committed, connecting with the subject matter as something relevant beyond midterm exams. A student--who's also a union leader and a Hammond Democratic precinct committee member--stands up in a red, white, and blue tie and speaks persuasively about the importance of political involvement. Students apply Ige's lecture about communication flow directly and immediately to their daily interactions with supervisors, managers, and union reps.

"When you get blue-collar America going to a university, that not only changes lives- that will change society," Ige says, smiling. "This is what keeps me motivated."

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