With a rich background in communication and a deep commitment to fostering meaningful learning experiences, Dr. Adam Sharples Brooks stands out for his innovative and student-centered approach. In this faculty spotlight Q&A, Brooks — associate professor and director of the Speaking Studio — shares insights into his teaching philosophy, the pivotal moments that shaped his methods and the profound impact he has had on his students’ lives. Read more about his inspiring journey and dedication to making a positive difference in the lives of those he teaches.
Can you tell us about your teaching background and what inspired you to become an educator?
Is there a particular teaching moment or experience that stands out in your career? Could you share that with us?
One teaching moment that stands out to me is when I see a student transform from someone without certainty, knowledge or confidence into someone who has the competency to be able to make an impact in any room. This is meaningful to me because a teacher saved my life in high school by introducing me to speech and debate. She taught me a skill that enabled me to gain access to college as a first-generation college student and a craft that would enable me to build a life that I could support myself. I then met teachers in graduate school who would show me how to deepen my knowledge while still containing the kind of vigor and passion that translates to students. I mention the teacher who saved my life because I think if I can somehow be even a fraction as impactful to my students as my teachers were to me then I’ve done something worthy in this world.
Innovative teaching methods can make a profound impact on students. What unique or creative approaches do you use in your classroom to engage and inspire your students? How do you make your lectures innovative?
I think the term innovative implies that there’s some magic tool of technology that will solve all your problems, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I think about teaching in terms of traditional best practices of communication; have a clear purpose for each meeting, center your audience and make information meaningful to them. I try to always model the outcomes I want from my students — if I’m going to teach them about presentations, let me make sure I follow my own rules.
Too often faculty in lecture make the mistake of not centering the knowledge first, as if they were still in graduate school and they were trying to prove how smart they are, or worse assume that the students already have the same investment in the material that they do. It sounds like, “Here’s this knowledge, oh and also you can apply it to the world,” when instead we should focus on “This is the world, and here’s how something I know can help you understand it better or engage with it differently.”
One tactic that I DO swear by is that I create a Google form survey for every class I teach where I ask students to provide one question they hope that the course helps them answer by the end of the semester, one thing that annoys them about previous professors and a space for them to bring up anything they want me to address before the start of class. This helps me learn more about what students are looking for related to the subject and tailor material to address their concerns.
Teaching often involves adapting and evolving. Can you share an example of how you’ve adapted your teaching style or curriculum to better meet the needs of your students?
One way I have adapted my teaching style relates to how rigid I am with technology. I used to be so specific about students not using phones, laptops and other things that would distract them during class. As I would talk with parents whose kids were in high school, I came to realize that for each group of students they’ve used laptops and computers earlier and earlier in school. As a result, students associated classes with a computer and why would I try to disrupt that? I’ve come to realize that students all use technology differently, and how can I help them use technology to enhance what we’re doing in classes?
Another way I’ve adapted has been to use more flipped classroom techniques to enhance literacy. I might give a complicated reading and then invite students to bring in a marked-up copy of the reading. I want to see what they highlight or underline and help them develop practices that are going to enable them to succeed not just in classes with me but in every class they are part of.
Student success is a priority for all educators. Could you share a story of a student whose journey or transformation in your class has been particularly meaningful to you?
A few years ago there was an engineering student in my COM 123 Public Speaking class who came up to me and admitted how nervous he was to be in front of anyone. He recognized that the inability to communicate was ultimately going to hold him back and he wanted to work on it. He started with visiting my office before his big presentations, then worked with our Speaking Studio, finished COM 123, then got hired to be one of our consultants with the Speaking Studio and help other students who were in a similar boat. When he went off to the MBA program a few years later, every single job he interviewed for remarked about how exceptional he was at his communication skills, especially for a mechanical engineer. When he got his first job, he wrote me a long thank-you note and I got invited to his wedding. I felt like I had enabled his life. The impact I was able to participate in with that student was so meaningful. His growth and transformation is one of the reasons why I do what I do day in and day out.
Collaboration among faculty can lead to innovative teaching practices. Have you been involved in any collaborative initiatives or projects that have enriched your teaching?
One of the things I’ve loved is being able to interface with faculty in different departments and see how our respective disciplines enhance one another. A lot of my work deals with how folks with technical backgrounds can communicate to nontechnical audiences. I’ve loved being part of REU programs in Biological Sciences and working with the EcoCAR program in Engineering to help students enhance their presentation skills. This has helped me understand the different types of students who take COM 123 and how they may enter and approach the subject of communication.
Teaching is a dynamic field, with new technologies and methods continually emerging. How do you stay informed and incorporate new tools or ideas into your teaching practices?
I stay informed by participating in smaller conferences that focus on pedagogy and awareness. The Basic Course Directors Conference is a great space where educators who teach large lecture foundational courses in Communication get together and share resources, tools, etc. The panels are mostly about applying existing research and I always walk away with a new idea to try. The smaller conferences I find to be more valuable than the big national association conferences where people are trying to prove how smart they are instead of trying to connect and problem-solve together.
I also love watching and observing new teachers and I learn from them. I have the benefit of supervising 15 graduate teaching assistants who always have new creative ideas for lesson plans or activities. I find that giving them the trust to come up with a lesson plan leads to innovative ideas with technology that complements some of the experience I have.
Finally, what advice would you give to fellow educators looking to enhance their teaching effectiveness and make a positive impact on their students?
I know this sounds simple, but the best thing to do is to return to basic first principles of effective communication: Begin with the end in mind. Ask yourself every single class, “When I’m done, what are the two things I want them to take away from today’s class?” Go in with a specific tangible outcome in mind, rather than a linear “amount” of content you need to cover. It will enable you to have a sense of focus and be able to be adaptive to things that happen in the room. If you are clear on what your purpose is in every lesson, lecture or activity, you will be better able to see how these things scaffold.
Finally, don’t be afraid to be GOOD at this. Too often I hear horror stories from faculty early in their career that say, “It doesn’t help to be a good teacher, it isn’t rewarded in my tenure profile,” etc. That couldn’t be more incorrect. Teaching is why we’re here. It’s what keeps the lights on. Students receive the energy you put into them. If you aren’t giving them any energy of your passion for the subject or your interest in them, they will never receive what you give. So don’t be afraid to cultivate your presence in the class and consider how you might make things more dynamic and engaging. You never know the impact you might have on someone.