Faculty-to-Faculty Spotlight – Karen Otto

Faculty-to-Faculty Spotlight – Karen Otto

As a way to continue the 2015-16 theme of “engagement,” Dr. Angela Browning will be highlighting the extraordinary work of a faculty member each month to share his/her teaching and engagement techniques, professional development, community service and unique College contributions.

This month’s column highlights the work of Karen Otto, professor of speech at North Campus.

Engaging with and supporting students:

-- Aware of how intimidating a speech class is for many students, Professor Otto begins class meetings with informal “icebreakers” to help students engage with each other and to make them more at ease with the classroom context.  She makes a concerted effort to learn all student names as soon as possible, and promotes students learning the names of their peers with structured activities.

-- Building on this rapport, Professor Otto often assigns students brief activities that require work in pairs or groups.  They may research a topic together or share their understanding of a reading to each other.  Again, this approach is designed to make them more comfortable with their classmates and surroundings.

-- One of Professor Otto’s assignments asks students to present an infomercial to the class.  This assignment is designed to be humorous and fun for both the presenter and the audience.  She finds that an assignment like this not only supplies the class with levity, but promotes a less formal and welcoming classroom environment.

Reimagining course assignments:

-- Service Learning – Ten years ago, Professor Otto began requiring a service learning assignment in her speech course.  This assignment requires students to give an expository speech, but it also requires hands-on experience with a volunteer organization serving some community need. 

Students are asked to champion any organization for which they are willing to volunteer.  They must serve as a volunteer for a minimum of four hours.  In addition, they research the organization and interview someone who volunteers or works there.  After completing this hands-on research, students present a speech that informs listeners about the organization they are championing, their experience at the organization and how others can get involved. 

This assignment has been transformational not only for her students, but for her as a professor.  She noted several beneficial outcomes of this assignment over the past decade.  First, students have unique experiences creating more variety in the material presented in class. Next, students who have embraced the experience have had incredible experiences:  some have been offered jobs or internships at the organization while others may realize how close their lived experience is to the experience of those being helped.  Perhaps most importantly, Karen notes that students gain a reward from this work that is beyond the assigned grade.  It seems to combat the malaise that students often bring to their classroom work. 

Regarding her work, this assignment has re-ignited her passion for teaching.  While many of us hear from students about the impact our class has had on them, this often happens well after the course has ended.  Service learning, however, has enabled her to see how her work impacts their lives when they are still in her course.

-- Speech Showcase – For years, Karen has coordinated a “speech showcase” at North Campus to showcase exceptional student work.  Students from different courses give their speech to a broad audience of students and staff.  Professors from other disciplines serve as judges and award prizes to the student competitors.  Students are afforded additional practice with a broader audience, and Professor Otto is able to help them refine their work without serving as the evaluator of that work.

Engaging with the College:

Speech Council leader 2001 - current
Discipline Liaison, 2015 - 2016
Outcomes Assessment Facilitator, 2007 – current

Engaging with the community: 

Member, Orange Park Chorale
Provides music for local funerals