Select Language

Lakeland University Japan Blog

Faculty Spotlight: Roger Grabowski – LUJ Professor of Speech and General Studies

Faculty Spotlight: Roger Grabowski – LUJ Professor of Speech and General Studies


Faculty Spotlight: Roger Grabowski – LUJ Professor of Speech and General Studies

Whether serving as Undergraduate Program Chair or as a program organizer, Professor Grabowski has in the past twenty years become a cornerstone of the LUJ faculty, first starting out in LUJ’s English for Academic Purposes (EAP) Program. He’s also a father of three, a Chicago Cubs fan, and just happens to know his way around a few guitar licks.

We chatted with Professor Grabowski about all things Lakeland, touching on how to give better speeches, as well as his own experience giving his first ever speech in front of people. 

1) Many at LUJ know your role in organizing the Lakeland Lecture Series. Can you tell us a bit more about it, and how it has evolved over time?

The first time that LUJ underwent an accreditation check by the US higher education accrediting agency in 2008, the school was asked about “community outreach”, if there were anything that the school did to connect with the local community. So Dr. [Alan] Brender [LUJ Dean Emeritus] and some other faculty devised the Lakeland Lecture series as a way to invite “the community” (literally anyone is welcome to attend) and to spread the name of the school by advertising the lectures.

Though the physical location has changed a couple of times, the format of the lectures themselves really did not until 2020, when the pandemic forced us to move the lectures online. Holding them online was less than ideal and no substitute for the experience of a live, in-person presentation, but it did allow us to cast a wider net in terms of guests.

In 2020 and 2021 we hosted lectures given from Australia, Osaka, Thailand, Okinawa, the Netherlands, and Kenya. As we moved the lectures back to in-person last year, we have continued to stream them on Zoom, and we are often joined by audience members around the world.

2) Perhaps on the flip side of Lakeland Lectures is your successful Annual Conference on Global Higher Education, which brings together academics and scholars from a wide variety of countries. Next year will be its 10th anniversary. What would you say has inspired or surprised you about the conference this past decade? Any memorable moments you can recall?

Yes, next year will be number 10. I think I have been surprised by the traction the conference has gained, while still remaining a manageable one-day event. There is a dedicated core of scholars and professors who have presented five or more times, and attended even when they did not present.

Another aspect that never stops surprising me is that every year we get submissions from outside of Japan, and I have lost count of how many countries we are up to (10? 12?). Hearing perspectives on higher education in, for example, Bangladesh or Taiwan or Turkey, really provides rich and interesting context to those of us based in Japan.

Most of the best memories that I have are of watching presenters connect with their audience--not just saying "Here is what I found in my research. Look at my PowerPoint," though there is certainly some of that, as in any academic conference, but inspiring their fellow educators and giving them something they can take away, be it concrete lesson ideas or new perspectives on how we teach our students and run our institutions.

One particular presentation that I will never forget was when two professors from a small, rural state university in North Dakota brought a group of students to Yamanashi prefecture on a research trip. These students had never been out of the US before and a couple had only left their state once or twice! As the students described their experiences in Japan, we could see their eyes being opened and their lives being changed forever, right in front of us. And after several weeks in the Japanese countryside, they had just arrived in Tokyo, which blew their minds even more. It really brought home the possibilities and the power of global higher education.

3) LUJ students and alumni reading this most likely remember you as their Public Speaking professor. For the layman out there, how in the world can someone keep an audience from falling asleep during their speech? Any tips?

Well, if your material is boring, then there are very few tricks or tips to make your speech interesting. But if you think that your information itself is strong, then there are some ways you can engage the audience.

--Organization. A clearly-organized speech can help the audience follow along, even if some of the material might be confusing or difficult. Also, even if their attention drifts for a minute or two, it will be easy to get them back if you have explained how the speech will be organized.

--Speak Naturally. It's so obvious, but how many rote-reading speeches have we all sat through? Not only is it boring to listen to a flat monotone, it's also difficult to understand! Our ears and brains make meaning through the intonation, stress, and vocal variety that we hear, just as much as through the words themselves. Sometimes in class I play computer-generated speech to demonstrate how tough it is to pay attention for an extended period of time.

--Don't be Afraid to Personalize your Topic. In my EAP classes, when students gave speeches and then took questions, the first question was invariably "Why did you choose this topic?" People are curious! Establishing your connection to the topic, even if it is just a very cursory connection, puts the audience at ease a little and shows that you know and care about your topic.

--Don't Forget About the Audience. Find a way to connect the topic to the audience (one of Steve Jobs' primary questions when writing a presentation was “Why should they care?") And don't forget to look at them---nothing shows a lack of regard for your listeners more than not making eye contact. And finally, respect your audience by finishing on time!

4) In this series, we like to go back into the professor's past a bit, so we have to ask: What were your first experiences giving a speech in front of people? Was it a success?

I went to a boys Catholic high school in Chicago (Loyola Academy--Go Ramblers!) and I was asked to be a leader on an overnight retreat. This included a rather lengthy presentation, which was scary since some adults, including the Jesuit priest school president, were there, but also fun since most of the audience were my classmates, who were supportive and wanted me to do well. Afterwards, one of the teachers who was along as a chaperone pulled me aside and said "Have you ever considered becoming a teacher?"

So I guess it's all his fault.

5) Since we're on the topic of speeches, we have to ask: TED Talks...beneficial to study, or more detrimental?

There are a few TED Talks that I show to students every semester and have watched numerous times. I still get something out of them, even after repeated viewings; the good ones mostly follow the basics I mentioned above. But I have seen just as many that are clichéd, inauthentic-sounding, or just boring.

In fact, I did a little mini-research project, which I share with my students, to see how many TED Talks include the rhetorical question "What if I told you.....?" That must be part of the TED Talks Starter Pack, because they say it all the time!

But if students keep an open and critical mind, sure, TED Talks can be a fine way to practice English listening and to learn something new. The important thing to remember is that even the best TED Talks are just tidbits of information—not a substitute for deeper study and certainly not a substitute for reading.