Reflecting on W2015 COM 4500 Leadership Communication service learning project with TechTown Detroit

TechTown

It’s summer at Wayne State University, but before we leave the Winter 2015 Semester too far behind, I want to take the time to recall and celebrate a wonderful collaboration with Detroit-based innovation hub and entrepreneurial development space, TechTown. It was through Dean Matt Seeger at the WSU College of Fine, Performing, and Communication Arts that I met with TechTown’s outgoing chairperson, Leslie Smith, and her amazing team of “warriors.” Leslie was fascinated to learn about organizational communication, and the different perspectives of organizational practice a communicative perspective to research can help explore. And she was especially interested in my proposal to use TechTown as a research site for my undergraduate Leadership Communication (COM 4500) class for W2015.

Group projects are rarely any college students’ favorite assignment. And yet, a large-scale analysis project of the sort I had in mind required precisely the leveraging of individual strengths toward creating an in-depth study. So,starting late Fall of 2014, I met repeatedly with Paul Riser and Diana Goode at TechTown, who very patiently talked and walked me through the kind of work the staff did, and what they offered to clients, so that I could make multiple connections with the course syllabus I was developing. Eventually, I decided to frame this assignment as the final project/paper for the class, in lieu of an exam. The students would study TechTown as a model example of leadership development, and also probe one other topic related to leadership applicable to the context — choices included leadership and influence, or transformational leadership, or leading ethically, or power bases of leadership.

In the W2015 semester, after covering the theoretical material sufficiently, and completing various other assignments, we scheduled three different field trips to TechTown. On the first visit, the TechTown team organized a detailed tour of the facilities for the class, following which they had an informal Q&A session. On the second visit, the TechTown team set up a more formal presentation, describing their mission, workplace culture, operations, some key initiatives that were ongoing, and plans for the future, and fielded questions from the students. Finally, on the third visit, Paul set up a marvelous panel, composed of stellar entrepreneurs and small business leaders in the Metro Detroit area, who had worked with TechTown on numerous projects. The goal was to represent the broader “entrepreneurial eco-system,” so to speak, that TechTown and emerging leaders had to navigate in order to be successful. Moreover, we had in-class debriefing sessions between each of these visits, so that students could air their thoughts about what they had witnessed and heard, and I could help clarify any concerns they might have had. In addition, Leslie, who had left Detroit by this time for the EPICenter, Skyped in for an interactive session with the students during one class, so they could quiz her on her guiding motivations, actions, and roles in setting up TechTown from scratch.

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The students were tasked with creating a project report, and presenting their work to the rest of the class, with a Q&A session at the end. I was so happy at the work they produced and insight they shared, with their “fresh eyes.” For their part, they were impressed at the kind of grassroots work that TechTown engaged in, building community and business leaders from scratch, and helping shape a more sustainable Detroit for the long run. The students also wrote a theoretically informed reflection essay, recalling their work and interactions within the project groups — both the difficulties involved in collaborating, and the dividends when they figured out how to use technology or innovative scheduling tactics to their advantage. For me, this was a good way of bringing the assignment full circle, from around their groups and their community, back to them — an exercise in learning how innovative organizations can help build leaders, hopefully learned through working in small groups on their own, and gaining insight into how to be better leaders themselves within groups to accomplish complex tasks. I was gratified and excited that several students wrote in their essays, and mentioned to me in person, how much they loved interacting with the TechTown folks, how inspired they were by them, and how this assignment helped them see group projects through a new lens. Thank you again, TechTown and Leslie Smith!

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