Charles (Chuck) Speaks was mowing the lawn at this Houston home on Thanksgiving weekend in 1967 when he made a decision that would shape his future. “I want to teach," he thought. “I won’t know if I don’t try."
by Mary Shafer
Weeks earlier, the University of Minnesota communication disorders department (now SLHS) had invited him to join its faculty. But Speaks, who was then completing postdoctorate work at Baylor University, wasn’t sure he wanted the job. "I was doing full-time research," he says, "and I felt comfortable doing that. I gave three or four lectures at the college of medicine—which the students slept through. I didn’t have much experience."
Nearly 40 years later, when he retired from the University of Minnesota Speaks not only had plenty of teaching experience but also had come to treasure teaching as one of the most rewarding aspects of his work. "I was involved in many facets of the University," he says, "but there was nothing I enjoyed more than teaching."
That enjoyment was obvious to others. Over the years, Speaks received three distinguished teaching awards, including the University’s coveted Morse-Alumni Association Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education in 1994–95. The acoustics textbook he wrote—when he couldn’t find one that seemed geared to teaching—is used by some 160 universities and is considered the classroom standard. There are countless personal thank-yous, too, like the note he still carries in his briefcase from a student who wrote that her experience with him was life-changing. And when the department announced the Charles E. Speaks Graduate Fellowship in 2005, contributions poured in—from former students, colleagues, and even the publisher of his textbook.
Speaks’s transformation from single-minded researcher to beloved teacher wasn’t always easy. In the early days, he recalls, "I taught without a text. I taped my lectures and then I’d sit down and listen with embarrassment. It helped me to see when I’d been wasting their time, and when I was getting the concepts across. I remember one student in my physical acoustics class. He taped my classes—with my permission—and he kept clicking the recorder. He told me that every time I got off topic, he’d turn it off. When I got back on, he turned it back on. It all made me a better teacher."
He was no less concerned when it came to his book. "My first question in writing the book was ‘Can I do this?’ " he says. “I had no publisher, no contract. I didn’t want a deadline to push me faster than I was ready. When I finished, I sent it off with one stipulation. I said, ‘You may select any reviewers, but I’m giving you the names of people who know more than I do.’ I knew they would be brutal and honest. And they were. My second question was ‘What do I want to accomplish?’ There was only one text in the field. Although it was detailed and factual, it wasn’t really written to teach, but more to illustrate the author’s knowledge. It had not gone through the filter of ‘Is this the best way to teach?’ "
Over a career that spanned six University presidents, six College of Liberal Arts deans, and 29 years of administrative work—including 22 years as department chair—Speaks says that two words have underscored his work ethic: common good. "Those two words are most important," he says. "For example, you are department chair, you want something desperately. It’s easier when you realize that your department is not an island. There were times when I said to the faculty, ‘I know we want this, but if I were the dean, I’m not sure it would be in the best interest of the college.’ "
The fellowship that bears Speaks’s name is intended to recruit outstanding SLHS Ph.D. students and support their program. Although he is not involved in the selection of the Speaks scholar, he hopes recipients are "promising lifetime scholars committed to excellence, who want to be in a university, and really care about students."
Reflecting on his long career, Speaks says, "I hope I’m correct in saying I’ve never been motivated by the need for recognition." In fact, one of his favorite memories reminds him that recognition is often in the eye of the beholder.
"It was the day I was to receive the Morse-Alumni award," he recalls. “Nils [Hasselmo] was president then, and the ceremony was to be at Eastcliff. My son said to me, ‘Dad, this is probably the happiest day of my life.’ As I was thinking how good that made me feel, he added, ‘I finally get to meet President Hasselmo!’ "