Thursday, September 28, 2006

Be an Adult

This second effective habit also sounds much easier to achieve than it is, regardless of how old you are. "Adult" in this context is a term I have taken from the heyday of humanistic psychology and the Transactional Analysis movement in particular. (see TA looks at all communicative interactions as occuring in one of several possible combinations of three basic psychological states -- Parent, Adult and Child. Communicative interactions between two people can be characterized as Parent - Parent, or Adult - Child, or Child - Parent, etc.

Very simply, the Child state is generally an emotional state. It also tends to be self-centered. The Parent state is judgemental and evaluative. The Adult state is rational and non-emotional. (Think Spock or Data.) Of course these are archetypes and in reality we slip in and out of these states when we interact with others. The most important idea for me, is that to the extent that we can stay in an Adult state, the more effective our communication will be in professional settings. It is particularly important for directors or other administrators to have this facility.

An example would be a situation when at teacher angrily says, "I hate this textbook and won't use it anymore!" This would be a Child statement. A program director could respond in several ways:

1. "Well, I hate your constant negativity."

2. "That's tough! You have to use it anyway."

3. "I understand that you don't like this text. What other options do you think we should consider?"

Response 1 creates a Child - Child interaction while response 2 is Child - Parent. Both of these encourage the teacher to continue to communicate in a Child state. Response 3 is closest to Child - Adult. Of the three, the adult response by the director is the most likely to bring the level of interaction to the desired Adult - Adult state. The more consistently the director can remain in an Adult state him or herself, the more likely it will be that others will follow suit. Over time this tends to minimize the negative impact that Child and Parent states can have on communication.

I usually find it fairly easy not to respond as a Child, but it is sometimes hard to avoid being pulled into a Parent state. I think this is because often people in work settings tend to see the director in the role of a parent and actually want him/her to take that role. It gives them a kind of sanction to vent their Child-ish emotions or allows them to vicariously vent their Parent judgements at other staff members through the director.

One of the problems that can occur with being an Adult all the time is that you can end up either sounding like a dull robot or a psychiatrist ("When did you first realize that you hated your textbook?") One way to avoid these problems that sometimes works for me is humor, albeit of an Adult kind. To work well at humanizing a director, humor should not belittle, embarass or hurt others and if it is self-deprecating, so much the better. Sometimes humor directed at "the System" is effective at creating a sense of "we are all in this together," which can help defuse destructively emotional communicative interactions.

So far my impression of the communictaion climate in the ELP is that it is very Adult. If that continues, I won't have much need to inflict my humor on anyone......

Next time: Share Leadership

Friday, September 15, 2006

Get the Facts

This is the first of my recommended 'habits' for language program directors (see previous blog entry, "Starting out.") Getting the facts may sound simple and obvious, but it is surprising to me how many times problems crop up or poor decisions are made when not enough attention is paid to getting as much background information on issues as possible before taking action. A corollary to this principle is the habit of approaching any matter with an open mind, which in part means not assuming you have all the facts until you have made an effort to verify what you can. Again, this sounds easy, but often the pressure to make decisions quickly encourages us to make unwarranted assumptions about our knowledge of the matter at hand.

In addition to the tendency to believe we know more than we do is the tendency to let underlying assumptions or biases determine what facts we think we need.

Here is a case that may illustrate what I mean:

Offensive Materials:

You, as Director of a English language program in the U.S., are contacted by the Mullah from a local mosque who asks to talk to you about a complaint he has received from some of the Moslem students in your program. At the meeting, the Mullah and several students who have come with him indicate that a reading from one of the textbooks used in your intermediate reading course is offensive to Moslem students and they want the program to stop using it. The reading is by a noted and respected American anthropologist. The text is a standard ESL text with cross-cultural themes. You have used this book in your program off and on, depending on teacher preferences, for about 4 years. This particular article is about certain Arab traditions. What the students and Mullah find offensive are descriptions of the value of smell in the Arab culture -- specifically the prevalence of strong perfumes and colognes. The article mentions that this Arab preference for the use of scents was probably derived from a need to mask body odors in an area where water was often scarce and bathing consequently infrequent. The article also mentions that in selecting a bride, Arabs sometimes smelled women before agreeing to marry them.

The students feel that these descriptions imply that Arabs are dirty and backward and find the description of smelling women totally inaccurate and offensive.

Possible assumptions that a Director in this position could make are:

Students (and especially people not related to the English program) should not have a right to dictate the materials used. It will set a bad precedent to appease these concerns.

Students pay a lot of money for these courses and if their concerns aren't adddressed our enrollments will suffer.

In the first scenario, the Director would be tempted to dismiss the matter, possibly by saying that she will take their concerns under advisement without any intention of making any changes. In the second senario, the Director might be tempted to tell the students and Mullah that the program would stop using the passage or the text altogether, since it was offensive.

What I actually did, when this situation happened to me, was to thank the students and Mullah for bringing their concerns to my attention. I also asked them to provide any further information they could on how the article was inaccurate and why it was offensive. I asked whether they felt that the use of the whole text was problematic or just the article. I said that I would look into the matter and then meet with them again.

I then contacted all the teachers and curriculum specialists who were invovled in teaching or coordinating the course in which this book was being used. I explained the concerns that had been brought to me by the students and asked how important the teachers felt the article and text were to the program. It turned out that everyone felt that a newer text was much better and that we were unlikely to ever use this particular text again. I then asked if they felt that it would set a bad precedent to appear to go along with student demands concerning our teaching materials if we told the students and Mullah that we would not use the text any more.

In the end, I met again with the Mullah and students and explained to them that we had considered their concerns. I said that we were also concerned that, in a program like ours with students from a wide variety of cultures, we needed to be careful that one set of cultural values didn't determine what materials we used in the program, but we also wanted to be sensitive to differing values. I indicated that in this case the decision of the teachers was to not continue using the text because we had found one that they thought was better and that this fortunately would resolve the concerns of the students. This outcome was quite acceptable to eveyone.

Personally, I have found that both my Pennyslvania Dutch roots and an exploration of Taoism have given me support in trying to form an open-minded, assumption-avoiding approach to getting the facts. Taoism stresses the value of non-action and the Amish recommend that we "make haste slowly." Both ideas are helpful reminders to me as I face daily decisions and problems.

Next time: Be an adult

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Starting out

This will be my first attempt at blogging, and I am grateful to Owen James for suggesting that it might be a good way to provide some background information about my views on and approaches to ELP administration and my thoughts and ideas related to pending issues in the ELP here at ICU. I’m not sure what impact, if any, this will have, but it does have the initial attraction of putting some of my ideas “out there” in a way that doesn’t require anyone to pay any attention to them if they don’t want to, unlike sending email messages to the whole ELP staff. My goal is to provide whatever information might improve transparency related to my work as ELP Director at ICU and provide greater clarity about my perspectives and understanding related to issues within the ELP. Of course, if there are any questions, concerns or other reactions that anyone wants to share with me about the content of this blog, I will be pleased to receive them.

To start off, I am going to share a list of seven somewhat ideal habits (a la Steven Covey) for directors that I listed as part of a graduate course in Language Program Administration I used to teach at the University of Washington. These are qualities I have seen and admired in a number of language program directors over the years. They are qualities that I have tried to develop in myself, so far with varying degrees of success.

1. Get the facts.

2. Be an adult.

3. Share leadership.

4. Make exceptions (but only when you have a good reason).

5. Keep people informed and involved.

6. Support simplicity, change and diversity.

7. Have a life.

These require a bit of explanation, so I will work my way through them as I have time to make entries in this blog. Next time: Get the Facts.

In the meantime, I'll add some information gleaned from a series of meetings I attended on 9/13 that may be of interest to some of you:

1. Although the ELP will not offer any new courses in 2007, the General Ed program has proposed offering a course on food: "The course explains basic components of food, fermented food, processed food, tase, color, aroma and texture of food, with special emphasis on seafood." If they plan to have samples, I think I'll sign up.

2. Based on changes already decided by the Ministry of Education, ICU will need to change the titles of some faculty effective next April. The new MEXT categories replace "Assistant Professor" with "Associate Professor" as the category below Professor. In order to comply with this new terminology, ICU proposes to retitle current Assistant Professors as Associate Professors and current Associate Professors as Senior Associate Professors. Instructor is the next category down from Associate Professors in the new system. Below Instructors in the new MEXT hierarchy is a division of the current "Assistant" title into two levels. The higher of these has been translated into English as "Assistant Professor" , but the kanji is not the same as the old "Assistant Professor" title that is now being replaced with Associate Professor. This may, in fact, refer to positions that I know as "Teaching Assistant." At the very bottom of the new hierarchy is Assistant, but again the kanji is slightly different from the current term for Assistant and I'm not sure who falls into this category.

If all of this new terminology goes forward as proposed, ELP Instructors will at least be able to say that they have a higher level appointment than Assistant Professors. Don't expect any pay changes though!