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


  1. Getting the facts is definitely a critical habit for decision-making.

    I'm curious what kind of problems you encountered as program director in your university in Oman. Maybe for a future blog.

  2. Thanks Bill, especially in a busy programme such as ours getting the facts fast enough to make a timely, informed decision can be a real challenge. One thing that could make a real difference is connecting everyone in the ELP through a simple, easy to use information and communication platform to connect us and support collaboration. We could develop this ourselves using readily available online services, meshed together.