Sunday, September 13, 2009

Thoughts on third set of reflections

As with the previous week there was good diversity among the posts, though also some common themes. Many of your wrote about the shy student and how to get such a student to open up. Joe had the most common sense approoach - choose topics appropriately, non-controversial ones initially creating some comfort for the individual, a base to build on. The other big theme was (lack of) communication in the classroom. To exemplify the problem, Niranjan started his post with the infamous scene from Ferris Bueller, where the students are bored to tears and the Ben Stein character, not knowing how to engage the students, ends up talking to himself.

I'm not 100% sure why Niranjan chose that way to start his post, but it certainly did occur to me that I had mentioned some movies in my follow up post about Wednesday's class, so it could very well be that he was echoing me in using the movies to make his points. If that's right, note the form of communication, entirely implicit. The message is that he read my post and digested its meaning. We'll get back to that in a bit.

Jake's post was a little different, talking explicity about negotiating in a conflict situation where people have strongly held (and different) points of view. Joe's common sense solution works well for dealing with shyness, but it really doesn't help in the case that Jake outlined. The topic is already there, determined by the circumstance. Some niceties ahead of the the serious discussion, sure, that might be helpful. But in the presence of real conflict niceties alone will not suffice. What will? Before addressing that, let's keep in mind that there are no silver bullets. Remember, it's better, not best.

Jakes essay took a kind of arm's length view to the issues. Perhaps that is necessary when first talking about conflict, or we're apt to not make any progress at all. But I think it misses some crucial elements. Conflict situations are apt to be extremely emotional. Somehow, it is important to account for that. A couple of days ago, there was a quote of the day that I thought appropriate.

A timid person is frightened before a danger, a coward during the time, and a courageous person afterward.
Jean Paul Richter (1763 - 1825)

In some real life situations I've been in (work related, not for our class) I've found myself frightened at all three points of time, for somewhat different reasons. Ahead of time there is a certain dread that the confrontation will take place. During there is the fear that you can't keep your wits about yourself to pull it off. And after, there is the concern that your efforts may have been not received well or that something else will derail your attempts. It's with this emotional burden that you try to make the other person open up. You do it with a few principles in mind. You need to show you are listening. The echoing that Niranjan did provides a model. You need to view the discussion as a negotiation, so there must be some flex in your position. But you also need to have some firm goals that aren't negotiable. If you cave on everything, there is no real reason for the conversation.

It may be hard to envision this, so I want to consider a hypothetical that I hope will make this seem real. Imagine (this is not the hard part) that you have a professor a la Ben Stein who answers his own posed questions in class and the students never really contribute. Suppose you have an idea for how he might change the class process to improve matters. You therefore want to communicate that idea to the professor. So you decide to go to his office hours to discuss with him. (I'm not advocating that you do this. I'm just trying to create a scenario for you so you can work through how you'd feel about this, both intellectually and emotionally.)

What's evident in this case is that there is a possible upside if the negotiation works. There is also an obvious downside. The professor could react poorly to your suggestion and might be gruff in the conversation, especially initially, because your suggestion might very well be viewed as an attack on his teaching. (He'd be right in that.)

Heroes focus on the upside and take the risk. They actually welcome situations like this becuase those situations provide opportunities to make systemic change. Think of Mahatma Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr. But living by one's principles as the primary driving force in one's life is a very hard thing to do. Only a very few do it. There are some rough consequences to bear from following this approach. The vast majority, in an attempt to shun those harsh consequences, take a different approach. We bend so as not to break. Survival is a principle too.

Once in a while, however, circumstances present themselves where either you've become so frustrated with the status quo or you've become enamored with the upside potential that you are willing to take on the hero's burden. It's good to have some sense of how to communicate in those instances, even if they are rare.

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