Archive for November, 2013

It should not be surprising that events in Washington have me thinking about leadership! As a result I am developing an outline for a new course in the TCU honor’s college. My working title is: “The Essential Communication Dimensions of Leadership.” And somehow this Thanksgiving week has me also thinking about how the concept of  “thankfulness” might actually factor into my communication-centered approach to this subject.

To be sure, leadership has many communication dimensions: Planning messages and tactics; assessing audience needs; chairing meetings; managing group process, using multimedia; dealing with journalists; handling sensitive issues; managing crises and conflict; inspiring essential support; dealing with internal politics; developing a personal leadership identity; and on and on. Indeed, communication savvy and skills are key components of a leader’s success. But it was this last topic, “a personal leadership identity,” that leaped out to me as I pondered the meaning of the Thanksgiving holiday.

If you listen carefully to a would-be leader’s rhetoric you can tell who is and who is not a phony. Some are too focused on themselves to express thanks for the system that enables their success. They never think to describe the beauty of a democracy where all ideas must be freely expressed and examined. Rather their talk is about themselves.

Self-centered rhetoric quickly becomes negative. It eventually attacks others and focuses on destroying rather than building. In the end, it’s all about personal attention and cleverness… and never pauses long enough to say thanks for a diverse world of great ideas.

Worthy leaders will always express thanks for our unique democratic process. These leaders are the ones who add value because they have a clear positive mission and goals beyond themselves. They do not attack, but rather choose to put forth well thought-out ideas and programs. They find genuine solutions rather than focus on the destruction of what exists.

And what’s more, the most worthy leaders will actually be thankful for their “loyal opposition.”  This is because they understand that it’s this incredibly diverse democratic system of ours that makes our one-of-a-kind life and culture possible. It’s precisely because we can embrace so many different ideas simultaneously that we have the abundant freedom and opportunities that we do. Self-serving phonies forget this, but the rest of us must not.

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This is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK. Those of us alive at the time are once again recalling where we were when we heard the news.

I was sitting in a communication class at American University in Washington, DC. The door opened and a person stood there stunned, and then managed to simply say, “the president has been shot!” My classmates and I sat motionless in total silence.  No one, not even our professor, said a word. In a few minutes, one by one we stood up and passed quietly from the room. I walked solemnly out into the fall morning and wandered aimlessly around the campus bewildered about what might be the future of our country, and frightened about what unknown course my life could now take.

In an instant, the world had changed.  Internal unrest and racial divide would eventually shake up our society. The Vietnam war would continue to divide us. And admiring perceptions of this United States of America around the world would never be the same again. The now dominant  medium of television would seize the moment and literally come into its’ own during the next four days. The entire world was glued to a screen, and the power of imagery was inescapably experienced by all of us… all “live” on television in “real time!”

From the very beginning, those of us studying television were asking the question: “Will television eventually bring about a global village of common understanding, or will it magnify our differences?” The Kennedy assassination managed to muddy the waters. In some ways we were one community, and in other ways we were driven apart. In the final analysis, the lesson learned was that the age of imagery, and eventually the age of digital interactive media, was making things far more complex, bewildering, and potentially explosive, than ever before.

Television was enhancing our emotional experience of critical events. I know from trying to produce programs myself, that television “liked” conveying feelings and drama and did not like details. The more emotion, the more the public became glued to the screen. The more information and details, the more likely the public would tune away. What was happening before our very eyes, was the realization that the addictive power of television could be making the world more emotional, and the consequence of the decline of print could be the decline of logic and reason in the world.  Heightened emotions can have community formation benefits. But they also can fuel discontent and polarization.

The years since the assassination have been a time of continuous communication revolution. And what has become clear to this communication professor is that the way virtually everything works changes with each new dominant medium.  Family interactions change. Individual behaviors and beliefs change. Elections change, along with what it takes to win. Government functions and perceptions  change. And even religions and denominations change. There indeed is some truth to the “we are what we eat” theory of communication!

Today we are a global village in mourning over a great leader. Our many thoughts include what might have been. But tomorrow we still will face the complexities and contradictions of how communication media can establish communities one day… and then the next day tear them apart.

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Last week we talked about how using multi platform teaching enhances both educational experiences and learning outcomes. And we therefore argued that online MOOC’s are most effective when used to enhance rather than replace that total experience.

Recently my wife and I traveled to Paris and Venice to participate in a Road Scholars program.  These programs combine facilitated discussions, individual investigations, expert lecturers, one-on-one collaborations with attendees, site tours, and cultural and other artistic experiences to produce an almost-perfect learning experience.

In my earlier days of teaching television production I remember interviewing people about their “TV vs. real life” experiences.  One example I recall was how one person reported that seeing a slum area of town and images of horrible poverty on TV in no way prepared him for knowing what to do when he was in the situation. Only when he walked through one of those depressing neighborhoods did he realize the limitations of the video only experience.

Videos cannot take the place of walking Paris’s left bank neighborhoods where Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sartre, Picasso, and countless other writers, artists, and philosophers struggled with themselves and each other to realize their creative potential. One cannot escape absorbing what they were feeling and thinking while drinking  espresso in the same cafe, eating in the same bistro, and having drinks in the same bar where they borrowed money from each other, and doubted they would ever survive. Now add an expert scholar-guide to enrich your experience, and you have the best possible learning opportunity. I know because we prepared for this trip by watching many videos. They clearly helped with our orientation, but in no way replaced the awesome experience of being there.

In Venice we had one of the best scholar-guides I ever experienced. She was a native of the area, and displayed a love and passion for her home and its history and art that was absolutely contagious. She has a PhD, but she also was able to demonstrate a total empathy with how people lived and were governed, how artists survived and worked, and how writers and composers were forever shaped by the magic of this totally unique culture.  This natural teacher could never duplicate in a MOOC what she gave us face-to-face in the ancient streets of this incredible city.

As once again I experienced the power of learning on site, the truth of all this came rushing back to me. Online MOOCs will never replace experiencing centuries old buildings by wander the streets, seeing art of the masters up close, hearing live opera in authentic settings, and experiencing all this in dialogue and spirited discussions with local experts and fellow students.

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Multi-platform tactics, which include live events, significantly enhance communication effectiveness. Multi-platform education tactics which include live human interaction, similarly enrich the education experience and improve learning outcomes.

Nevertheless, the idea that Massive Open Online Courses (called MOOC’s) could take the place of traditional education is dominating the buzz in higher education today.

It is true that many MOOC’s feature the best teachers at the best schools teaching online, and are open free of charge to anyone in the world. My 47 years in higher education, however, suggest that the potential of MOOC’s will be debated for a while, and then settle in to, (1) provide a service that will address the realistic needs of nontraditional students, and (2) will then concentrate on bringing significant learning enhancements to traditional students. They will be a game-changer to be sure, but not a format replacement. 

I think the future for the traditional college student will look more like this: Class discussion, student web searches, live guests, Skype engaged experts, topic videos, on-line web connections, electronic books, and MOOC’s, will combine to vastly improve learning.

For students with work and family obligations MOOC’s will certainly meet legitimate convenience needs. And they no doubt will find new digital ways to engage students more interactively. But in the end, however, I firmly believe that multi tactics media, mixed with live face-to-face interaction, will produce the best outcomes.

In fact, spending time in the “left bank” literary, artistic and academic neighborhoods of Paris, and a study tour week in Venice, is currently providing me an incredible opportunity to reflect on why the undeniable benefits of actually “being there” must be preserved in this dramatically changing world of education. But more about all this next week!

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Watching congressional hearings this week I have been reminded of the communication consequences of mean-spirited combative communication.

This is not complicated. When we are aggressively attacked we strike back. When someone approaches us proposing a get acquainted conversation we are more likely to open up and explore common ground possibilities.

The subject of one of the hearings I observed was the administration’s response to the bloodshed in Syria. State Department officials were testifying, and legislators were attacking. It stands to reason that this kind of confrontation will accomplish nothing. In fact, it is likely to make matters worse. Polarization worsens. Colleagues become enemies.

Not only are such hearings difficult to observe, they become repulsive to thoughtful people. Active citizens get disgusted, then get angry, and then drop out. And eventually many become protestors… or even worse.  

When will we learn that not only are we destroying our democracy with such mean-spirited behavior, we are looking more and more foolish to the rest of the entire world?  And who wants to follow an example like this?

This is not political positioning. It’s simply a lesson from communication 101.  

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