Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Gentle Conversations

In my experience, conversations where the participants are relaxed and open with one another are both quite informative and pleasurable to participate in.  Yet such conversations don't just happen.  They require cultivation ahead of time.  The participants must share some common previous experiences.  From those, they must develop a sense that the others in the discussion will listen to them and come to trust that as a normal occurrence.  In turn, they must reciprocate by listening to the others and demonstrating that in a way that communicates they understand what the others are saying.  Listening in this way requires effort, but when the activity is enjoyable the effort may not be noticeable to the participant.  Listening also requires a degree of flexibility in one's own point of view, to modify that when the situation requires doing so.

People who are rigid and doctrinaire lack this ability and thus put the others in conversation on guard and make them tense.  Then the discussion becomes a form of intellectual combat.  In the courtroom, this is good and appropriate. The law, by design, is an adversarial process. Similarly, it makes sense in politics, where candidates debate one another.  Voters must choose among the candidates.  The debate informs that choice. But in private conversation, the rigidity of a participant is not helpful.  Indeed, it is hurtful.  If we must engage in discussions with such people on a repeated basis, we learn to dread those conversations in the offing.

Often the learning in gentle conversations is about our own prior thinking.  We've experienced something and started to reflect on it, but haven't worked it all the way through.  Or we've gone a bit further and drawn some tentative conclusions, but might change our opinion if somebody else would convince us to do so, perhaps by presenting some other evidence that sheds light on the situation, or by framing the issue in a different way that helps us to make progress in thinking about it.   This is one of the primary ways adults learn.  It differs from classroom learning in that the discussions are voluntary and there is no performance measure given, neither individually nor as a group.  The only external verification that the conversation 'works' is that the participants willingly engage in future such conversations.

I base the above primarily on my time as an administrator on campus, where I had many such conversations with colleagues on campus as well as with peers in educational technology at other institutions. Quite a few of these conversations happened at the coffee shop or over lunch.  That location, as distinct from having the discussion at the office of one of the participants, conveys that there is a social aspect to the discussion.  This blending of work related business with the social is something to be desired.  People on campus intuitively understand that.  It is comfortable to be around others who are likewise engaged in their own conversations.  And a bit of food or a beverage add to the relaxed nature of the discussion.

There is one point, however, where all of this prior experience fails to illuminate.  This regards the previous common experiences that help to form a bond among the participants.  With my colleagues on campus and within the ed tech profession, much of that experience happened by serendipity.  We capitalized on our good fortune, but we didn't contemplate a methodology to generate such experiences that would bring others into the group in a way where these others felt comfortable and participated fully.  Two points I can make on this are first, that if you introduce a colleague to somebody else, a connection the colleague wouldn't have made on her own, then reciprocation is the norm and you can benefit from your colleague bringing in new people into the discussion.  I've had some experience where my own sphere expanded in this way with discussions about information technology on campus.  The other point is that elders in the profession have some responsibility to make their junior colleagues comfortable and engage with them fully.  In the CIC Learning Technology Group (the CIC is now called the Big Ten Academic Alliance), where I served for about 11 years, I found myself in the role of elder about midway through and I did this with several junior colleagues thereafter.  I found it quite enjoyable and would occasionally be pleasantly surprised upon receiving a note of appreciation from one of them.  My hope is that they will do likewise when it is their turn.

Nevertheless, my experience as administrator doesn't indicate how much common experience is needed to make a bond nor how long it takes to do so.  One needs some answer on this question if one is to orchestrate such experiences explicitly to produce gentle conversations.  I do have some indicators on this from teaching as well as from hearing about the teaching practices of other instructors who aim for this goal.  For example, consider this post from many years ago, Akeelah and Adult Precocity, where I am writing about Barbara Ganley and her approach then to teaching.

Barbara explains her approach to teaching both in theoretical terms – the social constructivism of Pierre Levy – and in terms of the practical reality of building a trusting environment for her students while getting them to commit fully to the activities of her class. I learned many things from Barbara during this visit, some of which I describe below.

I’ve had intuitions for much of what Barbara talks about and have achieved some of these things in my own teaching, but especially on the building trust idea it’s been my experience that it happens en passant as we become familiar with each other and consequently in the past I’ve always hoped it would happen but have never previously made it an explicit goal of the teaching. Barbara takes the first two weeks of class and devotes them to this dual purpose – and during that time she does not push on the content of the course at all because the students aren’t yet ready to engage with it at a deep level. That was an entirely new idea for me.

I have since embraced another of Barbara's ideas in my own class, teaching with blogs.  The first time I did so was in a course for students in the campus honors program taught in a seminar format.  I made some beginner's mistakes that first time and have since modified the approach accordingly.  Now I use this approach with regular students in a (small) lecture class.  It is harder to get peer-to-peer bonding in that setting, but not infrequently a bond forms between the student and me.  The students make one post a week, about 600 words per post.  I give rather extensive comments on the posts and do so without giving a letter grade.  (See my post Feedback Rather Than Assessment.)  Students find this unusual.  They don't see this practice in their other classes in economics.  They are uncomfortable with this at first.   It takes between four and six substantive posts with my commentary for them to relax.  Eventually, many come to enjoy this aspect of the course.  But, initially, none of the students enjoy it.

I should note that in their early posts the students behave like students often do - jumping through hoops that the instructor presents to them, without wondering why they've been tasked to do so.  In these early posts they are writing to please me.  Ironically, they don't achieve that goal, quite the contrary.  Once they relax, however, they are more willing to be themselves, offer their own opinions, and be somewhat exploratory in their posts.  This is much better and I appreciate the change in style.  (This is not to say that the students couldn't use a lot more practice as writers. They could.  My goal is not to make them great writers, as laudable as that goal might be.  Rather, it is to get them to open up in their thinking about the economics, to tie the economics to their own experiences, and to use the blogging for that purpose.)

The teacher-student relationship has a certain power structure to it, one that may influence how long it takes for the bond to form.  I don't know, but I conjecture that sort of thing matters, with it easier to form bonds in horizontal relationships and harder in vertical relationships.  The other thing that surely matters is how frequent and intensive the early interactions are.  I wish I could provide benchmarks for effective planned early interactions that happen in a non-instructional setting, but I don't have those.  My inclination, however, is to assume that it take longer than you might originally expect.  We know oil and water don't mix and never will.  With people who have different backgrounds, as long as they are self-conscious of that their interactions will be stilted.  For bonding to occur, they need to get past that and see each other as individuals.   You can know it has happened when looking back on the experience, having crossed the threshold some time ago.  In prospect, however, I'm afraid it may be hard to predict when it is likely to happen, or if it ever will.

* * * * *

I now want to switch gears, taking what I know from my own experience and using that in a speculative manner to apply to our national politics.  My question, its been the one I've been asking for some time, is how do we heal as a nation?

There were a couple of pieces over the weekend that provided fodder for my post.  The first is, No One Cares About Russia in the World Breitbart Made.  I puzzled about this one for a while, not the conclusion that Trump supporters largely don't care about Russian interference in the election, something I was aware of that the polls have confirmed.  The puzzle for me is why this is true.  If you are in a team athletic contest that has a referee or an umpire and there is a bad call that favors your team, after which your team subsequently wins the contest, how do you react to the call once the game is over?  Do you own up to the error or ignore it?

If you would ignore it in this comparatively benign environment, why should you be surprised about Trump supporters not caring about Russian interference in the election?  It would just seem to be human nature.  Of course, you might react differently to the bad call.  You might have guilt feelings about the victory.  Indeed, many years ago you might have seen That Championship Season.  (I saw it on the stage in New York sometime in my early 20s.)  Then you might rue your initial reluctance to ignore the bad call.  In this case, you need a different explanation.  The linked article offers one.  Trump supporters have been brainwashed by Fox News, which, in turn, has been infiltrated by Breitbart.  

I should observe here that Fox News as an alternative reality is not a new hypothesis, which itself followed after many years of Conservative criticism about Liberal bias in the media.  How else can one explain the then popularity of Sarah Palin or a bit later of Michele Bachman?  But that is Fox News as the voice of the Tea Party.  The Breitbart connection is more recent and far more insidious.

Nevertheless, I find myself skeptical about brainwashing in this manner.  On a personal note, I have extreme fatigue about the news.  I read the newspaper less and less, scanning some headlines but lacking the energy to read through many of the pieces.  And more nights than not I don't watch any news on TV, though when I do watch it is the NewsHour on PBS.  (My wife, however, is a junkie for MSNBC and watches that each night after work.  Though I am not with her in the room with the TV, I can't help but hear some of the programming while in my office.)  I am guessing that many others are feeling news fatigue, regardless of political inclination.  If so, there is then no mechanism for the brainwashing to happen.  And even for those who continue to regularly watch Fox News, might they still maintain some independence in their own thinking?  We should recognize that there is some elitism in maintaining that regular MSNBC viewers can retain independent judgment, while regular Fox viewers cannot.  Further, and quite ironically, it is just that elitism that seems to fuel the resentment by the Trump supporters.

The other piece I want to mention is a recent blog post by Paul Krugman, The New Climate of Treason.  It puts all the hypotheses by Liberals about a vast right wing conspiracy driving this disregard of a Russian threat together in one package.  Fox News plays a critical role in that story.  If you think of far right elites (puppeteers) manipulating the masses (puppets), then Fox News offers a connection between them (the strings).  My initial reaction to the Krugman piece was to accept what he had to say and look for some remedy by considering whether Trump supporters might find some other viewing more compelling than Fox News, with that other viewing not intentionally manipulative.  For example, The NewsHour offers this sort of programming.  Yet it doesn't seem to be considered as entertaining by regular Fox viewers, judged by what they do choose to watch.   It remains a mystery to me what would be highly engaging programming yet without manipulating the audience, programming that could compete favorably with Fox News. 

This seemingly intractable problem led  met to think that something else might be the answer.  So I started to consider gentle conversations where both Conservatives and Liberals participate, either one-on-one or in small groups.  When I was an assistant professor, students would come to my office hours in groups.  There is strength in numbers.  Students are reluctant to attend office hours individually, because they don't want to look stupid in front of the professor.  I reckoned that something similar might work in this instance, with a single Liberal participant who goes on site to meet the Trump supporters.  Follow up meetings might then happen individually or in small groups, depending on the inclinations of the participants. In other words, once the initial conversation has taken place a participant may feel comfortable enough to not need to be part of a group to participate further and indeed may prefer discussion to be one-on-one to better direct the conversation.

Within a day or two of thinking this way I read, How Trump Is Transforming Rural America, an article from The New Yorker.  I am always amused when I see my own formative thinking mirrored in some well-placed publication.  It offers me some confirmation that my thinking is not too far off base.  In this case the reporter, Peter Hessler, spent a significant amount of time in Grand Junction Colorado, a bastion of Trump support near the western edge of the state. Hessler had repeated conversations with some of those who did vote for Trump, a publisher from a local newspaper that maintained neutrality during the election, and a few Colorado state politicians.  It makes for an interesting read because the people are far from cookie cutter, particularly in their prior experiences.  This paragraph, not quite at the end of the piece, amounts to a conclusion of sorts.   

In Grand Junction, it was often dispiriting to see such enthusiasm for a figure who could become the ultimate political boom-and-bust. There was idealism, too, and so many pro-Trump opinions were the fruit of powerful and legitimate life experiences. “We just assume that if someone voted for Trump that they’re racist and uneducated,” Jeriel Brammeier, the twenty-six-year-old chair of the local Democratic Party, told me. “We can’t think about it like that.” People have reasons for the things that they believe, and the intensity of their experiences can’t be taken for granted; it’s not simply a matter of having Fox News on in the background. But perhaps this is a way to distinguish between the President and his supporters. Almost everybody I met in Grand Junction seemed more complex, more interesting, and more decent than the man who inspires them.

I was disposed to accept Hessler's message, having read similar conclusions elsewhere, for example, this column by Nicholas Kristof, My Most Unpopular Idea: Be Kind to Trump Voters.  Nevertheless, I had a lot of questions about Hessler's methodology that aren't answered by the piece itself.  Many of those questions follow from this basic one.  Why would people in Grand Junction talk openly with Hessler?   When I was a campus administrator, I was occasionally interviewed by the student newspaper.  I was a 'willing participant' in these interviews because it was part of my job, meaning I really didn't have a choice.  For those who appeared in the story and did have a choice, what explains the choice that they made?  Were they paid for their participation or did they give it freely?  Were there others who Hessler asked to interview but who declined the offer?  If so, are these people different in a way that matters for the story, so we are getting a biased picture of the full situation? Likewise, were there still others who were interviewed but who didn't make it into the story?  If so, why?  Does this introduce a different sort of bias? 

I also wonder whether that is it regarding these conversations, given the publication of the article, or if Hessler will continue in ongoing threads with some of them.  If you try to connect the first half of my piece to this second section, the participants have far greater reason to engage in an open and honest way when the conversation is ongoing.  Otherwise, it is quite possible that the discussion gets end-gamed. If they were end-gamed the participants would offer up what they know Hessler wants to hear, whether that is the whole truth or not.  What, if anything, prevents the end-gaming in this case?  This is an issue with all magazine exposé pieces, not just Hessler's article.  Journalists get well educated that sources may have ulterior motives, which is one reason why they try to triangulate every bit of information the journalist uncovers.  Here, however, the piece is more about attitudes than about juicy nuggets of insider information. Does triangulation suffice in this case or not?

These questions into Hessler's methodology notwithstanding, I started to imagine something similar happening a thousand-fold over, in many different locations around the country.  I asked myself whether it was necessary for the person making the site visit to be a trained journalist.  Maybe it would be better for the person to be an ethnographer or perhaps a political scientist.  Or perhaps somebody like me would be good at this, meaning somebody with a lot of experience in gentle conversation, but whose expertise comes from an area not closely related to the topics under discussion.  Getting participation might be harder in this case, but it would make the conversations more symmetric, which matters for what I say next.

After bonding has occurred I'd want the participants to take a page from Mary Parker Follett's Creative Experience and see if on some issues the participants can produce a synthesis of their views that represents something fundamentally new, where each participant has contributed something to the synthesis.  Follett calls this process interweaving.  What might this look like?  Can the participants actually get past the agree-to-disagree stage and onto something else that is more tenable?  How does that work?

Now I want to speculate.  Trump supporters are known to be strongly suspicious of government and will claim that the government works for special interests only but ignores the general public.  The government, therefore, is not to be trusted.  But then I need to confront my own experience, both when I was growing up and during my working life.  I came of age during the Vietnam War.  It seemed that everyone my age learned to distrust the government in talking about the War.  I didn't see this duplicity as benefiting the special interests, though at some point in my teen years I must have become aware of Ike's warning regarding the military-industrial complex.  Instead, I felt that fear of communism was overwrought and that The Domino Theory was pretty much nonsense, used for domestic propaganda rather than to make a sound argument for war, since there wasn't such a sound argument.  So I clearly distrusted government with respect to Vietnam.  Yet at the same time I attended a NYC public school and did so from first grade through graduating high school.  I thought my education pretty good for the most part and strongly endorse the idea of public schools, even now. In the case of public schools, government seems like a good and necessary thing to me.

How can government be be not trustworthy, on the one hand, and yet deserving of trust, on the other?  I have never worked through that question fully in my own thinking, let alone try to reconcile those contradictions with others.  (The Federal government was responsible for the Vietnam War while NYC government was responsible for the public education I received, so one simplistic argument  might be to not trust the Federal government but to trust local government.  Of course, it is easy enough to come up with examples that cut the other way.  Consider that the Internet emerged from research at ARPA, with the ARPANET dating back to the early 1960s.  Also consider that urban public schools are often criticized for large class size, inadequate teacher pay, and dilapidated facilities.)  A subtle argument that is not doctrinaire but rather address these experiences is what is needed.

To this I want to add my work experience.  I was an employee of the University of Illinois from fall 1980 to summer 2010, after which I retired.  I have taught one course a year under contract to the university since 2013.  (In 2011 taught two course in the spring.  In 2012, I taught one course in the spring and taught it again in the fall.)    The U of I is a public university.  If government is not to be trusted are the employees of government agencies not to be trusted?  Am I, therefore, not to be trusted?  This line of thinking gives a different dimension to the same issue.

Let me add still another dimension.  The last time I taught intermediate microeconomics, spring 2011, I had many students in my class who were business majors.  Many of them were quite conservative.  A few articulated a strong anti-government stance.  Just about all of these students were from within Illinois, paying in-state tuition at a public university and getting a benefit from the subsidy they were receiving (or their parents were receiving if their parents were the ones paying the tuition). None of these students saw a contradiction here.  I am not sure why.  Perhaps they didn't understand that the taxpayers in the state were bearing some of the cost of their education.  If they did come to learn this, would their attitude about government spending change?  Could they come to a principled view about when government spending is justified, one that goes beyond it being justified when they are the beneficiaries but not otherwise?   I don't know if that might be possible or not.  I am quite sure that is can't happen quickly (because I tried to convince my students of this in my class and failed miserably at it then).

Were we to have a thousand or so such gentle conversations throughout the U.S., we might get a sense of whether they can be effective and what factors would make that more likely.  Yet even a thousand conversations would represent only a small sample of what's needed for us to heal as a nation.  There are millions of voters nationally.  How can the approach with gentle conversations scale?  Even if it does work some of the time when replicating what Hessler did and then extending that to Follett's Creative Experience, as suggested above, does the effectiveness survive the approach to scaling?

* * * * *

In this last section I want to go from speculation to pipe dream.  In this fantasy, some of the gentle conversations that have gotten past the bonding threshold get video recorded.  Clips, or sometimes full discussions, get published online for general viewing.  A central coordinator, like a TV show host, does interviews with participants in these gentle conversations.  Indeed, this is offered as programming on some commercial network.  The tone of the coordinator is meant to stay in sync with the tone of the gentle conversations.  I have Jeffrey Brown of The NewsHour in mind as someone who is subdued and welcoming in this manner. His style contrasts with the style of hosts of Fox News or MSNBC, who are more combative in their demeanor.  Nevertheless, one of those networks might consider offering up this alternative programming as part of their lineup, done as an experiment to see if it can generate an audience, a way to diversify their offerings.

Undoubtedly, audiences that are used to the bombastic style on their favorite news network will be disappointed when viewing the gentle conversations, as well as when viewing the interviews between the central coordinator and the participants in those gentle conversations.  There just won't be enough fireworks to suit audience tastes.  And it may seem as if everything is playing out in slow motion.  The audience might very well find that boring and then tune out.

There's one factor that should cut the other way.  My pipe dream is based entirely on this other factor winning out.  It is that the participants in the gentle conversations are ordinary people, just like the viewers.  They will be believable because of that.  If their discussion has produced something substantial from interweaving, the audience is then apt to take that conclusion seriously because the audience should be able to imagine producing the same outcome themselves.

This is how the approach might scale.  Now, who is willing to give it a try?

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