Saturday, November 28, 2009

Diving off a cliff, over rocks, in the dark, wearing only a clown suit.

    The other day I did a departmental briefing with my friend William.  This entails the two of us going to visit one or another department on campus and me giving a brief powerpoint about the new general education program, encouraging folks to propose courses.  This particular event went about as well as any of these I’ve done (and I’ve done approximately 6,102 since September); sure, there was the usual tough question or two, and yes, I did make one associate professor cry by taking away his cell-phone when he tried to text under his desk.  But other than that, it was a pretty good session. 

On the way back to the office, though, I could tell that William was pained.  I walked in silence for a while, waiting for him to say something—though a Hongkonger, William is wonderful in that he’ll always say what’s on his mind.  He’s very American that way.   Today, though, he wore a mildly constipated look that told me he was working hard to bit his tongue. 

Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore, and prodded him:  “How’d it go, do you think?”

 William paused.  “It went well,” he said slowly.  And then he paused again.  Now, if pauses can be pregnant—and with a philosopher professor, they always are—then this sucker was having triplets. 

“But?” I said. 

“Don’t take this the wrong way . . . ” William bit his lip.  “It was very good, but at points, just points mind you, you seemed just a little—.“  Here, he pinched his thumb and forefinger together, leaving the smallest of gaps.  “Just a little—and only at times—just a tiny bit—“

“Tell me,” I said, “I’m a grown up.  I can take it.”

“—condescending,” he said.

I hit him.  Hard. 

Okay, no, I didn’t.  The funny thing is, this didn’t hurt as much as you might expect.  For one thing, I enjoyed watching William squirm a little, because it didn’t happen often.  For another thing, though, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that of all the emotional goals and intentions I went into that meeting with, condescension wasn’t one of them.  It just wasn’t.  I like my work, yes.  And I know Gen Ed very well, having worked in it and lived it for a quarter of a century now.  Was I enthusiastic?  Yes.  Maybe a little too enthusiastic?  Likely.  Long-winded?  Most certainly.  My whole life I’ve dreamed of being the man of few words, but as you can tell by the length of my postings, that  that seldom happens.  But deliberately condescending?  Positive I knew more than anyone else in the room?  Absolutely not.

William’s next words helped a bit.  “When you go into the part of the presentation where you ask them questions—you know what I mean?”


“You just go into it right away.  No pause.  No anything.  Just put the slide up and start questioning them.  I don’t know, maybe you could just—“ Again with the shrug, a sort of Kantian-induced form of Tourette’s syndrome.  “Perhaps you could just pause for a minute and say, ‘Now, if we might consider this for a moment.’  Or something like that.  Just pause.  Invite them.  Ask them.  Don’t tell them.”

I looked at him.  He glanced at me out of the corner of one eye, the afternoon sun glazing his spectacles.  What we have here, I thought, is a moment that, if not illustrative of east and west, certainly demonstrates how Americans differ from the rest of the world.  For better or worse, most Yanks want you to cut to the chase.  Don’t waste my time.  Never dilly-dally.  Or even dally.  “Pause for a minute”?  “Perhaps we can consider”?  About as un-American as bombing McDonald’s. 

But when in Rome . . .

“Okay,” I said to William. “Sounds good.  Anything else?”


Aristotle says that every rhetorical situation—written or spoken—has three parts:  Writer, Topic and Audience.  If you change one of these, everything else n the situation changes.  An e-mail by a college kid to his grandmother about a party he went to will sound completely different than an e-mail about the same party sent to a friend.  And an e-mail to the same friend, only about a funeral, will sound even more different. 

A lot of people think that for college students the really tricky part is writing about the topic.  But that’s not true.  What really screws up student writers is the teacher standing at the other end, staring at them, red pen in one hand, grade book in the other. 

Audience sucks.   And not just student writers:  it’s because of audience that we lose sleep at night. It’s because of audience that we employ tricks imagining people in their underwear.  It’s because of audience that lots of professional writers drink too much (though, for the record, Chinese beer doesn’t count). 

Anyone who has ever had to write a memo to their boss—or worse, their boss’s boss—knows the terror of audience.  At moments like this we don’t even consider imagining a nice audience.  No, when we think about the people who’ll be hearing our argument or reading our report, what we think of are all the jerks who ever beat us up in high school, all the women who ever laughed in our faces when we tried to pick them up on the dance floor, every teacher we ever had who frowned when we tried to answer a question in class and, when we were finished, stared at us silently for a minute, biting their lower lip, before turning back to the rest of the class and doing a big “L” on their forehead.  At which point the rest of the class laughed, and Jimmy Duburstadt, who smoked a bag of weed every day and had a metal plate in his head from that time he went sledding down the hill by the freeway, raised what was left of his hand and answered the question correctly. 

Not that I’m bitter or anything.  But if I ever get rich?  I’m going to find the company that Jimmy works for as the assistant to the assistant weekend toilet cleaner?  

And I’m going to fire his sorry ass.


Making this all the more difficult is the fact that Hong Kong can be a tough audience to figure out.  On the one hand, Hong Kong is known for its obsession with brand names.  The newspapers say this.  My colleagues say this.  You can see this just walking down the street:  even the beggars wear Armani.  Strolling through the malls here is like being in an E! fashion special:  Christian Dior, Prada, Gucci, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, and Versace.  Seriously, all of it makes me wish I cared about fashion, because damn, honey, I could look good!

Some I’ve talked to have actually taken this a step further and made the argument that Hong Kong academics are similarly obsessed with brand name scholars—that is to say, what counts is how many books you’ve published and the number of hits you get when somebody Googles your name.  The quality of those books, the sales of those books, the relevance of those books to the work of an academic institution—all of that is secondary.  This is in contrast to the States, where, after decades of increasing publication demands for tenure, some institutions and organizations—the 10,000 member Modern Language Association, for instance—are starting to question the value of the monograph.  As someone who’s married to the managing editor of one of the best university presses in the country, I know full well how illusory the dominance of the monograph can be:  some of these books barely sell 200 copies. 

All of that said, I can’t say that I’ve actually seen much publication obsession in HK myself:  while a lot of the people I work with here have books—some even have lots of books—most of them seem to recognize that it’s the quality of the scholarship that counts, not the length of the—um, Ferrari, shall we say?

But still, there are some who don’t see it that way.  “All people care about around here, “ a friend of mine told me once, “is what level you got hired at.  If you got hired at assistant or associate, fine.  But if you got hired over them, then watch out.”

Titles matter here.  I’m a Full Professor at my home institution.  I earned that distinction by over-performing institutional expectations in every category—being obsessive-compulsive can be useful that way.  The thing is, the standards are different at my school— teaching means EVERYTHING, service counts for a lot, and publications are important, but if you shut your office door and spend all your time with your nose to the keyboard, you likely won’t get tenure.  So when I got to HK and the matter of making by business card came up, my boss asked me how I wanted to be titled. 

“I don’t care,” I said.  “Professor, I guess.” 

This seemed like a fairly innocuous answer:  everyone in the States is called Professor, including adjuncts with Ph.D.s.  But my colleague in Hong Kong began to look a little uncomfortable.  “This might be difficult,” she said.  “We would need to get approval.”  And then she went on to explain that here, “Professor” is a term reserved only for the best of the best, the top in their field. 


The flip-side of all of this is that, as much as title, rank, and brand matter in Hong Kong, so does humility.   On the face of it, this is a culture where putting oneself forward as superior is not tolerated.  Eugene Eoyang, a distinguished professor in comparative literature and the former gen ed director for Lingnan University, talks about how asking for volunteers in the Hong Kong classroom can lead to dead silence.  No student will raise his or her hand, because to stand up, to speak out, to offer ones views in response to a question from the teacher, is to put yourself forward as superior, to make the implicit claim that your thoughts matter more than or are better than those of your classmates. 

I’ve seen this in my briefings.  When William and Huixuan and I first designed the powerpoints, I insisted that we include a couple slides that asked the departmental members to participate, to answer a few questions.  “This is how the brain works “I said.  “If we don’t get the audience to act on the information we’re presenting, chances are they’ll forget everything the minute we walk out the door.”

Nice theory.  The first time I gave the presentation and came to the slides with “activities,” I was greeted with stony silence. 

“I’m sure you all have some nice ideas,” I said, after waiting a good 15 seconds for someone to speak out. 

No reply.  Just determinedly blank looks.

“Anyone?” I said. 

More silence. 

“Bueller?” I smiled desperately.  My face was burning. 


I was just about to point to the back of the room, say, “Look, a baby wolf!” then run out when their heads were turned, when, finally, the chair of the department raised his hand.

He was an American. 


Given these two extremes—the name brand and the humble brand—it’s hard for a newcomer to know how to approach his audience.  Three months into my stay, I had to give my first campus-wide talk on designing more effective writing assignments.  This is a talk I’ve given a million times before, with a great success—more often than not after giving this workshop, some Italian supermodel will come up, ask for my autograph, then invite me back to her hotel for a night of hot—um—cribbage.  Once, Hugh Heffner even asked if I wanted to come back to the mansion, though I turned him down (everyone knows Heff has cheap champagne). 

Now, though, in Hong Kong, this talk seemed fraught with peril:  would I come off as condescending?  Would people respect my experience?  I’d already attended one seminar where the speaker was eviscerated even before finishing his first slide.  What if, when I was talking about Aristotle’s rhetorics, some hot-shot professor—a real professor, mind you, not a phony one like me(!?)—raised his hand and said, “Actually, new research has proven that Aristotle never existed.  Haven’t you read—“ and then rattled off some study I’d never heard of? 

Even before the talk, there was the matter of the fliers advertising the event.  My campus has a poster culture.  Every doorway you pass is plastered with sixty-two posters, all advertising visiting scholars and endowed professors and chair professors and vice-provosts to the junior dean of kingdom come giving talks on the quantifiable variant of the word “gallimaufry” in Shakespeare’s last and least known work, Speed 3:  Keanu Learns to Act.

Each of these posters contains a description of the workshop and a “short” paragraph about the scholar, listing their accomplishments in the field, including but not limited to the titles of the books they’ve published, the international organizations to which they belong, the nation-states they’ve founded, the number of trophy wives they’ve divorced, and just how many curried fish balls they can eat in a single sitting. 

All of which, of course, presented me with two problems:

1)    I haven’t divorced my starter wife, much less my trophy wife. 

2)    I can’t count.

3)    Every time I smell a curried fish ball, I gag.

            Fortunately for me, I’ve received a good American education that taught me exactly what to do in a situation like this.  So after spending three days curled up in my room crying like a little girl, I:

1.     Engaged in illegal acts.

2.     Covered up my illegal acts.

3.     Lied to congress about both the cover-up and the initial act; and

4.     Invaded a sovereign nation.

            Then I wrote the following biography for the poster advertising my event:  During his first two years as a university-level instructor, Paul Hanstedt received five awards for excellence in teaching from 7 different institutions.  He has since lead his home college in a large-scale revision of general education that resulted in a theme-based program featuring writing, quantitative reasoning, and organic pastry making across the curriculum.  Along the way he co-authored a successful US$500,000 federal grant for creating a program of sustainable faculty development, received a Nobel Peace Prize for solving the Gaza crisis, used cancer to find a cure for AIDs,, employed AIDs to develop a bio-friendly fuel that makes it impossible for Republicans to rig voting machines, and French-kissed Jesus Christ. He is the father of Bolivia, Tzrkystantinople, East-Buluxi, and eleven winners of the Miss World and Miss Physics 2005-2008 competitions.  He currently resides in Hong Kong where he drives a green Mazda 5. 

I’d like to say this is an exaggeration.  Really, I would.  Just like I’d like to say I’m not bald.  But the fact of the matter is, I don’t have to wear a hat when it rains, and this is pretty much what my poster said. 

In The Sun Also Rises, Jake tells poor Robert Cohen, who’s fantasizing about a running off to South America, “Listen, Robert, going to another country doesn't make any difference. I've tried all that. You can't get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There's nothing to that.” 

But I’m not so sure.  Every year, I watch first-year college students as they make the transition from home to university, struggling less with academics than with identity:  who are they in this new context?  What happens to your sense of self when no one’s known you more than three weeks?  Some students handle this just fine.  Others seem almost to go through a grieving process, a death, having lost a sense of who they are. 

And sometimes, when you lose a sense of who you are, you do stupid things.  Like claim to be the founding father of Tzrkystantinople.  When everyone knows Tzrkystantinople was founded by Al Gore.


In the end the workshop went fine.  There were a few people there I knew, lots of people I didn’t, and Hugh Heffner stayed away.  I tried out Williams’ advice and began each of the actively workshoppy moments with more of an invitation and less of a command.  It felt a little gimmicky, but people spoke up a bit more and there were some really interesting assignments that emerged.  True, I had to answer some tough questions about Oncology, but fortunately I’d spent most of the previous evening doing laser surgery on the President of Bolivia’s diseased liver, so I was able to respond—albeit in a very modest way—by telling amusing anecdotes about tissue transplant and my close relationship with Farah Fawcett. 

Afterwards, I walked around campus and tore down every poster I saw with my name on it. 

I still had two more of the briefings to do, however.  Making things all the harder was the fact that one of the departmental chairs—a kind Singaporean who was a concert pianist in addition to being a (real!) professor—wanted me to not just give a briefing, but run a workshop.  In the past, the workshop elements of the briefing had always been the stickiest points.  One department member even told a colleague of mine that these active components were insulting.  “We’re not students,” he said.  “”Don’t treat us like we are.”

Indeed, as the semester wore on, and despite my near-certainty that without active engagement we were running a 90% risk that folks would simply forget what we told them, I had pretty much stripped all active learning out of the presentation. 

Now, though, I dutifully went back to my slideshow and put some of these activities back in.  I tinkered, though, with how I introduced the “work” part of “workshop,” going through all these slides and deleting titles like, “Which topics would make good GE courses,” and “Given the unique function of GE courses, which of the following is an appropriate means of assessment?” and “Now take out your pencils and do what I say, you bunch of whining imbeciles.” 

Instead, I used titles like “If you would be so kind . . . “ and, “And now, if you’d like to consider . . .”

And I changed what happened after these brief intellectual exercises.  Rather than have the participants report to the group as a whole, I asked them to work in pairs.  And then, rather than asking folks to offer their own results, I asked if anyone would like to volunteer the results of a colleague.  After all, it may not be humble to offer your own ideas, but it can be entirely gracious to suggest that a friend of yours had achieved great heights.

Most importantly, I changed how I introduced myself.  I’d struggled with this every time I’d done one of these workshops.  Early on, I’d begun by talking about the Fulbright, how happy I was to be in Hong Kong, etc. etc.  This felt stupid and artificial, even though it was true.  Later, I tried to talk about the philosophy behind the curricular revision, and how I saw my role as a consultant.  Also sort of fake.  By mid-semester, I’d taken to strolling into the room in a long black robe and hood, striking a single, tubular bell tuned to high “C,” and yodeling.  And more recently, I given up on introducing myself or the project all together, simply walking in and glaring at everyone, daring them to challenge me.  None of this seemed to work (though with the yodeling, it’s true, I at least had their attention).

What I did for my final talk with the art department, though, was begin by offering two confessions—one that I was going to have them do a little writing, and that I was doing this not because I wanted to make them feel like students, but because we really wanted proposals from their department and this was one way to ensure that we were all moving forward in the same direction.  The other confession was that I myself had begun university as a music major. 

When I said this, I was startled by the group breaking into applause.  They seemed genuinely pleased at the possibility of having among them yet another brilliant scholar-artist, just like themselves.  I had to hold up my hand and continue:

“The confession part, though, is that I was such a bad trumpet player that I had to switch and become an English professor.”

They laughed, applauded again, and we launched into the workshop.   


And it was wonderful.  I knew this even before William told me so the next day:  you could just tell by the faculty interaction, by the quality of the questions, and by the wonderful course ideas the participants came up with in just a few brief minutes.  A lot of the success of this particular briefing, I know for a fact, was because of the chemistry of the department and their attitude toward what we were doing, their willingness to take some risks and engage the ideas. 

Beyond that, I’m tempted to offer some insight about what all of this taught me about faculty development, about culture, about myself:   how I finally found my true, humble self, for instance, or about how sometimes we have to go somewhere different to find who you really are.  Or about how taking risks and exposing oneself is an essential part of saying anything that’s truly meaningful. Or about how you can’t expect anybody else to take risks if you’re not going to.

I’d like to say all of those things, and much much more.  Really I would. 

But that wouldn’t be humble. 

So what I’m going to tell you is that I just found out that my host institution’s president has decided the annual presidential forum should be on General Education.  And that they’d like me to talk at this event. 

Just writing these words, my fingers are starting to sweat, and I can feel my stomach twisting into gnarled, petrified, ropes of fear.  Here we go again.  The anxiety.  The paranoia.  the nightmares about hostile audiences who’ve researched these matters much better than I ever can, and are willing to point out my flaws in front of everybody.  Already, I’m considering calling in sick that day.  Or maybe buying a plane ticket and running away to Tzrkystantinople.


Heather said...

Your description of engaging the audience in active learning cracked me up. This type of experience is what I encounter every day in the classroom: trying to find the best ways to engage learners from 20 different cultures. It's challenging and incredibly rewarding when it works. Thanks for a great post.

Paul Hanstedt said...

Thanks for reading the whole thing! I think you're the only one!