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Empowerment is the primary
goal that fuels my fascination and study of communication. To me, the
study of communication produces empowerment along two fronts. First, the
ability to master interpersonal and professional skills empowers people
in their personal relationships and careers. Second, and perhaps even
more important, is the ability to understand how human reality is
constructed both socially and linguistically. The more people understand
how communication produces the social reality we live in, the more
empowered people become in defining their own reality. Rather than
blindly accepting that, “that’s the way it is,” studying communication
can help people author their own definitions of a meaningful life and
sense of self. These aspects of empowerment serve to guide all aspects
of my academic work.
Studying how culture and
communication influences the ways that people experience and cope with
difficult emotions is important for a number of reasons. Both emotional
and physical wellbeing are linked to the ability to cope socially
(rather than in isolation) with negative emotions and to receiving
effective social support from others in times of distress. Studying
effective, emotion-based communication holds the promise of improving
the health and welfare of individuals, as well as deepening our
understanding of an important practice of interpersonal relationships.
However, people from different
cultures can vary widely in the way they experience and respond to
distressing emotions and situations: Behaviors that may comfort a person
in one culture may be ineffective at helping, or worse, upset the
person even more. As the globalization of our society increases the
likelihood that we will work and live alongside people from different
nations, so does the possibility that organizations, as well as
individuals, may be called upon to provide emotional support to adults
socialized in different cultures. As a researcher, I feel it is
important to develop a more thorough understanding of how communication
and culture facilitate emotional wellbeing through effective emotional
management. Such knowledge not only empowers people in relation to
managing their own difficult emotions, but also allows for the sense of
empowerment people feel when they can help others.
With this in mind, my
research examines communication skills across culture and how people
experience and cope with emotional distress across cultures. My research
seeks to identify healthy ways of coping with distress that people use
across cultures. I have found that that in cultures as different as the
United States and China, people usually turn to others to help them with
their troubles and troubling feelings rather than cope alone. The
biggest cultural difference between people from these two cultures is
that people from China are more interested in solving concrete problems.
Within China, people often call on trusted friends to serve as
intermediaries to speak for them and seek tangible help from others. In
the United States, people are most interested in talking about their
feelings with a caring and trusted friend or family member.
My teaching philosophy is very
pragmatic. I believe that the worth of any idea or concept is
ascertained in the consequences of embodying it. What makes an idea
worthy of remembrance is its use. When a student can look at his or her
experiences through the “interpretive lens” of an idea or theory and see
ways to live a more empowered and sustaining life, then they have
really learned something. I believe education empowers students when
they are exposed to theory and skills that extend their control over
their social environment, and over themselves. Exposure by itself
however is often insufficient. Students must actively work with ideas by
interrogating, writing and discussing them. I strive to show students
how to apply communication theories to their own lived experiences in
order to forge concepts into tools of empowerment. I believe empowerment
begins with learning how to ask questions that develop critical
thinking. University students are largely schooled in answers but less
commonly taught how to skillfully frame questions. Learning how to ask
sophisticated questions is a corner stone of thinking critically, and
guarding oneself against quick and oversimplified answers.
I believe in a lively class
discussions. Along with asking questions, students experience a great
sense of empowerment when their ability to verbally express their
thoughts, explain concepts and processes, and engage in debate and
persuasive communication is honed and enhanced through skilled
instruction. For some students, class discussions and oral presentations
are the arenas were they “find their voice” about issues in their
Excellence in Teaching Award, 2012, University of Delaware
I have three main objectives
in each class that I teach. (1) Teach students how to skillfully frame
questions that aid critical thinking. (2) Present students with thought
provoking course content that allows for useful interpretations of their
behavior, environment, and experiences. (3) Cultivate a lively sense of
discussion, inquiry, and debate within the classroom.
In every theory class I teach,
I structure class time and course assignments in ways that promote
sophisticated questions, critical discussion, and the application of
course material to students’ experiences. For example, a prominent
feature in my upper division courses, is a series of short papers called
“Questions and Contentions”. I developed this assignment specifically
to teach students how to develop useful questions, write critically
about course content, and apply course content to their lives. Students
first present a quote from their text or lecture notes. Then, through
the use of open-ended questions and personal examples, they develop a
critical inquiry that may challenge, affirm, or apply to experience,
their chosen quote. Students are encouraged to use a “both/and” rather
than an “either/or” logic to frame their questions in ways that invite
further exploration and analysis. At first, students are often
frustrated with the amount of “thinking outside the box” that these
assignments take. Soon however, they actually come to enjoy writing
these papers and commonly remark about them in their instructor
On the days that these
assignments are due in class, we engage in an open discussion where
students present their quotes, questions, and examples to each other.
These discussion days are often a lively exchange of ideas and
perspectives, as well as debates about class material. Students are
often surprised at what they learn from each other during these
interactions. During both group discussions, and during lectures, I
always encourage students to challenge both me and the course materials.
In my larger service class, students have been very willing to ask
questions and engage me in debate and discussion on a variety of topics.
I select and develop course
content based on the potential of an idea to empower a student. If a
theory or exercise can help a student stay married, avoid getting
manipulated, have conflicts in a healthy manner, speak with confidence,
or get in touch with an authentic sense of living, then it makes the
list of what I teach. I have developed a substantial amount of original
course material in the form of essay-style lecture notes the students
purchase as a packet. In these essays, I draw on communication based
concepts from psychology, media studies, cultural studies, anthropology,
linguistics, and philosophy all with the focus of actively empowering
students’ lives. Giving the students all this information before hand
allows for a freer discussion as they are not constantly hunched over
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