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University of Delaware

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  • Steven Mortenson, Associate Professor

    Associate Professor
    University of Delaware
    247 Pearson Hall
    Newark, DE 19716


    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 lives.

    Teaching Goals

    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 evaluations.

    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 scribbling notes.



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