Teachers

They made the boring interesting. They modeled confidence and competence. Mostly, their individual features of character—especially their forbearance—changed the course of lives. As a group they were simply wonderful.

 

 

 

 

 

The act of teaching is one of the most consequential of all communication functions. By the use of the term I mean more than its application to institutional settings.  All of us perform a teaching function from time to time: mentoring others, coaching, and explaining something we know well to someone who wants to know more. Even the choices we make can instruct.  While our influence may not always be apparent, our actions modeled to others give them reasons to learn or occasionally rebel.  But even cultivated rejection of an instructor’s ideas can be positive. Aristotle embraced the study of rhetoric, something his teacher mostly repudiated. To be sure, no one wants the nightmare of a music teacher like J.K. Simmons’ tyrant in the film Whiplash (2014).  For things musical we would probably all prefer someone like the engaging Antonio Pappano, the music director of London’s Royal Opera. His video discussion of Puccini’s Tosca is a model mini-lecture.

                             Times Higher Education

The subject of wonderful teachers came up recently when I asked some of my students to identify an instructor who was a significant influence. The specific subject came up in planning a debate on whether we lose too much by abandoning the classroom in favor of online courses. I was coaching the affirmative speakers, whose formal position was to defend instruction in real place and time. I suggested they provide a few sketches of individuals they had known who made a difference.  Presumably all of us have had moments when a teacher provided a pathway through a subject we had never known.  Interestingly, I got no response: a surprise given New Jersey’s reputation for excellence in many of its schools. Perhaps it’s in the nature of youth to miss what is outside a narrow calculus of personal interests and concerns. At that age many of us were too distracted to notice the gifted people we had been lucky to know.

As a profession, teaching is not a prestige profession. My best teachers—Dawn, Phillips, and others—barely created ripples of recognition beyond the influence of their students. The anonymity of their names belies their competence and abilities to evoke the imagination.  They made the boring interesting. They paid their students the honor of taking them seriously. Notably, their individual features of character—everything from how they spoke to how they how they offered guidance—changed the map of their students. As a group they were simply wonderful.

What many of us forget is that the temperment of a teacher matters.

Schools of education teach future teachers mostly on the premise that this form of communication is a process—and a bureaucratic one at that. There are lesson plans to learn, testing protocols to honor, human development sequences to master, and curriculum yardsticks to know. These benchmarks are needed because teaching younger students usually happens within a rigid structure of state and organizational mandates.  There’s a metric for everything, including how well Johnny should be reading in the fifth grade.

What so many of these strictures miss is that the temperament of an advocate/teacher probably counts for even more. What Aristotle observed about all forms of communicators—that character matters most—still seems valid.  This is more than noting that a teacher must be a virtuous person, though that’s partly what Aristotle meant. Teaching with the right qualities of temperament must embody a degree of passion for a subject being pressed upon the young. Teachers must believe that their subjects matter.  And somehow they must generate the same kind of conviction in a student.

I’ve been lucky to see seemingly stale subjects conjured into life mostly because the instructor performed their own fascination with them. In my case it happened in a Freshman course in elementary biology, a high school course in acting, and college classes devoted to politics and rhetorical theory. The last is surely the ultimate test. Is it possible to be awakened to the deep relevance of rhetorical theory?  I’m here to say it is and it was, when Trevor Melia patiently revealed a world we had never seen. His quiet probes eventually produced a cadre of academics around the country who now work to induce their own classroom transformations on unsuspecting undergrads.

You can probably reverse engineer your own interest in a subject back to a teacher that lit the fire of enthusiasum for a subject that has never died. If so, that piece of your life is their enduring legacy.

No Effects?

Persuasion research is usually not in the spotlight. But it’s easy to see why this study made news. A “meta analysis” summarizing 49 research studies concluded that most messages in political campaigns have little or no impact on voters.  End of story. 

It’s my vocation to understand how and when people change their minds. This requires a sense of both the art and science of engineering consent: a tall order that is never easy.  Persuasion analysis is a business that needs humility. Even so, there is no shortage of serious and not so serious attempts to uncover pathways to attitude and behavior change.  Interest in this subject feeds off of the central roles that advertising, political campaigns, and social action campaigns play in our culture.

Any study of persuasion effects must yield to the general operating principle in communication that context matters; any conclusion about the effectiveness of persuasion must usually come with a lot of case-specific caveats.  Uniformity of effects across forms as different as political canvassing and advertising is not likely.  Given that basic assumption, it came as a complete surprise to see a spate of news reports about a recent study by two young political scientists claiming that a large number of field experiments found no or minimal effects for all kinds of campaign activities we take for granted.  The media at the center of the research included television advertising, person to person canvassing, phone calls and mail. The “meta analysis” summarizing 49 research studies found little or no impact on voters in any of these forms.

The uniformity of null effects was a shock. In the past, studies have suggested a range of different effects for different media: typically, with an edge going to one-on-one meetings with voters. Those of us studying these things have a general understanding of events like the 2008 Obama campaign, where the effects of internet-energized supporters and effective block-by-block canvassing produced a convincing win. Or so we think. Was that a different time?  What has changed? There is no equivocation in the final conclusion of authors Joshua Kalla and David Broockman:

The best estimate for the persuasive effects of campaign contact and advertising--such as mail, phone calls, and canvassing--on Americans' choices in general elections is zero.  Our best guess for online and television advertising is also zero. . ."1

To be sure, few persuasion researchers find evidence for widespread effects anywhere. The prevailing view is for only limited effects, typically “post message” percentages of attitude change in the low single digits. Even so, a study that argues against any significant effects seems too bold, too panoramic, and a bit disheartening. It’s somewhat like telling advertisers they are wasting their time and money.

The authors have added some exceptions. If we accept their work, messages do shape responses to ballot initiatives and some primary campaigns.  And in an earlier study they noted that activists for transgender and gay rights did reduce prejudice when they were able to  meet people at their doorstep. Personal stories of travail or unfairness struck home for undecided listeners.

 Our soap-opera politics has perhaps wrung out the possibility of an open mind among those who are still paying attention.

But the broad suggestion of a brick wall of “no effects” in campaigns is stark, and raises a number of questions. Are the studies’ measures of attitude and behavior change too crude to detect shifts? Did being a part of a study effect the results?  This problem–sometimes called the Hawthorne Effect–arises if subjects know they are subjects, and act accordingly.

Then, too, because all of the messages were focused on political campaigns, we may have reached a point where the persistence of attitudes now is much more common than even a decade ago. Our soap-opera politics has perhaps wrung out the possibility of an open mind within those who are paying attention.  In any case, the question of what works remains partly unanswered.

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1“The Miminal Persuasive Effects of Campaign Contact in General Elections: Evidence from 49 Field Experiments,” September 25, 2017, American Political Science Review.

2 “Durably Reducing Transphobia: A field Experiment on Door-to-Door Canvassing,” http://science.sciencemag.org/content/352/6282/220.