the interpersonal

tincantelephone_7099For a few reasons I’ve been thinking less these days about abstract policies, and more about how people interact with each other. One glaring example is in policing, and the problems we’ve had with officers and communities that misunderstand each other.  At least half a dozen experiments are now underway around the country to give law enforcement more of the skills and tools of social work.

Public higher ed is leaning further into a service role too, especially (in California, anyway) at the community colleges, where admission is open, and you really never know who’s going to walk in. The institutional mission includes English lessons for immigrants, job training, and re-entry for the recently incarcerated, as well as preparation for transfer to a university. There’s really no predicting the backstories and needs of the people you may be there to help.

And then there’s the broader world of work, and what our students will need to do after they graduate.

In the California State University system, we require “oral communication” coursework of every graduate – it’s built into the statewide general education pattern, and in fact you need it on your college transcript before we let you transfer in.

But tellingly, we define it narrowly as public speaking. I think that’s appropriate at access-oriented institutions like ours; first-generation students often need practice before they’re comfortable speaking up, or addressing large groups. But I wonder if we should really be rejecting all those interpersonal communication courses that are also proposed for transfer credit in this area, or if we’d be better off calling it a second kind of requirement.

The world keeps getting better and better connected, and our ability to get along – at the levels of law enforcement, or educators, or distant coworkers – lags the technology, as usual.

Personally, this is also on my mind lately because a few months ago I left my job at the CSU system office to work on one of our campuses. It was a move I’d been hoping to make for a while, but it’s still a stretch. I need to be attuned to small-scale interactions in a new way.

It’s as if I’ve spent many years at an extended family reunion, mingling with many people I know and like, but with light consequences for transgression: if I rubbed someone the wrong way I could usually find someone else to talk to.

By contrast, last fall I moved back into the single-family household of a campus. Going forward, different people here will enjoy my company or not, and we may not always want to team up for specific projects. But however it plays out, we’ll be seeing each other again the next day, and the day after that.

We’ll need to find enough common ground and interpersonal trust to get along with each other, navigate difference, and make progress. If we don’t, I can’t just go sit at another table.

It’s not a bad prospect, and even feels like a particularly useful 21st century skill set I’ll be refreshing.


Image credits:, CSU Dominguez Hills.


4 thoughts on “the interpersonal

  1. Ken,

    Congratulations on finding a true home campus. I miss that experience a lot.
    One of my home campuses had two communication course requirements that I took to heart since I’ve never been that good at one of them — public speaking and concentrated listening.


  2. Ironically, Ken, in my mind it was your interpersonal interaction skills that made you so effective in the walled off world of big CSU administration. Your presence in the heart of the machine, if a machine can have a heart, was part of my reason to hope for the emergence of a large-scale vision for the CSU that took into account actual adult human development beyond the rule of the unit and the course. I have no doubt yours will be an important voice in your new (smaller) family, which may struggle with the blunt edges of cookie cutter curriculum even more than larger ones.

    I’ve long been befuddled by our systematic disintegration of communication into separate subsystems. Starting with the split between public speaking and written composition somewhere in the 18th century, we have managed to hide the underlying skill sets that produce both written and oral texts. Somehow we believe that when we teach writing, we are not teaching oral communication. Wait a minute: Mustn’t one organize a message and build in transitions, for example, regardless of the delivery mode? Aren’t speeches sometimes read? Isn’t language in all of its manifestations at the core? Isn’t critical thinking the engine in the train carrying our messages from person to person? Doesn’t punctuation signal intonation contours and even physical expression Doesn’t it help with revision to read a paper aloud for feedback? Why do we not leverage the synergies between the two? Well, you know why.

    The ultimate barrier large universities face, I believe, is the need to pick up, pack up, and stack up boxes of curricular stuff according to many times politically defined criteria that are sometimes counterproductive for deep learning. The focus is on filling up boxes for reasons that are often unspoken and sometimes bizarre. All of these very smart PhDs wind up talking to themselves in warehouses. You know this, of course, because you have visited these warehouses and listened, and that’s why I so much appreciated you in the inner sanctum. Good luck in your smaller, more intimate world!

  3. Thank you for this reaction, Terry, and for the kind words. I’m proud of what we did together, and what I learned from you about learning and how we might tell when it happens. Those ideas added a lot to our state-level projects, and continue to affect the national dialogue about where we need to head next. (They were all over this week’s Annual Meeting of the AAC&U and the follow-on ePortfolio symposium. We are getting there, if slowly.)

    So I guess the bizarre boxes are still stacked up in our warehouses, arbitrarily compartmentalizing the kinds of learning that belong together, like written and oral communication. But so help me the cardboard is visibly starting to disintegrate, and we can start to hear each other again on the other sides, and recognize authentic and connected learning as it really happens.

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