Academic Citizenship and the Importance of Applying Musical Skills for More Effective Communication and Shared Governance

May 11, 2011

As musicians, we care for and acknowledge our aural skills. However, often the skills that enable insightful musical listening are shut down during meetings as participants wait so anxiously for an opportunity to speak that they miss what is said. Encounters between and among colleagues or students and face-offs with academic leaders are often derailed because we don't apply highly developed musical skills to other contexts. How much easier would departmental "difficult conversations" be if all parties engaged their "inner hearing" and imagined the impact of what they said before they said it? How much enlivened would the academic community become if we all listened to one another with the acuity and sensitivity that we bring to disparate forms of music? How much time would be saved in meetings if we eschewed the "shock and awe" tactics of faculty-meeting hyperbole?

The session held by the CMS Committee on Academic Citizenship at the 53rd National Conference in Minneapolis in September, 2010, was intended to offer attendees opportunities to engage in dialogue about their perspectives regarding academic citizenship issues. After two very brief presentations by Sang-Hie Lee and John Graulty on leadership styles and literature related to academic citizenship, attendees were invited to break into small groups of about 6 persons. Academic Citizenship Committee members served as facilitators, guiding discussions with the assistance of the following prompts, which were contributed by committee member Jean-Marie Kent (University of Regina):

  • Are there models in place from which we can learn?
  • How do we ensure that we understand what others are saying?
  • How can we keep the issue and the person separate?
  • How do we follow up on what has been suggested or discussed?

Group discussions were lively and stimulating, and generated the following themes:

From Hal Abeles' group:

  • Many academic citizenship issues are the same for large and small programs, but divisions are wider and deeper in larger universities.
  • Music unit governance structures seem to follow a hierarchical model, where the administrator (chair) does not rotate, or a consensus model. In both models, leadership style influences how well faculty members collaborate.  Develop a common vision was identified as essential.
  • In an effective consensus model, verbal committee communication mimics that which takes place in a music ensemble, where conflict is either avoided or quickly resolved. Trust and respect were identified as important factors in resolving conflict in both shared governance and chamber ensemble settings. Groups speculated about how working together on academic issues might affect playing together in a chamber ensemble–as well as how playing together might affect the resolution of academic issues.
  • Keeping communication open is essential to resolving problems.
  • Working around difficult supervisors or colleagues and the Machiavellian strategy of forming alliances with colleagues were cited as possible ways of overcoming academic impasse and facilitating change.

From John Graulty's group:

  • Precepts and "ghosts" often entangle honest, forthright communication. We are not always aware of other issues, some of which may predate us, that might impact current conversations—the historical sub-text that makes up the three simultaneous conversations referenced in Difficult Conversations (Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Shelia Heen, 1999, 2010).
  • Paraphrasing and re-framing what others say to insure understanding is a good tool, but not in every context. At times, colleagues simply need to vent. In such instances, the appropriate decision might be to avoid engaging.
  • De-personalizing issues in difficult conversations is absolutely critical, though identity and self-esteem are always part of the equation, and both parties must recognize and "name" these issues.
  • Choose your battles, because compromise can take too long.
  • Power/rank/tenure status has an impact on, and can impede, open communication. Administrators and others in positions of power must do everything to “drive out fear” in an organization, as management expert Edward Deming proposes.
  • In meetings where contentious matters are being resolved, silent votes might be necessary to protect identities and remove personalities from the process.

From Mary Ellen Junda’s group:

  • In many music units, hostility simmers beneath a thin veneer of civility.
  • To maintain civility, engage in effective conversations:
    1. Remember the common goa
    2. Do the best with what you have
    3. Start at square one with an attitude of learning—beginning a conversation with the premise that we are in this together
    4. Do what is best for the common good
  • Acknowledge personal barriers that may exist:
    1. Fear of change
    2. Territorialism
  • Acknowledge institutional barriers that may exist:
    1. Voices that are excluded from the process (part-time and adjunct members)
    2. Divisions within departments
    3. Lack of effective leadership
  • Recommendations for improving civility and advancing more effective academic citizenship:
    1. Know what “safe topics” for discussion are and what aren’t.
    2. Make sure conversations are finished before moving on.
    3. Balance ideas and input from emerging faculty with tenured faculty.
    4. Create an atmosphere where all are welcome and all voices are heard.
    5. Adhere to Robert’s Rules of Order in faculty meetings and forums (stay on topic; everyone has a voice, harmonious structure of law of governing, silent votes).
    6. Make sure that leaders are willing to address the tough issues.
    7. Teach e-mail etiquette.
    8. Create a dynamic that recognizes each person as a part of the whole.

From Robert Peavler’s group:

Most communication breakdowns were the result of being unaware of colleagues’ needs and/or the impact of decisions on their situations.

There is a difference between being “right” and being “happy,” and how these differences are resolved affects unit communication and cohesion.

Differences in faculty schedules play a major role in communication issues. When people don’t see each other, it’s easy to fall into the world of e-mail for communication and lose a sense of personal commitment to ongoing dialogue.

When people don’t see each other on a regular basis, it’s easy to forget the needs of others and how decisions and/or communication impact "invisible" colleagues.

When having a difficult discussion, look for the same interest or common ground to talk about before moving into the problem topic.

The foundation of trust is different with each faculty member and this needs to be taken into account when discussing delicate topics (and the not-so-delicate ones as well!)

When you are really upset, wait at least 24 hours before responding by e-mail!

2760 Last modified on March 6, 2019
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