On “communication skills” and pedagogy

Here’s a pet peeve: the widespread belief that any two people, regardless of the disparity in their levels of intellectual development, are destined to fruitfully converse, as long as both exhibit “good communication skills”.

First, acknowledgment where it’s due. It is indeed an important life skill to be able to break down complex ideas and make them accessible to nonspecialists.

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” is a remark on this subject often attributed to Einstein (though, as I gather, apocryphally). The idea is that explaining something simply in ways anyone can understand is the sign of true mastery of a subject, because only deep knowledge can allow you adroitly navigate up and down the levels of abstraction required to do so.

Those of us in the business world also know about the importance of connecting with diverse personalities–customers, managers, coworkers. In the startup economy, there’s a well-known art of the “elevator pitch”, wherein a nontrivial business model can be packaged into ten-second soundbites that can hold a harried investor’s attention–the given being that investors have the attention spans of an ADHD-afflicted chipmunk.

I would also concur with those who have observed that scholarly interests which don’t lend themselves to ready explanation–that are “too complex” for most mortals to fathom–are often the refuge of academic impostors. There are a lot of unscrupulous careerists and political operators in academia, more interested in what is politely termed “prestige” than in advancement of their discipline and of human understanding. These shysters, along with more innocent (but complicit) graduate students caught up in the pressures of the “publish or perish” economy, are the spammers of house journals, conferences and research publications, often hiding behind the shield of “well, you see, it’s really complicated”. Most legitimate scholarly endeavours can be explained quite straightforwardly, if hardly comprehensively. Complexity is an inscrutable fortress and a conversation-stopper in which people more interested in being cited and operating “schools of thought” (of which they are the headmasters, naturally) hide from accountability for scholarly merit.

All this has been polished into the more general meme that productive interaction is simply a question of “learning to communicate”. With the right effort, anyone can communicate usefully with anyone. It doesn’t matter if someone is speaking from a position of education and intelligence to someone bereft of those gifts. Any failure to achieve necessary and sufficient understanding is postulated as a failure of communication skills, perhaps even social graces (e.g. the stereotypical nerdling).

This is an extreme conclusion fraught with peril. We should tread carefully least we impale ourselves on the hidden obstacles of our boundless cultural enthusiasm for simplification.

First, there’s a critical distinction between clarity and simplicity. It is quite possible to take an idea simple at heart and meander around it circuitously, taking a scenic journey full of extraneous details. Admittedly, technologists such as programmers can be especially bad about this; their explanations are often vacillatory, uncommitted to any particular level of abstraction or scope, and full of tangents about implementation details which fascinate them immeasurably but are fully lost on their audience. I’ve been guilty of that on more than a few occasions.

However, there is an intellectually destructive alchemy by which the virtues of clarity and succinctness become transformed into the requirement of brevity. Not all concepts are easily reducible or lend themselves to pithy sloganeering–not without considerable trade-offs in intellectual honesty. This is a point lost on marketers and political activists alike. It leads to big ideas and grandiose proclamations that trample well-considered, moderate positions, as the latter are thermodynamically outmatched by simplistic reductions. Brandolini’s Law, or the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle, states: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” As always, sex sells–a fact of which the TEDdies have a firm grasp, with their peddling of seductive insight porn. As Evgeny Morov said:

Brevity may be the soul of wit, or of lingerie, but it is not the soul of analysis. The TED ideal of thought is the ideal of the “takeaway”—the shrinkage of thought for people too busy to think.”

Second, the idea that “communication skills” are at the heart of all matters has wormed its way into pedagogy rather disturbingly in the form of group work and so-called collaborative models of learning. As the thinking goes, the diversity of a student body is an asset; students have much to learn from each other, not just the lecturer, and encouraging them to do so prepares them for “the real world”, where they’re ostensibly going to be coworkers, police officer and arrestee, and so on.

It reminds me of an episode recounted by my favourite author William Blum in his memoir about the political upheaval of the 1960s:

At one point I enrolled for a class in Spanish at the so-called Free University of Washington, and at the first meeting I was flabbergasted to hear the “teacher” announce that he probably didn’t know much more Spanish than the students. And that’s the way it should be, he informed us–no authoritarian hierarchy. He wanted to learn from us as much as we wanted to learn from him.”

The counterculture kids were challenging incumbent hierarchies of authority. I see the same kind of anti-intellectualism recycled today into the putatively more laudable goal of social flattening.

But there’s a limit to the productive fruit of such ventures. It’s best illustrated by an anecdote from my own life.

When I was a freshman at the University of Georgia, I took an obligatory writing and composition course, as part of the infamous “core requirements” (remedial high school) that characterise the first year or two of four-year undergraduate university education in the US. One day in November, our drafts of an expository essay were due, presumably for commentary and feedback on writing mechanics by the English graduate student teaching the course.

Instead, we were paired with a random classmate and told to critique each other’s papers. My partner was an Agriculture major–a farmer’s son, he readily volunteered–who was only at the university because his father insisted that he needed a college degree before taking up his place in the family business. I would estimate his reading level to have been somewhere in the neighbourhood of fifth to eighth grade. I was going to critique his paper, and he was going to critique mine.

Candidly, his paper was largely unintelligible gibberish; it would have taken many improbable megajoules of energy input much for it to rise merely to the level of “unpolished”. Were the problems strictly mechanical–paragraphs lacking topic sentences, no discernible thesis in sight, no clear evidentiary relationship between his central claims and the sentences supporting them–I would have earned my keep in a few minutes with a red pen.

The problem was much deeper: his ideas were fundamentally low-quality, benighted in a commonsensically evident kind of way. They were at once trite, obvious, and all but irrelevant to the assigned topic. The few empirical claims made ranged from startling falsehoods to profoundly unfalsifiable arrangements of New Agey words that grated on the ear of someone accustomed to the idea that the purpose of arranging words was to convey meaning. He was hurtling at light speed toward an F. What could I do, rewrite his paper for him? How would I even begin to explain what is wrong with it? There was no room to start small or to evolve toward bigger, more summative problem statements; it was a genuine can of worms: pry it open, and all the worms come out to play at once.

I don’t mean to impugn him as a human being; he just wasn’t suited to the university’s humanities wing, whose business was reputed to be the life of the mind, set in a programme of liberal education. He didn’t know how to argue or how to write — period. He was more of a hero of proletarian labour, as it were, reared in a life script ineffably different to my own, never having crossed paths with me or anyone else in the pampered, effete, bourgeois “knowledge work” setting before, and destined to never cross paths with me in any such setting again. I was utterly paralysed; there just wasn’t much I could do to help him. Plainly, I couldn’t tell him that his thoughts issue forth from a nexus of civilisation unrecognisable to me. There wasn’t much of anything to say, really. I made a few perfunctory remarks and called it a day.

His feedback on my paper, which in turn suffered from organisational and topic transition problems that continue to dog my writing today, was: “Looks good, man!” Verily, his piercing insight knew no bounds. We really learned a lot from each other that day. Along the way, I overheard bits and pieces of a rather erudite peer review by a considerably better-educated classmate. Why couldn’t she review my paper? It would have almost certainly helped. My writing wasn’t stellar, and my devoted readership–I do it all for you, much love!–knows it still isn’t.

Later, I privately enquired to the lecturer as to how I was supposed to condense a lifetime–however hampered by the limitations of my age and experience–of literacy, intellectual curiosity, familial and cultural academic background, semi-decent public education and informal training in polemic and rhetoric into a functional critique that would realistically benefit my beleaguered cohort and help him write a better paper. She replied: “That was the whole point; you need to work on your communication skills.”

In defiance not only of the comme il faut tenets of political correctness, but in fact–in some sense–of the national mythos of our putatively classless and democratic melting pot, I brazenly suggest something that is, I think, considered fairly obvious elsewhere: not all categories of people are destined to communicate deeply or productively.

When such discord inevitably manifests, we should not reflexively blame so-called communication skills or processes. People operate in silos that are sometimes “civilisationally incommensurable”, as it were, and sometimes there just isn’t much to communicate. This is the reality of culture, class and education, and the thinking on collaborative learning and teaching methodologies should incorporate that awareness instead of unavailingly denying it. Matching partners in group activities by sociological and educational extraction clearly presents political challenges in the modern classroom, though. Instead, I would encourage teachers to rediscover–“reimagine” is the appropriate neologism, isn’t it?–the tired, hackneyed premise of leadership by example. At the risk of a little methodological authoritarianism and a few droopy eyelids, perhaps the best way to ensure that students leave your course better than you found them is to focus on their communication with you. They’ll have the rest of their lives to figure out how to transact with each other.

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