Archive for May, 2011


People Should Be Like Chopsticks and Work Together

Ni Hao!  Here I am in Beijing, China, half-way through co-leading (with colleague Michael Krajsa) a group of twenty-three Penn State students through the field study portion of a six-credit intercultural exchange.

Since this is an academic field study, I was especially interested in discovering something about my speech communication discipline and in my first class lecture here I accomplished my goal.

I saw a lesson that I’ve been teaching in my public speaking class for more than twenty years come to life like no textbook can make it.  In my Penn State CAS 100 class, we always have a unit on multiculturalism. The notion of an individualistic vs. collectivist society always drew a few notes of interest from students as I explained that the typical response from Chinese students when invited to give a speech is, “I am not a very good public speaker,” even if they are very good public speakers.

In my class here in Beijing at the Capital University of Business and Economics, I offered the class of about fifty Chinese students an overview of public speaking.  Then, because the university wanted us to teach “like typical American professors,” (I thought:  I can do that), I pulled out the bag-o-speech-topics that is always a sure-fire hit back at Penn State Lehigh Valley.  I even toned down the exuberance with which I invited students to the front of the class to make an impromptu speech, realizing that they are accustomed to a more subdued teaching style.  After what seemed like the labor and delivery of both of my children, Igor (his American name) rose to his feet and approached me and my “speech bag.”  He put his hand in (no peeking) and pulled out chopsticks.  In a cogent, entertaining style he said that chopsticks are meant to be used together, which is something that is useful in other areas of life.  After I praised his presentation he said, “I am not a very good speaker.”

Of course, I disagree!  Not only is Igor a good speaker, he gave me my first “take-away” of the trip:  “People should be like chopsticks and work together!”  (Thank you, Igor.)    Even more profound, the class cemented in my life forever (and gave me a good real life example for the next time I teach) the lesson I had taught for decades:  The United States is an individualistic society, and China is a collectivist society.  I get it now.


Thank Goodness Elena Kagan Was a Prolific Student Journalist

It’s a lot of fun writing for your student newspaper.  I remember fondly writing for the King’s College Crown and now I thoroughly enjoy helping Penn State Lehigh Valley students with State of the Valley, our student newspaper.  Lately, however, I’ve been poring over the archives of The Daily Princetonian, where Elena Kagan, the newest member of the Supreme Court, spent a lot of time during her undergraduate days.  It is fun and insightful to read her articles that give me a sense of the young future justice.  It’s also welcome research material, since I don’t have much else right now.

Elena Kagan majored in history and served as editorial chair of  The Daily Princetonian. A 2010 article published after her nomination to the Supreme Court was announced, described her “reserved passion.” Known for her penchant for almost constant note-taking around campus, under her leadership,  the paper published unsigned editorials that criticized then President Carter. In February 1980, one editorial called on students to participate in a rally against Carter’s proposal to reinstate a draft requirement.   These articles are some of the most politically revealing I have ever found for Kagan.

During her years on the paper she wrote admiringly about the “chutzpah” of the leader of the Princeton’s Women’s Center, “straight talker” Lila Karp who demonstrated aggressiveness and said “just what she thinks despite the risk of alienating her listeners.”  A prolific writer, she wrote more than one hundred articles in subjects ranging from the football team, politics and cerebral book reviews, including one on the Vienna politics.  Most often her name appeared with the title, “Editorial Chairman.” 

Her writing style is fluid and engaging, as evinced in this passage about Richard Preyer, a democratic representative and alum who was profiled by Kagan:  “One can easily envision Rep. L. Richardson Preyer, ’41 (D-NC) lounging on an expansive lawn chair, sipping mint juleps and watching the North Carolina sun go down.”

She served as press secretary for Liz Holtzman’s campaign for Senate and when she lost the election to Alfonse D’Amato, Kagan reportedly got drunk.  She lamented Holtzman’s loss in a Princetonian editorial that was partially biographical:  She wrote: “Where I grew up — on Manhattan’s Upper WestSide —nobody ever admitted to voting Republican. The real contests for Congress and the state legislatures occurred in early September, when the Democratic primary was held. And the people who won those races and who then took the November elections with some 80 per cent of the vote were real Democrats — not the closet Republicans that one sees so often these days but men and women committed to liberal principles and motivated by the ideal of an affirmative and compassionate government. Perhaps because of this background, I absorbed such liberal principles early; more to the point, I have retained them fairly intact to this day.” Again, a revealing statement, one that would never make its way to the scripted Supreme Court hearings.  

I am grateful for these archives, since Justice Kagan did not grant me an interview for my new book, nor did she give one speech since becoming a Supreme Court justice.  So student writers, be careful what you write in your college newspapers, because they may prove  fertile research material once you’ve reached the pinnacle of your career! 

 In her farewell column to the university paper, Kagan wrote:  “People don’t edit the ‘Prince’ because of the personal recognition that goes with the job; there isn’t any. And people don’t do it because they believe in the Right of the People to Know; noble ideals die quickly in a newsroom atmosphere. The camaraderie of the newsroom? You only mention that on law school applications. So why bother? Well, as reluctant as we are to admit it, we’ve taken a certain pride in putting out this page over the past year.  And we’d like to think that at least a few of you out there were reading.”

We still are, Justice Kagan. 


May 2011
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