Alan Alda Teaching Cornell
Alan Alda talks to scientists about effective communication during a workshop at Cornell University on May 22, 2014.  Cornell University

What College Professors Can Learn From Alan Alda

Jan 08, 2015

It may not be entirely surprising, in the rarefied confines of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to hear a member of the faculty let terms like “randomized controls” and “self efficacy” slip into casual conversation.

But the point of this exchange is to teach professors how to avoid them. Here in a windowless office in the basement of a red brick classroom building near Harvard Square, the faculty member, Mandy Savitz-Romer, has teamed up with the consultant Mary Tamer to translate academic jargon into comprehensible English.

“So what does work?” Tamer asks Savitz-Romer about her research into encouraging more high school graduates to go to college, prodding her for a few key, easy-to-understand takeaways. “If we wanted four or five things, what would they be?”

The result of the exercise will be a concise, bullet-pointed breakdown of Savitz-Romer's work that could be read and understood by people who don't speak the same complex academic language of education researchers. And it will be repeated with other faculty members as part of an ongoing initiative.

Tamer was brought on board to run a project at the graduate school called Usable Knowledge, one of many such efforts to help scholars and prospective scholars make their work accessible to everybody else—including, not coincidentally, the legislators and taxpayers who pay for it—and to teach students the clear communication skills employers are demanding.

“Those who are involved in funding academic research are really keen to see that it’s going to lead to something practical,” says James Ryan, the education school’s dean, who was trained not as an academic but as a lawyer. “If faculty are interested in their work having influence, paying attention to the language that they use is really important.”

As an example, he cites research about the benefits of pre-kindergarten education that someone thought to explain in the simplest possible way: by calculating that providing it would save more money than it would cost.

“That was genius,” Ryan says. “It’s a brilliant way of making the research not only accessible, but compelling.” And compared to a dense treatise advocating for pre-kindergarten using terms such as cognitive development and holistic instruction, “which one is going to make a better case?”

Many other schools are starting to see the value of simple language. The Global Communication Center at Carnegie Mellon University helps not only faculty but also graduate and undergraduate students in all fields make sure their research makes the best case. In a competition at Villanova University, engineering students are required to explain their work to a retiree or a 12-year-old, who, in turn, explains it to a judge. The University of Delaware pairs students in engineering and journalism classes: the journalists to learn about engineering, and the engineers about communicating.

Stony Brook University has established an entire center for communicating science, named for the actor and director Alan Alda, who inspired it out of frustration with the scientists he met as host for 13 years of the public-television series Scientific American Frontiers.

“I must have interviewed about 700 scientists,” says Alda. “I just listened and tried to understand what they were saying. But they were in lecture mode most of the time.”

The actor remains involved in the center—there he’s called Professor Alda—and uses improv and other techniques to teach graduate students how to better convey their findings.

“The improvising games and exercises we do force you to pay attention to the person you’re communicating with,” he says. “That contact, that intensified observation, and being forced to play by a set of rules forces you to concentrate on the other person and forget about yourself.”

Among other things, Stony Brook runs a contest in which scientists have to explain a complex concept to 11-year-olds. Last year’s topic: What is time?

Duke University last year launched a program it calls the Forum for Scholars and Publics, which promotes plain speaking in not only science but all academic disciplines by bringing faculty members together to discuss their work with everybody else.

“Given how much the public supports these institutions, there’s a sense of a need for advocacy on the part of the university toward the public,” says Laurent Dubois, the Forum's director and a professor of romance studies and history. “Universities as institutions need to think about this and find ways to speak to that broader public.”

And there's a need for experts to share what they know in a way that can resonate with the public. A study by the National Science Foundation found that fewer than half of American adults surveyed understood that the earth orbits the sun once a year, that antibiotics do not kill viruses, and that humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs.

“There’s a growing realization that a lot of the biggest issues in science require us to talk to each other,” says Elizabeth Bass, director of the Alda Center at Stony Brook, where two Ph.D. programs now require students to take a course called Communicating Science. “But communication doesn’t actually occur until somebody understands it.”

Meanwhile, she says, “There’s a growing realization that virtually all university research in this country is publicly supported. And academics owe it to the public to explain what it is they’re doing, and why it’s important to do.”

Harvard’s Savitz-Romer thinks so, too. Making her research widely understandable could hasten its progression from theory into practice.

“I love doing this, and getting the message out,” she says, back in the basement of the education school. “And as we all do more of this we’ll get better at it.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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