Modeling tolerance and flexibility for our students in uncertain times.


Ambiguity, uncertainty, and doubt are all feelings I try to avoid, yet the ability to manage ambiguity is one of those talents that continues to make the list of top skills employers are looking for in new hires. While it is often a skill associated with entrepreneurial ventures, the current COVID19 pandemic has forced even our most established institutions to pivot toward a mode of managing great uncertainty in these fast-changing times. This has led me to question how I teach managing uncertainty to my students, as I often will intentionally create open ended scenarios heavy with uncertainty for my students to consider. Could another teaching method be sharing my own doubts and offering these as working models for my students to test? My last blog post was a short update on how Korea was managing the pandemic. It is amazing how much can change in just a month. In my last post I reported that most Korean universities (including mine) had delayed the semester start (originally March 1) by two weeks, and classes were moving online for 2 more weeks before meeting face-to-face. I and my colleagues at Hongik purchased new head phones with built in microphones and went to seminars (delivered in Korean) where we would learn how to use a new online teaching platform the university had just purchased. We stumbled through the first few weeks, but figured out how to deliver content and share knowledge with our students from the eerily quiet classrooms we created in our kitchens and guest rooms. Two weeks online would turn to 4 weeks and recently online classes at Hongik have moved to 8 weeks (continuing until May 10). As I managed my odd new normal of teaching here in Korea, I watched my colleagues back in Michigan move their semesters from face-to-face to online in just a weekend. As they were already mid-semester they did not have the luxury of on-line teaching seminars or installing new online learning platforms. They used what they had access to including online video conferencing such as Zoom, Skype, Facebook Messenger, and Google Hangout. I know dance faculty who are using YouTube to teach choreography to students who will not have an audience for their final recitals, and I have heard acting faculty describe how they have been coaching scenes online. We are having to re-imagine internship requirements, as many cultural organizations have canceled their spring and even summer programs. As faculty had to pivot to online classes, so have our students. Were these students living in an apartment or house without internet access? Could they find a quiet space to have their class? Did they have a computer to connect to new online content? Libraries and computer labs were now closed, as were coffee houses with internet access. Have our students lost their “non-essential” jobs making the essential task of paying their rent, tuition and other bills impossible? On March 19 I received a message from the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs announcing that the U.S. Fulbright Program would be suspended worldwide, effective immediately, urging all U.S. Fulbright grantees to return home. My grant status had been moved from Fulbright Scholar to Fulbright Alumni overnight. I had until April 13 to return to the US. This was the first in a series of honest yet confusing communications from the Fulbright Office in Washington DC. Richly ambiguous and filled with doubt, my situation would change daily for the next week or so. It was only through the patience and fortitude of the local Korean Fulbright Office, the leadership of their board and staff and their drive to turn outward and focus on the needs of their grantees that the program was able to allow a number of us to stay in Korea. I had made a commitment to teach classes at Hongik and the university wanted me to stay, so I moved from Fulbright Scholar to Visiting Professor. The Korean Fulbright Program showed great transparency and candor as they negotiated dozens of individual and unique situations with each grantee, I just can’t imagine how many hours of work it took. They helped us with additional health insurance, return transportation, and even housing. They were exemplars at managing change and ambiguity and it is only because of their actions that I am still here teaching and working with my Korean colleagues. Flexibility and adaptability are some of the indicators we use to evaluate the success of a student’s internship at Eastern Michigan University. Two years ago, we revised how we evaluate this applied learning experience by using a list of “attributes employers seek” developed by a NACE (National Association of Colleges and Employers) research study. Annually NACE ranks a list of 20 attributes, often called transferable or portable skills, by surveying 179 U.S. employers who regularly hire recent college graduates. The 2018 NACE survey lists problem solving as the highest ranked attribute. Other important skills include the ability to work with a team, adaptability and flexibility. Living through uncertain moments reminds us of our capacity for both resilience and empathy. Managing ambiguity may cause doubt, but with tolerance and acceptance we can cope with change and take a step toward renewal. By developing skills in patience, perseverance and open-mindedness we have found a new tool we can use the next time we face uncertainty. Harnessing our empathy, compassion and responsiveness are the skills we need to foster in our students, so they have the capacity to succeed in any situation. Now is an excellent time to show our students how we are managing change in our own lives during the pandemic. The job I had a month ago has changed. What will our careers look like a month from now? Lessons in empathy and compassion are especially relevant today. It is my hope that these lessons may give my students the confidence to move forward past assignments and job readiness, to motivating our communities toward reimagining the future of our creative sector in these very difficult times. Thanks for listening

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