Changing the World v. Pursuit of Financial Profit as Educational Goals at Business School

On several occasions (at least once a semester) we fellows have a discussion about what for now seems to be an utopian scenario: students applying critical theory, concepts of social and environmental justice, oppression, and other critical concepts in their assignments, such as in group oral presentations of business analysis of a company or a given industry. We usually complain about students’ lack of social and environmental awareness in their roles as hypothetical consultants presenting their business analyses and recommendations to the leadership of their assigned companies. Based on our observations, students’ most common approach to “doing business” is reflected in their primary focus on “how to make the most money possible,” usually at any cost.

What is particularly unsettling is that the business recommendations our students come up with are frequently based on or deeply rooted in exploitation and inequalities to which they, as immigrants and children of immigrants, members of the middle and working classes, and other marginalized and oppressed social groups, are subjected. In my whole (now several years of) experience working with BPL students, I only met one group of students who attempted to develop and propose what could be called socially responsible business strategies that were not focused on mere fast financial gain. Unfortunately, they failed terribly, as they lacked the tools that would enable them to achieve such a goal. Although our role as communication consultants is not to provide support for the content of students’ assignments, I did not feel comfortable not being able to help them beyond recommending consulting further with their instructor. Even though their assignment fell short of achieving their goal, their attempt was refreshing and hopeful, however idealistic it might have been.
When students do consider strategies and practices to be implemented by corporations that focus on social issues, such as environmental awareness (e.g., “going green”), social responsibility and community involvement, being culturally sensitive, etc., I usually find that these are predominantly used as marketing tools only to generate more profit.

A while ago I posted information about London’s School for Social Entrepreneurs, which seems to be focusing on developing small businesses while practicing socially responsible business practices. Although in a very limited capacity, I inquired about business schools and approaches with such an alternative focus and I learned about a relatively new field of Critical Management Studies that does apply critical theory to business including management. Those interested can read more on Wikipedia. One can learn that, in the short twenty years of its existence, this field is growing and developing approaches and attempts to articulate different “voices within the business school, and provide ways of thinking beyond current dominant theories and practices of organization” (Wikipedia).

I would like this post to be an invitation for discussion on exploring existing resources and further possibilities of support of Baruch students’ engagement in critical discussion and reflection on the practices they are such an integral part of. As a part of this post, I tried to find out what the existing efforts and activities are at Baruch College that could be relevant to students and could promote their critical inquiries of business practices.

I found out that the Research Center on Equality, Pluralism and Policy (CEPP) at Baruch’s School of Public Affairs might offer such opportunities, as it aims to “examine the opportunities and barriers our country’s citizens and non-citizens face in a racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse society. The primary objective of CEPP is to critically examine issues of economic and social policies in our city, state and nation where the government creates and implements policies that affect all of our citizens and non-citizens. Baruch students are an integral part of this examination. CEPP invites students to bring their ideas and commitment to social justice to the Center.” In addition to other activities, the Center organizes The Lillie and Nathan Ackerman 
Lecture Series on Equality and Justice in America. As is stated on their webpage, The Ackerman Lecture series “invites leading intellectuals and public figures to address major questions of equality and social justice in order to provoke debate and new thinking about how we might extend the promise of democracy and opportunity to all of our people.”

I would like to learn if there are any Business (or Economics) courses currently offered to Baruch students that address the issues of social responsibility, social injustice and oppression, etc., or for instance that educate students on alternative business models. The results of my search of currently offered business courses did not indicate such opportunities. I hope (and wish) that my research was insufficient and I would like to learn about such courses given that Civic Awareness, Ethical Decision-Making, and Global Awareness are some of the general education competencies stipulated by the college as part of the core curriculum and against which student development is assessed (You can read more about it in 2010 Baruch College Middle States Self-Study.)

I am also wondering what would be the response of potential applicants if the recruiting strategies of Baruch College would focus on students’ potential of changing and transforming the world into a more socially just and environmentally safe place. Given our socially (and otherwise) diverse student population, such educational goals might be closer and more relevant to students’ lives and everyday realities.

p.s. During the research for this post I learned from my friend Saqib Jafarey, a college professor of economics in London, that a famous economist, Ariel Rubinstein, calls the students of economics “victims of economics.” He has run many experiments in which he tests whether people who behave altruistically towards others do better or worse than those who act in rational self-interest. His experiments reveal that people who cooperate with and trust others but within reasonable limits do better than those who are naively altruistic or rationally selfish. He also finds that economics students are more likely to act in a selfish manner than other students.

Children Books Illustrations – my connection to traditions, history and art.

The purpose of this post is not to pose a question or challenge an opinion. It is simply an attempt to share something close to “my home and my heart.”

I’ve wanted to write this post for a long time, and seeing some other posts inspired by childhood memories only encourage me to do so (e.g. Zohra, Agnieszka).

In addition: I am simply home sick.

I never “grew out” of children’s books. I’ve never stopped going to kid’s sections in bookstores, browsing and collecting. Becoming a parent only meant gaining a wonderful companion in a life-time journey of discovering and exploring the world of children’s literature that started more than 40 years ago in Czechoslovakia, my native country. I believe that children’s literature illustrations are one of the most important sources of my love of and interest in art.

Looking retrospectively at my favorite childhood books I came to appreciate the art that I was introduced to and surrounded by as a child through illustratiosn, including those in textbooks. I took them for granted, but never lost interest in them. In fact I keep returning to them and enjoy sharing them with my daughter.

None of my favorite illustrations were cute. Many were intriguing, even scary looking. Frequently, modern art intersects with traditional elements. They are beautiful and poetic, but never cute. I believe that can explain why they remain relevant and appealing to adults. But that is what makes them appealing to children too, the artistry and ability of painters to connect the real with the imaginary, the beautiful and the scary, the world of the adults with childhood, and all manners of life’s dialectics.

They were obviously created for children, usually by significant and famous painters who did not limit themselves exclusively to children’s illustrations. Perhaps it was the broad scope of the work, perhaps they never tried or pretended to see the world “through children’s eyes.” Rather, they found ways to invite children (as well as adults) to discover the world of fairytales.

This art is easily accessible, and easy to relate to. I think it has also taught me about feeling comfortable with art, how to appreciate and enjoy it.

I hope you will enjoy the illustrations too.

The illustrations below are from the book Slovenska detska kniha (Slovak Children Book), published by Literarne informacne centrum, Bratislava 2008.

If you are interested, you can learn more about children’s illustration in Slovakia at this International biannual exhibition of children book illustration (Biennial of Illustrations Bratislava),

Being versus becoming bi/multilingual

In my today’s post I will return to the topic already discussed here: growing up multilingual, the topic personally close to my heart (and to several other fellows e.g. see Agnieszka’s past post Ciao! Bye! Do widzenia! Tschüss!) as I have a daughter who is becoming trilingual.

Yes, the word becoming is focus of my post.

Besides the fact that I ‘live’ the trilingualism of my daughter daily I came across an article Hearing Bilingual: How Babies Sort Out Languageby Perri Klass , in NYT last week that mentions some of the bonuses of growing up bilingual, and reports on research that further confirms that kids learn language in social interactions rather than from audiotape or TV programs, and an interesting talk at the GC last September by Erika Hoff, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University. I think both of these references are worthwhile of attention.

I am one of those parents of bi/trilingual kids who are “hungry for more information” as Perri Klass, the author of the mentioned NYT article puts it. Given the fact that I am a developmental psychologist (also in becoming) makes the topic even more interesting to me. If one, as a parent of bilingual child is not satisfied with what is known about development of bilingual children, well, try trilingualism. Conducting research with children who grow up as trilingual is quite complicated given the possible combination of languages and the ways how languages at home and outside of home are used and acquired. For instance, questions like: do both parents speak all three languages; what languages do individual parents speak to child and to each other; what are the linguistic and other cultural contexts of the child outside of the family; what three languages is child learning; etc. make any research design complex and complicated even in case if researched children learn the same three languages, because children usually grow up in quite different contexts that makes any comparisons problematic.

To give you an idea of complexity of trilingualism let me briefly describe our family situation. My five and half year old daughter is learning Slovak from me, Portuguese from her Brazilian dad, and English in school, from both of us and in most other cultural contexts. As parents we talk to her in our mother languages, however we speak predominantly in English to each other. Her exposure to English was somewhat limited and indirect before she started school because most of the time we addressed our daughter in either Slovak or Portuguese. Until this month, when my daughter started two and half hour program in Slovak, I was pretty much the only person who talked to her in Slovak on everyday basis. Importantly, she does not hear me speaking Slovak to anybody else, so most of her Slovak vocabulary she acquired is almost exclusively learned from our interactions. (Sometimes I feel that Slovak is our secret language or that I am conducting a real-life experiment on the role of social environment in language development).

On the other hand, her opportunities communicating in Portuguese have been much more frequent (she has a bilingual cousin and aunt who both speak Portuguese, more frequent visits from family from Brazil, and several friends who are also bilingual, and it is quite easy to run into Portuguese speaking kid in the playground in NYC), in sum she has had much more exposure to Portuguese in various context than to Slovak language and culture. Once she started school, English was quickly becoming her focus and dominant language. When she started school her limited English was an issue, after a few months in pre-K maintaining the other two languages became a concern. All these are extremely important and constitutive factors of her language development.

So what is my point about becoming?

Whenever I am to describe my daughter, especially for more formal and institutional audiences such as any educational setting, her ‘trilinguilism’ is one of the first characteristics and “identity descriptors” I refer to because it is such an integral part of who she is. The usual reaction is admiration and praise for her and us as parents, and the vision of her bright future as a person proficient in three (very different) languages. I often try to add something about the fact that she is not quite yet trilingual, rather that she is learning all three languages, which by the way turned out to be quite complicated, complex and not as easy process for her and us as a) we expected it to be; b) is commonly believed, and c) is practiced and approached by educational and many other institutions.

The reaction to any of my references to complexity and difficulty I express regarding the whole process is often quickly and optimistically dismissed by people stating something like “ah, children are like sponges, they learn quickly”.

I am fully aware that my daughter will quite possibly not, and simply cannot, master all three languages equally (regardless her cognitive and any other individual abilities) unless she has an opportunity to engage with each of three languages and cultures with the same intensity, e.g. the most probably she will not learn all school subjects in all three languages and most of her instructions will be limited to one or two languages.

However hard it may be to accept the fact that my daughter might never speak her mother’s mother tongue well enough, I am struggling much more with the myths around multilingualism, or what I call the “linear sponge understanding of human development”.

Despite quite extensive and progressive research on bilingualism, language and identity development of bilingual kids, the common beliefs and practices of educational institutions, and the way they approach bilingualism is as a cumulative process of learning two separate languages, i.e. the language development of these kids simply equals development of monolingual child plus learning another language. This is fully reflected in the way a bi/multilingual child’s language development is assessed, the kid is tested in every language separately and the test results are compared against typical monolingual child language development. The earlier the child is tested in his or her development the more ‘delays’ can be detected. (Commonly, based on parents experience multilingual kids catch up in their language proficiency to monolingual kids by the age of seven or eight.)

This practice might come as a surprise given the fact that researchers do know that bi/multilingual children often start speaking later and this fact is now commonly known, and that learning three or more languages is even more complex and actually represents a different process that learning two languages. Unfortunately, the way things work, the different developmental trajectory of bi- and multilingual children is approached and referred to not simply as different but often as delayed, abnormal and pathological. In case child is to receive any support, e.g. speech therapy, the child has to be diagnosed as disabled, only such diagnosis enables him or her to receive the services and support.

What I consistently find amusing is a disconnect between the general societal admiration and recognition of the benefits (which by the way some are also myths) of being bilingual, and at the same time no or minimal recognition and acknowledgement of the complexity of the process of becoming bilingual. I consistently experience all kinds of judgements, dire lack of openness and flexibility among professionals and institutions, and lack of embracement of the complexity of the process of our (or any other) child becoming multilingual.

No child is simply born bilingual, not even every bilingual child is born and growing up in a bilingual family and their bilingualism is closely tied to their environment outside of the family. The kids can only become bi/multilingual, which takes time and effort and often taking developmental detours or shortcuts, mostly depending on the tools available to them and to their families.

Therefore I was glad to hear from Prof. Erika Hoff, presenting the findings of her research that contradict some common views “that exposure to two languages confuses children and the view children as magical language learners who can acquire two languages as quickly as one”, in another words no sponge kids that follow a blueprint of linear development, (well not even the monolingual ones develop along some linear blueprint). Instead, a complex developmental trajectory that might be quite messy and different from any other kid.

So for now in my discussions about our experience of bringing up a child in trilingual environment I try to explain how being different is quite normal, (mostly through talking about all anomalies).

What does Brazilian Carnival have to do with (our students’) presentations?

What might frivolous, flashy samba, danced and sung in most outrageous costumes, have to do with (our students’ business policy) presentations?

Appearances notwithstanding, carnival in Rio is serious, highly lucrative business that generates millions of dollars of revenue based on ticket sales, TV broadcast, and advertising, which heats up the tourism industry in Rio- this year the city of Rio de Janeiro attracted one million people for the carnival week. So the real question I am asking is how could we get our students (not just in BPL) to approach and carry out their research and presentation as professionally as Carnival in Rio is? Please bear with me and read further before you think I’ve gone nuts.

Maybe some of you took notice a couple of weeks ago of the event of the year in Brazil – Carnival, especially in Rio de Janeiro. Being personally connected to Brazil, I get to watch some of it yearly. Every year I also learn a bit more about the history of this tradition, its contradictions, as well as rules of the “samba schools” competition. Most foreigners are not fully aware of the fact that the Carnival in Rio we get to see in the media is a fierce competition among community-based organizations called Samba schools with very strict rules and rigorous evaluation criteria. Samba schools comprise several divisions, or leagues, where the champion of the second division moves up to the first division and the last place in the competition moves down one division (this year two schools were severely damaged by fire only one month before the carnival so those get to stay in the division for another year, therefore exceptionally, next year there will be 14 school competing).

National TV broadcasts the two-day (actually, night) competition of the first division in which twelve Samba Schools compete, six on Sunday and six on Monday during the 3-day holiday. Samba schools prepare the whole year for an 80-minute presentation in a specially built stadium that Brazilians call the “sambadrome” – a parade of 3-4,000 participants distributed through distinct floats, including a percussion ensemble of about 250-300 members. This event attracts a mix of professionals and volunteers, usually people from community, but also a large number of people from other neighborhoods (including many middle class and affluent cariocas—how people from Rio are called), as well as tourists from other Brazilian states and from abroad.

What is the competition about?

Each samba school chooses a theme for the year, which must be developed during their presentation (parade) for which a samba song must be written and performed by the entire school (a team of professional singers, many of whom develop commercially successful careers as samba singers in the local industry). Every participating school has exactly 80 minutes for their presentation and must exit the gates of the stadium at the 80th minute or they lose 0.1 point for each minute they are delayed. Schools are rarely late and the fact that one of them was 10 minutes late this year amounted to a scandal–the last time a school was significantly late was in 1992, which is almost shocking to me given that Brazilian culture is lax about time and people are frequently late for appointment. There are 10 criteria independently evaluated by judges- each criterion is judged by 4 judges who watch the schools presentations in isolated boxes with no discussions among them. The judges are chosen by a committee composed of city officials and members of the independent league of the schools of samba, the latter representing all the schools. The lowest score is dropped to avoid big discrepancies and prevent against bias. As the competition grew fiercer in the last 3 decades, it is usually a difference in decimal points that decides the championship.

The primary aspect of the competition is the theme the school chooses, its concept and development. In other words, each samba school tells a story on the street (the sambadrome is a street in the center of Rio that was converted into a permanent stadium that comprises several buildings where public schools function during the school year). Some of the most important criteria for evaluation are evolution (the flow of the parade and theme development), samba (lyrics, music, dance, and audience response to it), harmony (how the whole hangs together, including how the song connects with theme presentation and the enthusiasm of participants), and costumes. In sum, it seems that coherence, cohesiveness is key to success in this type of presentation, how all the elements seamlessly connect with one another. The theme must be conceptualized and developed through dance, each float’s costume (members of a float wear the same costume, including hand and headgear, which represents one element of the story), and incredibly elaborate movable platforms (huge cars) that look like Broadway sets. This year some of the themes were Rio in films in, the mystery of life, agriculture in human history, hair and its role in culture, mystery in film (which included reference to Hollywood films), and Nelson Cavaquinho, one of the most popular samba songwriters and founder of one samba school. My personal favorite explored Darwin and evolution. Here’s a look:

This year championship went to Beija-flor (literally, “hummingbird”) whose theme was a tribute to the life and four-decades career of Roberto Carlos, the romantic Latin American singer who has sold millions of records.

Importantly, every school composes a new samba (lyrics and music are evaluated) which is presented by “Bateria” the most important part of the proceedings that includes band with percussion instruments, many of which originally developed in Rio by the first “sambistas” former slaves or their descendants and poor immigrants that lived in the slums of Rio in the 1920s and 30s—this was the time when samba was established as an original urban popular musical genre distinct from other musical manifestations that share Afro-Brazilian roots.

Obviously, the champion does usually well in all the criteria. However, what usually defines the championship is an aspect that although it is not officially evaluated, it influences all other criteria: the reaction and participation of the audience, or how well the school communicates with the audience.

Watching the carnival from NYC I was constantly reminded that it is nothing like being there for real. But what I was able to observe and understand even from the indirect and somewhat distorted and incomplete experience of watching the Carnival made me think of our students’ presentations and I asked what makes a good school samba presentation? What seems to work is a well conceptualized, organized, and balanced story, with a strong message that is relevant to the audience. Endless practice, good preparation and commitment to the team are a must. All the hard work seems to translate into seemingly effortless and spontaneous performance.

And, finally, they absolutely have fun with it.

So posing the initial question what does Brazilian Carnival have to do with (our students’) presentations? It only makes me conclude that, well, maybe we wish the presentations were a bit more like Carnival in Rio.

Refreshing News: Business Schools With a Social Appeal

I have just came across this article “Business Schools With a Social Appeal” in New York Times which I find very refreshing and hopeful considering the frequent feeling of disappointment and frustration when working with our students and observing their views and understanding of business as entirely ‘money making’ enterprise.

Hopefully we will get to see and experience such a ‘paradigm shift’ also at Baruch, and we as Communication Fellows (and citizens of this world) can also be part of such change. I guess that could be a worthwhile question for discussion: What can we as Communication Fellows (and most of us with no-business background) do to contribute to transforming Baruch as a socially conscious business school?

Can (cyber)bullying be prevented by teaching about (cyber)bullying?

At least four youths have taken their lives nationwide this month following incidents of anti-gay bullying and harassment. A New Jersey college student jumped to his death from a bridge last week after two classmates broadcast a videotape of him having sex with another man in his dorm room. The students had recorded Tyler Clementi’s sexual encounter without his knowledge. The eighteen-year-old Clementi had just started his freshman year at Rutgers University. In California, thirteen-year-old Sean Walsh died on Tuesday, nine days after a suicide attempt left him on life support. In Texas, thirteen-year-old Asher Brown died last week following months of alleged bullying. Brown’s family says he revealed he was gay shortly before taking his own life. And in Indiana, fifteen-year-old Billy Lucas hung himself earlier this month after also being bullied by classmates.
– Headlines news from Democracy Now!, September 30, 2010

I was petrified to learn about the recent cases of suicide by teenagers that were results of intensive bullying. The thought of children as young as thirteen committing suicide is beyond tragic. All cases included cyberbullying, the most obviously in the last case of Tyler Clementi.

There have been several articles about the case in The New York Times. Most of these articles provide a description of the events that led to the tragedy, the debate about responsibility of involved students in recording and posting an incriminated video online, and the response of Rutgers university officials before and after the tragic death of the student. The New York Times also hosts an online discussion about whether “[…] the death of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers student, argue[s] for tougher laws against malicious acts online.”

The contributors are predominantly lawyers, but also psychologists and a “researcher in cyberbullying.” Their responses include quite a variety of opinions. For instance, some put forth a strong opposition to treat this case as a criminal case, while others talk about difficulties in coming up with well defined laws on cyberbullying. One of the contributors, John Palfrey, a professor at Harvard Law School, believes that the issue is not only to have adequate laws but the tools to enforce it and sees solutions ‘beyond the law’. He proposes the “blended approach of outreach, education, and enforcement of the law.” Specifically, Robert Treston from Anti-Defamation League suggests that “schools must develop strategies to teach children about cyberbullying and its impact, mechanisms for prevention and response need to be established, and everyone in our schools must be trained. All of this needs to be in place before an incident occurs.”

Importantly, several of the contributors pointed out the power and perseverance of cyberbullying as the victim can be attacked continuously 24/7, via several media (e.g. email, text message, social networks, chat rooms, etc) without the necessity of direct physical contact. Furthermore, the humiliation of the victim can be witnessed by endless number of individuals online almost instantly. It seems that it is the inescapable, relentless power of cyberbullying that overwhelmed these four teenagers in the last month to the point of total desperation that felt that could only be escaped by taking their young lives.

I tend to agree and support the calls for education for students, teachers and school administrators about bullying, and cyberbullying in particular. However, I am not sure how exactly one goes about it. How can bullying be prevented? How do we instruct youth in how to protect themselves from bullies? And how do we make them effectively follow those instructions? I believe that bullying can only be approached within its context, that there is no such thing as “bullying” per se. Bullying always occurs in the social context of the relationship between a bully and his or her victim, and there are several ingredients to bullying.  First, there are reasons why a bully wants and has the need to exercise his or her power against the potential victim. Second, a victim of bullying is perceived as “having” the “weak” or “bullyiable” characteristics on which bullying is developed. Third, the social context that enables and can even facilitate or intensify bullying.

In the cases of these children and young man the bullying was based on anti-gay prejudices and the victims’ “weakness” happened to be their homosexuality to the extent that they themselves were made to believe it to be a reason they deserve to die for.

So although I support education on bullying, I am thinking about its meaning and effectiveness without addressing what seems even more fundamental and burning issue; its context and the reasons and conditions for bullying. If we do not question and educate ourselves in how society (and its communities) create beliefs, practices and prejudices that enable to see e.g. same-sex attraction and relationships as punishable, undesirable or worth of ridicule, we cannot effectively fight anti-gay bullying.