Adopting User Manuals for Self-Advocacy and Empathetic Learning
by Anthony Clemons - February 18, 2021
Discovering the norms and preferences of college faculty members is a nebulous task for students who want to know how to effectively communicate and collaborate with them. Without guidance and constant interaction, it can take months or years to learn these characteristics, which can frustrate the efficient application of interpersonal skills. Leaders in several industries have adopted user manuals to communicate individual personality trends, positive/negative characteristics, and projects under way, which serves to reduce the time and friction that team members may otherwise associate with a project. This commentary proposes that college faculty members adopt and maintain a user manual as part of their syllabi and outlines an eight-step example. By communicating their needs and limitations from the outset, faculty members will promote a culture of empathy and self-advocacy and raise student awareness of how radical transparency can foster a positive work environment following college.
In 2013, author and executive mentor Adam Bryant published an article in the New York Times titled, Want to Know Me? Just Read My User Manual. In the article, Bryant interviews Ivar Kroghrud, the former CEO of the software firm QuestBack, to learn more about his leadership style. Here is an excerpt from that exchange:
Q. What else [can you tell us] about your leadership style?
A. I developed a one-page user manual so people can understand how to work
Q. Can you give some examples of what it says?
A. I am patient, even tempered and easygoing. I appreciate straight direct
communication. Say what you are thinking, and say it without wrapping your
Kroghruds approach is unique for leaders in most industries. Reflecting on my own experience, I have rarely been given advice, much less a user manual, for how to effectively communicate and collaborate with a manager without asking. This initially made it hard for me to connect with Kroghruds approach and to see how this could add much value. But Kroghrud manifests the relevance of his approach by explaining its genesis.
It made sense to me because Ive always been struck by this sort of strange approach that people take, where they try the same approach with everybody [sic] they work with, Kroghrud began. But if you lead people for a while, you realize that its striking how different people are. . . . So I tried to think of a way to shorten the learning curve when you build new teams and bring new people on board.
Kroghruds user manual approach also seemed to work especially well in another industry that is constantly engaging new team members on new projects: management consulting. In the first season of his podcast WorkLife, Adam Grant (2018), a professor of organizational psychology at the University of Pennsylvanias Wharton School, interviewed Or Skolnik, a partner at Bain & Company, to ask about how personality plays into managing new teams.
We are doing a new project every few months with a new team, and so the ability to get a new team up to speed very quickly and kind of get over the initial hurdles of working styles is extremely important, said Skolnik.
To shorten the learning curve, Skolnik gives his team a one-page overview of how to work with him, much like Kroghrud does with his team. However, Skolnik takes the approach a step further by asking people he previously worked with to write the overview and to include descriptions of his personality, effective ways to work with him, what he does well, what he does not do well, and what he is working on. When Grant asked Skolnik whether he removes comments he does not like, Skolnik responded, No. The truth is, something I do that might be annoying to one team member is actually the best part about working with me to another team member. So, I think, again, its all about just saying, lets have a conversation about it to figure out how we can be most productive.
Reading Kroghruds Times interview and then listening to Grants podcast episode made me think of another profession with many experiential overlaps: higher education.
Consider the start of a typical on-campus pre-COVID-19 semester. Legions of students descend onto campuses across the country to voluntarily pit themselves into the familiar environment of the classroom and to be intellectually shepherded by a selection of unfamiliar guides: professors. Each professor has a unique arrangement of preferences, tics, tendencies, and intangible norms that students are otherwise oblivious to and are likely fearful to even ask about. Meanwhile, the life of a professor is one filled with unique scholarly pursuits, interesting reading and listening lists, and other collaborative events that students are likely not even aware of. However, gaining that awareness usually only happens with trial and error, months or years of classes, office hour check-ins, and unplanned interactions. Only then may students hope to glean enough insight to understand how to meaningfully interact with their professorspeople with whom they will likely spend more time with than their own family each week.
Given the efficiencies that Skolnik and Kroghrud described with their one-page user manual, it seems irrational for students to simply rest their hopes on the traditional modes of cyclic and serendipitous interactions when the norms that take so much time to discover can be acknowledged on the first day of class. But that is not what usually happens.
Instead, the ubiquitous intervention of choice for communicating expectations is the syllabus. In thousands of courses each semester, professors distribute this contract with the student to explain the essential elements of their courses, break down whos who and whats what, and list the instructional norms and learning outcomes they expect the students to carry forward (DiYanni & Borst, 2021). And although the syllabus can be helpful in setting course norms, DiYanni and Borst (2021) wrote in their new book, The Craft of College Teaching: A Practical Guide, that a syllabus has much more potential than only being a checklist of basic course information on college teaching.
It sets the tone for your course and conveys an impression of you as an instructor (p. 30), wrote DiYanni and Borst (2021). One aspect of that impression is the voice with which you present yourself to your students. This makes the syllabus a rhetorical document as much as a potential apparatus for setting the conditions for effective interaction, regardless of the instructional environment they find themselves teaching in.
Given the pandemic, the need for students to understand how to digitally interact with a professor is even more vital because of the lack of in-person context clues. Compared to face-to-face learning environments, online learning negates the social presence (Rovai, 2002) and nonverbal cues (Culnan & Markus, 1987) that professors become accustomed to when teaching face-to-face. This means that professors can leverage the syllabus as an informational tool for their pedagogical expectations and as a user manual for the student so they can mitigate potential friction points in how to effectively interact.
So, what does a user manual for a professor look like? Abby Falik (2017), founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year, created an outline of topics she felt would help others better understand how to interact with her. I have adapted her outline for more academic utility:
What my personality and teaching style are like
What I value
What I do well/do not do well
What I dont have patience for
How to best communicate with me
How to help me
What people misunderstand about me
What I am interested in and working on
Much of this can be extracted from individual teaching philosophies, but the other topics require constant reexamination. By keeping this updated, though, the list remains extremely instructive for students who struggle to connect and interact with others, and it gives them the autonomy to know how to mitigate potential friction points and to more effectively communicate with their professors. In online learning, being able to effectively communicate is especially important for mitigating the transactional distance between the student and the instructor. In Moores (1997) theory of transactional distance, however, the quality of communication is prized over frequency, which lends gravity to how much the information from a user manual can help in improving the quality of the dialogue between a professor and student.
From a professors point of view, a user manual like this is an exercise in emotional intelligence and radical transparency. No one likes admitting their faults or being open with their struggles, but in doing so, professors innately become a partner for their students by dispensing with the silliness of waiting for students to figure out how they tick. A user manual also promotes a culture of self-advocacy and self-care, where professors can establish expectations and boundaries around their capabilities; this sets the conditions for students to exercise more empathy and to feel more comfortable being honest with themselves. In the long run, though, a user manual sets a professional bar for students as they begin their postcollege professional lives.
If only they had that one-page user manual to know what their manager needs, they would be set.
Bryant, A. (2013, March 31). Want to know me? just read my user manual. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/31/business/questbacks-lead-strategist-on-his-user-manual.html
Culnan, M. J., & Markus, M. L. (1987). Information technologies. In F. M. Jablin, L. L. Putnam, K. H.
Roberts, & L. W. Porter (Eds.), Handbook of organizational communication: An interdisciplinary perspective (pp. 420443). SAGE.
DiYanni, R., & Borst, A. (2021). The craft of college teaching: a practical guide. Princeton University Press.
Falik, A. (2017, July 27). Leaders need user manualsand what I learned by writing mine. LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/leaders-need-user-manuals-what-i-learned-writing-mine-abby-falik
Grant, A. (Host). (2018, March 21). Your hidden personality [Audio podcast episode]. In WorkLife with Adam Grant. https://www.ted.com/podcasts/worklife
Moore, M. (1997). Theory of transactional distance. In D. Keegan (Ed.), Theoretical principles of distance education (pp. 2238). Routledge.
Rovai, A. P. (2002). Building sense of community at a distance. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 3(1). http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/79/152
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