Faculty Spotlight

January’s Faculty Spotlight with Assistant Professor, Don Waisanen

January Faculty Spotlight

As a scholar of rhetoric and political communication, Assistant Professor Don Waisanen seeks to understand how communication works to promote or hinder citizens’ voices in public affairs. In his research, he examines a range of topics and questions exploring how specific media messages widen or narrow space for public debate, whether comedians such as Jon Stewart encourage political cynicism or engagement, and what role citizens’ talk about religion plays in policy development. We speak to Don about the role of humor as it pertains to communications, politics, and education.

Tell us about your seminars on leadership and humor. How do these two things serve each other?
While still unknown to much of the public, research in the past two decades has underscored that positive forms of play and humor can help people reduce stress; defuse conflict; reason more critically; increase creativity; improve emotional intelligence and communication skills; and become more resilient, adaptable, and optimistic in the face of life’s challenges. What leader doesn’t need these? Dwight Eisenhower once said, “a sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done”—and he was a president. These also happen to be some of the qualities employers most seek in the workforce, but for many historical reasons have been downplayed in our educational system. Public affairs demands creative, flexible thinkers and actors to invent solutions to the planet’s problems. Along these lines, one of my current seminars and research projects connects the tools and values of improvisational comedy training—proven to help students think faster, build confidence, and improve expression and interpersonal skills—with what Heifitz, Linsky, and Grashow call the hands-on art of “adaptive leadership.”

What do you attribute to what you’ve referred to as the “increasing role of comedy in public culture?”
Over the last three decades, the lines between politics and entertainment have dissolved in the U.S. Among those who look at these trends, it’s been common to say that when presidential candidate Bill Clinton played his saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show in the early 1990s, public affairs and popular culture came together as never before. This was partly true, but in recent research I’ve found these lines go back even further. John F. Kennedy appears to have been the first president to turn the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech into a stand-up style monologue, and of course, past presidents like Abraham Lincoln were known for their joke telling. What’s new is the reach and impact of comedy in public culture. Many citizens now get their political news exclusively from programs like The Daily Show. During elections we filter whatever information we think we know about a candidate through Saturday Night Live sketches. And our media system now tends to circulate content with entertaining value before other types. Will Rogers once summed it up best in noting: “Everything is changing. People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke.”

What’s so funny about public affairs?
Comedy shouldn’t be the only way of looking at public affairs, but it can perform a valuable, democratic service in getting human beings to see the world from more than one perspective. When we find something funny, like the punchline of a joke, it’s because of the surprise that comes with being forced to see a person, event, or situation in another, unusual way. Take Stephen Colbert’s nine years at the helm of the Colbert Report, for instance, in which his character asked us to see many of the truths espoused by media pundits as assertions, half-truths, or outright lies. All forms of fascism attempt to shut down debate, deliberation, and dialogue, imagining that only one interpretation or way of speaking matters. That’s good grounds for what’s funny about public affairs, since comedy generally provides us with a second perspective on what we failed to see as hypocrisy, overstatement, or other flaws that fail democratic values.

You have roots in communications, politics, and improvisational comedy. Are your classes for aspiring stand-up comedians, political leaders, or communications professionals?
My classes are for anyone who wants to advance their communication skills and knowledge. I’m most interested in working with students aspiring to public sector work, as the communication problems of public affairs are, arguably, more pressing and consequential than any other arena. Political leaders often face the challenge of communicating with far more stakeholders than corporate leaders. Nonprofits have to be smarter with their communication practices, given their limited budgets. Even healthcare and education professionals need to make effective cases for their organizations in the midst of changing legislatures and potential resource cuts. But I also love working with people from any background. I learn so much from my students in this line of work, I’ll never be bored!

How has the School of Public Affairs helped you achieve your goals?
In general, I’m fascinated with new ideas or methods for improving public discourse and the practices that can promote genuine participation in a democratic society. The School of Public Affairs has been the perfect environment for exploring and exercising these goals—I love seeing our students gain new communication skills and knowledge while, in turn, I find that my projects have been made sharper by the wonderfully diverse experiences and insights my students bring to the classroom. I’m also inspired by our incredible faculty. Conversations with other scholars of sociology, political science, economics, and related fields at the school have helped me discover new avenues for inquiry and collaboration on projects involving communication and immigration, journalism, budgeting, and more.