Faculty Spotlight

March Faculty Spotlight with Associate Professor, Don Waisanen


How does improv performance relate to public affairs and administration? Communications expert Don Waisanen tells us about the overlap between these two seemingly disparate disciplines and more in this month's faculty spotlight.

What do you feel is the most pressing issue in the U.S. for 2020?
Following the work of Barnett Pearce, I believe that while humanity’s exponential advances in areas such as technology, scientific research, and more have been astronomical, our understandings and practices for communication have not followed suit—and that is by far the biggest issue the U.S. and the world currently face. In other words, too many people think and act with crude, simplistic models of communication that prevent them from working well with diverse others, being honest about what they know and don’t know (which requires others), and most of all, breaking beyond habitual behaviors and thought patterns to operate more effectively with others. Despite a wealth of knowledge and practice about what does work, we have not embedded and scaled sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and productive forms of communication across societies that will move human evolution to a far higher level.

You see the impact of this problem in just about every area, from climate change (where there’s scientific consensus, but forms of communication rooted in tribalism, confirmation biases, and more continue to prevent an understanding of the issue’s seriousness) to social media (where the architectures of these technologies increasingly have led to the same types of echo chambers and group and identity loyalties that are all too familiar in human history, and that prevent honest exploration and debate over political issues, etc.).

Until our educational systems and civic institutions, in particular, can put in place the patterns and frames of communication that promote genuine learning and exploration, which remain deeply concerned about facts and evidence yet are highly attentive to varying interpretations and diverse stories, politics can only continue to promote inequities, exclusions, and the problems that we see all around us.

You have a few new research projects going on. Can you tell us about the most interesting bits?
I have several works in progress, but I’m most excited about two new projects. The first is a book coming out later this year, Improv for Democracy: How to Bridge Differences and Develop the Communication and Leadership Skills Our World Needs. In the last two decades I’ve been involved in improvisational theater, which started out as a fun hobby but over time has completely overlapped with my professional work in public communication, leadership development, and civic engagement. Amid the social and political crises of our time, I started finding that many programs seeking to bridge differences between citizens were drawing from this surprising field. From building relationships between police and civilians in conflict to teaching youth in afterschool programs to collaborate and develop resilience, improv is being used around the world to train people to engage with one another in ways that promote empathy and understanding.

Following these stunning cases, the book will show how improv-based teaching and training methods can provide a foundational education in democratic practices. It details specific exercises and thought experiments that can be used by educators of all kinds, advocates for civic engagement and civil discourse, practitioners and scholars in communication, leadership, and conflict management, training and development specialists, administrators looking to build new curricula or programming, and professionals seeking to embed productive, sustainable, and socially responsible forms of interaction in and across organizations.

Whether someone is looking to promote dialogues in a playful spirit, to get their technically brilliant team to become more adaptable to the challenges of working with diverse human beings, or to ditch typical educational methods such as slideshow lecturing to teach the same content with more engaging and interactive techniques, my hope is that the book will become a core resource for such individuals and groups. It ultimately offers a new approach for helping people become more creative, heighten awareness, think faster, build confidence, operate flexibly, improve expression and governance skills, and above all, think and act more democratically.

In a second project underway, I’m creating a theory of leadership for the next generation of nonprofit professionals, and developing a short book on the topic currently titled Leadership Standpoints. A host of research concludes that rising professionals need leadership development. In the nonprofit sector, however, leadership development has long been difficult to address given tight budgets and limited resources. Having observed firsthand the impact that such programs leave on their participants and alumni, I’ve long thought about leadership, particularly from the perspective of communication practice. One of the primary recommendations from a program evaluation of the first few years of the New York Community Trust Leadership Fellowship—an incredible certificate program run between the Marxe School and the New York Community Trust—was for a theory of leadership to be developed for the program and those like it.

The project provides an overview of historical and contemporary leadership literatures, analyzes the fellowship’s data and materials over the program’s first five years, provides comparisons and contrasts with similar leadership training programs, reveals findings from  interviews with a random sample of program alumni, uses computer-aided textual analyses searching for patterns in language about nonprofit leadership, and incorporates extensive feedback from program stakeholders, academics, and practitioners at nonprofits in New York to construct a framework for professional application.

How has your approach to teaching evolved during your time at the Marxe School?
I should start with what hasn’t changed in the ten years I’ve now been at the Marxe school. Teaching Marxe students at all levels (undergraduate, graduate, executive) is an utter joy, I feel incredibly fortunate to be here. I find myself energized, challenged, and ever curious to learn from our students. This environment also affords a unique opportunity to translate cutting-edge work from interdisciplinary fields to our students’ personal and professional lives.

What has changed is that I’ve moved to far more experiential teaching (you might even call it group training or coaching), decentered my role in the classroom more than ever, and have developed out new courses stemming from what I’ve heard students need in their work–most recently through special topics courses I’ve offered in strategic storytelling and conflict management and negotiation. Given the improv book and all I’ve read about how students best learn anything, what’s clear to me now is that the best forms of teaching in subjects such as communication should first involve experiencing concepts first, and intellectualizing about them later, rather than vice versa. For example, if I’m teaching about bad habits in listening, it’s far better to have students do an exercise that surfaces their bad listening habits first (the most persuasive person in our lives is ourselves, after all) and then debrief on these habits and ways forward, rather than me lecturing on listening practices via a slideshow that may engage students’ minds but ultimately not translate to their real life, sustained practices.

As such, I’ve found myself traveling from the front to the back of the classroom more over time. I think one of the best metaphors for teaching is the “director of a play.” Good directors certainly provide direction, but only step forward or back as needed to let their actors (in this case, students) shine. I want to see students growing and developing in every class. Doing so also spotlights the fantastic diversity for which our school is known—everyone should feel included and engaged.

What are you teaching during the spring semester?
I’m teaching a Master’s in International Affairs course in Global Communication, one of the core courses in the program where we help students advance their professional communication skills, but also do a lot of intercultural communication training for the types of careers many of them will be involved in (e.g. diplomacy). I’m also running an Executive Master’s in Public Administration course in Communication Strategy, which moves students from reactive to proactive internal and external communication strategies in leading public sector organizations. Last, I’m teaching a short course in the Executive Master’s in Business administration program called Improv for Leadership (I’ve run this course with MPA students in the summer), an entirely practice-based class that combines improv with adaptive leadership theory—the students spend every class on their feet learning leadership skills through various games and exercises that help them manage the unexpected (the part of leadership not typically addressed in any formal curriculum), engage in excellent communication skills, and generate ideas with greater speed, focus, and responsiveness to others.