Ep. 2 | Learning Outside of the Classroom (with Barbara Tannenbaum)
8:20PM Sep 27, 2023
This is learning through experience. I'm Heidi Brooks. And today I'm interviewing Dr. Barbara Tannenbaum. And that Barbara in my first year in college when I was a student at Brown, I was so excited to be on the campus and discovering the energy of independence, I had gone to a wonderful and relatively strict High School. And so college felt like a completely new lease on life. And Barbara was one of these renowned professors on campus that you had to sign up years in advance to take her course. And she was kind of a legend on campus for her course. And for the thing that I did at her house, which was basically women gathering in her living room that she did really on a more personal basis, to claim their voices and protect their bodies on a campus that was all about student directed learning. And so she was really fundamental to my understanding of how to be a college student, in my own way, with a sense of agency and power and freedom and invitation to take up the world and cultivate the conditions where I could learn to be myself. Robert earned her PhD in communications from the University of Massachusetts and our Ma and BA from Syracuse University. Since then, she spent her entire academic career working at Brown University. She teaches courses in public speaking and persuasive communication in the Department of Theatre Arts and performance studies. As a senior lecturer. In this interview, it's easy to see why she's a woman who has the courage to be herself and encourages others to do the same. She learned from her students, something that I always aspire towards in my classroom, I'm so delighted to be able to introduce you to Barbara Tannenbaum. So here we are. So where were you born? And how did you like get to brown? Those are the those are the eight years that I know to ask you about?
Sure, well, where I was born, is a question that I think I have an answer to, from what my birth certificate says, I was born in Paterson, New Jersey, I got the first copy of my birth certificate or my OBC original birth certificate. About two and a half years ago, because I was adopted, there's still a lot of mystery about who I was born to. And even if any of that information as to when I was born is true. There are names on my birth certificate. And when I got it from the state of New Jersey, there was a page of warning that if I did not have a named birth father, it would be listed as bastard. So we have a long way to go in the field of adoption. And one of the things that was so important about my being adopted, is that and how I got to who I am today, is that allowed me the chance to see myself in a more generic way, realizing the accident of birth, and how that might change who I was and how I was regarded. And it gave me empathy for people from all different backgrounds. Because the shaggy song is it wasn't me, my approach was, it could have been me, it could have very much been me in so many ways. And so the old adage that we think about that this, this idea that we're all who we are from birth, is not exactly true. It's how we grow. It's who we grow with. It's how people react to us. And it's given me empathy, to think about people in a much closer way, in a much more connected way, I believe, than having grown up in a very structured way of this is your heritage and your great grandparents came from such and such. As a matter of fact, today, I got a picture of someone who may likely be my birth mother is the first time I've ever seen her. And imagine if you would, growing up never seen anyone who looked like you, who you felt was part of your biological connection, if you will. It gave me an openness to the world and an intensity and love and joy of encountering all different kinds of people. So it also gave me the impetus to adopt my children rather than to birth them, because I wanted them to know that they were first choice and not because I couldn't do my other choice in terms of birth in them. And so I'm working now on a TEDx talk for brown on breaking down some of the myths and some of the language that's used against adoptees in terms of reinforcing the idea that we are not has value arguable that maybe there is a genetic bias to the world that my genes are better than the ones I might arbitrarily get if I took a child who wasn't my own.
Wow, that was like that. I mean, there's so much on what you said that I want to, that I want to respond to. But me just just just going back a little bit to the, to the to the word bastard. It's just so intense, these kind of linguistic anchors that reflect an ideology that we're living with.
Absolutely. And as an adoptive parent, I'm often asked, Do I have a quote of my own? Do I have real children? And those questions are so embedded illegitimate out of wedlock. wedlock is a frightening concept in and of itself, right. But all of that language that people don't think about natural children, I've been told, as if somehow taking care of kids who need homes is unnatural. And the other side of that is called unknowable I am to do this, as if, again, I've taken the leftovers and the drags, and they're not fully human, in some ways, or fully deserving of homes like everyone else. And we've seen that in the language of we need to clear the shelters, we're almost always talking about animal shelters, when we don't talk about clearing to human shelters first.
I'm just listening to the courageous things that you were naming from your own personal experience and remembering you know, how much your voice was, for me in the form of, you know, professor on campus, who taught one of the impossible to get into hugely popular courses, such a reputation of being an influencer, we didn't have that language on campus, then. But it's it captures the spirit of someone who guided young lives. And when I, when I met you, and you spoke with such wisdom, from your personal experience mean, I was in a women's kind of empowerment group that met at your house, and you just walked the talk of what you believed in, and I'm just remembering how much you use your personal experience to motivate what it is that we should know about what it is we shouldn't that kind of act on and act into in the world?
Yes, I once I did some work with my first sabbatical with a group called Shakespeare and Company. And Kristin Linklater was the teacher. And the idea that when we are who we really are, we are fascinating. He talked about how if you're on a subway, and we could watch people forever, but you go to bad theater, and you see someone trying to be someone else, and you're easily displeased. So there is a light that shines forward from each of us, I believe, when we are authentically ourselves. I learned this also from a student of mine, who gave me a book called Mother night. And he said to me, Barbara, you teach persuasion, you need to be aware of this. And it says, We have to be careful as to who we are or what we are, because it has consequences. And so when we have to be especially aware of who we pretend to be, because those are even more severe consequences. And so, sharing ourselves with people being authentic is a brave act. I understand that. And I think often about the introduction on my syllabus, which talks about, I'm going to talk sort of generally about a quotation by Audra Lord about when we dare to have the courage to be who we are, it matters less and less whether or not we're afraid.
And I love that you bring out your librarian into the into the conversation it's a good a meaningful mention both the name of that, that you brought in and the content that you're that you're raising this kind of dairy to be ourselves in public.
Yes, I was lucky enough to hear her read from her work in person many years ago in Boston. And so compelling and, and finding and sharing that experience is something that I will never forget finding someone who truly was who she was in an unabashed way. And, and I learned a lot and being a teacher, I wanted people to know who I was, and they could reject parts of it. They could find anger with some of it. They could disagree with some of it, but they knew at least who I was.
I remember how much you blew my mind and kind of talking about the courage to be yourself and that there maybe we've had had some hard things happen in our lives or some things that in a social context we haven't made sense of. So I really identified with your story about being adopted not knowing the full story of yourself. And that in itself being its own that story, I didn't know at the time my biological father, and so appreciated your welcoming of that it could be a full and whole person who had questions about origin was a powerful message,
go notice it, maybe we'll find out where we're leaving.
Who knows, you know, I was one of your first babysitters. I was you know, there were a bunch of, I remember that I had a chance to be around, we I won't name the name the kids, it's up to you to how to handle that. That's why
I got their permission. Okay, I got there. So Molly, and John, who are such wonderful and unique individuals, and I'm so proud to be associated with them. And I absolutely believe that there is some sort of genetic connection that people really exalt in. But I also know that connections are made and families are made. And families of choice are important families, too. And they don't have to be limited to parents and children. There are many people who have stayed close to me and I have stayed close to them who are just as much my family in so many ways.
Wow. And then I was around in this in the kind of story and process of of John, which was an absolute experience for me, and then to, you know, hold him when he was a little baby with his beautiful brown skin. And just for me, that connected me to you even more.
So I can always tell people how beautiful my children are, because it's not conceited. I had nothing to do with it. But yes, they are very beautiful. And not to make you feel all tidy. But John got married during pandemic, the best wedding ever, only seven of us at the wedding before parents, the two of them and her twin sister. And one of the things I didn't know that is in Pennsylvania, you don't need because of the Quaker heritage, you don't need an officiant, there's no one telling you when to kiss what to think or anything. They said their vows they play strings on their fingers, we pop the champagne and had a backyard barbecue, best wedding ever.
So wonderful. So wonderful. So the it's been a very long time. So far since I've seen them they were babies and clearly are not any anymore. But it's you know, just a refers to how I spent time with you, which is very different than people might think, since you were a professor and I was a student and in our relationship and the education happened, you know, in through the university, but outside of the classroom walls.
And then the end, we are all students. And that's what I love about my job. I always said I'll stop teaching when I stop learning.
Yeah, I am still learning. So this this is the the this energy of learning through experiences is not only the point of the podcast, for me, it's like the beginning, middle and end of the point of most things, not learning I'm probably, you know, not really that interested. And so, for it's a core value that I also trace back to some early energy with it with, with with with you. So I thought we might be fun to talk a little bit about, you know, how you wound up teaching persuasion at at Brown and the, you know, incredible, you know, kind of demand for that course over so many decades. What does that what does that mean to you? How do you how do you make sense of that and the love and presence that you've given it?
I was the shy quiet girl growing up. I I had a secret. My parents told me never tell anyone that you're adopted. And that made me feel some shame and certainly some difference. And actually one of the my friends when I was about eight when I told her, she didn't want to be my friend anymore, the sleepover stopped, the visit stopped. And so I always thought they were protecting me, even from my own brother who didn't know until I was 18 that I was adopted. My brother and I are very close knit married one of my closest friends, and we continue to see each other and talk quite regularly. And coincidentally we found out through ancestry that five generations ago we truly were related in a genetic way, which was quite the coincidence. I don't think my parents ever knew that. But being shy and quiet all my report cards came home ideal student but quiet, quiet quiet. And when I started to jump around, and I was 22 years old and terrified. My parents said, Bobby, my family name, you're gonna get up in front of people and talk. And I thought, no wonder I have no self confidence about doing this. And I always felt a little different because I had the secret. And I think it allowed me also to connect with people who were forced to keep secrets, whether it was running a group insisted people, or whatever it might be, having not been through that experience, but having to hold a family secret. And so again, I thought, people need voice, people need connection and an outside of the classroom, I brought the first film on incest to brown started support groups for raping incest survivors, started Women on call because I'm a woman of action and not just of words, but I also growing up and being in college in the 60s, realize the power of words. And so I wanted to help others find voice, because the more voices the more beauty. So loops are lovely. But songs in concert with other voices have much more shading, if you will, in terms of their capabilities. And so in helping myself find voice as a teacher, I learned to model that for other people. And that was, for me more important to teach a skill than a body of knowledge, because I wanted to empower people. And I could do that by fighting on issues and all of that kind of thing. But I also grew from hearing the melodies than other students and other well, really, it was the students, I think that most universities are somewhat siloed, you probably know that too in your position. And unless you do meet people at meetings, which are generally pretty boring, and not conducive to interaction in a personal way, but it's the students who truly push my values and get me to go further. And so I wanted to hear their voices, I wanted to hear their experiences, which have been edifying and dramatic over the many years. And that built upon itself, seeing the magic of giving people voice and seeing the students get heavy about their power, once they found their own voice was a self reinforcing. situation. When I started at Brown, I was only teaching my persuasive communication class or public speaking, only one semester and one time a year. Now we have five sections each semester, and the demand is so high that there's a years on the waitlist. And the earliest someone signed up was after she got in with early admission, and before she matriculated. And I start each semester with how many of you have parents who took the class with me? And I often do sometimes they have both parents, sometimes it's a parent and an aunt or an uncle or sister or cousin. And I am touched by that, that the experience was so important to them, that that's the first thing they tell their their kids or offspring, if you will, I guess offspring is one of those genetic words, right? That they tell their own kids that this is important for them to do. And I wish that they didn't have to wait until senior year because it could change their college careers. I often have students stopped by my office hours, students who are not in my class, who tell me that they haven't spoken in any of their classes in four years of brown. And that makes me very sad, because then the knowledge stops with them. And what good is learning if the knowledge stops with us? I say that to scientists, I work now outside of the university with my consulting career, I'm working with the project to save the reefs, and with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and scientists often think that science should be sufficient, and Would that it were, and what I have to tell them is, if science were sufficient, we would all be vaccinated. If science were sufficient, we will be working harder on climate solutions. Though we need not only the science, we need ways of expressing the science that gets audiences to understand way back when I was in high school, maybe surprising to you my best subject Well, we didn't get hundreds in my public high school, but I got a 99 in geometry, and I loved proving congruence. How do I take one thing and prove it congruent with the other and that's what I've learned about delivering to audiences, finding a place where the audience's values and my values can meet. Because in the world now, we have so much dissent, and so many people who won't even listen or talk to each other. We expect people to come to us One of the tenants I use in my teaching is we need to meet people where they are not necessarily where we want them to be. And that's a hard lesson.
Why is it a hard lesson for people?
Because we think we're right. And we often make judgments about people who don't agree with us, rather than asking questions like, How did you arrive their questions similar to the one you just asked me? How did I arrive from the shy Playa girl to one who was not only speaking out as a teacher, but now gives lectures all over the world, I have now designed and or delivered programs in six continents. And that has given me a chance to learn about other people's values as well to learn that when I teach assertiveness and USA, Id asked me to design a program to teach women business owners in southern Africa, but Botswana and Namibia and Zambia, how to get bank loans and that kind of thing, that in Botswana, particularly the more assertive the women got, the more violence was done to them at home. So I had to learn about values that not only individuals but cultures promoted to understand that I talk about the idea in the US that you want to give a speech that might begin with what's in it for me. But in those communities, it's not what's in it, for me being the audience, it's what's in it for us, because it's a much more communal base. It's not about individual aggrandizement, as much as it is lifting a community. So designing programs delivering programs is about learning as much as it is about teaching.
Well, you know, I was, I was really struck by your, by the way you were talking about, not really being motivated to teach to inform, you know, tell people about things, but to really transform their capacity for voice. And so I wanted to come back to, to that a little bit, which is a, an energy of, you know, kind of, what do you teach for and towards to some hearing of cleanly.
My goal is to help every one of my students or each of my students to develop an authentic voice that they have confidence in, and that can portray their ideas and ideals with power. And in some cases, that means being what I call bilingual, yes, that the way that we talk to each other is fine. But they in some ways, also need to learn what I call power talk. Because what informed me in some ways, was what I heard in the language that was used in the late 60s, early 70s, about black people later was used against women who found voice, and it was the same language, you're too aggressive, you're too angry, you have no sense of humor, you need to learn patience. And so I thought, what better way for the people in power to keep power, then by using this power talk, and then when other people attempted it, to be told doesn't sound so good on you, honey. And so I'm not saying we need to learn to all talk like the people in power, but we need to get listened to by the people in power. And that change can work in many different ways. And in many different arenas,
what is power talk?
Power talk is to talk with certainty. There's a book called The Confidence Code, which quotes a study done by a professor at Berkeley that says, For many audiences, confidence is as important as competence, which is terrifying to those of us who teach competence, or at least that's our goal. But power talk is talk with confidence. And so I do confidence workshops every semester at the beginning of the semester, for my students to teach them how important it is that confidence both comes from the inside out. But it also could come from the outside in. So power talk is getting rid of the vocal non fluencies. The arms the ORS the US because they are distracting because they make people think we're less certain. And sometimes they make people think we're making it up. Mom, Dad, Dad, did you do drugs in college? And then they Yeah, all right. I'm gonna get a true answer here. Power talk is the willingness and I know that this is hard for neurodiverse people to make some neuro diverse people to make eye contact. Because if I'm not looking into people judge me often as less powerful to dress in a powerful way. And by that I don't necessarily mean expensive clothes, but there are data that show the darker the color that I wear. The more powerful I am seen to be, that's something I'm willing to do. And so those are the kinds of things that we are looking at when we talk about power talk, and times about how to be more persuasive communicators. It's making all of our communications more audience centered, not generic, but thinking what will move this particular audience and especially what will motivate them. So I tell my students at the beginning that my goal is to change their lives. And that becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, because they open up with that promise that they can grow. Ted Kennedy once told me that his brother Jack was not a good speaker until he got coaching. And that's the kind of thing that can make anyone a great speaker, I tell my students, they won't only be okay are good speakers, by the end of the semester, they will be great speakers. And that expectation, producing performance is something I read many, many years ago in a book called Pygmalion in the classroom by Robert Rosenthal, and how expectations get some people to go a lot further than they or maybe even the teacher ever thought they could have. And so I hold out the highest expectations for all of my students, and that helps them become more persuasive speakers.
It sounds like a lot of the suggestions that you're that you're you're making about speaking aren't just when you're kind of at a podium giving a talk. It's also a communication where people can with a little bit of coaching and guidance on some of the kinds of suggestions that you're making people can practice and learn through their everyday experience. How do we map?
Absolutely, absolutely. My first slide when I use slides is, and I've made this up, but it resonates with people is all speaking his public speaking, all speaking is public speaking, unless we talk to ourselves. And sometimes we answer ourselves is, but even then, sometimes we're overheard, and it becomes more public than we had hoped for. And so I tell students to practice in the every day, if they are, find a monitor, find someone who cares enough about them, who is willing to say, you don't need to do that anymore. I had the habit of talking about this, just mute that old horn, again, the shy, quiet girl, or maybe there's food in my teeth, or maybe I ate garlic, or there's something vulnerable about an open mouth in public. And I had two people who loved me enough, who said, you don't need to do that anymore. One was my brother who used in that endearing way that siblings do with each other his voice to say, Bobby, don't do that anymore, Bobby, you got your hand in front of your mouth. And then Cliff who who is my partner for life, who would not want to embarrass me, especially if there were other people around but would casually and surreptitiously take my hand and then hold it for the rest of the evening. So whether it is negative reinforcement, or we're positive reinforcement, we are so romantic, I don't do this anymore. And again, that goes back to power talk, I don't look powerful. If I do this, I don't look powerful. If I always tilt my head, I don't look powerful or sound powerful. If I'm always apologizing. I was taught to apologize so much. And this is true. And I'm not. I call myself a nice girl in recovery. But one of the things I used to do if I walked into a table was apologize to the table. And I was mentioning this I recently did something at the Albright Institute at Wellesley College. And I mentioned this and the young women laugh these are juniors and seniors who are chosen for this global program. And I thought, yeah, well, okay, that was my generation. And then one of the young women got up to speak, walked into a chair and apologize to the chair. So we're still unlearning. That's what I've told my daughter that as women, and again, it's not a binary, but that's how I identify myself. And that's how she identifies herself. As women age, each decade becomes easier. It's not about learning in that way. It's about the unlearning. And so we need to do both. We need to keep growing and learning and changing our goals and accomplishing them but unlearning some of the old habits that have been thrust upon us in one way or another, and freeing ourselves from that. So our voice has become stronger. We need to be heard. And sometimes that means not interrupting other people, but not being interrupted, now used to apologize if someone interrupted me, I'd say, oh, no, I'm sorry. You go ahead. Wait, I'm sorry, because you were rude. No, it doesn't work that way. I could say you know, so and so I'd love to hear what you have to say after I've finished or you know, so and so I've been waiting a long time to get in. And then also if I'm in A group and I noticed people who don't have strong voices for whatever reason, then usually there are cultural reasons, gender reasons, all kinds of reasons to say I think so and so has been trying to get in. And the metaphor I like to use here was when I was young, I used to jump rope. And there would be someone on either end of the rope. And once I got in, I could keep the rhythm, but getting in was hard for me. So sometimes one of my friends from either end would yell out, now, Barbara, and I could get in and keep the rhythm. And so I want to create those now moments for other people who have trouble getting in. Because finding the voice, sometimes making voice heard as well, and knowing when to get in. And so when students say I don't talk in my classes, I say, Okay, let's strategize one class this week, and do it early on in the class so that you don't fret about it, the whole class. And sometimes it's a question of waiting as a professor to see who is always got their hands up first, I did a seminar for middle school teachers of science. And they said, and I know this is a gender binary, and there's a lot more complexity to gender than just binaries. But they said, when they gave the questions to the students the night before, they got equal participation in terms of gender, but when they didn't, it took some of the girls longer to get in. And so we need to clear space, we need to open space. And we need them when we have that space to use our voices. Again, no matter how frightened we might be,
and love it and love the energy of teaching to create a different tomorrow, teaching for social change.
Absolutely, you know, child of the 60s or whatever, that's who I am. And, and we, we need to not get stuck, for goodness sake. And we certainly need not to move backwards. And in some ways, in some parts of what's going on. Now, I think there is a move backwards, to write more racism of all different sorts more anti semitism, which has become quite very violent. So yes, the world is in a mess. And it's not just the US there is all of those feelings about anti throughout the world right now, ultimately, in terms of war in Ukraine. And so we need more than ever to find those voices and hear them. And when we have opportunities to give people voice like Zelinsky in front of Congress, we need to listen very carefully to what they say.
So important. Thank you. Thank you, you know, because I teach in the context of other major business schools, sometimes people assume that I'm pro status quo, and I to teach for social change. And I, you know, hope for a future of where we live, work, play and pray, as I call it, that we actually want to be part of, and, you know, believe in the power of teaching and more importantly, learning to be able to create that kind of future even kind of a local version of that future replays that we that we can actually tie
absolutely one of the great gifts that Brown has given me an experience that changed my life was when I first started teaching at Brown in the fall of 1970. And it was a one year appointment. The chair of the English department my first eight years was spent in the English Department said that there is this what was then called the new curriculum now called the open curriculum. And one of the tenants is that we would like people to teach classes pass fail, or as we call it satisfactory, no credit. And unless you have a good reason to give grades, you should try it. Now here I was 22 years old, terrified, thinking if I let go of the stick of a grade, would people come to class? Would they put in the kind of effort that they needed to? Would they learn to become great speakers. And what I found was that the carrot of cooperation, of mutual support of giving each other confidence and listening carefully to each other, was so much more powerful as a motivator. And that everyone in the class became both a teacher by giving each other feedback and a learner and that they delighted and seeing each other's growth rather than oh damn, there goes another one. And now I won't get the A it's like, wow, they took my advice and look how well they're doing. And it's it's changed everything and in all of my 52 years of teaching and brown and counting, I've not ever had to give a grade. And again, it learning a skill. I believe strongly that we learn so much more cooperatively that we do competitively, and I am thankful to brown For that, I'm also thankful to brown because that same person gave me the two things I needed in a first job. They gave me freedom, teach what you want, and confidence. And we know that you'll do a great job. And the freedom gave me the chance to explore my passion and love of teaching in the way that I wanted to. It also gave me greater loyalty to staying where I was when other schools were interested in hiring me. And the confidence is what has given me the megaphone, if you will, to amplify my voice, to reach out to others. And there's no greater reward, as I'm sure you know, as a teacher, that did get feedback from others that they are now helping others find voice too.
That's part of the spirit of this conversation. I am in your lineage and legacy and I feel it in this conversation. I teach also a very kind of popular course. And at its best buy always think like if I could only get the impact that Barbara has had on on my life and somebody out there so I have this conversation with you with with with gratitude and appreciation and acknowledgement for my learning through experience with you in a way that I hope I pass on a little bit. Thank you so much.
Well, I know that you do Heidi and thank you too. It's always wonderful to reconnect or not reconnect, stay connected.
This has been an episode of learning through experience. I'm your host Heidi Brooks. This podcast is produced through Yale School of Management. The editor is Miranda Shaffer. Please like and subscribe to learn more through this experience with me and the perspective of the guests who join me to talk about learning our way through life more wisely.