Politics and the Virtues of Public Discourse

This year’s presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump has been described as many things: contentious, awkward, controversial, bizarre. But perhaps the best descriptor of this election is this: It’s personal. Like never before, Americans are vehemently debating, disagreeing and disrespecting each other on social media, and in person, in ways that cut at our moral core. It’s personal and political, which means things can quickly get out of hand.

Now imagine being a college student who is voting for the first time.  It’s as if you are wading hip-deep in a murky mess of political polarization, looking for the right candidate to pluck out. And with so much to disseminate, emotions are running high. Reasoned, mature voices who are modeling civility may seem few and far between to rookie voters navigating such muddy waters.

Vox Populi Logo

Enter Vox Populi — five forums featuring interdisciplinary panels organized by the Office of Student Development. Using the Hope-authored document called the Virtues of Public Discourse as a guide, Vox Populi, meaning “the voice of the people,” tackles weighty topics that revolve around this dramatic election and seasons them heavily with five virtues needed to make discussion and dialogue both respectful and constructive: humility, hospitality, patience, courage, and honesty.

“We are using our Virtues of Public Discourse document to frame each event because we have a responsibility to our Hope community to see this election in both a more intelligent and holistic way.”

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A Vox Populi panel discussion entitled “Could Honest Abe Make It in Politics Today? Why Politicians Lie and Why We’re Okay with It.”  From left to right, Dr. David Ryden of the political science department, Dr. Fred Johnson of the history department, Dr. James Herrick of the communication department, student director of Vox Populi Kathleen Muloma, and Chris Bohle of the student development office.

“We are not having CNN or Fox News screaming matches here,” said Chris Bohle, associate director of student life and main organizer of Vox Populi. “We are using our Virtues of Public Discourse document to start and frame each event because we have a responsibility to our Hope community to see this election in both a more intelligent and holistic way. That means we must help students see what being an informed voter, a critically thinking voter, and a civil voter should look.”

Vox Populi is student-driven, Bohle points out, as eight leaders from campus organizations* choose the topics very early in the academic year “that they needed and wanted to hear about.” Faculty and staff from various departments bring their experience to the panel discussions which have delved into party affiliation and Christianity, social media wars, post-truth politics, and politicized familial dissension.

Each of these tough topics seems somewhat more approachable within the intimate confines of the DeWitt Studio Theatre, when sagacious faculty and staff offer their expertise in both relational and concise ways. But it is the Virtues of Public Discourse that are the true stars and calming influence of Vox Populi. “If we set our gaze locally and exercise these virtues with our families and friends in our communities, then we can start to change the overall landscape because we’ve practiced in trying times,” said Dr. David Ryden, professor of political science and chair of the department.

So, talk politics and voice your views — remembering to be humble, hospitable, brave, patient, and honest — as if our nation depended on it.

“Do we need documents (like the Virtues of Public Discourse) to guide us?” asked Dr. James Herrick, the Guy VanderJagt Professor of Communication, at a panel on honesty in the election. “Yes, because these are not intuitive and we need reminders. Documents such as the Virtues of Public Discourse constitute us as a community and remind us of our standards when it feels inconvenient to live them out. Without such a statement of what we stand for, we run the risk of becoming a tactical community rather than a conversational one.”

The Virtues of Public Discourse fully engaged and on display in Vox Populi set an example for Hope students on how to civilly express their political views when all about them, bombastic and concerning conversations abound. Kathleen Muloma appreciated that most about the forums.

“Vox Populi has taught me that healthy, empassioned, educated conversations are possible,” observes Muloma, a sophomore chemistry major with a biochemistry emphasis and student director of Vox Populi. “We are not without hope for having honest discussions without pulling out hair or insulting the other person. Every time students attended, it reminded me that I am not alone in my desire for these healthy conversations, and that Hope students do want to talk about the controversial topics and are seeking opportunities to learn and get better in the context of the the Christian faith.”

Now with that hopeful sentiment, go ahead and talk politics, voice your views, and like Kathleen Muloma and others who have been enlightened by Vox Populi, remember to be humble, hospitable, brave, patient, and honest – as if our nation depended on it.

*Writer’s note:  Vox Populi’s topics and programming were the brainstorming and organizational results of the following students and these groups: Kathleen Muloma, Student Director; Derek Chen, Hope Republicans Representative; Irene Gerrish, Hope Democrats Representative; Joseph McClusky, Residential Life Representative; CJ Proos, Student Congress Representative; Julia Fulton, Political Science Department Representative; Terah Ryan, SAC Representative, and, Mark Brice, Assistant Director of Residential Life and Housing.

Laugh Just for the Health of It

It sounds like something Benjamin Franklin would have said, though it already had biblical roots (see Proverbs 17:22). Patch Adams meted it out in large dosages. Comedian Cocoa Brown claims it saved her life.

Now, some research has indeed proven that “laughter is the best medicine.”

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Dr. Jayson Dibble recently presented “Humor: Why Bother?” at Hope College as part of the fifth annual LaughFest

So said Dr. Jayson Dibble, an associate professor of communication at Hope, who gave LaughFest an academic shot in the arm on campus this week when he was given a mic to not so much be funny – though it turns out he’s a pretty punny guy – as to teach about why being funny matters.

It was Dibble’s third year teach-performing for the annually organized event, now in its fifth year, mostly staged in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and stocked with nationally recognizable stand-up and improv artists for 10 days. The event was created to honor the late Gilda Radner as well as to benefit Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids, a place where free emotional healthcare is provided to those fighting and smiling through any kind of cancer. LaughFest brings together diverse audiences every March “to honor laughter as an essential part of emotional health and well-being.”

That’s a motto and mission Dibble prescribes to, as well. Besides making us socially, intellectually, and emotionally well, “humor directly changes our physiology,” he says.

Laughter has been proven to relieve muscle tension, help release larger quantities of endorphins – the happy hormone – and it can even mitigate physical pain, according to one study. “But there’s a caveat. Its pain reducing effects occur after your exposure to humor,” said Dibble. “You’re not going to feel great as soon as you fire up Netflix (in order to laugh). You’re going to have to wait a little while.”

“We don’t have to train ourselves to laugh,” says Dibble. “We were all already born with funny bones. We just have to choose to use it.”

Another study Dibble cited showed that humor can lower one’s blood pressure… but only if you’re a woman. “If you’re a guy, not so much. From this correlational study where men and women self-identified themselves with having a good sense of humor, men who thought they were funny guys usually had a Type A personality and higher blood pressure. The women in the study had lower blood pressure levels.”

Really? Why? If laughter is universal, knowing no cultural bounds, shouldn’t it have universally positive effects regardless of gender? Perhaps, but what these researchers posit from this study is that there are gender differences in the ways women and men use their humor and thus there are differences in the ways it affects their blood pressure and stress. “Men, on average, tend to have more aggressive, sarcastic, or “bathroom” humor. Women, on average, use their humor to be more inclusive and accepting,” says Dibble who also teaches about and conducts comparative humor studies between Americans and Brits during a May Term called Humor, Communication,and Culture in Liverpool, England.

As for children, a study shows anxiety levels were lowered for those about to undergo extensive medical procedures when clowns showed up with their parents and doctors in the ER. Without a clown to clown around with, children’s anxiety levels went up.

“Though clowns can creep some people out, like me,” says Dibble, “for most of these kids, clowns made a difference in their health.”

Universal, free, contagious, and widely available, humor and its resulting laughter provide a myriad of positive effects in people and in all animals really. Even healthy chimps love to horse around, and, well, horses do, too.

“We don’t have to train ourselves to laugh,” says Dibble. “We were all already born with funny bones. We just have to choose to use them.”

So, go ahead. Laugh just for the health of it.

CFL and SHI: Partners in Ideas, Innovation and Leadership

A unique and collaborative partnership between Spectrum Health Innovations (SHI) in Grand Rapids and Hope College’s Center for Faithful Leadership (CFL) is providing opportunities for both parties to glean the benefits that any good partnership seeks to achieve: combining ideas and labor toward reaching desired outcomes. For professionals at SHI, the objective is to create technically-feasible and market-desirable health care products that meet the needs of patients and clinicians alike. For students at Hope, the goals are leadership development and experiential learning. It’s proving to be a win-win association.

“A liberal arts education is a journey that exposes students to different ways of thinking, to different possibilities in education and life.”

CFL students and mentors and SHI ideators and project managers have been working together since 2014 to create better health-care services in interdisciplinary ways. It is this convergence of teaching, learning, innovation, and scholarship that makes CFL and SHI perfect partners. SHI provides the ideas and technical input; CFL students provide the labor and processes to idea validation. To date, more than 70 students with majors in accounting, communication, management, philosophy, engineering, religion and computer science have tackled 10 challenges. The most recent include a schedule software project, a neonatal ETT (Endo-Tracheal Tube) holder project, and a device to load a wheelchair into the trunk of car. Each melds multiple perspectives and breaks down disciplinary boundaries—a demolishing of silos, if you will, that results in these partners doing work on one big idea farm.

A Hope professor’s effort to save his students money has led to a national award. Dr. Steve VanderVeen, professor of management and director of the Center for Faithful Leadership, is one of only eight professors nationwide recognized through the Faculty Recognition Textbook Scholarship Contest coordinated by the Used Textbook Association. He was honored for reducing students’ book-buying costs by choosing to use an earlier edition of a textbook that he feels continues to be just as relevant in the material it presents - pg 17
Dr. Steven VanderVeen, director of Hope’s Center for Faithful Leadership and professor of management

“A liberal arts education is a journey that exposes students to different ways of thinking, to different possibilities in education and life,” says Dr. Steven VanderVeen, director of CFL and professor of management. “Our partnership with SHI is about just that. It gives students from several different majors experiences to discern and develop their gifts and calling on their timelines. They get to learn this in college, not after they graduate. This is what drives CFL.”

The scheduling software project is headed up by Ben Schipper, a communication major and 2015 December Hope grad. Schipper and 12 others—professionals from SHI, CFL mentor Jim Cnossen, along with economics and computer science students—are working to eliminate the time demands associated with manually scheduling patients for numerous specialist appointments for in-patient rehabilitation. Department managers are currently spending hours using an old-school spreadsheet methodology to schedule patients’ therapies, but the new software will automatically generate a patient’s schedule instead. The goal of its creation is to save valuable staff time, time that could be spent otherwise caring for Spectrum Health patients.  Numerous months, meetings, and program iterations later, with assistance from Dr. Ryan McFall of Hope’s computer science department, Schipper and his team are close to auditioning a finished product within the next several weeks.

Ben at SHI with CPSC team
Ben Schipper (standing) leads a Report-Out meeting at SHI

Meanwhile, the neonatal ETT holder team, with assistance from Dr. Roger Veldman of Hope’s engineering department, hopes to debut a prototype by the end of this semester while the wheelchair-loading device team just got started on customer discovery research.

“Hope students have great dedication to their projects,” says Lori  Henry, a project manager at Spectrum Health Innovations. “They are motivated to have an impact to create real-life solutions. The highlight of the semester for me is hearing them present their findings at the report-out (a culminating presentation). I see their passion and it makes me excited about what we do.”

Hope is one of four colleges and universities in the region that partner with SHI. Each semester, VanderVeen meets with SHI leaders to determine if CFL will renew or exit the partnership. To each partners’ delight, the computer science and engineering departments have become directly involved with SHI, too.

“In the end, these collaborations are all about patients and people.”

“Regardless of the project,” says Scott Daigger, manager at SHI, “we focus on a couple goals. We want to work together with our college teams to find viable solutions to the ideas we have. That is foremost for us. We also want to help solve bigger problems that could benefit health care as a whole.”

“We’re educating students so they know what their gifts are,” says VanderVeen of CFL goals. “How do you know if you are good at something? You get involved and find out. It is the discernment of gifts and calling, alongside leadership integrity, that this partnership is all about.”

While many projects fail to move from idea to finished solution—supporting the statistic that less than 10% of all new notions actually see a validated end—the CFL-SHI partnership provides a 100% great experience rate for all parties involved.

Concludes Lori Henry, “In the end, these collaborations are all about patients and people.”

Breaks Away: Dede Johnston

sabbatical (n): a break from customary work to acquire new skills or knowledge, traditionally occurring every seventh year

Breaks Away: Sabbatical Stories of Hope
Each academic year, a number of Hope faculty take sabbatical leaves away from the college, submersing themselves for extended periods of time into their favored fields of inquiry. If viewed from above and all together, those fields would look like a calico landscape, so varied and colorful is the topography of their collective research, writing, and creative pursuits. Offering both restoration and adventure, sabbaticals are a bit like information and imagination transfusions. These breaks away from normal classroom and committee work give Hope academicians a boost to reinforce and revitalize their teaching and scholarship.

Spanish-speakers say “feliz.” The Japanese say 幸福, pronounced “kofuku.” In English, “happy” is the word. The delivery may change from language to language, but it is universally agreed upon that happiness means one thing: feeling or showing pleasure or contentment. So, it would seem, happy elucidation remains the same no matter where one lives – whether in Argentina, Honduras, Japan, or the United States, right? Well, maybe not. That’s what Dr. Dede Johnston, professor of communication, is finding out.

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Dr. Dede Johnston, professor of communication, happy at Hope and in the world

Happiness is a choice, psychologists say, but the ways we choose to be happy and how we express that joy can vary from the grandiose to the sublime across cultures. Taking a portion of her yearlong sabbatical to study happy emotions found in thousands of pictorial images of people in six countries, Johnston is quick to relay that what may seem simple to define is actually complex. Happiness does not have one common expression, though we usually think a simple smile will do. Instead, it is individually and culturally discovered and defined. For one person, happiness is simply a sunny day, but for another, it is a high-paying job indicative of a successful career. The individualized nature of the happiness definition, then, makes for a myriad of meanings that are multiplied again by the number of cultures expressing it, setting off a compare-and-contrast exercise of multi-national magnitude. So far, Johnston’s initial findings have been happily enthralling.

“In America, we’re either happy or unhappy. There seems to be little in-between. We also tend to experience happiness as a state of high arousal, or excitement for example,” explains Johnston. “In Japan, happiness is expressed in quieter terms. The Japanese seem to focus on things that Americans take for granted. They are happy for their noodles at lunch; they are happy for their legs. In addition, the Japanese report being simultaneously happy and unhappy, a kind of melancholy or nostalgia. Japanese people are more complex in their metaphoric constructions of happiness, and American people are more complex in their nuanced range and expression of feelings associated with happiness.”

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The pursuit of global ‘happyness’ definitions happens in a dedicated research space in the Martha Miller Center.

For this massive, qualitative, cross-cultural happiness research project, Johnston joined forces with Dr. Rika Hanamitsu, a linguistics professor from Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan, whom Johnston had worked with for two years while Hanamitsu took her sabbatical leave at Hope. Johnston enlisted research participants while visiting Uruguay, Argentina and Chile on her peripatetic sabbatical. Hope senior, Jean Luc Miralda, a native of Honduras, secured participants there, and Hanamitsu signed up Japanese contributors. The two professors asked those involved to take photos of themselves, five times during a single day, when they experienced happiness. The photo-takers then had to write a prompted narrative response about each of those moments in time. Looking at images of 2,600 different people from four age groups (college-aged to elderly) means Johnston, Hanamitu, and their three Hope research student-assistants have been doing a tremendous amount of story translation and coding of thousands of images. It also means this wide-reaching work is uncovering an exciting, glad array of ways to be happy. And in April, those Hope student-assistants and their professor hope to present the group’s preliminary findings at the National Conference for Undergraduate Research in Asheville, North Carolina.

Not one to allow one topic or continent to confine her sabbatical to-do list for too long, Johnston also took a trip Berlin to develop an interdisciplinary – literature, communication and political science – conjoined course with colleagues in Slovakia and Lebanon; traveled to South Africa to develop a study-tour on “Narratives of Peace and Conflict in Post-Apartheid South Africa;” and, she also co-authored and published an article about another cross-cultural research project, again with Hanamitsu. This time Johnston looked at global exposure and global perceptions of 1,360 college-aged students in China, Japan, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and the U.S. Their work can be read in the Journal of Intercultural Communication.

“I felt it was a year of good productivity for me,” Johnston concludes. “I learned more Spanish, met wonderful people during home stays. Sabbatical to me means creativity, a chance to move ideas — and sometimes I have too many — toward accomplishments.”

Living out of a backpack for a year, researching about global communication issues, even cleaning up her Martha Miller Center office while on sabbatical: that makes Dede Johnston very happy.

Dr. Deirdre Johnston is a professor in the Department of Communication at Hope College.