Working with an international cohort of students and being advised by mentors in Tanzania, Kenya, and the US is an incredible opportunity. Collaborations of a diverse team can lead to powerful research outcomes. However, for a team to collaborate, the team members must first communicate. As I learned during my preliminary examination at Washington State University in November 2016, this is not always simple.
Preliminary exams are an important rite of passage for American doctoral students. For my program, it entails presenting my research proposal to a public audience of students, staff and faculty, then a period of rigorous questioning by all five members of my committee and other faculty. My exam came the morning of the announcement of the US presidential election results. Attendees graciously put thoughts of politics aside to focus on the task at hand. Two committee members were participating from Tanzania and Kenya, respectively. To ensure a smooth connection, we had prepared the room for Skype video calling and a conference call bridge as backup.
The presentation goes well, but by the time for questioning, it becomes clear my advisor in Kenya can’t hear us well. The conference bridge fails. We call him on a cell phone, which I set on the table in front of me in speaker phone mode. Wonderful. A few minutes later, my Tanzanian advisor also reports that he can’t hear well. Out of cell phones, we call him with a desk phone. Also wonderful, except only I can hear him, and I have to stand far away from my audience because I am now attached to a cord. Once, I saw a picture of a room full of translators for the United Nations where everyone appeared to be talking at once using an excessive number of headphones. My work for the next hour was something like that combined with being an old-fashioned telephone operator back when we still used switchboards. “So and so just said this. Okay, I will tell him that you agree. SORRY? Can you hear me? SAY THAT AGAIN PLEASE?!”
Technology has made possible communication that in the recent past would have been unthinkable. In the age of easily available communication however, it is important to remember that technology can quickly change the balance of power in a conversation. Imagine an exchange where both people can hear, but only one can speak. Or where someone can speak but not hear. In the future, I will be more aware of how technology can help or hinder communications with my advisors and colleagues, and try to use the tools we have most effectively. And what about the exam? Happy to report that I passed.