Sandra Sollod Poster
You hold a Ph.D. in Media Ecology from NYU Steinhardt, and are a faculty member in Borough of Manhattan Community College's Department of Speech, Communications and Theatre Arts. Tell us a bit about Media Ecology and how it relates to the way people communicate. What do you teach, and how is it formed by your background in the field?
The Media Ecology program emphasizes the balance among elements in a system, and how media influence that balance. So when a new medium is introduced into a culture, we have to look at how all the elements in that system will change as well. Living through the impact that technology is having on our world - culturally and politically - has been a study in Media Ecology perspectives. We certainly see how new technologies are changing cultures that had previously been isolated.for example, and how the introduction of social networking influences the behavior of young people. I was fascinated by the 2008 presidential campaign and the role that technology played in energizing voter behavior.
I teach two courses at BMCC. One is Fundamentals of Speech Communication and the other is Interpersonal Communication. I have approached the presentation skills class from what I think is an unusual perspective. Most speech classes focus on the speaker and speaking. I start out from the point of view of the listeners and how they process information. Much of this orientation came from my interest in language, an interest that was really developed by the Media Ecology program. The Interpersonal Communications course has its deep roots in Media Ecology. In fact, the foundation of the course is a definition of communication I created for my dissertation.
You studied and were greatly influenced by the late Neil Postman. Do you recall a specific theory or lesson that inspired you?
Well, Neil was inspiring on a daily basis. It would be hard to remember a specific lesson or event that stands out. Just to sit in his classes and engage in discussions with him was a lesson in clear thinking every day. One thing that does stand out was his adage, "Relationship dominates content." I quote that often in my classes and use it as a guiding principle in almost everything I do professionally and personally. My students can recite it by heart, now, because we say it so often in class.
You recently won an Emmy for writing the television series, "We Are New York," an innovative series that uses drama and comedy to teach the English language to immigrants. What inspired you to work on this program?
I have worked for many years with Leslee Oppenheim, University Director of Language and Literacy Programs for the City University of New York, who was one of the Executive Producers of the series. I was thrilled when she asked me to join the creative team as one of the principal writers. Having worked with immigrant students for many years at Borough of Manhattan Community College and having listened to their stories in my classes was a source of truly inspiring material on which to draw.
How do drama and comedy create a good outlet for English-language learning?
We knew from the start that people don't watch didactic teaching on television. We wanted to capture the interest of viewers through stories that make people want to watch the program, not because it was "good for them" but because it was compelling. We know that many immigrants learn English by watching television, and we wanted to use this popular and natural style of learning to reach as many people as possible. We launched a vigorous publicity campaign, but we also hoped to capture viewers who were channel-surfing and would be engaged because the programs were interesting and lively. We also knew that people wouldn't come back for a second episode if the first one didn't capture them. Many viewers said they watched the program, not because they needed to learn English, but because the stories were so charming and delightful.
In addition to teaching English, "We are New York" also informs immigrants about life in New York City, including their rights as residents and the importance of celebrating their contributions to the area. Do you think the series could be redeveloped for other urban areas throughout the country?
Absolutely. If you look at the demographics of the US, you see that many communities are experiencing waves of immigration, not just New York. In fact, in the last decade, the US has experienced the greatest immigration influx since the late 1800's. Overwhelmingly, immigrants come to the US for economic opportunity for themselves and their families and often make enormous sacrifices to do so. Not only do immigrants need English language instruction, but they need to know what their communities offer in the way of services and accommodations. Many newcomers are not aware of what they are entitled to, and a television program like this goes a long way toward rapidly integrating immigrants into the community, helping them avoid being taken advantage of, and informing them of services -- especially health care and education -- that help them and their families become productive members of their new communities.
Winning an Emmy is a great honor. What was your initial reaction when you learned you were receiving the award?
I was absolutely thrilled and slightly stunned. None of us on the creative team had ever done anything quite like this before, and we knew we were up against professionals who had written for television for years. So when we won, we could hardly believe it. It was really, really, really exciting.
You have over 40 years of experience as a consultant and communications coach in the speech communications field. How did your educational and professional background prepare you for "We are New York?"
As I mentioned earlier, having listened to my BMCC students (many of whom are immigrants) provided me with a wealth of stories and perspectives from which to draw. My consulting work also reinforced the importance of good communication skills and strong relationships when you work on a demanding project like this.
What are the biggest differences between working with communication and language in the corporate world as opposed to doing so in education or TV and production?
Corporate clients are open to and eager to learn techniques that will help them be more effective. So it is not much of a "sell" when I introduce communication skills to them. Also, they are well educated so they know how to learn and do so quickly. The "time is money" model really speeds up the process with corporate learners. They recognize the impact effective communication skills have on their careers and readily engage in the process. College students, on the other hand, bring a variety of attitudes to their class work, ranging from, "I can't get enough of this" to "Why do I have to learn this?" Like television audiences, their interests and levels of preparation are varied, so I have to do much more to convince them of the benefits of good communication skills. Also, the standards for acceptable use of language vary among college students and television viewers. Corporate clients use Standard English every day, but they often have an issue with their style of communicating. For example, some corporate clients use language that is divisive and need to learn how to include others to promote team building. Others are either too aggressive or too self-effacing and need an assertive style that works for their long-term interests. It really varies.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your career?
My students. Working with students is a constant joy, and I love seeing the impact that communication courses have on them. Many former students keep in touch with me, and I am constantly re-inspired when I learn of their success.
Each year, Steinhardt students graduate and begin to forge new careers. What advice can you give for these young professionals as they make their way in the "real world?"
I always tell young people to listen to your heart and your kishkies (your innards) and be open to new experiences. Stay inspired and be flexible. Life can take you to interesting places if you keep the door open. You never know where you will have the chance to let you talent shine. Over 40 years ago, I studied television writing and production, and now my career seems to have come full circle. I also tell them to remember Neil Postman's sage advice, "Relationship dominates content." Work on your relationships with the people you work with. There are lots of talented people out there, but if you have talent and you are a pleasure to work with, that will take you very far.