Q and A with John Norland

The subject of our first conversation with a Blackhawk Technical College faculty member is John Norland, who is completing his 16th year at BTC as an instructor of communications and psychology.

Norland, 51, teaches three classes in the communications field – Communications; Oral and Interpersonal Communications and Written Communications – as well as two courses in psychology – Introduction to Psychology and Abnormal Psychology.

Norland, an accomplished guitar player, is the father of two sons – Ethan, 12, and Luke, 10, and one daughter, Charlotte, 31. He also is a proud grandpa to Elin, who is Charlotte’s daughter and is 1. He and his wife, Julie, reside in Edgerton, WI.

What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

Q: What brought you to BTC?

A: I was working in Elgin (Ill.) and we wanted to head toward Madison. I wanted to teach Communications at a two-year college. This one opened and I applied. I did the interview and got it. BTC was exactly what I was looking for.

Q: And you haven’t left.

A: I haven’t.

Q: What does that say about you?

A: I really love teaching.  Other parts of the jobs, the things that are outside of the classroom, can be difficult. But I very much enjoy teaching.

Q: Describe your background.

A: I grew up in Evanston, Ill., and in between Rockford and Freeport. I started college at St. Olaf’s in Minnesota and then went to the Berkeley School of Music in Boston for a year. Around 1984, I moved to Los Angeles because of my interest in the music industry and finished my undergraduate degree at UCLA. I returned to the Midwest and received my Master’s degree at Northern Illinois in DeKalb.

Q: How have things changed at BTC since you have been here?

A: It seems like it can be much more complicated, with the things that people are trying to accomplish, legal requirements, the bureaucracy. It’s become a bigger place. It also looks better than it used to.

Q: Has the mission of the school changed over time?

A: I don’t think it has. We’re training people for jobs. There’s a segment that wants to transfer and get a bachelor’s degree, but that is small and it always has been. Mostly, they are people looking for a career.

Q: Where does communications and psychology fit in the BTC model?

A:  It’s interesting. Whenever we survey employers, they talk about looking for people who communicate clearly and who can develop good relationships with their co-workers and customers. These are the things we work on. There’s a chance that a student may never have to make a speech at his place of employment, but the ability to handle a complicated message, organizing it into clear points supported by evidence is a skill that will serve them in their personal and professional lives. In addition, something as basic as writing a clear report that other people will understand later, like a police officer writing an incident report, is vital.

Communication almost universally is something our students can work on. They are good, smart people. But they are not people who like to write or have thought a lot about doing it. The amount of time we spend with media that isn’t written is lowering literacy rates. And I’m not sure where this is coming from, but we are becoming a society that disdains intellectual achievement instead of being a society that admires it. I’m very confused about where that comes from.

Q: Do you have to take a lot of time to convince students that communication skills are important?

A: That depends on the group. Younger students, those in one-year programs, can be much more difficult to convince. Older students and those in longer programs seem to recognize this is valuable information.

Q: You’re also a musician.

A: I play guitar. I’m in an acoustic band called Bathtub Mothers. We play a lot of what we call Americana, Neil Young songs, stuff like that.

Q: Does your music relate to your teaching, or is it an escape?

A: A combination. It’s a different part of me. But it relates because when you teach communication, it can seem mechanical and you can forget that there is an art form to it, too. The only way to teach the art form of it is by example. It’s a way of showing that explaining something one way can be more compelling than explaining it another way. It’s a way of demonstrating how you can be more persuasive, more lyrical in your communication. The other thing about music is that when you are playing for a crowd, they have no responsibility or obligation to respond. In a classroom, you have the grade as the teacher and that’s the pressure on a student. Think about sentence fragments. That’s an issue for many students. It’s like an unresolved chord in music.

Q: Is it interesting for a teacher when he or she sees that students learn the work in the classroom is their responsibility, not the teacher’s?

A: My adult students understand that very well. With some of the younger ones, it can be a battle because they have gone through so many years where they have seen education not have an impact on their lives.

Q: Have students changed in the last five years because of the economic issues we have faced?

A: From my sample, which is not tiny, when we got the General Motors glut, the quality of student went up. When we passed through that, it went back to about normal, and that’s all over the place. There is skill level and there is work ethic. There is every possible combination of that that you can think of. …

We are very focused on retention (of students). Yet there is a point psychologically that we are babysitting too much. We can illustrate to students that if you put a good effort in, you will get a good outcome and then try to help them through things. But at some point it is up to them.