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Communication Professor Brings Lessons from the Middle East Back to the Classroom

Posted 01/11/2011
Posted by Meagan Fazio

When you know that Donald Ellis is interested in communication issues related to conflict resolution, intractable conflicts, and intercultural communication, it’s no surprise that much of his research involves the Middle East.

A professor of communication in the School of Communication within the College of Arts and Sciences, Ellis spent the month of July teaching a course, Communication Issues and Political Conflict, at Ariel University. The school is located in an Israeli settlement on the West Bank, the contested territory along the Jordan River that is at the heart of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Ellis and his summer students talked about how the media presents the issues behind the conflict. They also discussed cultural differences between the two groups and what their cultures taught them about how to communicate.

“I learned from them, what they thought, what their insights were,” Ellis says of the students at Ariel University. “That was the best part about teaching over there.” Back on campus this fall, Ellis is taking those lessons and passing them along to students in his course, Persuasion. One topic involves the problem of how to convince a very religious person to change his or her mind on a thorny issue.

“You’re probably not going to succeed really,” Ellis explains. “But there is one way you might succeed. One theory of persuasion is called “foot in the door.” If I start with small steps, if I get you to change a little bit, I can get you to change more. How you persuade different audiences that have rigid beliefs is an interesting issue.”

Students in Ellis’s first-year seminar, Media and Politics, will also benefit from his time in the Middle East. He shares what he learned about the Israeli media and then asks his students to compare those traits to what they know about media in the United States. Ellis says they find many differences, but not as many as they might have predicted.

“Israel is a very technologically sophisticated place like the United States, so blogs and wikis and the Internet are increasingly used by citizens,” says Ellis. “Newspapers are falling off in terms of their readership, just like in the United States.”

Ellis admits he has some liberal Jewish friends who are opposed to the West Bank settlements and did not think he should be teaching there. But he says he wasn’t interested in transforming a situation or dramatically changing any minds.

“My argument was that education is by nature liberating and democratizing,” he says. “My goal was simply to raise issues and have the students think critically about them.” And he encourages his University of Hartford students to do the same thing.

Ellis recently established the Donald G. Ellis International Summer Research Scholarship, which provides funds for undergraduates to travel internationally for research and study. The scholarship, open to all students in Arts and Sciences with a GPA of 3.0 or better, is the first of its kind at the University.