Getting Ready 25

Getting Ready 25

The same question, what are we supposed to be teaching? is still the central theme of all communications between us and our hosts in Vietnam. This is the first question we asked back in February and we are still asking it. But now the deadline is approaching and in about 3 weeks we will be standing in front of classes and will have to open our mouths and teach something, whatever it may be. So the deadline is forcing clarification.

Just a glimpse into working conditions in Vietnam, as background for whether this is an urgent question or not: We’re reading an article sent to us by Julie Brockman, “The Right to Strike In Vietnam’s Private Sector” by Trinh Ly Khanh, published in the Asian Journal of Law and Society, DOI 10.1017/als2015. It says (page 5):

According to the VGCL’s finding on the minimum living needs of workers from 2012 to 2016, workers are only able to afford between 61% and 72% of minimum living needs on the regional minimum wage rate. According to the MOLISA Minister Pham Thi Hai Chuyen, the new regional minimum wage only meets approximately 60% of the minimum living needs of the workers (5).  

Employers, even ones where a contract has been negotiated, use the minimum wage as a standard. If something is a law (like minimum wage) it is considered a right; if it is not law, it is considered an “interest.” A living wage is not a right. Vietnamese minimum wage is among the lowest in Asia. Working full-time earns you enough to pay for about 60% of what you need to live.

How do they manage,then?

Here are expenses versus wages. From page 7: average monthly expenses range from VND4.78 million ($222) to VND3.31 million ($179). Wages range from VND5.94 ($276 ) in privatized state-owned enterprises to VND4.77 million (US $221) in foreign-invested companies. Note that “average monthly expenses” is not the same as “minimum living needs.” People are going without minimum living needs. “Expenses” means what you spend, not what you should be able to spend.

“Most workers either save only a small amount of money or are unable to afford the costs of living, especially in cases of sickness.”

An article “Strike Wave in Vietnam: 2006-2011,” by Kaxton Siu and Anita Chan in the Journal of Contemporary Asia, DOI 10.10880/00472336 2014, says, in its abstract, that “Vietnamese workers have to conserve energy due to inadequate food and malnutrition.”

So, back to the question of what we’re going to teach.

I sent my draft powerpoint texts for Chapters 1-6 of the Northouse book, Leadership Theory and Practice Seventh Edition (Sage 2016), and Joe sent his draft powerpoint text for Chapter 1 of the Gass and Seiter book, Persuasion: Social Influence and Compliance Gaining, Fifth Edition, (Pearson 2014). We had received an email saying that we were supposed to use these specific books and work through them, chapter by chapter, with one class for each chapter. Joe was getting started later on this because he had to special order the book, so he only sent one chapter.

So today we got an email back from Vinh who is working with Dean Hoa to get things ready for next semester. They have some problems with the vocabulary in Joe’s powerpoints and asked him to use simpler words. They want the first class for each of us to be an introduction to ourselves and the course, not a chapter summary. They want Joe’s class to use examples from labor. They want the first class to explain how students will be evaluated, and it appears that the evaluation will include multiple-choice questions.

I can definitely understand why they want Joe to use simpler words. However, the Gass and Seiter book is written in a chatty, insider cute way using cartoons and phrases that have humorous connotations. For example, one header goes like this: “The Debunking Function: Puh-Shaw.” The authors also use tech terms from social media like “buzz”, “viral metaphor,” “stickiness,” and “gaming.” There are no “simple” words that are the equivalent of these. In order to actually teach the book, Joe is going to have to use the words of the author. To substitute other words would be to fail to teach the book. If your assignment is to “teach a book”, it is also not ethical to try to make a bad book into a good book. No matter what you think about it, if your purpose is to make sure students know what is in it, you have to present it as it is. Maybe they will think differently.

My book is a deadpan slog through one approach to or theory of leadership after another. It does not have a cutesy-word problem. However, if there is an urgent need to teach students how to organize workplace unions and honestly represent workers in a fight against abusive, exploitative employers, then knowing a lot of different theories of leadership is not going to do them any good. It will be a waste of time. I was waiting until we got there to talk about this so I’m glad it’s come up now.

The problem with Joe’s book is bigger than its cutesy vocabulary and engaging discourse. Using the fundamental questions “For whom, by whom, and for what purpose?” I would say that these books are for students eager to become part of the corporate superstructure of the global economy and make a lot of money no matter how; that they are by professors of business, but also cynically designed and written to sell copies and make a whole lot of money, complete with new editions and high prices; and for what purpose – well, on the one hand, to make money for the authors, and on the other hand, to inoculate students (rather than teach them) with the discourse of “leadership” so that they will be comfortable in the corporate environment.

The first sentence in Northouse’s Introduction is “Leadership is a sought-after and highly valued commodity.” And indeed, it is; you can make a whole lot of money running packaged “leadership training” conferences, executive trainings, etc etc etc. He is completely unabashed about mentioning this. One of the theories that he spends a chapter on, Situational Leadership, has a little trademark TM on it every time he mentions it, and he notes that it has been used with 400 out of 500 Fortune 500 companies.

Northouse’s compromise in this edition (I had an earlier edition from the library) is to be consistent and call a manager a “leader” and his employees “followers” . But that does not change the power relationships between them, nor the conflict of interest the defines them.

Substituting “labor examples” for the examples in the Gass and Seiter book will not work. Tips on buying a new or used car? This is Box 1.2. It actually is a set of 16 tips, including things like “The sales person will act like he or she is your best friend even though you just met.” And, “The salesperson may leave the room a number of times to talk with the ‘sales manager.’ Maybe, maybe you could say that this happens in bargaining of any kind – and substitute a bargaining scenario. That might come under “table skills”, although that would be stretching it. It certainly isn’t anywhere near the core of collective bargaining. And this would be another example of seriously distorting the book in order to make it fit our purpose.

Vinh and Dean Hoa actually do not have copies of these books, so they can’t see them themselves. It sounds as if someone recommended them. We will have to ask them where the recommendation came from.

VInh asked if we could Skype, and we could in the next one or two days, but we’ve got grandchildren coming after that and will not be able to do any kind of computer-based work at all while that’s happening.

This is all part of learning what we are supposed to be teaching. It’s getting more and more exciting. I’m not kidding.

I asked Vinh to take another look at the class plan that I sent her back in May. I built that class plan around an early curriculum that they sent us. I think that curriculum was the one that had Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People in it. That was the only book in English on the syllabus. Anyway, here is my first class plan from that set of classes (I drafted 1-9, including Dale Carnegie). It has a lot of introduction in it:

Class 1: The Power and Limits of Positive Reinforcement


Is leadership a matter of getting people to do what you want them to do?


Story: “You can do anything with positive feedback.”

As this is our first class, I want to introduce myself. I will use this opportunity to tell you a story about some advice that was given to me by someone I met when I was just beginning to get involved in the labor movement.

Thirty years ago I worked as a professor in a large college in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are good jobs as professors but in the last 30 years, as neo-liberalism has come to higher education, more and more jobs became low-wage, insecure, temporary and lacking social insurance, specifically healthcare benefits. I had one of these bad jobs. One day when I was particularly angry about my job I was advised to go to my union, the teacher’s union. I went. I was not really hopeful and in fact introduced myself angrily to the president by saying, “You do nothing for us!” “Us” meant all the temporary, contingent professors.

The president of the union might have thrown me out of his office.

But he didn’t. Instead of throwing me out, he explained what they were trying to do. He invited me to attend a meeting and gave me some work to do. He encouraged me to become involved in organizing other professors like myself. I loved doing this. I worked hard at it. This was my start in the labor movement and it explains why I am here now, today, teaching about labor.

One day I got a phone call from the president of the union asking me to go to a nearby hospital and pick up a man who was being discharged and needed a ride home to his house. This man was named Billy Henderson. I knew him and liked him. He had been the previous union president. He had AIDS and had just found out that he had only a short time to live. This was news to me: I did not even know he was sick.
I picked him up and drove him home. When we got to his house he invited me to come in and have a cup of tea. Then he said, “I am going to tell you the most important thing you need to know in order to be a union organizer. That is, that you can get anyone to do anything using positive reinforcement.”

Anything? Really? I asked him for some examples, and he gave them to me. They were small things: getting a student to work harder by appreciating a little bit of work they had done, getting a union member to be more active by telling them they had a gift or a talent for something. All right, small things – but anything? He was sure, he said, that you could get anyone to do anything.

I left him that night alone in his house, facing the bad news of his diagnosis, but I couldn’t help thinking that partly as a way to thank me for coming to the hospital and picking him up, he had given me – a new young organizer with no background in the labor movement – something that he regarded as the most important piece of advice he had to give. Was it something meant specifically for me, since I have a tendency to try to get people to do things by criticizing them? But he didn’t really know me. So was it really more general – something I should keep in mind ever afterwards?

Here is what has happened: I have tried to keep it in mind ever afterwards. Of course, I have encountered situations where positive reinforcement was not enough. But overall, it’s surprisingly true – isn’t it?

Questions: Answer these from your experience.

What is meant by “positive reinforcement”? Give some examples.

Have you seen something happen to someone else when you gave that person positive feedback? How did they react? How did they appear to feel?

Have you seen it happen to yourself, where someone gave you positive reinforcement, and you responded? How did you feel?

What kinds of things do you need to know about someone in order to give them positive feedback? How do you find those things out?

What kind of person is good at giving positive reinforcement? What does that person have to be willing and able to do?

What kinds of situations would be hard to take care of with positive reinforcement? What do those situations have in common?

When would it be absolutely impossible to influence someone using positive feedback?

Assignment: Try giving positive feedback to someone. Choose someone who has the power to do something that you want them to do. It could be something for themselves (study harder, get some exercise) or something for their group (take notes in a meeting) or for another person (be a good friend to someone). Figure out how to give positive feedback to that person. See what happens. Note that you have to be sincere about what you are doing. Your positive feedback should be truthful, not fake. The thing you want the person to do should be within their power and not likely to harm them or anyone.

Write down what happens, what you felt like, and what the other person thought about it. If you have been honest and sincere in giving them positive feedback, there should not be any problem about being transparent in what you are doing.

Did it work? Bring your experience into class next week.


We will see what happens. I am thinking about Vinh,who must be extremely busy right now, just finishing up one semester and now having to look ahead at these two Americans who seem to want to do things their own way.

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

2 thoughts on “Getting Ready 25

  1. Hello, Helena, I have a quick question. How much has the previous education of your students been based on rote memorization? I have had quite a few students whose high school or previous university experience has been in Hong Kong or the People’s Republic of China. The experience of writing an exam essay that requires independent thought and no notes causes some of great concern, even though I give them the questions in advance. Some of them come to my office hours with large chunks of their essays completely memorized, as that is the only way they can cope. I don’t know how they would do if I didn’t provide the essay questions in advance. (I went to doing that because I was tired of reading, well, dreck.)

    1. Kristin, you’re making me think. Maybe the assignment I dreamed up at the end of my last post is way too free-wheeling. I think that these students will have been very memorization-dependent. Previous teachers there (Richard Fincher) said that the exam for his class was all multiple-choice. What you’re making me aware of is the amount of time that I should plan to spend trying to explain what writing an essay, even a one or two paragraph essay, is like.

      Brenda Sunoo, whom we talked with a couple of days ago (via Skype from an island off South Korea) said that learning to engage in all levels of dialog, starting with “Any questions?” and moving up to “Any comments? Any criticisms? Any additions? Any thoughts?” — that this was a whole lecture.

      Coming to your office hours “with large chunks of their essays completely memorized” — wow. Well, I expect we’ll encounter that. Thanks for the heads up.


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