Brad Blackstone on communication, social media, and music


Dhanya: Brad Blackstone was my professor (He laughs when you address him as Professor, btw) for a Professional English Communication module at National University of Singapore. The second I met him, he stood out from the professors I was used to – even with the way he introduced himself. I found being in class an incredible experience. Brad just loves what he does and it shows in the way he handles things. Rohan and EB have also taken the exact same module in their university days and loved it!.

So, he’s been on our “to-interview” list for a while to understand. And I met with Brad at his office to understand what makes him tick. Read on!

About Brad

Brad Blackstone is Lecturer, Centre for English Language Communication (CELC), National University of Singapore, and Chief Editor of Currently, Brad teaches communication skills courses for science and engineering students and for business students. Prior to coming to Singapore, he developed and implemented communication skills training programs for General Motors, Linksys and the Japanese Ministry of Education. He has taught English for Academic Purposes, composition and communication skills in universities in Japan, Malaysia, Portugal and the United States. Brad received CELC’s Commendation for Teaching Excellence for Academic Year 2007/2008, 2009/10 and 2011-12, and the NUS Annual Teaching Excellence Award for 2009-10. Brad’s publications include academic articles, several volumes of poetry and two dozen songs.

Interview Transcript



Dhanya: What’s your story, Brad? Right from where you grew up to how you ended up in Singapore..

Brad: I was born in a small town in Ohio and majored in Russian literature. I was in a Russian graduate program. After studying in Moscow I really questioned whether that was what I wanted to do. Of course I wanted to be on the same path as everyone else – I finished undergrad and opted for a graduate course. But when I took a small break and went on a tour around Europe I realized that there was so much more to the world than Russian literature. I was fascinated, interested and realized that I could do so much more than that.

The reason I had taken Russian literature was because I was interested in European history and civilization. I realized I needn’t focus on Russian literature to embrace European civilization. I spoke to my course advisor and told him about my reservations. He told me that since I was trained in Russian literature and a couple of other languages like French and German, I could teach English. He told me how that would help increase my personal reach and growth. He told me how I understand language and people and why there was no reason I shouldn’t teach English.

That meeting got me thinking really. He told me that I could go places too. He asked me to pick a place and I remember saying Singapore. This was in 1979 when I was in grad school. I ended up quitting grad school, I moved to Europe. I lived in Portugal for 3 years; I ended up teaching English and Business Communication with General Motors. That experience expanded my horizon really. I realized how there was a world of communications waiting to be explored with respect to personal interactions and cultural interactions. That was a defining moment for a typical American college kid from a small town.

I learnt Portuguese when I lived there. I used to read the newspaper in English and Portuguese, watch the local television and I also had a Portuguese girlfriend who spoke no English. So I took every opportunity to learn new cultures and meet interesting people. It was also the time when I was questioning the United States and a lot of assumptions I had as an American. In America, you are brainwashed to think it is the best country in the world.

I realized Portugal was a country that has a thousand years of statehood and it had become a nation a thousand years earlier. They had incredible history, culture, tradition, food and beaches. America was not the only place to be.



Dhanya: Can you tell us the story about the General Motors pitch?

Brad: It was at a party once, in Portugal. By that time I had a job teaching engineers, English. I had about 2 or 3 engineers. They would come to my house for an hour once or twice a week for English conversation. As I talked to these guys I found out that about 20 odd engineers were being sent out to various places across the city for English – the purpose being to enhance their English language skills. I found this system extremely ineffective because these guys are driving 20-40 minutes from their office to different places. And all the time is taken from their work time.

Somebody told me that the Managing Director of GM was around at that same party. The idea to take English for all these engineers at one place had struck me earlier. So I decided to pitch that idea to him. I walked up to him and introduced myself as one of the English tutors of GM. He didn’t seem to be interested but then I said, “The program you have set up is very inefficient.” His interest perked up and he asked “Why?” I explained the situation and how I could come to the head quarters. He said “Come up to my office on Monday morning”.

I planned two different levels of English courses for Beginners and Advanced. That ended up being my job for two years. I remember learning so much about business from a huge multi national corporation like GM. They were all men except one or two women maybe. Later when I went back to graduate school I focused on business communication.



Dhanya: Would you say teaching was your passion?

Brad: It was just the people and the university lifestyle. I liked being in a learning environment. And suddenly being the teacher and not the student was cool. I was always interested in the human element of interactions rather than the evolution of language.



Dhanya: Your recent interest has been interaction on social media right?

Brad: Even something like blogging for example. I am interested in watching their interaction on the blogs. I find it really cool to see what they have to say and how they respond to each other. Similar interests on Facebook, I would say. I find it a great way for people to develop that feedback.



Dhanya: EB, Rohan and myself think of you as one of our favourite NUS professors. We love your charisma as a teacher! Have you ever felt a difference in approach in comparison to your peers?

Brad: I have visited a lot of lessons and I feel sometimes people are just born to teach. If you boil it down to what makes them tick, I think it is about whether or not you care about other human beings – authentic care about others. For me its not a magic formula, I am truly interested in finding out about what you need and what you have to say. I get to be part of your experience; I get paid for it and so much the better.

Nurses are the same. I have a sister who loves her job; she loves to find out who they are and what their hopes and dreams are. When I walk into a class if I believe in the course objectives, it is very satisfying.

Dhanya: Can you tell us about Radio Moka?

Brad: I was in a band called the ‘Blackstone’s blues’ for a long time – I played the harmonica, percussions and did some backup singing. I mainly organized our gigs and that took a lot of time. In Japan I organized a music festival – getting the bands, getting sponsors, figuring out the schedule and just putting together everything was a hell lot of work, as much as I enjoyed it. I let that role go by after that phase. To perform on stage takes a tremendous amount of energy. You need to be pumped up. I couldn’t afford to do that with my job here in NUS. I still love music; it is my place to unwind.

As for Radio Moka, I met a guy who lived in my condominium complex. He was an exchange student here. We met at the pool, became friends and got to chatting. When he came home one day, he saw all my CDs and he was impressed with my huge collection. I have got about 2000 CDs and he said he had about 2000 on his Mac. We shared music. Finally he told me that it was his dream to start a radio station and I agreed. I guessed I would love to keep my foot in music that way. This was about two years ago. He went back to Paris and figured out setting it up. He asked me to write a blog post every time I broadcasted and I have been doing it ever since. I go live once in two weeks for about an hour.

Media has a focus on pop music and there is so much disproportional popularity for pop music. I realized this and that’s when I got into regional music. That was a great way for me to get in touch with my musical and anthropological side at the same time. Music is such a happy place – whether it is sad or happy music. That’s the story of Radio Moka.



Dhanya: What is an idea you would like to share with the readers of this blog about what you have learnt in your life?

Brad: It is interesting that you ask that question, I just got a Facebook inbox from my 26 year old daughter. She has very strict opinions and she does not wish to change them. At my age I feel I do not have such hard thoughts. Today I think Barack Obama is a positive force in America, but tomorrow I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that it was completely fake. And I would be willing to accept that. I was more resilient with my opinions as a younger man but at this point I am not so fixed.

At this point I feel it never hurts to embrace the unknown. Even if it seems intimidating, it might not be so once you get used to it. I sign up for projects that everybody else is hesitant to sign up for. I signed up for teacher training in Thailand recently – it comes back to the fact that I am going to work with interesting people; and possible friends. I am not intimidated about jumping into things.

Embrace challenges and jump into the unknown.

Thank you Brad, for a very sweet interview.

Real leaders Team