Hazleton professor studies how relationships make us better

HAZLETON, Pa. -- Assistant Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences Daniel Hans Mansson spoke Swedish into his office computer at Penn State Hazleton. From their native country, his mother answered. Maintaining relationships is a specialty of Mansson, not just with his mother but also in his research.

Mansson often studies traits and relational characteristics that solidify relationships, whether between students and teachers, grandparents and grandchildren, friends on Facebook, or mentors and protégés.

People receive affection in many relationships. In subtle ways relationships also help people do better in school, bolster their mental health and even their physiological well-being, as Mansson explained recently – in person and in print. In November he went to Orlando, Fla., to present a paper about the relationship between doctoral students and their advisers during the conference of the National Communication Association. In early December, the association published a summary of a different research study Mansson conducted with his doctoral adviser, Scott A. Myers, about doctoral students’ relationships with their advisers in the December issue of Communication Currents.

Relationships with mentors can determine whether or not graduate students earn their doctoral degrees. Students who are dissatisfied with the mentor might quit their programs. But when the relationships work, they add to the satisfaction and professional growth of both the mentors and protégés – even after the students graduate.

George Grice mentored Mansson while he earned his master’s degree at Radford University, Radford, Va. Now Grice wants Mansson to become Grice’s new coauthor of the next edition of Grice and Skinner’s nationally recognized textbook "Mastering Public Speaking."

Mansson internalized examples from Grice and Scott Myers, his adviser at West Virginia University. At West Virginia, he wrote his doctoral dissertation about doctoral students’ relationships with their mentors.

Both advisers could be harsh. Mansson remembers when he wanted extra time to finish a paper so he unloaded his troubles on Grice, who listened patiently and then asked whose problems they were. “Mine, sir,” Mansson answered. “Yes, so please don’t make them mine,” replied Grice, who didn’t budge on the deadline. Mansson worked extra hard to finish the assignment on time. After that encounter, both men gained respect for the other.

Myers, too, insisted on high quality performance. “But he always did what was best for me, even though if it was not always easy to understand at the time,” said Mansson. For example, when Mansson’s father died, Myers gave him a hug and offered to let Mansson put aside all academic work so he could mourn with his family in Sweden.

Now Manson has students visiting him. He tries to combine the assertiveness that he learned from his own mentors with the emotional culture of Sweden in which he grew up. “If students come to see me, I take the time they need to help them, but if they continue to screw up or if they disregard my suggestions I have no problem telling them that,” Mansson said.

“My students often ask, ‘Why are you so mean?’ ” he said. He smiles, recalls his mentors and thinks that his students don’t know what mean really is. “A little bit of 'tough love' will get them farther than just babying them,” he said. “Looking back on my graduate career, I am so thankful that my advisers were demanding of me and that they expected my work to be good,” Mansson said.

Students speak to professors to argue about grades, to make excuses and to ingratiate themselves, but they also seek to understand their class work better and get to know their instructors. Whatever their motives, good things often happen when they talk with professors, whether by chiming in during class or meeting outside of the classroom.

“Most student-instructor relationships are associated with positive student learning outcomes,” Mansson said. When instructors present a positive attitude, their outlook rubs off on students.

Mansson explained that the more pro-social communicative behaviors students perceive from their instructors, the more the students’ motivation and satisfaction grows. On the other hand, anger and disgust, when displayed by a professor, kill student motivation.

“The way we communicate with students affects how they perceive us,” Mansson said. Likewise, when students express interest in what they learn and appreciation for the teaching, their instructors become more motivated. “When I tell them that,” Mansson said making a “dinging” sound, “you can see a little bulb” light up. A smile from a student, Mansson said, “is the best paycheck I could ever get. When they’re happy, I’ve done my job well.”

Mansson credits the affection that he received from Vivian and Ernie Domoney, his host family when he spent a year as a high school exchange student in Wilmington, N.C., with making him a better student. When he returned to Sweden to finish high school, he cared more about his studies. He came back to the United States for college and remained a resident since.

Students draw similar benefits from their grandparents through relationships that Mansson explored in numerous studies. The grandparent-grandchild relationship has become more important as people live longer. Grandchildren go through college and enter adulthood while remaining in contact with their grandparents.

Mansson became intrigued while thinking about his relationships with his maternal grandfather and his paternal grandmother. As a boy he spent time on his grandfather’s farm and listened to stories that his grandfather told. When they talked, his grandfather encouraged him and praised his college work. Mansson telephoned him every week.

Conversations with his grandmother, who tended to complain about her life, left him flat. He only telephoned her every three weeks.

When grandchildren perceive that their grandparents provide affection and emotional support, they employ behaviors that maintain their grandparent-grandchild relationship. Those include positivity, openness, conflict management, advice, tasks, shared networks and assurances, Mansson found.

Grandchildren who receive affection from grandparents report low levels of stress, depression and loneliness; they also are more apt to join in social activities and are more comfortable with closeness toward others, Mansson found. That might nudge them to speak in class, which perhaps improves their studies, or make them more open to relationships with their peers.

The relationship can help grandchildren and grandparents through mental lows. Fifty percent of college students report problems such as depression, stress and loneliness, according to the findings of other researchers that Mansson cites. He postulates that relationships with grandparents can reduce those problems. Likewise, researchers have identified physical conditions such as low blood pressure, heart rate and cholesterol levels when people enter affectionate relationships, a concept that Mansson wants to test with grandparents.

“I’ve got a heart rate and blood pressure monitor in the closet,” he said while motioning across his office. “I will survey grandparents to see if there is a correlation between the amount of affection they express and their physiological conditions.” While medical devices are new tools for Mansson, he more commonly works with questionnaires, which let him dig into relationships.

His questionnaires contain statements such as “My grandparent hugs me” and “My grandparent tells me s/he loves me.” Respondents answer on a scale where 1 is “strongly disagree” and 7 is “strongly agree.”

Questionnaires were sent out by the hundreds in the flurry of research that Mansson conducted for his doctorate and continued since arriving, in 2010, in Hazleton: 184 to students for a qualitative analysis of grandparents’ affection toward young adult grandchildren; 214 to students in a test of Affection Exchange Theory; 636 to doctoral students and 141 to advisers for a study of their mentoring relationships.

Mansson distributed 317 questionnaires to test the validity of the Grandchildren’s Received Affection Scale or GRAS. He created the GRAS because a questionnaire used to measure perceived affection in other relationships didn’t apply to grandparents and grandchildren. It contained statements about kissing on the lips, massage and winking.

The GRAS wasn’t his first study of affection measures. In 2011 he co-authored what remains one of the most frequently read and downloaded articles ever for the Southern Communication Journal about the Facebook Affection Scale. While he said the Facebook and social network remains a fruitful area for research, he hasn’t studied it further.

At Penn State Hazleton, as at the other universities where Mansson has been, faculty and students have grown accustomed to his requests to fill out questionnaires. Colleagues on the staff and faculty helped him recruit grandparents for a recent study. Students in all subjects recognize him as the professor who drops into classrooms with a stack of questionnaires for them to complete.

His schedule of classes, where he distributed questionnaires in November and December, covered one page of a legal pad and part of another. About 700 students on campus have filled out questionnaires for Mansson’s new study this semester. He wants to explore how students express concern about their academic work to their instructors.

Mansson noticed that students speak with professors to express their concerns. Unlike other motives that students have for speaking to their professors, such as developing relationships or making excuses, nothing in the research literature describes how students express their academic concern to instructors, he said.

Filling out questionnaires generally exposes students to research. The questionnaires also might start them thinking about relationships that they have with their grandparents or professors. “It’s been well received,” Mansson said.

One Hazleton student earning research credit helps him enter and transcribe data from the questionnaires. She also conducts some secondary research on Mansson’s behalf. The student, Michaeleen Farley, has also discussed the possibility of conducting her own research study during the summer under Mansson’s supervision. Additionally, students in his statistics class help him with some minor aspects of his research, including data entry after reviewing the questionnaires.

Elizabeth Wright, director of Academic Affairs at Penn State Hazleton, said Mansson’s ability to teach courses in statistics and communications indicates the breadth of his talents. “He’s so strong at teaching, so strong at research and integrating service projects,” Wright said.

Mansson understands new media and online classes, Wright said. He has begun talking to her about what his research findings suggest for mentoring programs on campus. “Mentoring undergraduates is something in which I’m really interested. I’ve done so much research lately that I’d like to take a semester or two and apply it,” Mansson said.

He thinks second-year students with good academic standing could mentor new students who are at risk of failing. The older students could give the younger students tips on preparing for classes and campus life. After a year, Mansson would be curious to know how well the peer-mentoring program worked. He thinks comparing the rate of mentored students who returned for their second year of college with the rate of students who didn’t have a mentor would make an interesting study.

Maintaining relationships, after all, is his research specialty.

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Last Updated February 08, 2013