sharp curves and time-out-of-time (TOOT!)

Sometimes, sharp conversational curves feel like precipitous cliffs. There is what I do, sometimes, which is to say something spontaneously about something that is going on within the context of a group that is within the realm of things most people have been trained not to say. This is more than a sharp curve, and it calls upon whoever is involved to exercise a deeper level of social resilience. Mental agility has to be combined with emotional savvy, too.

My neighbor is thinking about going back to college but – like many people – is not sure what he wants to study. I asked Kevin if he knew the difference between psychology and sociology. He did. (I wish I had recorded his answers; they were great!) He said something to the effect that psychology is about the mind and how a person thinks of things, and sociology has to do with how people relate with one another.

Taking a sharp curve in conversation

Then I asked if he knew the implications of this difference in terms of time. “What?” He was puzzled and asked me to repeat the question. I elaborated: If you start from psychology, you make the individual the center; if you start from sociology, you make the interconnections the most important. “Oh!” He got it, saying something about the inter-relatedness of all things. “You lost me for a minute.” Teasing, he added: “You took a sharp curve there, but I gotcha!”

Kevin is one of those flexible kind of folk who is accustomed to having things come at him unexpectedly, not according to the usual ways. His reflexes are quick. Usually quicker than mine! Foin. With most of my friends (and many of my colleagues, too), it occasionally happens that I do or say something that catches them momentarily at a loss, then they’ll pick up and make the next move and it’s my turn to sputter.

Sometimes, sharp conversational curves feel like precipitous cliffs. I am still learning how to help people productively engage with difficult group dynamics by saying, as one boss and I described it, “stuff about stuff” – meaning, being direct and clear about social challenges as they emerge in collaborative work situations.

Time-out-of-Time, also known as “tooting”

There is a facilitator’s technique of structuring a “TOOT” to allow participants in a learning context to reflect on a particular topic or process or experience. The kids’ punishment called “time out” is cultural (not everyone uses it or even knows about it), but the idea of being discharged out of a group’s shared timestream into the corner (or wherever) is another kind of structured use of time. The intentions behind these activities are acceptable because they are familiar; even though someone may not like doing them, they are relatively comfortable because they are (more-or-less) common social experiences.

Then there’s what I do, sometimes, which is to say something spontaneously about something that is going on in a group that is within the realm of things most people have been trained not to say.  This is more than a sharp curve, and it calls upon whoever is involved to exercise a deeper level of social resilience. Mental agility has to be combined with emotional savvy, too. Lately, I’ve been pushed to this edge in almost every group I belong to. Now, if you start from a psychological perspective, it could be that I’m becoming increasingly disassociated from reality (since I am ignoring certain social norms). But if you start from a sociological perspective, then the question becomes something like, what is it about the relationships in these groups that keeps giving me reason to say stuff (about stuff)?

Each approach (the psychological, the social) has something useful to contribute to understanding the dynamics of whatever it is that is going on (with me, with the groups), but neither will capture the whole picture by itself. Psychology and sociology are complements of a greater phenomenon, call it culture or human evolution or the social construction of knowledge (or whatever academic or religious flavor you prefer).

Communication as science

The young discipline of communication is based on the notion of equilibrium between the individual and the social. This is not the typical chicken-or-egg question, because the basic assumption of communication is mutuality. My personality (e.g., tooting or not) is “called out” by the group, just as my participation in the group adds to (or detracts from) the character of the group: its norms and performance (for instance, as a team working toward certain goals). The fancy jargon word is constitution. It is a tricky word to define, so I am linking to the disambiguation page in Wikipedia, specifically to the section labeled “other uses.

Notice: “the well-being of an organism” and “to maintain or improve health” in addition to legal, medical, and political definitions of constitution. Not only are constitutions things (a noun) but also activities (a verb). The concept of constitution is the philosophical equivalent to the observer effect in quantum mechanics: at the sub-atomic level, physicists get what they look for because those dang-blasted tiny particles respond to being observed.

So it is with human behavior. We perceive what we’re looking for – or, more accurately, we understand things based upon the lens used for thinking. This is why applied social science, especially action learning/action research based in communication theory, can be useful in getting groups through difficult dynamics. In communication, everything is always happening simultaneously, there is no “cause” and “effect” – instead there are cycles and stages and intersections which involve history and the biographies of everyone involved.

Maybe its rocket science. For me it is a way to live with integrity.

An Outsider in the Maelstrom

European Parliament
drafted 10 February 2009

Dutch has two words for foreigner. It seems that one is a generic label (buitenlander or “alien”) and the other (vreemdelingen) emphasizes – just slightly? – the strangeness of someone from another land. If I ever develop a respectable degree of fluency, I will begin to listen for the usage of these two words in conversation: what are the situational conditions that inspire one word or the other?
It would be an overstatement to describe myself as the ultimate outsider, but let’s look at the facts: I’m American (for god’s sake), a mere bilingual, and the wrong kind of interpreter. Just as the action component of my research project elicits surprise from persons at the site of study, their reactions hold a mirror up for me to see myself, too. Am I just a pushy American? Or am I true to form – enacting that independent “can do” attitude that is a central feature of the American character? Heavens, what is she on about?!
When I made it to Strasbourg last month, a confluence of political and emotional forces enacted through specific acts of communication battered at me, temporarily affecting my ability to concentrate. The conversations I held with Members early in the week were more scattered and less organized than usual. As I became aware of the disruptions in my ability to focus I managed to re-group and re-establish clarity of purpose for the later conversations and my first observation.
I have been at the crux of discursive forces like this before. There are different ways to represent this juncture in academic literature. I am most familiar with it as a storming phase of group development, which I envision as the clash between discourses (the momentum of past trajectories of articulated experience, perception, and understanding) and dialogue (the cooperative interaction by conscious users of these pre-existing discourses in the co-construction of a future-oriented amalgamated discourse). Edgar Allen Poe describes this metaphorically in his short story, The Maelstrom. As a huge swirling whirlpool threatens to suck all objects into void, hope for salvation emerges by careful observation of the most slowly-moving objects. Only these have a chance of avoiding the final flush through a combination of light mass and non-resistance: in human terms, by relaxation and patience.
The trick of survival in a socio-cultural maelstrom is to fix oneself to a couple of moving anchors. I know it sounds like a contradiction, but when everything is in flux, everyone is in fluid motion. In this instance (back in Strasbourg for the first time since 2005), I remembered my interpreting roots as socialized by empowered members of American Deaf Culture, reached out to friends and colleagues met in the U.S. (who, heaven help them, actually like me), and accepted with gratitude the presence of new friends who adopted me without hesitation because, “this is what we do.”
Building trust is hard. I am not sure if it is harder in Europe than in the U.S.? The other day, Topi shared some of the lessons she’s learning in the integration class for immigrants to Belgium. The reason she was given for Belgians’ interpersonal distance – for instance, the way they do not acknowledge your presence when passing on the street – is as an outcome of having so many wars fought over this land. As an American, it is hard for me to wrap my mind around the ever-present lived history of violence across the European continent, especially within the European Parliament where it seems everyone is working very hard to get along. The threat of betrayal is, I guess, never far from mind.
I have thought a bit about “friends” and “enemies” as this research project has unfolded: the fear that I might be a bad guy, or maybe even a journalist, is a fascinating development. I am teasing with the emphasis; I understand that the matter of representation is serious. In fact, the question came up four years ago as well and I wrote about it in this post on critical or applied ethnography. With action learning, I have landed somewhere in the middle of those two methodologies, as well as extending from action research‘s customary fields (education largely, business next), and initiating as a solo actor hoping to engage stakeholder groups.
Now (23 March 2009), there is tentative engagement in a few directions. A number of small gestures – both visible and private – suggest the possibility that a few seeds may take root.

DEBATING CORPORATE EVIL (a problematic moment)

Quoting from a Reuters article by Eric Auchard about Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, on “good, evil and monopoly fears“:

When he first joined Google as CEO seven years ago, Schmidt acknowledged thinking the “Don’t be evil” phrase was a “joke” being played on him by founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Schmidt recalled sitting in Google’s offices later in 2001 when an engineer interrupted a strategy discussion over a planned advertising product by saying, “That is evil.”
“It is like a bomb goes off in the room. Everything stopped. Everyone had a moral and ethical conversation, which by the way, stopped the product,” Schmidt said.
“So it is a cultural rule, a way of forcing a conversation, especially in areas which are ambiguous,” he said of how the mission statement works in practice at Google.

The desire to ritualize such a practice of communication illustrates the ethic of “start[ing] from the perspective of what [big, world-class] problems do we have”? This is an example of the political divide characterized by David Brooks a few days ago as “a little culture war” between “”the highly educated coastal rich …. [and] … the inland corporate rich.” It would be nice, somehow, to get away from a blanket condemnation of whomever can be construed as part of the latter group (Brooks doesn’t do such a bad job of representing them – even if he does deploy inflammatory rhetoric at times), because we need them, too, to be part of the solutions we quite urgently need to be putting into place and action.

First Day: Group Dynamics

go slowSMALL.jpg

Mike reached up and patted this sign to remind me to slow down. 🙂 I’d asked the class why I’d gone off on a particular tangent….it related, but I had to pause for a moment, back up, where did I begin? How did I arrive where I was? What was the point?!
I came across the sign near the hallway trashcans on my way to class and I thought it was too perfect to pass up: not for them, for me! I’ve a good feeling about this group, based on how assertive they were during the first and subsequent activities. We laughed a fair amount. And – they took the material seriously. Minds at work. I like.
At some point, they’ll be designing some webpages. In the meantime, I’m using the space to post lesson plans and track our progress.
Any day now, students will start to post their first self-analyses of a decision-making process. They’ve been asked to make a real decision – to attend or not attend a protest in Boston against the FARC who occupy part of Colombia. (FARC is the organization responsible for the kidnapping of friends of a friend – close enough to touch me. I decided to be affected; I decided to care, to act, to do the little that I can do.)

“the literal truth”

from Earthseed (Parable of the Sower):

God is Power —
And yet, God is Pliable —
God exists to be shaped.
God is Change.

I met David in the department computer lab yesterday. “So, you don’t believe in authenticity, do you?”
Nice to meet you, too! 🙂
Of course I do. Authenticity is, for me, an experience not a label, a lived moment of phenomenological alignment when the energies that compose “me” merge in concordance with the energies of a situation and other involved persons, ideas – the context. I think of “peak experiences” and the experience of “flow.”
My authentic moments usually won’t match anyone else’s, in substance or in timing – everyone will experience their own authenticity distinctly. This is why shared moments are so powerful (hmmm, which is why I am so interested in them as events with the potential to change reality – see problematic moments – and so drawn to them personally as a source of incredible nurturance. I want more!)
As I muse on this, I think there may be two “categories” of phenomenological authenticity, one that is dialectically structured and one that is dialogically intentional. The former is reactive to social structure (see a negative example of coming into alignment based on a valence (intra/interpersonal attractive force) to soak up a certain strand of environmental and communicative dynamic interaction) and the latter is empowered, coming from a deliberate and conscious turning or utilization of recognized valences into a force that acts back on the dialectical conditioning.
(btw – I’m in a thick swamp attempting to distinguish dialogical from dialectical. Neither process has control over the outcome, but to subsume “dialogue” under “dialect” is to accept a singular structuration for all of human society. No, thanks.)

i agree: “the fierce urgency of now”

“Obama received Secret Service protection early in the campaign after unspecified threats. It is not a subject his wife likes to talk about. “She doesn’t allow herself to go there,” says Valerie Jarrett, Michelle Obama’s close friend, who says Michelle has not raised the subject with her. “It would paralyze her to think like that.” Michelle’s brother, Craig Robinson, who is the head basketball coach at Brown University, says the potential danger was one of the things he discussed with her when Obama began his campaign. “That’s always in the back of everybody’s mind,” he told NEWSWEEK. “There are a lot of crazy people out there. But you can’t live your life worrying about them.”

Some Words of Martin Luther KIng, Jr:

“Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men (sic) do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world… we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty… We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak…A few years ago…it seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty programs. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube…I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government…we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered…True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes necessary to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring…A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death…We are now faced with the fact , my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now… We must move past indecision to action.”


I’ve got to serious about mapping conferences for the next year or two. Haven’t known about this one until now, am intrigued:
INGRoup, the Interdisciplinary Network for Group Research, will hold its second (?) conference July 12-14 in Lansing (oy). Proposals due January 15. See CFP.

Careful what you ask for!

I asked my students today about the relationship(s) among appearance, identity, and authority – specifically mine. It’s part of the ongoing pedagogy project I’ve been working on with Leda about the visibility/invisibility of our actual bodies in the classroom. By the end of the discussion several students were telling me how I should have taught (!) the class all along: roughly more form-based than content-based.

Continue reading “Careful what you ask for!”

coming out: a problematic moment

I came out indirectly to my students in COM260, Public Speaking. I told them of the time I questioned Geraldine Ferraro, at the National Women’s Music Festival, about how she could address an audience of 3000 lesbians without using the word, “lesbian”. I don’t remember exactly what I said, I’m pretty sure it was implicit – I was a member of the audience she was addressing (without knowing us too well). I do recall a moment of heightened alertness/silence – as if a shudder went through the whole class at the same time?

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same name, different person?

Funny – googled myself (as if I have nothing better to do this morning), and found this poem by another “Stephanie Kent”. Reinforces the importance of that middle “Jo”!
there’s also an alias making loads of bucks (listed by Forbes). envy?
Here’s one I hadn’t come across before, about the disableism workshop Shemaya and I did at Mt Holyoke a few years back.

Continue reading “same name, different person?”