Holding Ground – Experiencing the Other

Lecture Seven (Interpersonal Communication)
The basic tension described in Zediker and Stewart’s piece, Dialogue’s Basic Tension, is based on the work of Martin Buber. Buber describes the ideal interpersonal balance as “experiencing the otherness of the Other” while also “holding your ground.”

Keeping this dialogic tension in mind, I will expand more on the social construction of meaning, because in observing and responding to several of the Team planning processes so far it appears to me that this idea has not taken root. In fact, I am wondering how thoroughly you have understood the assigned readings? I know some of you have read (and understood) well, others among you may have read but been selective in what you chose to learn, and of course some of you may not have read at all. This is not unusual. However, in a Team project, there is a balance that must be struck between those who know the form of a presentation and those who comprehend the content. (Ideally, everyone knows both very well but such is rarely the case.) Many of the questions I received during the planning process had to do with form &emdash; obviously this is important as a guideline, but I am not interested in the reproduction of one model. What I want to know is, have you learned to conceive of interpersonal communication as a continuous, fluid, complex process of on-going meaning-making and re-making? Irregardless of which particular topic you have, you will ultimately be evaluated on your ability to demonstrate your grasp of this general theory on the basis of the quality of your application. In other words, can you use this new (social construction) model or are you still thinking/acting/talking in the channeled grooves of the old (transmission) model?

Leann (4.2, in the Logistics thread) said: “The loops i see in this conversion is that everyone agreed that there is a different between online communication and face to face interaction.” A social-construction-of-meaning analysis of this statement would examine how the repetition of saying the two modes are “different” actually makes the differences matter more than any similarities. I wonder why it is important for members of the class to focus on the differences? What function is served by negative comparison? What does emphasizing the difference “do” for us?
Another way to think of this, is to imagine to what would change if we spoke constantly about the similarities between online and face-to-face interpersonal communication?
This next section is a little risky because it may come across as direct criticism. On the one hand, to be fair, it is &emdash; I am “showing you” the language of what you said in order to expose (hopefully) the pattern “behind” it: the “loop” which I am trying to get us (as individual members of the class and as a group) to notice is how our basic conceptualization of where meaning comes from, or how it is made, sets a kind of limit on what it is even possible for us to mention, let alone what things (topics, issues, concerns, problems, joys, successes, revelations, etc) about which we can actually talk (technically, dialogue).

When we discussed meaning back in Unit 3, several members of class still wrote in transmission model terms. I’m including the quotes without names because the point is not who said it, the point is how “commonsense” these statements appear on the surface, and how difficult it is to challenge the deep assumptions of communication being a simple matter of taking a pre-established “meaning” (yours) from one “place” (you) to another “place” (me) and have “this meaning” be “understood” exactly as intended. I am starting with the examples of thinking that show the old model first because I guess this makes the most sense logically. Next are examples of thinking (use of language) that shows the new model: when you read these two lists, think hard about why I have categorized them in this way? What is that makes (in my teacher’s mind) the first set of statements indicative of the transmission model and the second set of statements indicative of the social constructionist model? After the two lists, I show how many of you are vacillating between the two, sometimes writing in a way that shows the “new” understanding and sometimes in ways that shows the “old” understanding. Please understand, at this point in time there is no penalty for wherever your understanding falls (at the end of the course there will be an actual test to see if you’ve “got” the distinction or not. More on that later.)

Transmission model type of thinking:

– “Meaning is defined as what is meant; what is intended to be significant or understood; a sense of importance.”

– “…meaningfullness can come from virtually anywhere. Something that is full of meaning to someone could be meaningless to the next guy.”

– “Our emotions create meaning, and as emotions vary from individual, thus meaning varies from individual.”

– “Meaning comes from how you interpret something…”

– “Meaning comes from culture, gender, working environment.”

– “If James hadn’t established herself as a person who’s life has been affected by these stereotypes by telling the reader the story of her two families, then her article would lose its intended meaning.”

– “Something that is meaningful to me might not be meaningful to you and vice versa.”

-“It’s all up to you on how much meaning you place on a certain object or situation.”

The next set of examples is smaller. ­čÖé This is ok (if this was easy then you would already know it and there would be nothing to learn!) Again, think about what is being said in these statements that indicates to me an understanding of the

Social Construction model of communication:

* “Meaning is in between being work and being inherent.”

* “We do not make meaning happen by ourselves.”

* “My interpretation and perceptions have changed with my
surroundings.”

* “Communication, as I conceive it, is a word that describes the process of creating a meaning” (quoting Stewart).

There and Back Again!

Dawn, totally on track, writes, “Beginning from pages 22 of the text book, Stewart talks about different factors that contribute to “the world of meaning that we inhabit”. When talking about meaning, Stewart said, “It’s continuous because humans are always making meaning-figuring out, making sense of, or interpreting what’s happening”. I agree with this 100%.” But then, she reverts right back to the transmission model way of conceptualizing communication: “It is hard to define where meaningfulness comes from exactly because it varies from person to person.” Now, why do I say this? What do I “read” that is different in the “idea behind” the first quote from Dawn, and the “idea behind” the second quote from Dawn? And how happy was I to read, later in the same post, that “the exchanges of messages itself is “the building blocks” that create meanings.”

These juxtaposed sentences demonstrate exactly how challenging any process of learning is and &emdash; most important from my vantage point as a teacher &emdash; I think this kind of mixing is common: both in the sense that everyone goes through a kind of “in-between” stage between an “old” way of thinking and a “new” way of thinking, and common in that most members of this class are also struggling through this transition.

Kerry’s example of the teacher who used her position of authority to deliver a personal (prejudicial and stereotypical) attack is useful, I think, as a point of comparison with the way I am using my position of authority. If nothing else, her performance as a teacher shows the evidence of how damaging racism can be even when it is “only” as a legacy (passed on through the generations, just like Navita Cummings James‘ family stories, without James’ power of critical self-reflection). Kerry’s teacher was wounded so deeply she could not (at least at that time) find any other way to teach about the lingering costs of slavery and genocide (both the residue of institutionalized racism) except to cast blame. Kerry’s analysis of the situation shows an attempt to balance the mix of responses &emdash; the knowledge that racism was (and is) awful, the emotional pulls among guilt, resistance, belief in the perpetuation of prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination through both well-intentioned and overly-aggressive attempts to confront these realities, and a bit of ironic humor about that teacher’s heavy-handedness.

That teacher used the power/status of her position to impose a message that she wanted to deliver. Can any of you articulate what it is that am I trying to ‘deliver’ to you?

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