“the idea that language is an activity” (Erin)

“The Tension of Dialogue”
~ “Lecture” Six ~

One of the readings on dialogue is from a book with the subtitle referencing “a center, not sides” ( ). One of the loops in our class is a tension between the expectation of this course running like other college courses and the way it is actually unfolding “in real life.” Dawn named the extreme of the usual way when she said she would “rather read from the book and respond.” This kind of desire is cultivated by the experiences we have all had, as students, with the typical format of a college class. This is an example of what Pearce calls the episodic nature of a communication event. Interacting in a classroom has a general structure that we have all learned over years and years of schooling. We come to expect this structure, to be comfortable and familiar with what we are typically asked to do, and therefore may become frustrated or challenged when changes require adjustments in our behavior. Carla expressed this perfectly: “I had expected to be at ease with the interaction required for this class. Such a title led me to believe that my thoughts would come easily to me in regards to the matters of which we speak. After all, I’ve been communicating interpersonally since the conception of my being.” We all have! And each of us does have expertise within common frames of reference.

When things do not unwind in the particular process we anticipate, then we might make sense (meaning!) of the discrepancy in the ways expressed by Natalie and Aaron: suddenly we perceive “vague” open-endedness that “lacks clarity” and direction. In fact, these are responses to the absence of some usual markers that guide us in the performance of routine behaviors. My argument is that contemporary communication theory tells us that those habits generate “normal” meanings &emdash; rehearsed, usual, routine, expected . . . while these meanings can be a necessary comfort at times, such patterns can also be deadening, dull, even boring: less alive. It seems to me that the value of interpersonal communication is that it provides the possibility for experiencing our own beingness-in-the-world in special ways. I hope this class is teaching you to appreciate this potential and even improve your skills in being the kind of person you want.

What has been happening in our classroom is that I am deliberately messing with the usual ways of educational talking in order to help us all perceive how our expectations produce and recreate “meaning”. Once we truly understand this, we can begin to let go of the linear transmission model that Stewart and Logan critique on page 19. I bring that particular example up because Kerry and Aaron both misunderstood (it seems) the goal of Stewart and Logan in showing you the myth of that linear diagram with its assumption of a permanent, fixed, pure meaning that can simply be moved from one person to another.

One of the features of academic structure is to establish the teacher as “knower” and students as “learners” who need to be guided from what they (you) supposedly “don’t know” into a pre-established, unquestionable KNOWLEDGE. However, the most basic, foundational concept of contemporary communication theory is that there is no such thing as a 100% sure, guaranteed truth without exception. As we have been studying, this is particularly true in terms of interpersonal communication because of the fluidity and flexibility of language and the reality (!) of the co-construction of meaning.

This is not to say that there is no place in the middle where we meet and understand each other &emdash; only that any such place is an achievement of collaboration occurring continuously and constantly with many, many complicated variables always at play. So, when Tristram asks, “Did I miss something?” (when I asked about the “stuck place” I thought we might be in as a class), it is up to all of us to decide

a) whether there was “something” to be missed (or nothing at all) and

b) if there was “something”, what was it? The teacher’s vague impression? Was I mis-listening? Did I invent a problem where one did not exist? Did I identify a phenomenon but give it a certain slant by labeling it “stuckness” when a different label might have been less confusing or more accurate from your point-of-view?
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So far, what have we learned about the co-construction of meaning in/through communication? Erin quotes Stewart & Logan on representation: “words are symbols that represent an existing object. Confusion arises with words describing abstract things.” Confusion can also arise when words describe concrete things, because if I tell you about a chair (using a colleague’s oft-repeated classic example from Aristotle), how do I know that the “chair” you have in your mind is the same “chair” I have in mine? I do not, unless I explain it or &emdash; better yet &emdash; provide you with a picture! You and I might both understand “chairness”, but that does not guarantee identical representations. Brett is on top of the implications of this variation when he challenges Stewart’s identification of “four distances that create limitations and boundaries for meaning. I think,” says Brett, “[that] there is too much differentiation to create those limitations for meaning in regards to how close or far away you talk to someone.” We &emdash; human beings &emdash; use generalizations to create categories that help us sort our perceptions and experiences, but these very generalizations LIMIT the KINDS of categories we can create unless and until we recognize that our minds &emdash; the very specific ways in which we think! &emdash; have been shaped (one could say channeled in particular ways simply because of the exposure we have had through linguistic representations of so-called “meaning.”

Again, Dawn gives us a classic example of a predominant American mode of communicating: I “just want to speak my thoughts,” she says, showing both a particular understanding of conversation (loose, unstructured, without a disciplined focus) and also a preference for expression (what our text calls “exhaling”) moreso than listening (“inhaling”). Once we understand that there is no inherent meaningfulness in what we say (or write), then we begin to understand the power of language, and the range of uses it can be put &emdash; from the beautiful to the ugly &emdash; in interpersonal communication.

Brett’s evocative title in Unit 4, “a spoonful weighs a ton”, suggests the complexity of our endeavor here. I imagine that everyone is feeling the tension of our engagement in some way? Tristram, insightfully recognizes that “the agreements and disagreements [among classmembers to date] do in fact show a pattern because we as a class are just bouncing around on each others ideas where the information at hand therefore becomes rather limited. Even the ideas in our heads are pulled from previous bits learned so are we truly able to introduce original open minded discussion or is everything here part of some pattern in communication?” My job, as the teacher, is to try and channel or otherwise guide this “bouncing” into a tighter focus; meanwhile, each of you is being drawn to the topics that are of most immediate relevance to you: these may or may not be what I think are the most important in terms of the overall subject. These diversities lead me to try and tack back-and-forth between “where you are” and “where I am”. In other words, what is meaningful about this course is somewhat different for everyone!

My job is to try and generate opportunities for practicing a way of thinking that may go against common experience and certainly invites change. As Erin said after reading Virginia Satir’s comments about the use of the word, “I”: “Should I feel selfish for using that word? Now I’m going to think about it more, but haven’t before.” Now, maybe Erin will say “I” more or less or at different times than she used to &emdash; that kind of change is not my goal. But for her to be aware that it matters if/when/to whom she says “I” &emdash; now that is the kind of change that signifies actual learning. Kerry provides another example: “[A]fter reading these articles, and a few pages of the other ones in the chapter, i started realizing that i make so much body movment, and use so much body language when i communicate and i never really noticed. i feel as though it is just a natural me. like thats who i am, and when i talk to people, do i talk to them differently? i never took that into account.”

Learning, by definition, means changing. The changes are in perception and awareness, which affects one’s range of choices. Heather noticed a pattern beyond the simple selection of a common topic for the midterm presentations:

“All these people had “voted” the same way for there [sic] favorite textbook topics but that the way they spoke about the subject was similar. A lot of people mention that they chose this topic because it is something that they struggle with and would like to improve on.” The loop here is deeper than the commonality of topic. What is fascinating from a contemporary communication point-of-view is that the choice is made on the basis of perceived personal values of struggle and improvement. This is the morality of making educational choices.

Alex’s deep loop (even though he was arguing against there being a pattern!) is “if someone does not think what u think is right then they disagree and if they do think that what you say is right then they agree.” Geez, if that is how we communicate, how are differences ever going to be resolved?

Again, my pedagogy and my own ethos concerning the value of education (why I am a teacher) is that I think we need to learn how to navigate when “the rules” are not predictable, when “the meanings” we take for granted are not the same as other people’s “meanings.” Heather is right on target with what’s happening (on purpose!) here in this class: no security! “At this point I have finally got down what it is that the professor is looking for in the posts. I know to incorporate what other people are saying, interpret the reading, and add my own thoughts. None of this is anything I have a problem with. However, now these small group projects show up again and I am completely lost.”

What if when we are “lost” is when we have the best chance to make new, different, better meanings?

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