February 2008

“From radio broadcasting to the internet, the adoption, use, and even the constitution of new technological systems are often influenced, not just by economic and structural factors, but by cultural trends and habits of belief. And because of that, I believe, they can be changed.”

Thomas Streeter

I am trying to keep my hands off the decision-making process of these juniors and seniors in Communication as much as I possibly can. What I mean is, I want to share my perceptions in terms of how particular witnessed behaviors/patterns “fit” particular types of theoretical categories, but I don’t want to skew their visioning in the direction of satisfying me just ’cause I’m the teacher. Well, maybe that’s not entirely true (!), however when we engage that tug-of-war I want them to understand and observe their choices and behaviors in a group-stages frame.

We’re still struggling with the notion of framing and its application/relevance in real-life. I’ve been asked for more concrete examples, even hypothetical ones (in regards to this topic and certain homework assignments). I know examples help – and – pedagogically and in principle, I resist using hypothetical illustrations. The reasons have to do with my belief in the significance of differences between the ritual and transmission models of communication.

Words matter, obviously, in the immediate act of communicating something: the choice of language (technically, diction) – one person (say, the “giver”) either “transmits” a message faithful to what he or she intends or fails to do so. Likewise, others who hear the words either “receive” the “message” as it was “meant,” or fail to do so. If conveying meaning is straightforward, then this linear model of transmission from “here (me)” to “there (you)” suffices:

“What time is it?”


No problem, right? If you want to be fussy, you might notice I wrote 2:10 instead of 2:11 and, if you’re so inclined, possibly infer some additional meaningfulness about me (such as, she thinks approximation is adequate/appropriate in this situation). Generally, a basic answer to a request for information satisfies the form (question:answer), and also suggests an overall frame (time is important, questions about time must be answered directly).

If the response obviously has layers, then interpretation becomes more obvious:

“What time is it?”

“Time for office hours.”

Now, you have to wonder about my stance regarding office hours: are they “good” or “bad”? Do I like or dislike them? Is that response representative of my overall orientation to office hours or a reflection of my attitude in the moment? You cannot decide the “meaning” of the answer without making inferences. Do you decide the “meaning” based on what you know of me, or do you decide the “meaning” based on a projection of your own attitudes? Depending upon the co-created meaningfulness – whether we accomplish “understanding” smoothly or with difficulty – we begin to craft the parameters of possibility for relatedness and communication. If we get into a groove (by repeating any particular dynamic), we set in motion a trajectory for our communication and hence, actually pattern the potentials of social accomplishment.

The theoretical distinction between relying upon a (standard, traditional) transmission model and the alternative (but actually older) ritual model leads to two particular conclusions about the use of hypotheticals:

  1. If I use hypotheticals, I model that the use of hypothetical examples is acceptable. (Yet, this is a common educational frame that I am trying to move us away from because it is based on the linear premise that I can “transmit” a definition to you via a “clear” example.)
  2. If I use hypotheticals, the content of that example could introduce an element into our group dynamic that may or may not be illustrative or representative of our group. (Hence, I prefer to wait until real life examples occur, spontaneously, within our group.)

The underlying point is that words may matter even more than we usually imagine. A colleague provides a primer on why we might care to mess with simple words that illustrates the power of language to establish social realities. The exercise he used with students aims at deconstructing labels; the principle, however, is the same for the pedagogical use of examples, and applies equally well to the particular jargons (phrases, terminologies, slangs, inside jokes, etc.) that any group inevitably develops.

On the last test (#5), someone took advantage of the opportunity to give me feedback to say: “I really, really like the Schein group focused on communication in the sense of body language & so forth. I think this group’s role is vital in bringing something new/interesting to the table.” I agree! 🙂 So far, all the teams have been focused on learning what to observe, and collecting those observations. The next step is to begin to name patterns (if any are clear) and then to speculate about what these patterns might “mean” in terms of showing/teaching us about our own particular group dynamic, and the concepts of group dynamics in general. Everyone (on each team, regardless of your “area”) ought to be developing attentiveness toward phrases, labels, terms, descriptions, or other patterns of speaking that repeat or recur during in-class discussions, weblog postings, and/or any of your Schein Team meetings.


Here are two examples of writing that does get to gist: A conservative explains When ‘Identity Politics’ is Rational, and the Douglas Adams-inspired website offers up a summary of a different kind of economics.

What did Rafael find inspiring about Thump’s post, and what could not be taken away from a representation of Steph and Rafael’s conversation to keep it clear that you are referring to our conversation?

Students proposed a wide range of reasons for Rafael’s appreciation of Thump’s post, including the quality (style) of the writing itself, the actual content, literal quotes, and analytical inferences. I’m interested in these explanations because their diversity illustrates the challenge of pinning down “meaning”. (Neither philosophers nor linguists agree on the meaning of meaning.)

One way to answer the assigned question: “What was it about Thumpasorus’s decision-making post about not attending the No Mas FARC protest that impressed Rafael so much?” was to extrapolate directly from what Rafael wrote. Several students noted the contrast Rafael made with reasons posed by other students (see donwayneleach for an acknowledgment), leading to the conclusion that Thump “did not take the easy way out” by citing common reasons for not attending, and one student quoted Rafael’s statement that “there was something more. Worth reading.” These literal “meanings” are sufficient if one is only interested in the transmission of a simple message with unambiguous content. I would venture to suggest that these real and factual statements are evidence of a larger frame. Perhaps the words themselves indicate particular meanings, but the meaningfulness of the conversation is in/from the frame(s).

Many students noticed the high quality of Thump’s writing, describing it as “thoughtful,” “thorough, ” and “in-depth.” For instance, “The thought process that she presented was extremely well thought out and was articulated in a concise, intelligent manner.” Additionally, some students remarked that this post was “realistic” and “more revealing,” beginning with the opening, in which Thump’s “initial reaction [was] written in a very honest way.” The quality of being “honest” was mentioned frequently and described as “refreshing.” Someone thought Thump shifted into an explanation of “the real reasons for not attending.”

One of the interesting aspects of this particular interaction among all of us (teacher, students, community activist) is how we might identify and address feedback. It is possible to get stuck in a narrow definition that says “feedback” is a particular kind of commentary that offers either criticism or praise. But feedback is any kind of communication that is delivered in the present, about something that happened in the past, with potential to affect the future (Seashore, Seashore, and Weinberg). By identifying what you think Rafael meant, you give him information (feedback) about how other people read his words, but even more than that (!) you give information about yourself: in other words, given the question of identifying the gist (!) of Thump’s post you inform me (and anyone else who is reading) what you find important – either to yourself personally, or that fits some criteria you’ve learned that supposedly defines the category. By noticing what you do and don’t “find” – or at least, what you do and don’t say that you’ve found – I gather feedback (!) that helps me decide on the next activities.

Since we are studying ourselves as a group (in this course on group dynamics, with an emphasis on decision-making), I’m committed to bringing our focus to the task of sorting through the inevitable diversity of responses which can all be considered “right” to one degree or another. The reason for this is that in all groups with a task there is always a twofold outcome: the product (content) and the evaluation of how well the content matches up with the intention (process). For evaluation to be meaningful, there must be a standard of measurement. Can we be even more specific about what earned Thump the “congratulations” of someone not even in our class?

Several of you did name much more particular elements and/or describe what differentiated Thump’s post from the others. These more analytical responses fall roughly into three groups: those that evaluated Thump’s writing on the basis of engagement with Rafael’s issue of concern (FARC), those that evaluated Thump’s writing on the basis of engagement with material in our class, and those that evaluated Thump’s writing more generally, on the basis of broad application.

Thump “showed some knowledge of FARC.” Admitting the delay in memory, the author brings up many ideas from the conversation between Steph and Rafael, “actually [giving] some thought into the proper approach for dealing with FARC,” going so far as even to “[bring] up the valid point that the US should be more involved in dismantling FARC.” In fact, Thump even “told his friends in Boston.”

As far as applying course material, both leadership and decision-making are identified. “Thump analyzed his decision-making unlike anyone else in the class,” with another student concluding, “Thump’s decision-making process was not entirely selfish.” The combination of all the features identified lead to a recognition of leadership: Thump “displayed leadership skills: even when everyone in the class seemed to have the same ‘boring’ answers.”

Finally, some students suggested even broader grounds for marking Thump’s post for special notice. Not only did Thump respond to the direct (required) question, Thump “linked the ideas about the rally to other parts of their life.” The writing was “eloquent and thorough” enough that an outline could be identified:

1. Direct (personal) experience
2. Social action in general
3. Reason for not attending

Two other features of Thump’s post were identified that do not easily fit into the categories above. One is the way Thump acknowledges “aware[ness] of his own apathy” and the second is how the hypothesis offered by one student that having done such careful analysis in writing is what actually “produced for the writer a way to make some impact -> educating friends.”

We’ve been talking (in class) about frames (according to Goffman). Pedagogically, I want students to recognize the frames they bring to the classroom. Theoretically, they will also hopefully learn to develop two generalizable skills: recognizing the frames they bring to other situations, and realizing when their own frame is in conflict with other people’s frames in that situation. This is the crucial foundation for grappling with the unpredictable permutations of group dynamics. Simultaneously, we’re reading After Dachau. I am trying to establish wonder as the normative principle for dealing with difference.

Somehow, the students need to combine this theoretical information into the practical task of creating a course wikisite. As they grapple with defining the gist of the site – that specific, precise point or idea that links everything together – I hope they will consider the interaction of frames they build upon and the one they model. For instance, some of the things that gave students pause while reading After Dachau include:

  • “…why each place of time is different. I think of time passing by and effecting the next day ahead of it.”
  • the mystery of ““trying to piece it together like it was written today”
  • the dilemmas of “culturally enforced ethics & history”
  • and
  • the role and conceptions of language: (e.g., sign language? Deaf? Can’t speak? Learns speech so fast?)

The novel (which is fiction) takes “a big turn” at a certain point. Will students design a site that invites/engages readers in “turning” (i.e., breaking frames) or will they choose to deliberately reproduce a particular frame?

I wonder. 🙂

Both the Wanokip and Just-in-Time found merit in this NYTimes op-ed: Celebrating the Semicolon in a Most Unlikely Location.

Ok ya’all. I’m having a rough day, and I can’t quite organize my time so that my mind can relax and trust everything is going to get done.

I’ve been working, just now, on your peer evaluations. So far I’ve recorded about a third of them. (I did warn you about that study, right?) Here’s the deal. I’m reading them, and I am so proud of you. Honest! I just had a huge upswelling of emotion as I recognize your earnestness to do the task and to think well of each other.

Here’s the game plan:

1) I’m learning how to work with Excel so I can create a spreadsheet that holds the data in such a way that I can manipulate it (you know – that statistical thing) to convey “answers” to certain questions. (I have an excellent tutor, Mr. Christian Wernz, who I’m hoping will actually come talk with us…)

2) I have to apply for the informed consent. Technically, I probably “ought” to have done it already, but that would be following an old, traditional, tired, and literally outdated format for social science research. If we accept as given (as our discipline of Communication supposedly does), that any act of agreement or disagreement is socially constructed, then what I/we have been doing is creating a frame where all of you and one of me (!) can create a study that meets with the broadest permission.

What I mean by that phrase, “broadest permission,” is the largest percentage of informed consent. The best studies (according to a basic assumption of people who like to count) are those with the highest percentage of participation. In reality (well, from the minimal knowledge I have about quantitative research), there are always reasons to discount some of the data. The way I’m interpreting the principle behind the procedures for discounting data, is:

for the purposes of this study in our class, it really is ok if some people don’t want the peer evaluation results included.

Why do I emphasize this point? Because the group-relevant reason I felt that rush of admiration for the way you are all stepping up to the task of peer evaluations (and I do know that this particular activity represents a special task) was that – as much as you want to feel good about each other and allow each other as much benefit of the doubt as possible – you are not letting anyone off the hook.

As I would predict in the early stages of group formation, you are all rating each other generously. This pattern makes those instances of critical feedback particularly significant. When the norm is to accept “whatever it is” that others give (i.e., how much they “contribute”), indicating that you want something either “more” or “different” from another person is risky. I am proud of those of you who have been willing to say something less than ideal about a classmate. And – the kicker is (!) – those of you who have rated your peers uniformly “great” are giving generally strong subjective reasons for these ratings. In other words, you truly accept the participation achieved by your classmates.

I am impressed.

Senator Barack Obama’s Yes We Can speech will go down in history whether he wins the Democratic nomination or not.

Senator Hillary Clinton’s speechifying is also strong: her Super Tuesday speech articulates the theme of change.

John McCain’s Courageous Service video details his navy service.

These individuals have left a record of their beliefs for others to learn from, a testimony to the ambition of their lives to make some kind of difference that improves the world.

I want to quote from an academic blog: “…in order to have a conversation. We have to be more generous and tolerant than we are used to being, than we are trained to be.” (Dr. Mabuse cites Jodi Dean on the challenge of talking about ideas.)

The options are infinite. The challenge is to craft agreement and participation. However, consensus is not an easy accomplishment. Responding to the preceding quote on tolerance, Scott encounters the pull to conformity while recognizing “the strife instinct in others has ultimately created just as much interesting scholarship as it discouraged.” If any group is to establish and promote an idea or an ethic worth attention, the group must engage serious disagreement on the path to compromise and cooperation.

There are so many ideas for what you, COM352, can do with the Course Wiki. I have posted several that I hope nudge your inspiration:

this is how you categorize…

This is wicked cool: Frozen Grand Central.

Here is a fledgling idea along somewhat similar lines, combing a film about water with a website to promote activism about water policy.

And then there are initiatives that utilize language creatively, such as the Puye vacinnation campaign in Colombi.  “Puye” is a play on words…the term “puyar” refers both to the action of injecting vaccines and a popular experession meaning ‘to demand, to hurry up or to press for.’ ~ from Communication for Development: Making a Difference.  A report from The World Congress on Communication for Development (Rome, Italy 25-27 October 2006. Draft 1 January 2007 p. 33).