Dear class,

It is almost the last day! You have been such engaged learners. 🙂 I hope the labor of the class will not outweigh its value as you each move on into your own futures.

We have one more major task to accomplish. You may have noticed that the actual description of the class names a bunch of communication theories which we have not even mentioned. My strategy has been practical, first, and theoretical second. This is a bias I have regarding education, most people simply call it hands-on learning. Now that we have had our hands (minds and hearts) “in it” for the past five and a half weeks, we really must take a peek at the ways different theories propose to make sense of interpersonal communication (this real thing we do with each other). The editor and contributors to our textbook are generally in agreement with each other; as I have mentioned before, there is a bit of a problem with such a total package. Not everyone examines IPC in the same ways, nor seeks similar goals from it, nor even values it with comparable priority in relation to other aspects of human social life.

For instance, a specific theory called The Coordinated Management of Meaning identifies a hierarchy of meaning based on source – what we might call using John Stewart (our textbook author) metaphor of breathing, all the things we inhale. But the meaningfulness of all those inhales are directed by two rules that guide our exhales so that we stay within whatever we think is normal for that interaction.  One of the originators of this theory teaches in the Communication Department at UMass.  Professor Cronen tells an anecdote about a couple receiving couples counseling using the CMM theory: they consistently <i>misunderstood</I> each other but the meaning they made together worked for their relationship!

A more general field of theory that encompasses a range of variations is known as the ethnography of communication. My first theoretical training was in this area, with its emphasis on communication patterns based in/upon some common codes that are shared by/within groups. I was fascinated by the attempt to make sense of “the interrelationships among language, culture, and society” (Bauman and Sherzer, 1975).

These two strands of theory have different roots. The latter privileges code and group, while the former privileges rule and the individual. The distinction between “code” and “rule” occupies plenty of abstract theoretical attention, but the locus of communicative activity as being either the group or the individual is a crucial and determinative matter. Neither theory (nor their advocates) would attribute linear causality to one or the other, but they do privilege one over the other – as do most of us. Be honest! Do you imagine that interpersonal communication begins with you (what you say, what you mean?), or do you believe that interpersonal communication begins with everything everyone else says and means? (Recall the chicken-egg debate! Or was it egg-chicken?!)

We have talked about how communication influences – even creates – identity; and we have also noticed the differences between the relationships that happen with interpersonal communication occurring online (as we have been doing, sometimes called “computer-mediated communication“) and IPC that occurs IRL (in real life), or face-to-face (f2f). We steered away from relational communication with intimates (family, spouse, etc), while focusing on impression management (especially following Goffman).

The theory that has actually guided my decisions about what/how to teach are those that relate to discourse, in particular, I am most drawn to and inspired by critical discourse theory. It is the attention I’ve paid over the years to discourses that contributes to a sense of trust in certain patterns of interaction, my teaching (and communication, in general) is shaped by intuitions concerning which patterns are in play at given junctures of group development. I am rarely “right” in any definitive way, and I am often surprised – which keeps things alive and fascinating. The surprises during this course have been delightful: I am not exaggerating to applaud the ways in which each of you rose to the occasion and challenges of this class. We have created something special together – I hope you are as proud of us as I am!

Don’t be shy about coming back, whenever. I’ll be doing this work for the rest of my life. 🙂