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. 🙂

Back in the unit on “exhaling” (1/2 of a breathing metaphor for interpersonal communication), we began to talk about ideas for the Team Projects. As I wrote individual feedback to each of you, a process of negotiation began – a dialogue, if you will – about how to craft the criteria for this project in ways that make the expectations clear and the content suitable to the course objectives.

Here is one of my first explanations of the project: “If you/your Team can select a topic and trace its development across many examples and instances you might be able to show how one thing leads to the next. For instance, if you took “assertiveness” and found examples and analyzed each example for evidence of “listening, nexting, and consequentiality,” in the end you might be able to say something about longer-term effects (of repetition, or context, or accumulation, or who knows what but something that makes sense in the context of interpersonal relating).”

The examples are to come from our course and the public archives of the Group Dynamics course that I taught last spring. The evidence are the actual words, phrases, turns and developments in conversation that justify the example. The relational connections are what makes the subject matter real. Outerbodyboi wrote something that resonated with my vision for this Team Project:

“. . . we are communicating about communicating too much. People seem to be at a stand still, and are just continually repeating ourselves over and over again. I first felt that I was learning a lot, now I am not so sure. It’s not very fun to listen about listening or communicating about communicating. I think we should start discussing real issues, then analyze how we went about the communication flow, and what we could have done better. I feel that the discussions are almost becoming too abstract and without substance.”

Now that you have seen the Group Dynamics course archive, and you’ve been through most of a semester with me, you realize that what you leave behind (your accumulated “exhales” for this course) are a resource for the future. (As you may recall, you can delete your WordPress weblog after the course is done, although I – quite selfishly, I admit! – hope that you will not. Even more ambitiously, I hope you might return! “Fat chance of that,” do I sense a grumble…?) 😉 The point is, your communication has an existence: in cyberspace the evidence can be obscured, but the consequentiality persists.

Jumping ahead a few units to the initial data collection from the Group Dynamics course, several of you generated some excellent models. Ninjacook invites us to take a little journey down the path of anticipation. She takes us through a series of entries, starting with what I wrote about different kinds of anticipation, to King’s House, who mused, “…you can say what you feel and what you want to achieve, but that is not the same as communicating it.” Ninjacook loops back then, to something else I said about the link between anticipation and consequentiality, before moving on to AP1115’s comment that going through stuff together is part of what generates relational bonds. Finally, Ninjacook’s trip down consequentiality lane ends with a corroborating statement from ontherecliner. The path involves five people (three people cited once, one person returned to twice, and the author) who are saying something that – taken in isolation, by which I mean, read separately later, by someone not involved in the conversation – can be shown to have some interpersonal communication principles in common. Here’s what I wrote back to Ninjacook:

“If you can trace some kind of turn-taking or exchange among several people over a period of time that illustrates the theme – THAT is the ultimate goal!”

Does that make sense? If the team that includes Ninjacook decided to study the anticipation-consequentiality dynamic, for instance, the ideal would be to identify four or five people and track their actual dialogue over time, pulling out the quotes that show evidence of (in this case) anticipation in the exhale and evidence of (in this case) consequentiality in the inhale. Then, do this two to three times with our class material, and two to three times with material from the Group Dynamics course. In other words, a total of 4-6 examples, 2-3 each from our course and the Group Dynamics course, with each example as developed as possible from the beginning to the end of the whole conversation/interaction. (This is not the whole Project, but we are becoming increasingly clear on its core substance, yes?)

I gave similar feedback to President Makalele (on a variety of ways to approach self-disclosure), emphasizing that “the evidence and example has to come from people “exhales”. Meaning, don’t just find a bunch of random instances of a particular phenomena – we’re actually after the structure of our interpersonal communication. Jaggerbunny picks on me (!) and my expression of emotion; I replied with a nudge for elaboration. “Another way to think about this might be, what “nexts” follow from mine (in that particular case, and you’ll have to find others).” JimiGarcia actually wrote this exact prescription:

” . . . use the ideas of listening incorporated with how we have progressively been responding to each other . . . If we study through each response made to each other how we have learned to “listen” to each other and use the other terms learned from class to complete our midterm I think we will find success.”

Gym goes deeper into the flow of our communication, as OuterBodyBoi suggested, in terms of self-analyzing her journey along the path of open-mindedness. This allowed me to explain

“. . . how I am using your specific words to show a kind of logic… That logic is what you are to make plain with the team project. One of the beautiful things you’ve done is make a personal reference: you could go back (as an example rife with evidence for the presentation) to the exact quotes you made before and show the evolution in your responses as you have changed during the course of our “confusing” continual complex interpersonal communication process . . . does that make sense? Do you see what I’m getting at?”

Now, I would add that the influences inhaled would need to be part of the chain: you need to lay out all sides of the interaction.

I mentioned, above, that the potential legacy of your work here is not only as a learner, but also as a teacher and a reference for others. OuterBodyBoi found the informed consent process in last semester’s Group Dynamics course – I would like to ask the same of all of you, too. Would you let me try to publish something about the teaching and learning that has been accomplished in this class? (Oh, and I have a note here – for Outer Body Boi and your team, if you’re interested, and vice-versa – that Deliver Me Summer wrote along the lines of time and the development of relationships.)

Finally, I was excited to discover that Spicey Noodle Soup located my colleague’s exceptional explanation of How Words Create Reality. It is a different assignment than our Team Projects, but the notion of “unpacking a simple word” is a related activity. The description explains the process of making a piece or part of lived experience (something normal and taken-for-granted) appear strange or problematic. You might relate this specifically to some of the comments I have made about diction.  The process of deconstruction is similar to the analysis and critique that is required for our Team Projects.

For your replies, please double-check the assignment criteria in the course website. I’ll be looking for questions and insights about what we’re trying to accomplish, and also your advice as to what reading assignments to use for the individual FINAL (which will be done after the Team Project).  Please look in Part IV of our text and make an argument as to which section (not which particular author or article selection) but which entire Chapter, seems to you (today) most indicated as the best reading for us to end with: “Recognizing Communication Walls,” “Managing Conflict by Turning Walls into Bridges,” “Bridging Cultural Differences,” or more from “Promoting Dialogue”?  Give your reasons and include at least one quote from that chapter’s 1-2 page introduction!

Title Quote: SpiceyNoodleSoup

As I write this, students in their Project Teams are far along in their internal dynamics – my comments today reflect back upon where we were nearly two weeks ago, when the small group plummet began. Inevitably, there was confusion. Nonetheless, in fairly short order the new structure of the class emerged, with students ‘nexting’ from the (traditional school-learning) self-focused individual phase into a collaborative ‘oh we’re really in this together’ team phase.

The first team-building assignment (5:3) asked students to read each other’s summaries of a variety of articles on the topic of “exhaling” and my lecture on “nexting.” The idea was to work with (textbook author) John Stewart’s metaphor of interpersonal communication as breathing: as a live, organic process with the qualities of a chicken/egg mutual dynamic. Which comes first (for instance), the team project assignment or the orientation of students to the fact of a project? I continue to teach in the mode of a reflective practitioner, designing the curriculum as a reflective conversation between me with the knowledge demonstrated by students (singly and in aggregate). The second team-building assignment (6:1/6:2) involved reading John Robison’s book, look me in the eye, and figuring out how to continue (now, in the midst of all this complexity and confusion and comprehension).

Note: for kicks (and

to protect anonymity, and

preserve grammar)

I have made everyone’s gender female.


First, the mechanics: model responses were provided by DeliverMeSummer (for 5:3) and Shiny Ginger (for 6:1/6:2) yet every student made important and insightful contributions. I cannot mention everything (there is simply too much!), so what follows are what struck me as highlights: either for their power of summary or their significance in pointing to present (current, active) dynamics. A different person would select an alternative set of highlights (some quotes/paraphrases might overlap, but definitely others would not, and the overall picture would have a distinctive quality no matter how much commonality exists).

The Gymnasium (as I’ve adapted her blogname to reflect my sense of her foundational contributions to our class as a group), wrote: “Just when I thought I knew enough to successfully communicate, I realize I can still learn much more…” JohnnieDrama is rather more explicit:

you will see the ulterior motives which Steph decided not to express to us. She needed to butter us up before she bamboozled us with group projects.

Cake problematizes the conspiracy theory, arguing that if I had intentionally misled everyone, then I would be guilty of stereotyping. Or maybe Cake meant all of you would be guilty of stereotyping?! Cake also names the power dynamic: “because Steph controls our grades . . . we did as she told us.” I omitted part of Cake’s statement (notice the ellipses), because I suspect the sheer fact of The Grade carries the most influence. Evidence of this power continues to roll in via email and the in-class logistics thread, with pleas not to be held accountable for teammates’ less than ideal performance, or penalized for missing assignments (every one has a good reason, of course), or because of problems with the technology . . .

What I want to highlight is the obedience factor. (From this you can now extrapolate my general critique of most public education.) Hmmmm. The omitted part of Cake’s critique now becomes relevant: “…and she knows what she’s doing…” Well, thank you (I think!), but let me clarify: I do not “know” in the sense of being able to predict without error but perhaps I do “know” on the basis of training and experience. I know the structure that schooling imposes, and I know the roles students are trained to take. I trust your intelligence, too.

So, I am not surprised that President Makalele (for instance) can summarize,

“We have learned the tie-ins with active listening, nexting and consequentiality and as a result, more and more people are realizing what to look for in respect to these three ideas when reading something they are going to respond to. The first blog posts contained for example, instances of nexting but nobody knew that they were doing it.”

or that OuterBodyBoi can come up with her own metaphor:

Communication is like fencing. You have to set things up correctly in order to harness true power and effectiveness.”

Well, if I have “misled” you to this point of harnessing true power and effectiveness (!) I guess I am doing my job alright, eh? 🙂 Masr describes why this online mode of studying interpersonal communication enables such deep learning:

“While online, you have the advantage of being able to read what you’re interlocker says as many times as you please, and than using nexting on your own time.”

There’s a typo in that sentence which is amusing because of its truth: once you begin communicating with someone (or refuse to do so) you are locked into a relationship of some kind. The “kind” is where interpersonal communication allows us latitude: we can move by establishing new positions, finding different orientations, discovering alternative perspectives. On the basis of this interrelational social fact, interpersonal communication theorists can claim that our interlocutors make us who we are.

The parameters of identity are fixed by who we communicate with (and who we don’t), as well as by how we conduct the communication process. Recognizing a pattern of redundancy, for instance, as SABoy did with the limited range for expressing emotion presented by our deeply-americanized textbook, becomes impossible if one is only always communicating within an homogenous group. Consequentially, expressing emotion in “an American way” (if I can make a rather large leap here for the purposes of illustration) makes one “American” more than, for instance, the originary fact of citizenship that is supposedly ascribed at birth. This is one basis for how/why discrimination remains a real problem: identity is ascribed (by others) as much (and sometimes moreso) than the avowals we make for ourselves.

Our surprise guest – thank you John, for being here! – muses:

It’s worth considering whether a person like me – with communication challenges that result from some kind of neurological difference – would have benefited from a class like this, long ago.

In face-to-face versions of this course and others, I have had students with Asperger’s Syndrome. My experience is that they have benefited, and their presence intensifies the learning for everyone. Including me 🙂 The challenge of mediating the differences that are brought into view by people who do not follow the norms is (in my opinion) the point of interpersonal communication as well as being its disciplinary contribution to human society.

At the moment, we seem to have lost our only known audience. I am a bit concerned about this, as John was more than a passive reader of our writings: he was seeking engagement and . . . what happened? Perhaps his educational goals (regarding Asperger’s in general) and mine (regarding group decision-making) are simply too far apart? The last topic I had raised in our conversation concerned anticipation as a feature of communication. John had engaged the notion I posed that speaking whatever first comes to mind can be as problematic as speaking whatever one had already been thinking. He (rightly) corrected an overstatement of mine, in which I asserted that both stances lack the quality of anticipation.

Let me provide links to three different explications of the concept: “anticipation” as emotion, “anticipation” as used in the field of artificial intelligence, and “anticipation” as used in medicine, specifically the field of genetics. All three have some relevance to a consideration of the role of anticipation in communication. Storming, for instance, comes about in a group at least partly because of the juxtaposition of several individual expectations, as well as the degree to which structured institutional and cultural norms are recognized or experienced as present/absent. AI applies logic in a strict fashion in order to gauge what and how agents can make conscious decisions about the future, and genetics considers anticipation as a way of labeling the early signs of what will develop later into a disorder. In terms of communication – particularly in terms of the relationships that communication makes possible – anticipation can be divided into two broad categories, which (for simplicity’s sake) I will call “negative” and “positive.” In other words, I can anticipate the worst and craft my communication to either defend against ‘the bad’ or offensively assert ‘the good’ (roughly, what I desire); or I can anticipate the best and design my discourse to minimize ‘the bad’ and emphasize ‘the good.’ (Of course I am proposing these categories as extremes as ends of a continuum along which each of us fluctuate depending on a wide variety of factors – mood, energy, investment, personal history, amount of knowledge/experience, cultural background, etcetera – and all of these in relationship with the circumstances of the immediate situation itself.)

Track back in time with me, because I have to introduce another element of which none of you are yet aware. A colleague responded to the posting of John’s and my email conversation with a spot-on critical analysis; another friend emailed saying she thought I was rather hard on John, since I did not simply accept his offer to come to our class. At the time of those correspondences, none of you (students in the class) knew (yet) that John had contacted me, in other words, that someone is paying attention to what we do. I have been puzzling, can (should?) I bring all these threads of conversation with different individuals to our collective attention? What is the relevance of this particular conversation to group dynamics and, particularly, the processes of decision-making in groups?

I chose to ease us into a confluence of these conversations by assigning a question for the class that was (I thought, at the time) appropriate with where you/we were in our reading of the text (John’s book). I had been caught in the assumption that the title was a challenge to look John in the eye, and was surprised and dismayed to read of the painful associations he has with that particular phrase spoken to him as an unmeetable command. I considered that my experience was probably not unique, and also that there must be other interpretations. I suspected that the range of responses to the title would be interesting and open a window for us to learn something about ourselves. Indeed, the ways you reacted to the title varied! (In case you are wondering, this apparent tangent is within the scope of defining audience for the course webproject! In particular, I intend to illustrate something about “anticipation” and how we may want to consider it seriously as we confirm the scope of the project and begin to implement specific design ideas.)

Meanwhile, I am already talking with John (and my friends outside of class)…I want to bring you all into the conversation with John first…how? I create the next assignment, struggling with how to form a suitable question. I aim to illustrate how “understanding” develops: by and through our mutual struggling through associations, intuitions, assumptions, predictions, taken-for-granted meanings, and surprise developments (such as John Robison reaching out to us (!) from somewhere ‘out there,’ from his timespace ‘outside’ of the boundaries of our group-as-a-whole). The point is that when we forge connections between different events and elements we make them sensible to ourselves and others. If our perceptions and attributions of meaning differ from each other’s, then we are confronted with making choices about whether or not to invest in building something common or letting the differences determine the parameters of relationship.

What the_______?$%#$%^$%^$??

Anticipation. 🙂 In the midst of our (attempted, group-level) conversation with John (in which it is unclear to me how consciously students considered that John MIGHT READ what got written!), several other matters were raised, including goals for the coursewebproject.

“Our goal is to create something AS A CLASS. Not reach out to others.” Really? I like donwayneleach‘s passion for the driving motivation being the actual activity of co-construction, but do we want to totally disregard the audience? As getouttakingshous says: “Communicating what you feel and what you want to achieve does not come naturally. Sure, you can say what you feel and what you want to achieve, but that is not the same as communicating it. Communicating something makes it possible for your audience to feel the same feelings you feel about what you are trying to communicate.”

“…this context is unlike any other…” (Princess3, quoting John Robison)

Does the uniqueness of “this context” have effects on framing? Is there anything about this context being “unlike any other” that is important enough to convey? vertebralsilence argues:

“The difference between my communicative style and instincts and John’s are striking and yet the existence of DIFFERENCE is not exclusive to people on the autism spectrum. This difference exists between all of us – and maybe accounts for a great deal of flawed and failed attempts at communication. Could understanding these differences – isolating them, analyzing them – help us communicate better as a group? (and as individuals in the world at large?)”

Are any of our own “forehead-slapping moments” (churchofgoogle) worth some kind of representation in the coursewebproject? And/or, what about the different modes of communication, as described by sunshine775:

“everyone has different frames and ways of seeing a situation. When I start to engage in a conversation or speech I may say things that people in my audience may not understand or know how to make sense of it. I find it so much easier to sit down at my laptop and type out how I feel. I even find it easier than sitting down with my diary. I have formed some type of relationship where my fingers just fly across the keyboard and my thoughts flow from my head through my fingertips.”

“…the reason communication is difficult,” explains ontherecliner, “is not only do you have to express what you feel, but you also have to do it in a way someone else understands.” thumpasorus agrees that “… the tendency just to communicate in a stream of consciousness…” could be a problem. In other words, how proactively (how much anticipation!) can we garner among ourselves to mold the individual passions and interests of each member of the class into a collective representation?

“The thing is often times people’s reactions have nothing to do with the actual event but rather their own biases based on their own distorted view of reality… Reality occurs out there, what we make of it occurs in the mind. The question I often ask myself is where do I draw the line trying to think for others and act accordingly to that and where do I just say what’s on my mind.” (sedona1)

I would say, we are getting ready to take meanings (from our own minds, along some kind of individual-collective continuum) and put them “out there” as a “reality” which others can experience and interpret. What will we give them to work with?  It may be useful to revisit the what and the how.

There is now more going on in the talk of our class than I can track alone. The proliferation of assignments, blogposts, fishbowls and all of everyone’s ideas has served to provide an incredibly dense and potentially powerful matrix for us to transform into some kind of cooperative product.

I am pleased that the concept of frames or framing was mentioned in several of the individual proposals. We have some resources already available in the part of the coursewiki that I’ve been developing:

  • although we did not use the label (I don’t think?), some elements of our frame as a group was established on the first day of class
  • Goffman’s concept of framing was introduced as relevant and applied in Week 4
  • also during the 4th class, we began to recognize some of our own emergent norms

My mind has been spinning all week with the conversation we began trying to distinguish among representation, symbolism, and mimesis. Do we want to (re)produce something of art or something of knowledge? Can we attempt both? I saw a hint of art/knowledge in “Let’s Be Serious.” If you read the post with “Busy” playing in the background, there is a juxtaposition of different kinds of knowledge (different modes of knowing?). What emerges from the mix is an interesting kind of timespace, eh? A moment is created for the reader/viewer/listener of the mediated “space” that conveys more than is actually said. Could we do something like that? If we wanted to, what is the “feel” that we might seek to create?  Ch0c0latemilk commented on the favorite songs track that playing during WikiLab #1, “The music is making me want to type fast.”  Do we want to provide a uniform sensory experience for our audience?  If so, why, what, and how?  If not, again, why, what, and how?

I wonder if a next step is to start configuring working design teams? How? (Feel free to make specific recommendations and/or provide organizational criteria.)

Ever heard of shopdropping?

These folks are serious, from artists and authors, to protestors of all stripes:

“At Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., religious groups have been hitting the magazines in the science section with fliers featuring Christian cartoons, while their adversaries have been moving Bibles from the religion section to the fantasy/science-fiction section.”

I am attracted to the spirit of  “try[ing]to inject a brief moment of wonder” into the daily rush of commercialized life.

From an article by the New York Times:  Anarchists in the Aisles: Stores provide a Stage

The rigid segmentation of course material into discrete “subjects” provides gaping canyons for student’s intellectual engagement. As the Fall, 2007 semester wraps up, my thoughts leap ahead to the next class and the next group of students. I want to challenge us to think beyond narrow definitions of “group” focused on “identity” to sophisticated notions of “role” and the ways our own day-to-day activities participate interactively with the larger sweep of social and political affairs.

My idea at the moment is to assign the novel, After Dachau (Daniel Quinn), for the first week of class. I read it in about four hours (see excerpt). I also want to show this media analysis from Al-Jazeera, on the divide in US news reporting over the Iran Nuclear Report. Pedagogically, can the students draw parallels between “fiction” and “reality”? In terms of continuity, might I be able to entice some of the students from this semester to keep talking about the important conversations we began?

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