social change (ENG112)

We have begun our study of interpersonal communication with listening. My strategy is deliberate – which twenty-five percent of what I say/type are you “listening to” (reading, perceiving, registering)? And – what of the 75% you merely hear or visually skim past? (Kay Lindahl provides this statistic in “What is Listening,” a summary of highlights from Practicing The Sacred Art of Listening)? I am well pleased with the overall performance of the class so far in terms of following directions. Yes, there have been glitches, but in general we are proceeding as best as can be expected in this online only learning/teaching environment. (Did you notice that I listed learning first?!)

Of course I am interested in how well you perceive what I seek to convey (how else can I – as teacher – assess your progress?), but the larger point is to start noticing how you listen all the time, everywhere, in all the various situations that compose your life with other people. As I read the assigned articles from our textbook, I notice how I skimmed over the information I (think I) know, instead being drawn more to those theories and concepts which might help me better understand certain current situations in my own life. For instance, in the first batch of articles, I am fairly confident in my knowledge about of “myths about” and “skills of” listening. I selected, as Kenneth Burke explains, a certain slice of reality (“It’s Only Skin Deep: Stereotyping and Totalizing Others,” by Julia T. Wood, p. 192-193, which is cited at this interesting compilation of Problems with Intercultural Communication). This is always the case, all the time, in every interaction, and just because I am “the teacher” does not necessarily make “my” choice more relevant than yours. (“My” slice might be more relevant to me, but not necessarily as important to you as the slice of reality that you selected.) The slice I (and you) pick is necessarily reflective of a reality – interpreting some dimension of it, and also – simultaneously – de-selects other ways of slicing the same reality. (This communicative selectivity works the same way for everyone, always.) 😉

Regarding the material on listening, I found myself particularly interested in the notion of scripts as described by Trenholm and Jenson (“Interpretive Competence: How We Perceive Individuals, Relationships, and Social Events”). I had to do a lot of active listening as class got underway! At one point, I felt as if I was playing detective – I would receive clues that something was wrong (such as an explicit message asking for help or clarification), but I could not match the content of the message with my knowledge of the course structure. Then I would have to ask clarifying questions, paraphrase, and simply try to imagine what/where the breakdown might be: is it a problem with the course software in terms of what students can/can’t see or do, or is it a problem of explanation (I failed to be clear), or is it a problem of assumption (what seems obvious to me is not obvious to them, or vice-versa?)

And/or – were we (me/teacher, you/student) operating from different scripts? How many students experience the classroom as a zone for closed episodes? I am not sure, but my experience informs me that most students behave in the classroom as if the scripts are closed: the “rules for proper behavior are well known in advance and govern the flow of interaction” (p. 179). Then, here I am, working hard to create a framework for experiencing this curriculum/classroom as an open episode, as an opportunity where “there is greater freedom to create new forms of interaction and to change episodes midway through” (p. 179).

In fact, I am trying to draw us – intentionally and on purpose – into a defined episode, a learning situation “defined ‘in progress’ as participants follow their own personal goals and plans…” (p. 179). I am still the authority figure who has to evaluate learning and assign grades, but our subject of study is flexible, malleable: a matter of emergent social interaction rather than immutable, static fact. I can no more dictate to you what you will/will not “listen to”, what you must/must not “select” or “deflect” from your perception of reality than I can force the moon to stand still. Interpersonal communication is a fluid situation, a flowing or unfolding of things said/not said in a sequence that is co-determined by interlocutors as each identifies what kind of an episode is happening and what kind of script is to be used. (What happens next, I wonder, if we mis-identify?)

There are many factors that play into the identification process – learning to listen well (to yourself as well as to others) is the core, bedrock skill necessary to learn how to work with episodes and scripts in a proactive way – not necessarily to change them into something else (a different kind of episode, or another type of script), although sometimes this may be desirable. My goal as a radical andragogue (!) is to enhance your cognitive complexity. Why? “Research has shown cognitively complex persons to be more accurate in processing information about others, better at placing themselves in the role of the other person, and more patient in weighing most of the evidence before formulating a complete impression” (Trenholm & Jensen, p. 183, cite two studies: Jesse Delia, Ruth Ann Clark, and David Switzer, “Cognitive Complexity and Impression Formation in Informal Social Interaction,” and Claudia Hale and Jesse Delia, “Cognitive Complexity and Social Perspective-Taking”).

It seems to me, perhaps now more than ever, that we – us human beings alive today – need to be able to do all those things better.


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.

Check out this series of 60-Second Science videos that rock.

Episode 6
includes news on the global seed vault, the apocalyptic potential of Apothos, how to shoot a bacterium in the head, and robotic suicide bombers.

Episode 5

highlights from a big science conference, sharing info through social networks =? herd behavior/hive mind? Digg ratings on 60secondscience…

Episode 4

new dinosaurs – highlighting the carnivores, camping in the wilderness, hotornot dating preferences, heat measuring high impact map (how we’re screwing up the oceans), and virtual patients for doctor training.

Episode 3

meds and malaria, “Who shrank the superpower?”, artificial intelligence and videogames, and marrying your third cousin.

Episode 2

death by sitting,  neuron-by-neuron brain slicing, free will or robot, and the persistence of creationists.

Episode 1

news on the safety of cloned food despite “subtle genetic changes”, peanut butter jelly time,  yeast years, and facebook: do you exist?

Meanwhile, my favorite media about the internet has not yet been displaced: Web 2.0: The Web is Us/ing Us

 Jack clips in support of Hillary

Spoof: Nicholson for Hillary video

Some interesting stats about online campaigning:

A search for Hillary Clinton turned up 51,000 videos. A search for Barack Obama turned up 54,000. And, a search for Republican frontrunners John McCain and Mike Huckabee turned up just over 12,000 and just over 5,000, respectively.

The number of videos coincides with rankings on Wonkosphere, a blog that tracks, measures, and reports online buzz surrounding presidential candidates.

That site reported that Obama had 46% share of the buzz, with 969 blog mentions. Clinton had 36%, with 840 mentions on blog posts. McCain ranked third, with 16% of the share and 543 posts, compared to Huckabee’s 1% share, with mentions on 109 posts.

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:

One Million People aim to mobilize and protest the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).  The event is being organized by colombiasoyyo

The pressure and visibility is necessary. I am now personally involved, because friends of a friend were kidnapped by FARC. Politically, we are all involved.  I am not sure, however, that protests against only one side will generate an answer.  It seems to me that equivalent pressure needs to be generated against the institutional forces that promote FARC’s continued existence.

I don’t think there any more one-sided solutions (short of annihilation) possible in our complex and contradictory global-social world.

The first sign I knew about was the SEVIS fee instituted by UMass against international students (only) to pay for their own (!) security monitoring. Successful organizing among graduate students, faculty, and others managed to force the University to retract on this; but international enrollment continues to drop. Even though the discriminatory fee was dropped, the surveillance continues:

Under the auspices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been keeping close tabs on foreign students and their dependents through the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). As of October 2007, ICE reported that it was actively following 713,000 internationals on campuses, while keeping more than 4.7 million names in its database.


Seven Steps to a Homeland Security Campus

These dual-purpose officer-agents [of the Pentagon’s “Threat and Local Observation Notice” system (TALON)] have knocked on student activists’ doors from North Carolina State to the University of Colorado and, in one case, interrogated an Iraqi-born professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst about his antiwar views.

Seven Steps to a Homeland Security Campus

Not only are the UMass police armed, but surveillance is increasing on college campuses around the country. In other words, they’re not only watching international students, they’re watching US citizens, too:

The International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators reports that surveillance cameras have now found their way onto at least half of all colleges, their numbers on any given campus doubling, tripling, and in a few cases, rising tenfold since September 11, 2001.

Seven Steps to a Homeland Security Campus


Surveillance in the US is for real; check us out compared with the rest of the world…

The 2007 International Privacy Ranking


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