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. 🙂


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.

I want to introduce a new concept used in sophisticated group relations analysis. Valence is a term borrowed from chemistry, it serves as a metaphor for what we can witness happening relationally among members of a group. “The electrons in the outermost shell are the valence electrons--the electrons on an atom that can be gained or lost in a chemical reaction.”

Bear with me (I’ll draw on the board during class): valence electrons are the ones that establish bonds between atoms – so, just imagine “yourself as an atom.” Like an atom, you have certain (chemical) properties which draw you into relationship with certain other kinds of atoms while repeling you from forming bonds with certain other kinds of atoms. The thing about these attractive and repulsive forces is that they are – to an extent – outside of your control; they are tendencies or proclivities that draw you into particular configurations. We’ve been using the term “role” to label the tendencies and proclivities each of you has demonstrated within our class/group-as-a-whole.

As you have been reflecting on the feedback from your peers, and comparing what they witness of you with what you experience of yourself (remember the Johari Window) – one kind of conclusion you might draw is if you have a valence for reacting to particular circumstances in a group’s dynamic in a characteristic or habitual way. For instance, take the label I gave myself and nearly half of you confirmed in my Johari Window: complex. I am always drawn to the knotty place in a group’s process, to the moment of conflict when differences and disagreement are most salient.

Perfect example? When Mike objected to the Group Assessment Worksheet, arguing that (I paraphrase), “it would have been better if we had done this all along, week-by-week, rather than now, looking back.” I asked what was happening, Aly identified storming….do you remember how we returned to that topic? I brought it up again! Eric would probably argue that if I was a better leader I would know NOT to revisit the sore point, instead I would guide you around it somehow, so that we wouldn’t lose the time and energy of working things out. Instead, I – possibly like a moth to a flame, a dog to a bone? – sensed the percolation of discontent and chose to engage it. Got a bit tweaked in the process, too (!) but, in the end, we made some more progress: some of you decided to embrace the option of completing the final three assignments (well) in order to guarantee yourselves an “A” in the course. The rest of you remain subject to a decision-making process among yourselves: although I would also suggest that you clarified these stakes some more as well. Several proposals are now on the floor, including:

  • everyone gets the same grade
  • everyone present gets an A
  • 50% peer evaluations and 50% teacher evaluations
  • certain assignments are credited and others are forgiven

Notice how you orient yourself to this debate, be aware of the role you fill, of the bonds you are being pulled toward (those that feel ‘natural’ or ‘commonsense’) and also notice those ideas or emotions that you reject out of hand. Anything ‘automatic’ at this stage is worth interrogating. Are you being a functional or dysfunctional member of the class/group-as-a-whole right now? What functional roles are you contributing? Are these the ones we need, right now? What is the task that needs to be completed?

The first meeting of the Informed Consent/Study Team was a brainstorming session about what to select as the focus for a formal study of the group dynamics that have occurred among class members (students, teacher, and visitors) over the course of this semester. Steph has already been collecting data (via the peer evaluation rating forms) to test an hypothesis about the stages of group development, but that information is insufficient by itself.

We agreed that it is time (now) to pose a study question. If we could wind back the clock, what would be interesting to have paid close attention to from the beginning?

Ideas (in no order, roughly in the sequence in which they came up):

  • Having no instructions compared with lots of instructions and how this ties to leadership, for instance, the progress of the group on a given day. (Example: “today given a task and a standard, which increased the rate of success on this day in comparison with other days.”)
  • The whole underlying thing of the group dynamic – come to work with Steph – who’s writing on the board…
  • Use of Johari Window, Peer Evaluations
  • The variation of feedback over time…
  • A group of strangers working together…how we view each other over time – perhaps shown in the quality of what people write (as feedback) over time…what they write…how they view their peers.
  • Strangers: only a few knew each other prior to this class, now friends and know many
  • How do you get together 30 kids….the wiki is an arbitrary task..
  • The success rate of fishbowls: “I really like them!” said one team member. They have
  • Flexible content (how this goes down)
  • Want to accomplish
  • A lot of control
  • positive
  • Just arguing with each other – no one wanted to
  • Avoid hurting people’s feelings “weak” = negative
  • Getting into it…..what do…..problem of agreeing – then uphill since
  • Most people hate group work
  • We do the group work in class
  • Homework done at home, no dependence
  • There are choices, people feel bad about not pulling their own weight
  • Are the peer evals biased? Towards the beginning – who chosen to rate? Now friends with them….

Recall the enthusiasm with which the various team’s presented your own and received each other’s wiki-plans.  Energy was high!  Keep it going!

Making the site is not the end, indeed, at the most important level it is only the beginning. We need time to evaluate what we produce or the production itself will have gotten us only halfway toward the goal.

What – from our beginnings as a group – remains?

I hope the Schein Team on Maintenance Roles has much more than what I’ll share here, and I don’t mean to preempt them, but I do want to comment on the care group members showed to each other yesterday.

First, two of you did remember to watch the clock, so I was able to participate in the candelight vigil “in time” with others around the world. Thank you. 🙂

While you were getting organizing in your Schein Teams, I overheard a comment in the Communication Team concerning a layering of stages of group development. This is a sophisticated notion and I was very pleased to hear it! The Team was discussing how to identify different stages, grappling with the fact that things in real life rarely match theoretical models. What <I>are</i> the relationships between observable behaviors (individual and patterned) and determinations of the status of a group-as-a-whole? Each new fishbowl constitutes a new group: they begin “at the beginning” and could get stuck anywhere along the way. As a subgroup of our entire class/group, their ways of communicating, deciding, switching between maintenance and task roles (to name some categories) can reflect the overall group-as-a-whole stage, or serve to work out particular elements on behalf of all of us, or dash us all back into a previous stage where there might be some unfinished business.

Some of the challenges we are now being faced with concern members who have been absent and return. So much occurs in each class session, and we are trying to attend to so many threads and layers, that keeping up through the wiki – while possible (and encouraged!) – is insufficient by itself. Hopefully, everyone is paying attention to the members of your Team who are not present (for whatever reason), and are proactively doing what you can to keep them in the loop.

Did anyone notice anything interesting about how Fishbowl K proceeded in comparison with Fishbowls H and I (Week Six). Several people chuckled when one of the fishbowl “fish” misspoke while trying to say “diverse” (it came out, initially, as “divorce”). A theory of group relations would not ignore the potential “Freudian slip” quality of this faux paux. There was (wasn’t there?) some tension in Fishbowl K. I was fascinated by what seemed to be almost a reversal of dynamics that had occurred before, including the application of similar strategies but with a markedly changed tone. I thought it significant, later in the Fishbowl, when the same “fish” expressed relief at Sara’s statement that she did not think the coursewiki/webpage had to be comprehensive.  If you noticed something, please reply and share your observations and thoughts! For bonus (!), please quote (or paraphrase) from Weber (on the Life Cycle of Groups/Stages of Group Development) to provide a theoretical ground for the meaning you propose to make of your perceptions. 🙂 Note this information on virtual communities, too.


What to Observe in a Group, by Edgar H. Schein

The Group: A Cycle from Birth to Death by Richard C. Weber. Reading Book for Human Relations Training (Arlington, Va.: National Training Laboratories, 1982), 68-71.

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.)

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