June 25, 2013

What We’ve Got Here is a Failure to Communicate

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 7:58 am

Since I received a few more readers than normal on my last post, I thought I’d write about another issue regarding the university. This one, no doubt, will get little attention, though it does have to with rhetoric. We can’t all have back to back big time posts, can we?

Previously, I alluded to the cliche responses we often receive in the university via official letter, personal email, or mass mailing. Typically, this response is something along the lines of  ”We value the work you are doing,” “I thank you for your creativity and willingness to work for us,”  or “Thank you for your efforts and commitment as we move forward in the midst of exciting times full of change and opportunity.” Sometimes these closings are used within heated debates. Sometimes they are used in updates. Sometimes they are used in moments of crisis. Sometimes they are merely the conclusion to an otherwise meaningless correspondence  These responses are meant to project the image of cordiality. The workplace should be a cordial place. In that case, we should end our correspondences with “thank yous” for all of the “hard work” being done.

Cordiality is always welcome. And these closures to a correspondence indicate cordiality. But, as is often the case, these closures also indicate  something else. In its repetition, the gesture is meant to silence or close off. To close. To shut down. When the closing occurs, the recipient is signaled to stop writing or not respond at all. The gesture is also issued as if the person receiving the message might actually think: “WOW. This person sending the message really values me! Thus, I will disregard all the problems we’re having and continue to work really hard!” Instead, we might think that the opposite is the case. The “we value you” closing, for many of us, actually means the opposite. It often means:

  1. Shut up
  2. You are not smart enough to realize I am telling you to shut up
  3. I am not that interested in any response you may have
  4. You are not smart enough to realize that I am not that interested in any response you may have

In this way, the cordial closing to correspondence is not cordial at all. It’s an insult.

I might also say that I have been the recipient of plenty of these “we value the work you are doing” email closings. I receive such closings because, and this should not surprise, I have no problem calling out problematic ideas. I also have no problem engaging in academic conversation. This is, after all, the business we are in. And as a rhetoric and writing person, I’m also in the argument and discourse business. When I respond to some correspondence, and the initiator of that correspondence quickly realizes she/he doesn’t want to correspond, I would prefer a basic “sincerely” or a humble “best” (though, I am not a fan of “cheers!”). But instead of receiving this normal phatic markers of a concluding discussion, I am reminded that I am valuable. Value is our new phatic ending.

Thank you for saying that I am valuable. In the Humanities, this rhetorical gesture is compounded by a continued claim that we are the gatekeepers of critical thinking. If that were, indeed, the case, then it might be obvious to those who send such messages that us Humanities types will engage quickly in critical thinking, acknowledge the statement for what it is (a call to not have a conversation), and then be pissed off (you actually don’t think I’m valuable!). This might be true except I often receive emails with these closings from fellow members of the Humanities. The sender may not be hitting that critical thinking switch on his/her own end. What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.

We are supposed to good at communication. Writing is about communication, after all. And if there is such a think as critical thinking, one would guess that the ability to navigate and participate in communicative moments might be a part of the often triumphed and valued concept. One complaint often leveled at first year students – such as Verlyn Klinkenborg’s New York Times cry of support for the English major  - is that undergraduate students “can assemble strings of jargon and generate clots of ventriloquistic syntax.” If that is, indeed, the writing impulse of the hungry for critical thought 18 year olds we encounter in the classroom during their first or second semester of higher education, what to make of the professional PhDs who feel the need to remind us repeatedly – in its own jaron and ventriloquistic syntax – that we are so valuable?

At some point, email became a vehicle of fear in the university, and that fear reduced actual discussion to phatic discussion whose basis is in cliches and ventriloquistic syntax. Whereas email was a prime medium for distance communication when I started in 1996,  today it is the place where university conversations go to die. Email spats on departmental listservs led not to further argumentation and engagement (the agora became flame wars to some), but to silence. The English department here does not even have a listserv (supposedly because of heated online discussion). Our program does, but we have been reminded more than once not to use it (these reminders come at the very moment discussion gets heated). Supposedly, the very first email sent included instructions on how to use the @ sign. The @ sign, as we know now, indicates the person one wants to communicate with. With generic, cliche closings proclaiming immense value to the department, university or the world, we might as well remove the @ sign from our correspondences. An email with such a closing could be directed to anyone on a listserv where no one should send an email.

Homogeneity and silence are our new keywords of work.  We want a homogenous attitude (SHUT UP/ YOU’RE VALUABLE), and we want quiet so that the administration can do its work without advice or suggestion.  Thus, we discover by email that the university entered into a relationship with Coursera without going through faculty senate or undergraduate council. Thus, the director of a program hides from the program’s members for a year that she/he is stepping down, announcing it only three weeks before the term ends. Thus, a fiscal crises hides the spending going on elsewhere, a lesson I learned as a low level administrator in my previous position.

What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.

We have email, Facebook, Twitter, Google +, blogs, and an overwhelming urge to silence. When I arrived at the university, an internal document circulated that basically advised faculty not to use social media (it did so via all the warnings associated with social media). In an age of making information available, we’re told not to make information available.

All this demonstrates irony in an emerging department – still program – whose focus is communicating ideas in writing, and via new media.

Thus, the Office of Assessment is angry with me because, in a communicative moment of assessment response, I wrote that the speeches under assessment were “boring.” In a homogenous, rhetorical ecology, “boring” has no place. It does not demonstrate value (as the cliche correspondence does). It is argumentative (“I challenge the teaching of audience in this situation”). It is unacceptable (“Our task is not to question the level of interest a speech delivers”). It doesn’t conform (“You are making trouble by using this language”). The communicative moment fails, but the response is to shut down any further efforts (“Please don’t let him do another assessment for us”).

What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.

The citation from Cool Hand Luke actually concludes with the line “some men you just can’t reach.”  The valuable closing is a confirmation of that belief. If you don’t agree with me, I can’t reach you, thus, I will shut down the conversation. Of course, it is not just Luke who is stubborn in the film’s narrative. So is the institution. Even if long blog posts or responses to emails appears to be an act of stubbornness  these gestures are no match for the institutional stubbornness of “you are valuable” closings. My understanding is that the university just spent $90,000 on a pre-college Chemistry preparation course on Coursera that won’t generate any revenue, and the university can’t even guarantee that high school students taking the course will enroll in our university. This decision was made without faculty input. Who is stubborn? “You are valuable” is not only stubborn, it is agressive.  It is an attack on the supposed diversity and critical thinking we continue to champion as what we contribute to education and broad, far reaching conversations.

Most people’s favorite scene (or memorable scene)  from Cool Hand Luke is the egg eating scene. We identify with this scene not only because of the projection of stubbornness (Luke will eat those fifty eggs in an hour if it kills him), but because it doesn’t shut Luke up.  It pauses Luke, it makes him feel sick, it puts him out of commission for a bit. A decision to not listen to faculty about online education is a little like that. So is a “you are so valuable to us” email closing. We do shut up. For a bit. But we mostly recognize the pause as a pause. Yes, thank you. We are valuable. Very, very valuable. Now, shut up.

1 Comment

  1. fantastic. clear. honest. stop shutting up.

    Comment by bonnie lenore kyburz — June 25, 2013 @ 1:45 pm

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