About the Course
"First we use language, and then it uses us." Kenneth Burke
The first part of this antithesis is surprising to no one. But the rejoinder violates some of our culture's basic beliefs about how language works. We see language as ephemeral: invented by a single, free and independent mind, in a moment, with the expectation of achieving a purpose that has soon passed, and the language with it. But we live constantly among evidence to the contrary: language is not ephemeral. A quick visit to any of our monuments in downtown Washington, even a visit to our favorite platitude-spouting aunt, uncle, or father, will tell us otherwise. So what happens when we take these small moments in our life and begin to study the life of a language form. Even the phrase "life of a language form" sounds strange to us. But it won't to you by the time this course is over, because this course seeks to sharpen your seeing the translucent – language.
The language with which we do everyday life extends beyond us, all around us, forming a context from which we choose and coordinate our behavior. Seeing language this way opens new perspectives on how we live our lives, in contexts of meaning, power, and action. Those who have contributed the most to our understanding of this dimension of language and action have clustered in a study known as contemporary rhetorical theory. In this class, we will begin with them, spending a few weeks seeing what they have established about the relationship between language and action. Then we will finish the semester looking all around us and seeing what the things they teach can reveal about life in our culture.
The power of the ideas we will study is such that you have been exposed to them by now. But their prominence is rather recent. Like your thinking about language, you may not have concentrated on these ideas. When they are associated with each other, they form a way of viewing human action that is different than our older ways of thinking. Indeed, the change is dramatic enough that for many of you this course may be a "conversion experience" -- a sudden realization that one former student has called "the click." I want to bring you to think about your experience of language in this certain way, to appreciate the insights provided by this way of thinking, and, I suppose, to understand why you have not thought of things that other way in the past. I want to help you "get over" to fully appreciating the power of language with which you interact every day.
Because the course is about acquiring a new perspective, before your "click" you will probably wonder where the ole' nut is coming from; after you will wonder why he is so repetitive. Such is the nature of the beast. So work hard to understand the first few weeks, and then use that understanding to see the way symbols work in the world around you.
A college curriculum is composed of many kinds of courses. Some are designed to provide you particular skills useful in a profession for which you are preparing. Another sort of course is designed to communicate information that will mark you as someone with "knowledge" even as it prepares you for Trivial Pursuit. A third sort of course is designed to challenge you to think about common knowledge in different ways. It seeks to acquaint you with the power of ideas to shape your experience. Although a well-rounded education should probably include all three of these sorts of courses, realistically different students may find themselves looking for particular types and avoiding others. If you are expecting the first sort of course above, drop this one fast. It will only frustrate you. If you are looking for the second type, you may be disappointed. This is a course of the third sort and expect it to develop with the strengths and weaknesses characteristic of such courses.
So who will find this course appropriate? It will be most exciting for students who like to be challenged to think about their experience differently, who are excited about working hard at new subject matter (but with a great deal of reward, past student evaluations say), who wish to have a richer, rather than just more, knowledge of human communication.
One other observation: this is primarily a lecture course. Some people believe that lecture courses are dull and boring and they cannot stand to sit through day after day of lecture. If that describes you, this is not the course for you. The objectives of this course demand that the instructor be the primary force in conveying the perspective. Practice or exercise will do little good until you get it and once you get it there will be opportunities to try it out. So, if you detest lecture courses, drop this one.
In one sense, the less the better. We will spend several weeks getting you to stop thinking about communication that old way. But that is an unfair answer. There is, in actuality, no material that you ought to have before you come here. Skills of synthesis will serve you well. Synthesis is important in your assimilation of the course material. The the final exam will be essay type, so will require that you be able to do more than rote repetition of material.
There will be three kinds of days in this course. The first will occur in the first four to six weeks and will be lectures about what we know about human symbolic behavior. There is really no way for you to do anything special to prepare for these lectures, just listen carefully and think about the concepts that are being discussed. I think that notes during this part of the course are important, but thinking about the things and asking questions about things you don't understand is more important. Your journals should help your ideas solidify.
After this section of the course, we will have the theory laid out and the second type of day will begin -- I will apply the perspective to a number of different phenomena. The more discussion from you the better, although the format will still be lecture. Notes are relatively unimportant in these sessions. In fact, my suggestion would be to write most of your notes after the lectures are over. Relax and enjoy these lectures. Ask questions where you don't understand something. Provide testimonial where you do understand and you see something that makes sense to you.
The final type of day will be days I turn the class over to you. These will be interspersed among the application lectures. You will have the opportunity to discuss some reading or some shared experience. But I want to do more than simply discuss the readings on these days; I will respond to your thoughts on the broad range of the course. In mastering a perspective, your ability to articulate questions and comments in the language of the perspective is critical. Those who approach these days fully will find them essential to your learning. It is equally essential that I not dominate these days. I will react – say “you have it!” or “try it this way” – and discus whatever you wish. For a well-rounded course, however, expect these to be your opportunity. There may be lecture material you want to discuss some more. The success of these days is on your shoulders.
In general, then, I recommend this pattern of preparation to get the most out of the course: reserve some time after class each day to work on your notes and to talk about the ideas discussed that day with others from the class, and perhaps this is the time to do your journal; come in and talk with me during office hours or at your convenience if there is something you want me to go through again; and, after we start the applications, go through the lectures after class by going back over your notes on theory.
One final recommendation: don't panic if you do not understand the course at first. In fact, don't panic until about the tenth week. (I will warn you when to push the panic button.) It will not come to everyone quickly, but the material of the course is not additive as the semester progresses, so as long as you have it by the end you will be OK.
This course does not have a textbook in the traditional sense. In the past, I have had some books for the class to read and discuss. Given the exotic prices of books these days, I have not yet found a book that I believe is worthy of your cherished book money. So I have decided to go without a textbook. Last semester’s students endorsed this choice. They also warned, however, that without a textbook you need to be willing to commit to attendance in the class and engage with your questions to make certain you understand the material.
The discussions during the application section of the course will sometimes require your reading some articles that will be posted on ELMS. These will be essays that take the perspective of the course and will structure classroom discussion.
Attendance in this course is not required, but don't let that fool you. Participation in this course, and therefore attendance, are important. Let me convince you of this with multiple approaches.
Let me start by appealing to your reasoning. Attendance is more important in this class than some others because of three facts. First, there is no textbook that covers the material that will be covered in class. The website will provide you "notes." But this is a course where "notes" are virtually worthless. Because the key to the course is not information but perspective, the information contained in notes will not have its full meaning unless you are in class to acquire the perspective. So, you probably will not master the course material. After the first few weeks, there are not even notes. If your classmates are doing a good job in the course, they won't even have notes. They will be listening to the lectures, not capturing them in notes. So if you get notes, they are probably from someone who doesn't get it. So, good reason to be in class.
Second, on those days when you have the opportunity to discuss your understandings, to discuss readings, you are preparing for the final essay exam. Fail to prepare for those discussions, or miss those days and you simply will be less prepared. The experience of past semesters indicates this.
If I did not reach you with the reasons participation is important, let me address your metaphors for education. The culture that values non-attendance at Maryland is based on the consumer metaphor: "I paid for it, so I can go or not, as I choose." This is dumb "consumerism." If you insist on a business metaphor for your education, the following variation governs: you have not paid for my performance; you have instead entered into a contract with me that says I will teach you about the power of discourse in American life if you will seek to learn. Part of your obligation in that contract is to attend. Of course, you may opt not to enter such a contract. You do so, by dropping this course today.
Finally, there is the blunt side of this trauma that "consumerists" choose to ignore: the old saw, “If you fail to attend you will be punished with a lower grade!” is true in this course. As I ask studentson evaluations for advice they would pass along to students taking the course in later semesters, one piece of advice is more prevalent than any other: attend class and participate or you will never learn this perspective. Statistically, they are correct. For example, here is some data from last semester.
I do not grade on attendance. But without attendance and participation you will not learn the material. Not knowing the material earns you a lower grade.
So, if you are in the "attendance optional" school of studenting, drop this course for another.
I will be taking attendance. My major purpose in doing so is to collect data that - along with test responses - help me identify problems mastering the class. I need no excuses when you are not in class. Even if you have the best excuse for missing class, you are going to miss the same material as students who simply skip. So, no need to explain your absence except for days when exams are given.
Of course, I spoke of participation, not just attendance. Being involved in the class, asking questions, and trying out your ideas is what participation in the class is about. You will master those aspects of the course that go beyond the acquisition of information with participation.
If I sound like your attendance is important to me, it is. I will put a great deal of effort into teaching this class and expect your effort in return. Other instructors may not care as much and may have developed methods of teaching that do not depend on attendance. Find those instructors if they fit your lifestyle better than I do.
On evaluations each semester I ask students if there are things they wish to pass along to future students. Following are their some typical comments: