What’s college for?

October 6, 2016

In connection with developing empathic capacity, the ability as professional communicators to think of and for our audience(s), and perhaps even the willingness to evaluate ourselves as moral agents, I asked us to consider what college is for, or what we look to our college experiences to produce or enable. Here are your consensus answers:

Katy’s group reports college as meant to be a place to learn and grow. “In college a student’s views are challenged. The set of beliefs a student establishes in college will most likely be her set of beliefs for life. In college a student learns to take responsibility for his or her actions and to communicate. College forces a student to expand her perspectives and hopefully teaches her how to empathize with others.”college

Jackson’s group reports college to be intended to help students develop “independence, social skills, and academic diversity,” as well as to provide time and space for students to “find themselves.”

Avery’s group reported that college is valuable because “minds from all walks of life come together to learn. Professors have differing ideas from us, and though we may not agree, finding out how other people view life differently makes us more well-rounded people. College also gives way more opportunities to find careers and discover your ideal career path.”

Jenn’s group decided that college is for personal development. “We take a broad number of classes and get to know those with different backgrounds than our own so that we can learn multiple points of view. This helps students better formulate our own opinions.”

Finally, Jamie’s group described college as a filter. You go through separating two mindsets:  The first is what you came to school with. The second is the one you get in college, one is given to you through higher education and life experiences. Every day you have the choice of what you want to keep and what you want to throw away. You can continue operating and making decisions based on what you have always known, or you can let your education change the way you approach things.

If you asked me what college for, my answer would vary, even day by day by day, but most days I’d likely say something like, “College should enable you to live more freely, more fully, more responsibly and more alertly.” I might talk about the invitation college extends to students who wish to think with more rigor. I’ve often said that our greatest asset with respect to learning is our ignorance. I’m learning every day what I don’t know. When I know what I don’t know, only then can I do something about it, which is to attack that ignorance with a vengeance.

But college is also un-learning. We bring with us myths, pieties, values, sacred cows and even sacred words, assumptions and entire narratives. We soak in a chemical bath of conventional attitudes, submerged in a sea of propaganda, spin and persuasive messages. Even outright lies. Society so often seems and behaves like a conspiracy to keep itself from the truth.

To respond to Jackson’s group, I don’t think “finding” one’s self is all that helpful. The self is not something we have, but rather something we are or, even more accurately, what we ever are becoming. I think the self is much more decided, pursued, made — a crucible of creation — than it is anything one could “find.” The great romantic John Keats wrote, “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is, to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?” We forge in a furnace the beginnings of a soul, not to mention a head, a heart and some hands.

Thankfully, no one (yet) used the word “success,” which I think is such a seduction. Success the world can offer, and it can take away, or simply re-define. Ideals, conviction, the capacity to bring moral agency to bear on problems that matter — these things the world cannot manipulate, and college cannot create. But college can afford a young person the safe space and freedom in which to forge them. “An education is a self-inflicted wound,” writer Lewis Lapham has said.

Finally, I think college is a few years between high school and “the real world” to use to discover the moral significance of desire. You can use this capacity to learn and in some ways determine what it is you truly want to do. These years can be used to invent a life that matters, not merely to “find your passion” or “follow your dreams,” as way too many commencement speakers like to mindlessly repeat. Invent a good life that matters to many. This, I believe, is what college is for.

When you were the ‘other’

October 3, 2016

First, as I shared in class, a general principle holds that if a group sees that there is the possibility that they are being insulted by another, that group will. This is how we are hard-wired. We are always on guard. We like to think the best of FILL IN THE BLANK HERE (Northerners, white people, the French, whomever), but we don’t.

We will default to our worst fears. For an African American viewing the Popeye’s Annie ad, he or she will fear you are perpetuating Aunt Jemima. Consider if Annie were white. The black stereo'other'type and historical antecedents disappear. The default fear is gone. (We still might think about the portrayal of gender, too. Annie as the stereotypical woman in the kitchen taking care of us.)

So if we think there is any chance of intent to slight us, we will feel slighted. We live in a culture of indignation. Some are hacked off because we got it wrong. Some are hacked off because we got it right. This is the key: We should care about the first; we don’t necessarily have to lose sleep about the second.

Second, is it up to us to determine when another people group should or should not feel insulted, regardless of intent? When we don’t share that group’s history, culture or even language, how can we judge? We do not relinquish our own “right” to decide when we’ve been slighted, I wonder how it is that we are so quick to decide for others.

Third, our goals in the course are ethical decision-making, ethical image-making, ethical communication. And ethics requires a process. We need diverse people in the room. We also need a process for systematic dialogue and conversation, so we can be deliberate, thoughtful and persuasive. So we can say what we mean, not something else. To discuss how a group or groups might be unintentionally offended, alienated or even victimized by our messages costs very little before the message goes out. As we’ve seen in our in-class examples, it can become quite costly after.

Perhaps a good guide for us is the Keith Woods quote (“Treat me the same, but respect my difference.”), which gets to the universal sameness of difference and diversity. Don’t we all share this sentiment?

So how do we better appreciate difference? We all are guilty to some degree of staying in our comfort zone, of failing to notice much less engage with the ‘Other,’ with those outside our group, whoever that might mean.

So, to help us think about Woods’s quote and how to avoid unnecessary offense, write a response to this post that tells the rest of us of a time when you were the ‘Other,’ a time when you didn’t fit in, when you were excluded not because of a snap judgment a person or people made about you.

Say something about what that experience felt like, and about what you wish the dominant ‘in’ group knew or considered or even valued at all.

Deadline: Friday by class time

Seeing as a creative act

September 9, 2016

In an act of democracy, you chose to post a response to the comment in The Age of the Image by Rafael Malach, a professor of brain research at Weizmann Institute in Israel: “Seeing is a subjective and creative act.” What do you make of that statement? Do you agree with it, disagree, both? Why? In what ways is seeing subjective? Creative? Provide at least one example from your own experience. And remind me to tell you all about the sunrise in May.


Fort Lauderdale, May 2016

What is culture? What does it do?

August 25, 2016

In COM 270 Visual Rhetoric, we read Michael Kimmelman’s really smart piece on globalization and the creation and contestation of culture. Now it’s time to respond.

First, here are some key excerpts from the article as I see them:

  • Culture . . . is a suite of traits we inherit and also choose to disavow or to stress. It consists in part of the arts. It is something made and consumed, in socially revealing ways. When Mats Nilsson, a Swedish product-design strategist for Ikea, not long ago told The New York Times that he loves to browse for handmade baskets in Spain, bird cages in Portugal, brushes in Japan and hardware on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he was creating his own cultural identity out of the bric-a-brac of consumer choices made available by the globalizing forces of economic integration. Bricolage, it’s called. Anyone may now pick through the marketplace of global culture.

  • (T)he fact that everybody from Yerevan to Brasilia, Jakarta to Jerusalem, knows songs by the Black Eyed Peas or wears New York Yankees caps doesn’t mean that culture is the same everywhere.

  • What’s new is the power available to wide swaths of the populace, thanks above all to cheap travel and the Web, to become actors in the production and dissemination of culture, not simply consumers. A generation or more ago, aside from what people did in their home or from what’s roughly called folk or outsider art, culture was generally thought of as something handed down from on high, which the public received.

  • Today (culture is) made and distributed in countless different ways, giving not just governments and institutions but nearly everyone with access to the Web the means to choose and shape his or her own culture, identity, tribal fidelities — and then spread this culture, via Youtube or whatever else, among allies (and enemies) everywhere, a democratizing process. The downside of this democratization is how every political niche and fringe group has found a culture via the Web to reinforce its already narrow views, polarizing parts of society despite the widened horizon. Neo-Nazis across borders now bond around cultural artifacts available over the Internet. Democrats and Republicans move further apart, digesting news from their own cable network shows.

  • Instead culture (often unconsciously) identifies crucial ruptures, rifts, gaps and shifts in society. It is indispensable for our understanding of the mechanics of the world in this respect, pointing us toward those things around us that are unstable, changing, that shape how we live and how we treat one another. If we’re alert to it, it helps reveal who we are to ourselves, often in ways we didn’t realize in places we didn’t necessarily think to look.

  • Culture is something we propagate but also something naturally there, existing in and around us, which makes us who we are but which may rise to the level of our consciousness only when one of those ruptures or rifts appear — when some little psychic clash happens between it and our more or less unconscious sense of the everyday world.


Your task: Choose one of these excerpts and write a brief (350 words) account that either confirms or rebuts Kimmelman’s argument. For example, for the excerpts about culture’s role revealing rifts in society, you might write about street art or graffiti you have encountered on your travels and what that artistic expression might mean or reveal. I might write about seeing New York Yankees hats all over Ireland and what that tells me about Ireland’s relationship with or perceptions of the United States, and perhaps about the power of brands and how brands work. (Unfortunately, I saw a lot of Red Sox hats, too.)

You are who you root for

January 20, 2016

I wear something with a Tar Heel on it almost every day. If not the heel, then an interlocking ‘NC’. If not either the heel or the NC, then something powder blue. Every day. Some days it’s three or five such apparel choices, all layered on top of Air Jordans, in tribute to His Airness (UNC, BA-Geo., 1986). InterLOCK

Why? Why do I wear so much to affiliate myself with a university and, to be honest, an athletics program and, to be even more honest, one team — Carolina basketball? Is it that I wish to share in the glow and aura that are Tar Heel hoops? Is it an important aspect of how I construct and communicate my identity? Did I choose to attend Carolina (twice) in part because of its campus sports culture? (Yes, absolutely.) Why was that so important to me?

“Communication and Sport: Surveying the Field” tells us that people “enact, produce, consume, and organize sport primarily as a communicative activity.” Our college and team affiliations seem to communicate something essential about our identities. And as a society we use sports to communicate something about “American values,” as we’ll see both in its sophistication and vulgarity in about three weeks (the Super Bowl). My own research certainly suggests that sport is one of the primary sites for constructing, maintaining and contesting identity. Think about Jackie Robinson. His courage and success on the field communicated important, undeniable truths about blackness in America. I’ve written books about this.

So my questions for you here:

  • How do you use sports to create or construct identity?
  • How do you use sports to communicate who you are, what’s important and who you are NOT?
  • How have you seen sports used to contest identity? This last question might be especially apt for our class’s women.
  • How specifically do these choices and values manifest themselves in your dress and in your behavior? (In 2012, $4.6 billion — that’s BILLION — was spent on collegiate licensed merchandise like my UNC sweatshirt and Tar Heels baseball cap, not to mention garden gnomes and dog bandanas.)

Post a few graphs that show your thinking about these questions about sports, communication and identity.



Brain as place

December 30, 2015

I’m sure you’ll hear about this journalism from other places, but I’m referencing it for three writerly reasons:

1. Knausgaard serves up a smorgasbord of metaphors, which I know is a metaphor, but one that is at least specific to the author’s nationality.

2. The presentation’s exquisite layered multimedia, and in that presentation, the very wise choice to put the video at the very end.

3. The reminder that nothing can do the heavy lifting of storytelling like long-form. In this post-happy, ‘like’-driven socially mediated world, narrative can still arrest.

Take a look, if you dare.

Tending the garden

October 7, 2015

In an article about online trolls in the Chronicle of Higher Education, tech culture expert Xeni Jardin is quoted saying that she believes “online communities rot without daily tending by human hands.” It’s a wonderful garden metaphor, and garden metaphors, like that of Adam and Eve in the unspoiled Eden, are among the most durable and delightful of metaphors. Shakespeare knew this. Advertisers know this. Adding another semantic layer to Jardin’s use of this metaphor is the delicious fact that Jardin’s name, in French, means “garden.”

How cool is that?