What is Communication, Exactly?

The place of public speaking in the general education curriculum is constantly questioned. The image of communication majors in pop culture sheds light on why. Because “it’s kinda hard to put into words.” I experienced a moment of synchronicity to illustrate this. The moment is circular, a snake eating its tail.

First, I received yet another email stating professional concern for eliminating public speaking in the general education curriculum. Then, later in the week, I watched a disturbing scene that negatively portrayed the communication major in the popular sitcom, Two and a Half Men

This moment is circular because I don’t know which is the chicken or the egg in the problem. Certainly, there’s a relationship between our representation in pop culture and our diminished status in the gen ed curriculum. Either way, we are the butt of the joke, because our majors are stereotyped as athletes, failed journalism/business students, beauty pageant contestants, students on academic probation, or intellectual hobos. If that is what we attract and produce, why are we a valuable asset in a gen ed curriculum?

The email floating around our professional discussion lists reads as follows:

NCA President Steven Beebe’s presidential initiative focuses on supporting the basic course in all it forms.  He has formed a Task Force and charged it with exploring ways in which NCA can develop and then provide resources to assist colleges and universities in defending and developing the basic course.”

In the episode of Two and a Half Men, Walden has a crush on his date’s hot grandmother. The three are out at a restaurant, and his date spends the entire dinner on the cellphone, while he and the grandmother connect over intellectual conversation. Hot granny explains the granddaughter is looking for a job and just graduated from Arizona State University.

Walden to his Date: Oh wow! What was your major?

[Me: Yes, I sensed it coming….]

Date: Communications.

Walden: I’ve always wondered…

[Me: I sensed this one too…]

Walden: ….What is that, exactly?

Date: Well, it’s kind of hard to put into words. I mean, you know, it’s like talking and stuff.

Hot Granny: It’s $120 grand.

Date: [answers cellphone call, then asks Walden] Are we going to have sex tonight?

Hot Granny: There’s that communications degree at work.

Date: Cuz if not, I just got invited to a killer party.

Hot Granny: I’m pretty sure she’s gonna live with me forever.

So, what do we do that has caused our elimination from general education? And, relatedly, how have we ensconced ourselves in our students’ imagination that sends them out into the world with this “talking and stuff” image? Or was this “talking and stuff” image already there, infecting what we do? Obviously, the answer is both, going all the way back to those stuffy dead Greeks and leading up to the culture wars in the 90s, and the No-Child-Left-Behind pushback of the present.

As a profession, we are obsessed with what we “do” and how we define ourselves. We have disciplinary anxiety over style, substance, and legitimacy. This is the very image of the Ouroboros. This perpetual self-focus is the Ouroboros – alchemical, self-referential, and self-contained. As with all symbols, it cuts both ways, and its meaning can yield positive and negative implications for the self-definition of our discipline. With the Ouroboros, we can playfully accept the invitation set forth by Walden’s date in Two and a Half Men; communication cannot be put into words, and what we do is indeed endlessly circular and defies language. We should revel in our perpetual self-invention. We are alchemical, magical.

Yet, teaching alchemy is not always a good thing, a lesson we all learned from our earliest adjunct professors, the nomadic Sophists in ancient Greece, or the charlatan performers traveling the Lyceum circuit. Our Ouroboric self-obsession, more than anything else, gets us in trouble with general education committees and forces us into the position of defending a base discipline as the gold standard. We have to do a better job of putting ourselves into words. To me, the answer lies in making the “talking and stuff” more relevant. What we talk about in scholarship and what we teach in our basic courses about are frequently disconnected. As the entitled “queen of all disciplines,” we expect general education committees to meet us on our ground instead of using rhetorical skills to articulate what we do in a meaningful way.

We do a lot of talking to ourselves in our journals. I’m interested in the “and stuff” that we do. That is our relevance. I’m interested in the various forms of the “and stuff” today: TED talks, Pecha Kuchas, the progressive stack and the people’s mic at an Occupy General Assembly, Prezis, unconferences, startup bus /startup weekend, MMORPGs, The Story of Self/Us/Now public narrative. I’m interested in moving past print literacy in public speaking to account for the whole new world before we are no longer relevant at all. Some resist, because these things lack substance. Plato said something similar once.

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