Saturday, February 23, 2013

Rhetorical Theory is My Best Self-Help Book

If you are at all involved in higher ed, you probably know there's a graduate school crisis, especially in the humanities. I am not ignoring those concerns, and I am not here to tell you there's not a crisis, but I do want to talk about something I got from a humanities graduate program that can't be measured in job placement rates or money: a better life.

Storm Clouds 2

Anyone who knew me in high school could tell you that I was not a happy person. In fact, I was diagnosed with clinical depression in eighth grade. I went through a bout of insomnia that lasted a solid year. I had suicidal thoughts, and I didn't take care of myself. 

There are lots of things that help explain the state that I was in. I was a teenager, for one, and being a teenager is hard. I was in a small town and constantly surrounded by the judgment and gossip of people who watched my parents' marriage fall apart like it was a soap opera designed for their entertainment. I was a weird kid who didn't really fit in. 

I also crafted a worldview that had me constantly focusing on other people and their actions. 

I didn't carry the depression with me all the way to graduate school, but the worldview stuck around. Like this gorgeously-crafted video demonstrates, high school problems tend to get better if you just make it out of them, and that was true for me. I was happier and healthier in college. I enjoyed my life more. I liked myself more. But I was still stuck focusing on other people and their actions whenever I was in conflict. 

Let me give you an example. 

If I got in an argument with a friend, I focused so fully on the friend's feelings and perspective that I never took the time to think about my own. I would end up apologizing profusely or screaming incoherently, whichever one I thought would make them act in a way that was more favorable. All I could see was them, which is unfortunate, because all I could control was me. 

This is where rhetorical theory started to seep in. 

I read that communication "is a presentation of reality that gives life an overall form, order, and tone" and that through the communication we receive we craft "a new dimension of reality, symbolic reality, and it is through the agency of this capacity that existence is produced."*

I found out that we make sense of our life through codes and that they "ultimately have to be explained by something more than pictures, that is, either in words or in a total human context, humanly understood."**

And I learned that when we are able to interpret things differently, when we put new meaning to old symbols, there is a "changed behavior that goes with a new meaning" and that the inability to create new meaning in new situations, the desire to hold onto previous interpretations without testing them can be a liability: "past training has caused them to misjudge their present situation. Their training becomes an incapacity."***

I learned a lot more than that, but the key thing that I learned is that I am (as Burke puts it) "a symbol-using animal." We make sense of our world through the meaning we assign the things that we see, read, and interpret. When I speak, I am an encoder, putting meaning into the words that I send, and when I listen, I am a decoder, attempting to get meaning out of the words that I hear/read.

Learning that helped me to see that things don't just happen to me; they happen with me. Understanding that I had the power to interpret the messages I received as well as the power to carefully encode the messages I sent gave me an agency in my own life that I had never had before.

Seriously. When I was in high school, my motto was "people are bad." I focused so much on the bad people doing bad things that I couldn't figure out how to pay attention to how I reacted to those people or how I placed myself in situations with them. It was as if I was a piece of furniture on a stage that just had to wait for someone to come into the scene to put me into action. I could be sat upon, flung against the wall, or sit mutely as other people acted around me, but I couldn't figure out how to act for myself.

My sophomore yearbook photo.
This mentality left me powerless, a ship on the waves. When the seas were calm, I was happy. When the storms came, I was miserable. I could only focus on the external things that "caused" my happiness or sadness, and I had no idea how to be an agent in my own life.

Studying rhetorical theory changed all of that. If we are symbol-using animals (and we are) then our brains are like a television screen that's constantly on. We are taking the information that we receive from our life experiences and crafting them into a story in our minds.

Before, I could only focus my camera externally.

Let's say that there is a conflict going on between me and someone else. The other person is joyfully saying something mean, and I am upset about it. If it were taking place on a stage created entirely in clipart, it would look like this:

But because all I focused on was the other person who was sending me the messages (not my surroundings, not the context, not even how I was receiving it) all I saw was this:

The only way I could react to that was by trying to change what the other person was doing. I could get upset and hope that my anger or pain motivated them to change. I could apologize (whether or not I did anything wrong) and hope that would make them stop. I could be silent and hope that they just changed on their own. 

But once I was able to see that there's a whole stage out there, there's a context for every interaction, things changed. There is someone sending messages, sure, but I'm also receiving them. Perhaps most importantly, I have the ability to act within that space. I can change how I am sending messages. I can change how I receive them.

This was an amazing (if perhaps obvious) revelation. I was no longer a piece of furniture on the stage.  I could focus on me and my actions, the messages I was sending. I could broaden the lens and look at the entire act in order to figure out what was the best course of action. Action, of course, is the keyword. Once I broadened by lens to include myself in the picture, I actually had some options on how to act. Before, all I could do was watch someone else and hope that their actions would align with my wants. That's a disappointing way to go through life. 

This new perspective does not always make life easy. There have been times when my broadened lens has given me a variety of actions and none of them worked. There was someone whose actions were upsetting me. I tried changing the way I received the messages, but I was still upset. I tried sending messages in different ways to see if that would change the interaction, but I was still upset. Thankfully, I still had an option. I could exit stage right: 

Sometimes, I just have to go find a different stage.

Here's that revelation in song form:

My mantra is no longer that "people are bad." People are people. They are (almost always) acting in the world to the best of their abilities, but those abilities can be clouded when their own meaning-making systems aren't operating optimally. I can't make other people happy. I can only make the best decisions for my own part and hope that the decisions I make help to make my stage a better place. Or, as Gnarls Barkley put it: "I'm going on, and I'm prepared to go it alone. I'm going on to a place in the sun that's nice and warm. I'm going on, and I'm sure they'll find a place for you, too."

That's why, despite the crisis, I think humanities graduate studies are still valuable. 

Photos: mcdett, philipbahr

*From James Carey's "A Cultural Approach to Communciation" Communication As Culture
**From Walter J. Ong's Orality and Literacy
***From Kenneth Burke's Permanence and Change


  1. "People are people. They are (almost always) acting in the world to the best of their abilities, but those abilities can be clouded when their own meaning-making systems aren't operating optimally. I can't make other people happy. I can only make the best decisions for my own part and hope that the decisions I make help to make my stage a better place."

    I agree that's why humanites graduates are still valuable. Being able to see things from more than just one perspective is one of the most valuable skills a person can have. I think that illustrates that there's more value in how you think rather than what you think because what you think depends a great deal on how you think.
    I'm also happy to hear you made it through such a difficult time in your life!

  2. "there's more value in how you think rather than what you think because what you think depends a great deal on how you think."

    I very much agree with this. What you think is going to change over time (or, at least, it should if you're taking advantage of the opportunities to learn and grow). As long as you have a strong framework for how you think, then you'll know that what you think is the best possible set of beliefs for your given set of information and experiences. I think that's really the best we can hope to do.

  3. man oh man, i could write a book on this. oh wait - i did! :) Of course, it's still a book i haven't published, but i haven't given up hope that I will. I completely agree with you about the personal benefits of graduate study. My studies changed me completely (in positive ways) and I'd never want to go back to who I was before I read all those damn books.
    I too am sorry you had such a hard time. Being a teen can really suck. I'm glad you've worked out some of the issues that plagued your youth so you can enjoy what's coming because I can tell you that life only gets better. The 40s are the best so far! :)
    I do think the structure of the Ph.D needs to change. It's unethical to put people through the hoops they must jump through when there aren't jobs to meet them at the end. As to how it should change....that's a toughie.

  4. You should publish it; I want to read it! Do you need someone to illustrate it? As you can see, I do a mean job with that ClipArt! ;)