Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

dynamics (physics and Interpersonal Communication)

June 6th, 2007

Online teaching began Monday, as did interpreting for Physics 101. Ha! (I’m in heaven.) 🙂
The physics definition of dynamics is “the effect that forces have on motion.”
I have been wrangling some “force” onto my students use of the online discussion technology (an asynchronous “bulletin board” type of software). Of course I am curious what “motions” will be effected by my language-based exertions. In which “direction” will the students move? Compliance? Competition? Resistance? OH the JOYS of HUMAN INTERACTION!
The first “lecture” was made available to them yesterday morning. I’m going to post them here, too, to see what (if anything) gets sparked in and/or out of the class.

Introduction and Immersion

~ “Lecture” One ~

What is “interpersonal communication”? Can we communicate, interpersonally, through written text coded into bits of electronic data and spirited across cyberspace? Is writing to each other, and reading each other’s words, substantially different than speaking and listening to one another? If you are deaf: is it different to watch someone signing than it is to read letters on a computer screen? How much does it matter to type on a keyboard instead of moving your face and hands in order to tell someone what you think?
The study of any subject requires establishing a boundary that distinguishes and sets the subject apart from other subjects. The terms of the label can be broken down into three components:
1) inter-
2) personal
3) communication.
Which of these three words (or parts of a word) seems most important? Does one or the other establish the focus for thinking and learning?
As I consider how to teach a course on interpersonal communication in an online environment where I will probably never meet any of you, nor any of you each other, I have to question my usual style. Normally, I teach this course based on the assumption that the most effective learning comes through personal application. Effective learning, in my mind, is when students realize that the concepts we study are not just abstract terms “out there.” Instead, the vocabulary, theories, philosophies, similarities, and differences that we will explore in this course are descriptive categories that describe our own behaviors. Once we have a sense of how our own interpersonal communication functions, this provides a base to comprehend on a deep level the ways in which other people use interpersonal communication differently than ourselves: sometimes to accomplish goals or values that are not the same as ours, sometimes to accomplish the same tasks that we want but through alternative strategies.
Differences of interpersonal communication can be attributed to a range of factors, including culture, gender, the environment, life stage, personal or situational elements outside of the immediate communicative event, even levels of linguistic fluency. I, myself, am not convinced that written communication is necessarily “less” or even substantially “different” than what can be accomplished in a face-to-face interaction, however I do think communicating via the written word requires a particular set of skills, including literacy, imagination, focus, and fluency. I separate “literacy” and “fluency” because if one is going to be effective communicating via text, one must read carefully for the meaning of the writer (literacy), and one must deliberately consider your choice of words and phrasing (diction) to minimize confusion for readers (fluency).
We will devote serious attention to the concept of “meaning” &emdash; which is not as transparent as we (Americans, especially) are taught to think. First, though, I want to distinguish “interpersonal” communication from mass communication, and notice the ways in which what we are doing here in this online class is more like small group communication (which has elements of both interpersonal and mass communication).
The most basic factor distinguishing mass and interpersonal communication is audience. Is quantity the clearest difference? Interpersonal is between persons, discrete individuals; whereas mass communication is directed to a large audience, including &emdash; obviously &emdash; more than one person who are obscured or blended in some way (usually via a medium, such as television, radio, the movies) into an indistinguishable mass. A second important factor defining mass communication from interpersonal communication is the presence or absence of anonymity. Interpersonal communication can be more “public” in the sense that you “show” yourself to another human being, you become known and mis/understood in a direct relationship. Mass communication, although witnessed by many, can &emdash; paradoxically &emdash; be more “private” in the sense that audience responses may not be revealed (and producers of mass media often work in teams, or behind the mask of a pseudonym or persona).
What we have in this class is a group of a few dozen people, who are
a) anonymous in the sense that we won’t meet in personal physical space (unless someone coordinates an extracurricular event),
b) communicating directly with a teacher and peers,
c) while witnessing and being witnessed in these interactions by each other, and
d) potentially engaged by each other in surprising and unpredictable as well as standard and typical ways.
What kind of a conversation will we build together?

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