Tag Archives: academic life

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Rethinking Our Frames

Fortunately, the sad state of our national politics does not disallow the chance of cultivating other forms of affiliation.  We need to find frames that will keep us in awe of the miraculous efforts of others.

It is axiomatic that we view the world from a set of durable frames. Duty, imagination and comfort feed into our choices. But it is not uncommon that we find ourselves in a rut, governed by a continuing point of reference that no longer offers the experiences that sustain us. Everyone’s moments of bliss are different. I can only use the example of my experience. But the general question is universal: what frames of reference reward us?

For many years my professional frame of reference happened to include the exploration of political communication patterns in our national life. I taught the subject, wrote extensively about it, and responded with guest columnist jeremiads when our national discourse seemed to be withering. A representative part of this frame included three editions of a book, Political Communication in America, written with my colleague Robert Denton Jr. The first edition was in 1985: a panoramic look of topics as diverse at the presidency and congressional lobbying.

As the state of our national politics seemed to sour, I gradually changed my academic focus to escape into more rewarding and less explicitly political areas, mostly by returning to my earlier roots of modern rhetorical theory. One representative book representing this shift was a 2010 project subtitled The Rhetorical Personality. It freed me from what had become a near obsession with the study of our federal establishment. That culture has been spent by the small-minded politicking that has crept into the deliberative side of our politics. Too many people seeking what should have been deliberative roles have found more rewards in politics as performance. Still in the future, the seeds of this decay of would take root a thicket of corrupted rhetoric after 2016, culminating in the destruction of norms of the presidency that I never imagined would be at risk.

For me, a book looking at embedded personality traits of people destined to be in the public was a fresh start. It sought to be a collection of insights that my education was meant to encourage. I soon followed up with two more contributions exploring the nature of human rhetoric: one in the form of a book on the rhetorical and psychological processes of identification, and a second parallel study of how we assign motives to others in the face of little evidence.

That’s my story of a change of frames of reference for organizing my professional life. In retrospect, I could not have sustained my career of 47 years if I had stayed on my original path. Political communication had become a dispiriting subject. By 2016 I mourned the devolution of a viable Republican Party at the hands of millions who have abetted it. In very different ways those people are as disappointed with their perceptions of the nation’s direction as I was. For many reasons the political culture of this great country forces its citizens to witness horrifying attitudes and events. We may feel it these effects all the more because, as columnist David Brooks has noted, we are “overpoliticized while growing increasingly undermoralized, underspiritualized, undercultured.”

There’s also another related and distinctly personal thread here. A family member happens to work as a mental health therapist. So, in addition to all of our casual discussions, by happenstance the common reading material at our breakfast table often included the Psychotherapy Networker, a glossy but well edited monthly written for professionals engaged in private practices or associated with institutions. Over the years touching base this resource set my sights on the redeeming traits of a therapeutic frame of reference. Unlike the competitive and combative realms of national politics, those doing mental health counseling are far more interested in the softer impulses of collaboration, conciliation, and empathy. In this frame, verbal combat is not a useful process. No one is considered a lost cause, and everyone has a backstory that at least partly accounts for sometimes egregious thoughts and behaviors.

There Are Many Ways to Connect

We could include other frames that occupy the time and thinking of different individuals we may know. Some find it easier to get up in the morning because of football, or the frame of firm religious conviction, or the organizing principle of broadening boundaries through travel. My own preference is to escape into hours of listening and learning about music. For me—if not always the musicians who produce it—rigid ideological differences seem to dissolve into forms that renew us. There is real joy in this special form of “rhetoric” which is non-stipulative and, thanks to the conventional rules of the chromatic scale, largely and happily resolved.

Here’s my point. Everyone will use their own lens to bring their lives into focus. And while the nation is entering a very dark period, we need to protect our sense of place with interests that give us pleasure. To be sure, we can never abandon participation in the civil life of a nation. This requires us to hold on to connections to civil society groups, including the press, while engaging in other processes that are necessary in an open society. But this does not disallow chances for cultivating other forms of affiliation that will keep us in awe of the miraculous efforts of others.

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Living A Life of Ideas

The presence of a powerful organizing principle can fuel a lifetime of exploration. 

These days our heads mostly in the material world.  We spend a lot of time managing our things. But there are rewards for anyone willing to explore a system of ideas that can shine light on generative human impulses.  Many of us can recall a transformative moment when the lights of understanding suddenly grew brighter: when so much of the strangeness of the world yielded to understandings that made sense.  In most cases the trigger is usually some sort of panoramic explanation of social or physical phenomena. Anyone can cite some famous benchmarks that lead to profound insights:  perhaps relativity theory, or a discovery as revolutionary as Louis Pasteur’s germ theory of disease, or the grounding assumption of sociology that individuals are best understood within communities.

Even so, while we still pay lip service to “the life of the mind,” it is hard to use that phrase in mixed company without producing some half-smiles hiding disbelief.  “How quaint” might be the response of our friends, if they had less tact. Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up Doc (1972) perfectly captures the common stereotype of a socially inept and forgetful academic totally absorbed in the labyrinth of his or her own theory. The academic is presented as at least a century too late for the world he inhabits. In our time large epistemic questions have been replaced even in academia with more mundane “hard skills” that suggest the more modest aspirations of a trade school: Will this skill set make me employable?  How will this course look on a resume?

We usually allow religious believers their one big idea—that Jesus was the son of God, or Joseph Smith was a latter-day prophet—but academics buoyed by a single system of thought are now apt to be seen as lost in a box canyon with no exit. As an undergraduate I remember a very good professor enthused by the ideas of General Semantics, among them: that misunderstandings can be disentangled once and for all. The idea that was popular in the 60s proposed that we can actually fix the natural ambiguities of meaning: a view that no longer carries much weight with people studying natural languages.  But I still think about how he lit up when he talked about this vision.


Good ideas can help us put a lot of puzzle pieces in the right places.


As a 25-year-old I was captured by the writings of sociologist Erving Goffman and the literary critic, Kenneth Burke: two men working in two very different traditions who shared the view that human action is best understood with reference to the language of the theater.  We are “actors,” “playing roles,” managing performances,” “learning scripts,” and so on.  There’s more to this “dramatistic” perspective, but you get the idea. For me, it put a lot of puzzle pieces in the right places, and it is a catechism of analysis I still excitedly pass on to my students. I’m probably the typical case of an academic acolyte, more animated by the possibilities of a single system than the comparatively pale subjects of everyday conversation.

I would hope every student could go through this kind of ‘secular conversion.’ It fires the passion to see beyond a limited horizon.

The idea of creating a future around a core organizing principle sprang to mind while reading Tara Westover’s best-selling memoir, Educated (2018)She describes harrowing years trying to outgrow the low horizons of her survivalist family in Idaho.  Westover lived a nearly feral existence where events and ideas like the Holocaust or the civil rights movement were  total unknowns.  Because her father was imprisoned by a fringe interpretation of his Mormon faith, the much larger world of books, schools and civil society were kept at a distance. Survivalists tend to thrive on these self-made islands of reductionism. His only big idea was that divine guidance interpreted through him would sustain his large and unruly family.

Westover goes on to describe her unlikely journey into the life of the mind, eventually winning a graduate degree in History from the University of Cambridge.  What revelations she must have discovered in that journey!  Unfortunately, we never really given a sustained glimpse of what they are. Her story fades when it slights topics that fueled her ambition.  It’s not the same kind of memoir of ideas given to us years ago in Robert Pirsig’s popular Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (1974).

By contrast, her father’s big idea remains static and sealed off from development. He begged her to quit the university even after she showed real academic promise

Faith can take take that route to a dead-end. As a form of thought it can protect its owner from new experiences and better understandings. And that’s a problem for all of us. Faiths can thrive on small ideas, dangerous ideas, false ideas and beliefs that disenfranchise. They can poison what might otherwise grow.

So there’s the rub.  Ideas can justify a kind of smug stasis. But more dynamic starting points can be paths to understanding and innovation.