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By Nathan Bierma


Communicating Communication

A roundup from the National Communication Association's annual convention.

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The National Communication Association held its annual convention at two downtown Chicago hotels in November. Hundreds of sessions, thousands of papers, and I only have room to write about these four:

• I sorely need to spend some sustained time reading the works of the late Jesuit scholar Walter Ong, which is why I appreciated Jeet Heer's fine tribute to Ong in the July/August issue of Books & Culture. In a session entitled Papers in Honor of Father Walter J. Ong, Corey Anton of Grand Valley State University directed our attention to the fundamental tension in Ong's thinking about the emergence of the individual in human history. Communication is how we come to know ourselves as individuals, but that process is inseparable from how we come to know others. Ironically, Anton says, "we come to experience ourselves in our own interiority only as we learn to speak, and speech is learned with and from others." We are simultaneously on an inward journey, deeper into our self-awareness, and an outward one, using communication to enhance our understanding of the world around us. "It is speech that gives persons the 'distance' to divide and gather elements of the world" as well as "to first become able to enter into themselves," Anton says. The concepts of "I" and "thou" emerge in concert. As Ong wrote, "Because speech is always already dialogic, the interiority of persons grows and develops out of and in response to common contextual situations and others' previous utterances."

As a result, humanity is on a nonstop trip Ong called "the interiorization of consciousness," and yet it requires external means to proceed. Thus, Ong said, literacy and print arose naturally out of oral culture. They were the tools humanity used to continue its "interiorization." "Orality needs to produce and is destined to produce writing," he wrote. "The word must die and be resurrected if it is to come into its own." Anton, who was comparing Ong with Edward Becker, said the two disagreed on one fateful question, a question that would be fruitful for further study of both writers (and, we may add, communication in general): Was literacy inevitable? If so, then we were destined to see the emergence of the individual in civilization, evolving from communal consciousness to self-consciousness—"liberated," Anton says, "into autonomy."

• Calvin College professor Quentin Schultze's admonishment that public speaking textbooks are among the most boring things that are published about a fascinating topic (more on this in a minute) was still on my mind as I filed into a session called Teaching Language, Language … in the Public Speaking Classroom. I was a little concerned when the panelists started talking about getting students—particularly those from foreign countries—to "speak better." When the first presenter noted that littering one's speech with tacked-on interjections—"you know," "isn't it," "couldn't we?"—tends to be more common among female speakers, I shot up my hand. I pointed out that these interjections actually function as important affirmations and invitations of the listener's presence and participation, which female speakers tend to value more than males do. Rather than instructing students that these statements are somehow "bad," and contributing to their power to cast females as less intelligent, I urged that teachers clarify the difference between standards of formality in the classroom and the morally acceptable informal habits of speech everyone uses outside it.

The next presenter affirmed this difference, saying she tells her ESL students that they must learn to "speak two dialects" of English, "standard speech" and "street speech." But after her stern admonishment that only standard speech is acceptable in classroom and lecture settings, I relished her use of the phrase "terribly important" (using "terribly" to mean "to a great extent" instead of its literal definition, "in a way that induces terror"), and her fond recollection of a colleague who "was so absolutely terrific."

• Enough trivialities; on to the ontological essence of the universe. David Hume's "Of Miracles" posed a challenge to Christian belief that has weathered three centuries, writes Gregory Anderson of London's International Community Church, in his paper "Testimony to Transcendence: George Campbell (1762), Richard Whately (1819), and C.S. Lewis (1947) Against David Hume's 'Of Miracles.'" The three Christian rhetoricians of Anderson's title all contended with Hume, and Anderson credits their rhetoric—more than their philosophical robustness—for their effectiveness. "They, like Hume, owe their success to rhetoric rather than theology or philosophy," Anderson writes.

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