Better late than never dept.:
I’ve been thinking a long time about the annual symposium on communication and communication-intensive instruction sponsored by the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute at Baruch College of the City University of New York. I’ve been privileged to participate in the symposium twice: in 2008 as a discussion facilitator, and this year as a discussion facilitator and as an afternoon workshop leader. Both were extraordinary experiences. The setting is inspiring, for one thing. It’s hard to go wrong with the sweeping Manhattan vistas afforded by Baruch College’s Vertical Campus. Yet the deeper inspirations come from the conception of the event itself. The idea is to gather academics and business leaders together to exchange experiences, plans, strategies, dreams, questions, and quandaries centering on the idea of communication. Intensive table discussions are framed by keynote speakers. This year, the discussions and speakers were supplemented by afternoon workshops, including one led by my friend Alan Levine of the New Media Consortium. (I’m always delighted to benefit from the halo effect of being on a program with Alan.) As is fitting for a symposium, a banquet concludes the day’s activities. Hard work, open dialogue, and conviviality. Would that all days could be so!
What I keep thinking about is the nature of the particular magic at this symposium. Mikhail Gershovich’s leadership is crucial. He’s obviously earned the trust of all the participants and (even more impressively) all the administrators and patrons whose goodwill and collaboration are vital to the success of any event on this scale. He’s also got a terrific staff, folks I’m proud to call colleagues. (A special shout-out here to Deputy Director Suzanne Epstein.) This year I was also fortunate to work alongside Luke Waltzer, Matt Gold, and Boone Gorges, whose presence and contributions were consistently amazing and challenged me to take my game to the highest level I could imagine. Just to give you some idea of the intensity and excitement in the air at CUNY, I already think of these events as reunions, so warm and committed are the people who help to shape the symposium and fuel the inspiration at Baruch College. You wouldn’t think that roughly twenty-four hours could be so full and rewarding, but I’m here to testify that they are.
The real genius of the symposium, though, is the way in which two different populations meet and mingle (I almost wrote “collide,” which is true too). Putting businesspeople and academics together reveals just how different these worlds truly are. Sometimes those differences run along stereotypical lines. Academics chatter, businesspeople have a job to do. Academics theorize, businesspeople act. More often, though, the differences are instructive. Academics and businesspeople at the table together, responding to a question or a discussion prompt, find themselves eagerly learning from each other, taking notes on each other’s conversation, making reading lists, exchanging contact information to keep the conversation going. For a splendid several hours, both academics and businesspeople can be amphibious, each group living in another world, at least provisionally, as learners and fellows. This aspect is what inspires me most deeply. We cross domains, we connect domains, we debate difficult questions. We tell each other stories. It’s at such moments that I get that university feeling, the one that keeps me hopeful about the possibilities of true community born of unity and diversity.
In fact, I’m tempted to call this symposium an embodied metaphor, or perhaps a working paradox. Something uncanny, to be sure. This year the effect was even more pronounced in the selection of the keynote speakers. May I speak for a minute with open-mouthed admiration of the brilliance of addressing the topic of “Audience” by inviting Jeff Jarvis to talk about how it’s all about the audience (or perhaps the group “formerly known as the audience”) and following up later in the day with Peter Elbow’s talk insisting that it isn’t necessarily about the audience at all? That opposition, or better yet that paradox, becomes even more urgent in an age of social media, when one-to-many, one-to-one, many-to-many, one-to-a-few, etc. (you can work out the permutations) are all live rhetorical alternatives, and any utterance can shift from one mode to another literally overnight. (See Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody and Scott Rosenberg’s Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters for more detailed ruminations on this uncanny state of affairs. Both are essential reading, in my view.)
My own small contributions to this year’s event focused on these uncanny paradoxes and tried to put them into play as catalysts for deep reflection and passionate conversation. In the final stages of preparation, I hit upon a clip from 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould to try to portray my own sense of wonder at the communicative world we are building. There’s good there. There’s danger, too, and harm to be sure. But my goal was not to sort it all out or to make an explicit argument about it. Rather, I wanted to complicate the questions, and to help guide the conversation away from polemics and punditry and rapid judgments. Most of all, I wanted to awaken a sense of wonder modeled on Gould’s alert and creative immersion in the humanity that surrounded him, all mediated through acts of communication ranging from radio to conversation to food on a grill. Listen to this! Now, what can we make of it?
I had a great time trying to get at what’s rich and strange about this world. I hope the participants did too.
I’m very grateful to Luke Waltzer for blogging my session and posting the videos. You can find a video recording of nearly all of the session in several installments beginning here on the Symposium blog and here on the Schwartz Institute blog (featuring one of my favorite domain names ever). Although the camera is usually trained on me, be assured that whatever good things came out of the session were woven out of what everyone in the room contributed, as you’ll hear. You’ll hear, I hope, that same sense of communicative excitement and wonder that I found in the clip from the Glenn Gould film. The internet at our fingertips, our lives articulated together in this moment, and an intense set of questions and examples from each participant.
As I finish this long-postponed thank-you, I think of transformation and beauty. I think of Ariel’s tricksy and moving ballad early in The Tempest.
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange
A random connection, perhaps, but in its music and its ironic acceptance of loss and uncanny redemption, the song resonates with me as I think about this experience. Jim’s post on CUNY clarifies this resonance even more for me, and underscores my sense that no small part of this magic resides in the mission and character of CUNY itself. An ocean of resemblance on the bedrock of New York. In short, a wonder.