On Saturday, August 30 the English Department faculty welcomed its new English and Communication majors to campus and they took time during Orientation to gather for a picture on Bradley House’s Back Porch. A great day to be a Hawk! An even greater day to be a Hawk in the best department on campus (well, the best looking at least).
As is our Department custom, we gathered on Friday afternoon before the Honors Convocation for a quick picture on the steps of Alumni Hall. Steady rain and the rush to get things done kept many away, but a few of our 2014 graduating seniors gathered with many of the faculty one last time for a celebratory snapshot. After a night of rain the sun broke through on Saturday for a beautiful commencement ceremony. Amidst disheveled rows of seats, scattered programs and stray balloons graduates posed for family pictures and then scattered from the front lawn of Alumni Hall. We miss them already and await word of the many great things to come.
Meet Professor Chani Marchiselli, a seasoned teacher in her second year here at Saint Anselm. More than once a student has told me how engaged they have been in one of Chani’s communication classes. The ideas pondered in this blog just might explain why. The new video for the communication department is also posted below which features Chani as well as two communication students, Meghan Gill '14 and Gabriella Servello '14.
We learn from the film Mean Girls (2004), that you cannot “make ‘fetch’ happen” on your own. Words and other forms of symbolic expression mean only through social agreement, but we usually fail to notice that a consensus takes place whenever we speak or communicate with symbols.
I study communication because speaking and being understood by others always seems improbable. Any communicative act dances around the possibility of incoherence. If you’ve ever tried to learn a new language, you understand how words always struggle to resemble recognizable sounds. In other words, we take communication for granted until something fails to make sense.
For example, when I was fourteen, my mother took me to see a play at an avant-garde theater in New York called La Mama. I do not remember the title of the play, but nearly everything about the production fell outside my realm of experience. Actors walked around and sat down with the audience. One man dressed as a pile of garbage. No discernible plot emerged. I realized then that much of what we communicate and understand comes from habit rather than conscious thought. Most of us can predict the dialogue of a Hollywood action film, or the plot resolve in a romantic comedy. But how do we understand or make meanings with unfamiliar sounds and images?
This summer, on the advice of a student, I went to the Tate Modern Museum in London and sat in a room full of Rothko paintings. Rothko is known for large abstract washes of color. His works contain no recognizable forms. Apparently, he wanted these pieces displayed on blue/grey walls and in very low lighting. They are difficult to see, but a knowledgeable friend told me to sit for three minutes until my eyes adjusted. What happened was a revelation. When I looked up, the colors appeared saturated and luminescent around their edges. The reds seemed to glow and grow richer. After my eyes adjusted completely, the paintings seemed to speak another visual language, like images you might see through an infrared camera, or the unexpected phosphorescence under water.
Art may show us the degree to which all communication easily slides into chaos or dissemblance. But in so doing, it also offers us new languages that require our conscious consent. Looking at the unfamiliar forces us to make meaning through collaboration, rather than unwitting consensus. It occurs to me that maybe the best communicators do more than use recognizable sounds and images. Maybe they persuade listeners and viewers to adjust.