© Frank E. X. Dance and Figure/Ground Communication
Frank E. X. Dance was interviewed via Skype by Laureano Ralon on March 7th, 2012
Dr. Dance is a leading scholar in the field of Communication studies. He was born in Brooklyn and studied Speech at Northwestern University, where he received his doctorate degree in 1959. He became a Professor of Language, Speech and Communication at various schools throughout the US, including the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the University of Kansas and the University of Denver, Colorado. He also served as President of the International Communication Association (1967) and the National Communication Association (1982); was editor of The Journal of Communication (1962-64) and The Speech Teacher (1970-72), and associate editor of Health Communication and Informatics (1978-82) and Review of Communication (2000). He is the author or co-author of numerous books, including The Citizen Speaks: Speech Communication for Adults (1962), Business and Professional Speech Communication (1965), Human Communication Theory (1967), Perspectives on Communication (1970), Speech Communication: Concepts and Behaviors (1972), The Functions of Human Communication: A Theoretical Approach (1976), Human Communication Theory: Comparative Essays (1982), Public Speaking (1986), Speaking Your Mind: Private thinking and public speaking (1994).
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
It was a conscious choice, but it wasn’t developmentally my first choice. I was studying for the Roman Catholic priesthood, and my bishop sent me to Northwestern to get an advanced degree with the goal of having me teach in the seminary. I became absorbed with the study of speech, so I decided to drop out of the seminary and stay at Northwestern; that led me into teaching part-time while I was on my Master’s, and then getting married, the army, and eventually going back to get my doctorate and staying in academia.
Who were some of your mentors in university and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?
My mentors began in High School. I went to a Jesuit High School and had some fabulous teachers there, and then I went to Fordham University, which was a Jesuit undergraduate institution, where I was tremendously impressed by the intensity of some of my faculty – not in the discipline into which I entered, but in History; I carried a double major in Philosophy and Speech. Graduate school had some wonderful teachers, such as Karl Robinson, who directed my dissertation; he was a great man and a wonderful model. Another mentor was Charlotte Lee. I minored in what is now called the performance of literature, but in those days was called oral interpretation, and Charlotte was one of the leading lights in that area – she was great. There was also Wallace Bacon, who eventually became the President of the Speech Communication Association; Bacon was a Shakespeare scholar. These were very impressive people who modeled for me what it meant to be a professor.
In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
Well, I went to a Jesuit university, so my professors as an undergraduate were models of traditional teaching inspired by Aristotelian methodology. I can think of one class as an undergraduate in Art Education; this was in New York City, so we went out to all the museums – that was a great experience in itself and I never lost some of those things that I learned. Now, graduate school at Northwestern was very different, but regardless, it was still a teacher in front of the classroom and, on occasion, a discussion within the classroom – but that’s about as far as it went. So from the one-on-one of parents, to one-to-many in the university, and with the accompanying progression of media, everything changed radically.
You have to remember that I was born when there was just radio, and then came television. I can remember the first TV in my family: my father was always on the cutting edge of change, and he brought home a great, big console – this was in the forties – and the screen was 7 inches; that was the whole screen, although the console was as big as a desk, because it was all tubes. And then the next step up was when Dad came home with a huge magnifying glass, which he stood in front of that 7 inch screen and made it 11 inches. Transistors and color TV came when I was in the army in the 50s, and that was a wild expansion of my vision.
Now, parallel to the media development were the changes in teaching that was happening. Every medium that came along had an effect in the academic universe. In 1981 the PC came on board and then the internet and in the 1990s the World Wide Web. So we moved from one-on-one, to one-to-many to online education in 60 years or so – but embodied in the human instrument.
What about student-professor relation? How do you think that might have changed over time?
Well, by the time I got to Northwestern, the big interest was in “group discussion” a subject matter at the School of Speech at Northwestern. There was no “communication” as a area in the school of speech the people who were studying communication were in Electrical Engineering. In the School of Speech you had oral interpretation of literature, theater, rhetoric, speech pathology, audiology, speech education, radio, TV and film. So the changes in media brought about changes in the constitution of the class. In a group discussion class, obviously, you would engage in group discussions, whereas there were more performative behaviors in some of the other classes. So things changed with the media and educationally speaking I believe changed for the better.
Putting all this into perspective then, what makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by fractured attention and information overload?
Well, the university setting is different from the secondary or elementary school setting, Laureano; that’s an important distinction. I have a daughter who teaches 7th grade science, and she deals with disciplinary problems. I never had disciplinary problems, and in 50 or 60 years of university teaching, only once in my career did I need to cope with a disciplinary problem; students were in the niversity because they wished to be there.
I think a good teacher is someone who really loves their subject and loves sharing it with others. I think a good teacher is on fire. Your body’s eye follows flame, and students look at a burning torch. A teacher who is aflame with his or her subject is almost demanding attention without asking for it. So you have to be in love with your subject; you have to want to share it, and it has to be fun. I really believe that teaching and learning can be fun if everybody is in that spirit.
You just mentioned that back in the day people went to university because they wanted to be there. Well, going back to this idea of No Sense of Place, that is, of not quite knowing where you belong existentially, do you think that passionate spirit may have been lost throughout the years, perhaps?
Remember that I went to Jesuit schools. Most of the men that I had who were Jesuits were burning torches; they were men who were really committed to what they were doing who could err on the side of rigour sometimes, but were interested in sharing what they knew with the student. Now, by the time I got to Northwestern, which was the outstanding school of speech in the US, I was really excited because all my professors were on fire. I can’t say much more about this. You have to love what you do or get out.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
Find the best people in the field that you are interested in and go with them, wherever they are. So follow the people, not the school. I know that’s hard for young graduate students, because things have become so unbelievably expensive in our time.
In 2009, Francis Fukuyama wrote a controversial article for the Washington Post entitled “What are your arguments for or against tenure track?” In it, Fukuyama argues that the tenure system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country, making younger untenured professors fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow subdiscipline. In a short, Fukuyama believes the freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious, but thinks it’s time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually. Since then, there has been a considerable amount of debate about this sensitive issue, both inside and outside the university. Do you agree with the author? Does the academic tenure debate in Europe center on similar challenges as in North America?
The American Association of University Professors is the largest organization of its kind in the US, and it has as part of its portfolio maintaining rigorous constraints on tenure. It is supportive of tenure and I am supportive of tenure. The reason for tenure in my mind is to protect faculty against the politicization of academia. I have seen State universities where the politics of the state begin to affect the politics or the presence of politics in the university, and the only way you can protect a faculty member from being fired for being a Democrat or Republican is with tenure – I believe that! Now, is tenure always given correctly? No. People get tenure who shouldn’t have it. But if you are careful in awarding tenure, and you are awarding it for the right purpose and with the right goals, I think it’s a very possible thing to have in the academic world. Without it, administrators can do what they want, and I am not in favor of that. I actually think that the Fukuyama article is a good article in the sense that, if some junior faculty are afraid for tenure, then they should get out of the academic world. This is where I go back to being on fire with your subject. If you are going to be timid because you are in search of security, then I am not sorry to see you go.
Let’s talk about your work. What attracted you to the thought of Susanne Langer and Walter Ong?
Susanne Langer I had spoken to in person before she passed away, and Fr. Walter Ong dined in my home. These were people whose work, in total, I simply loved. Both of them were very interested in speech and in spoken language, and that was the point at which our interests joined; their interests in spoken language and my life-long commitment to the study of spoken language is what brought me to them and what I worked with within the context of their understandings and theories.
What are in your opinion the most relevant aspects of their work and thought in this age of digital interactive media?
The same things that were the most relevant aspects of their work and thought before people decided to call it the “information age.” McLuhan says that each new medium includes all prior media, so the relevancy of their work is what it was in the age when they did their work – but seen through the additive prisms that we have developed technologically. These people haven’t been dead that long, and I’m not feeling that this is a whole new world; it is a world populated by new media, but the world that was there is still there, with new stuff on top of it. Put it this way: the effect that my grandfather and grandmother had when they were alive is manifested in my father and mother and that is manifested in me.
What memories do you have of Walter Ong?
Father Ong was one of the most brilliant minds I ever met. He knew an awful lot of stuff and I was told that he was the last person to defend his dissertation in Latin at Harvard. There were many things that I could bring up in my conversations with Walter that not only he had an opinion on, but an informed opinion: modern literature, the French constructionists and deconstructionists. He had an omnivorous approach to life. The question that he’d ask me often was: who is “I”? This was very important for him.
I remember that Ong and I once appeared together on a panel for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, DC. It was an interesting panel because I was speaking about my particular research, and there were people attending from Gallaudet – the University for the Deaf in Washington, DC. It turns out that in my effort to valorize spoken language I offended the constituency from Gallaudet, who stood up and left…
Your whole research seems to be guided by one question: what difference does it make to the human condition that human beings speak? Now, what are the risks of overemphasizing symbolicity in isolation from other pillars of the self, for example, temporality, embodiment or sociality? By overemphasizing the role of simbolicity, aren’t we thinking of the human being in terms of animalitas rather than humanitas – an “ evolutionary” type of perspective whereby man is conceived of as just a more sophisticated type of animal that is able to speak? Are we thinking the human being correctly by proceeding thusly?
But I don’t focus on language and speech to the exclusion of everything else. I believe in the spiritual realm, for example.
So how do language and speech intersect with other realms then?
Some of the“pillars” of which you speak could be of different diameters and slide into each other. So that pillar of symbolicity obviously calls for embodiment, you really can’t have one without the other. Symbolicity is encapsulated in embodiment, and part of my work was examining the brain. I would take my class through a hospital and in one of our advanced classes we would share in dissecting a brain. Embodiment is obviously extraordinarily important; and this embodied simbolicity exists in time and cannot define itself, except by others, so all four pillars constitute the same edifice.
The following question was drafted by Bruce Gronbeck: “are there some important ways in which your work on the helical model of communication develops or extends media ecology theory?”
I think the helical model, which was based on Francis Crick’s work on the genetic structure, offers Media Ecology an ability to progress all the way through the timeline with the corresponding ability, at the same time, to look backwards from whence it came – and how view how the bend in the helix has been affected by its past structure If you take a slinky and twist it, even though the twist is done early, it affects the development throughout the course of the slinky; so too individual development. I feel that you can use that image when you are talking about how people get twisted in their development, whether for good or for bad.
At the time I developed this model, people kept talking about communication as circular, which simply didn’t make any sense. In a circle you always come back to where you started, and obviously the relationship between, say, Laureano and Frank, is a lot different at 20 minutes than it was at 6 minutes. We can’t go back to where we started.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a novel. I have the plot pretty much worked out, but I don’t have all of the research done. It’s a novel that has as one of its central characters speech, as embodied in the characters in the novel. And the other thing that I am working on is Genealogy, using all of the tools that I have available at my disposal, like Ancestry; they bring into your home all of the Censuses, their program extends outside beyond the bounds of the US – so I can track my lineage back to Ireland, France and England et al..
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