Fall 2014 Convocation Speech

Richard Senghas
Chair of the Faculty

Fall 2014 Speakers
August 18, 2014

Ruben Armiñana

Andrew Rogerson
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs

Richard Senghas
Chair of the Faculty

Elaine Newman
Chapter President, California Faculty Association

Anthony Gallino
Associated Students President

Katie Musick
Staff Representative to the Academic Senate

Richard SenghasGood morning, everyone. Before we start the final address of today’s program, we’re switching things up a bit this year, and adding a new feature. I’m hoping this will become a regular element from here on out. Not only are we introducing today the new faculty joining us here at Sonoma State (Welcome, colleagues, and thank you, Provost Rogerson, for those introductions!), we are also recognizing colleagues who have been nominated for the Excellence in Teaching Award. So here are names of the 2014 nominees. (SLIDE) You can see this is a broad group, representing many disciplines. (In fact, it’s one of the biggest pools of nominees we’ve had in years.) I think it’s worth noting that the SSU students themselves initially nominated most of these individuals.

From among this pool of committed colleagues, we are very pleased to recognize the 2014 Excellence in Teaching Award winners: Dr. Jerry Morris and Dr. Eric Williams. (SLIDE) If Jerry and Eric are here, would you please stand so we can honor you? (Thank you.) Please watch for the announcement of the EITA reception in just a few weeks.

I would also like to draw your attention to the back of your program, where you will see the names and positions of our colleagues who have been awarded tenure this year, as well as promotions. These are significant achievements, and we should recognize and celebrate them.

Normally for me, the beginning of the academic year brings a mix of excitement and anticipation. New classes, new students, revised syllabi with creative new elements, —some of which I’m not entirely certain will actually work, but worth the risk. Summertime research, reading, and writing, interspersed with some vacation time or, perhaps, visits with friends and family, have helped rejuvenate us, restoring our human dimensions. Those longer days with longer, uninterrupted blocks of time for deeper rest and reflection allow us the chance to regain perspective. We recover the focus often eroded by the busyness of the academic year. Reinvigorated, we bring this energy back to campus, and the difference is palpable.

So as we harness all this potential into productive, coherent praxis, I’ve often found the Chair’s convocation address helps clarify for me why I am here, —why we all are here— year in, year out, and how my own efforts fit into this larger enterprise of the public university. A colleague’s articulated vision and purpose, and even identifiable goals, links my own work to the greater cause. But this year, despite some hopeful signs we saw at the end of last year, and some fruitful activity in the intervening months, a number of events, some even in just the past two weeks, have left me in a somewhat poignant mood, my excitement a bit dampened.

We see unsettling developments continuing in the Ukraine. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen territory as large as Crimea pulled from one nation state and so quickly absorbed (back) into another, and it’s anyone’s guess what might happen next. The downing of a civilian airliner by a military missile reminds us that such conflicts are not limited to combatants, or even to local residents. Even some crucial international AIDS activists and researchers were lost in that one. During the one week when I finally pulled myself away from writing and newsfeeds to get a break off-grid hiking, kayaking, and reconnecting with my spouse, the Gaza Strip descended into a disheartening, but all-to-familiar pattern. And then, the painful punctuation of Robin Williams’ untimely death last Monday.

What do we make of all this?

And yet, in all of these sad examples we can find patterns, patterns that in turn reveal principles we can use to mitigate the pain in the world, to understand not only ourselves, but also those who seem so alien or irrational to us. Attending to these principles allows us to act more consciously, intentionally, and wisely. So this year, instead of addressing what we do here at SSU, and why, I’d like to focus on the how. And specifically, I’ll focus on the language we use, consciously and unconsciously, and the situations (formal and informal) in which we employ that language.

Let me back up a bit, and provide a little context for my approach. I promise it’ll be relevant when I get back to my main points. For those unfamiliar with what brought me back into academics, I have been studying the emergence of a new sign language used by deaf people in Nicaragua. In a nutshell, what happened there was this: a number of deaf children with no prior exposure to sign language were brought together into regular contact with each other. In the process of developing their own small community of deaf peers, they unconsciously started their own new sign language, too, complete with a recognizable (though unique) grammar. Nobody taught this new language to them; it simply emerged from their interactions. So you can imagine why the psycholinguists (my sister included) were so excited about this case!

But just as importantly, when other Nicaraguans began to realize that what these deaf kids and young adults were using was actually language (as opposed to just nonlinguistic gestures), everyone’s expectations radically changed, too. This is where the anthropology comes in. Deaf Nicaraguans began to be recognized as having capacities they’d always had, if only they’d been given suitable circumstances to develop those capacities. Where formerly deaf individuals had been relegated to limited lives as eternally dependent members of their families’ households, and thought of as inevitably simple-minded and capable only of miming, now they were seen as relatively “normal.” They were people who could be talked to, and with the rights and obligations of normal members of society. So among the things I analyzed as an anthropologist of language were the ways that people talked with these deaf folk, and the ways that people talked about these deaf individuals, and talked about their community, and talked about their language. I explored the associations and expectations invoked in their discourse, both consciously and unconsciously. Sometimes the associations are invoked by the topics of discussion, or the roles of the individuals involved. But sometimes the rules and structure of the language have effects that highlight or erase aspects. (Have you ever tried speaking about a person in English without using gendered pronouns? You pretty much can’t. But American Sign Language and Nicaraguan Sign Language can do that!) All these expectations and associations are, in effect, what we call framing.

OK, by now you’ve no doubt realized that, unfortunately and somewhat involuntarily, you are indeed deep into the Fourth Annual Convocation Anthropology Lecture. (You think I’m kidding, but count them! A few years back we actually did let a mathematician slip one in, though he went and delivered a poem, of all things, —and from memory, go figure!)

But returning to those disheartening issues I mentioned previously, it is useful to apply this concept of framing to these various cases. Oftentimes, the way out of seemingly intractable situations can be found by unpacking and reframing the situation, or when that’s not possible, at least muddling through without making things even worse, perhaps by understanding how others are framing the situation themselves. This framing and reframing involves sensitivity to the language people use, including culturally bound, often implicitly embedded notions. For this reason, hot-button words and taboo topics become traditional obsessions for us anthropologists.

Understanding the Ukrainian example, then, requires awareness of local and Soviet history, and awareness of people’s deep senses of identity so closely linked with the languages they use —or avoid. For many years now, linguists have observed revealing indicators in the nationalist language policy debates of the Ukraine. Among these are heated arguments over whether or not Russian, Ukrainian, or other local and so-called “foreign” languages ought to be required, permitted, or banned for official discourse, or in the schools. Few of us linguists were surprised to see the escalation there. Sociolinguistic theory, combined with other economic and psychological (and other) theory, helps explain the complex nature of this particular conflict. In the Gaza case, note that the rhetoric always revolves around which party is/was the instigator —this time,— and which parties were simply responding as deemed necessary to unwarranted assault or oppression. Aggressive incursion, self-defense, and human rights are in the eye of the beholder, as are principle, compromise, and capitulation.

Coming closer to home, just this weekend we learned that Sheriff’s Deputy Gelhaus is returning to patrol duty. Some county residents feel his return is appropriate. Others express dismay, that something is not right, and see connections to the unrest in Ferguson, MO, or the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida. Watch the language, folks, not just the facts. See how language is used to take even the very same facts to frame very different explanations. See how language is used by some to highlight and reinforce firmly established ideological positions. But also watch how others question or modify the language we use in their efforts to find out not what’s true, but instead what might be viable options for our shared future.

Turning to a tender subject that is so local as to be thought of as private: suicide. Robin Williams. My neighbors’ kid got to goof around with him one time at the zoo. Even closer to home: Peter Kingston, husband of Shirlee Zane, and more recently, Jonathan Glass (some of us knew of him through LandPaths). It’s hard to reconcile their goals and achievements with their untimely form of death. But again, I ask you to look at the discourse around suicide. Instructively, National Public Radio broadcast an interview with the psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Minne on Wednesday (8/13/2014). Dr. Minne warned us to consider carefully the unintended effects that so many of us (myself included) may help perpetuate when we describe those who die by suicide as “finally free.” Framing suicide that way may inadvertently signal suicide as an appropriate solution, rather than encouraging us to frame our responses in terms of providing comfort, caring, support, and presence in times of hopelessness. Or let me reframe the phenomenon another way: suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among college students, and it IS preventable. For any SSU faculty or staff who haven’t received the excellent training QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) training, please contact our campus Counseling and Psychological Services (707.664.2153) to find out some simple but important things you can do and say to help prevent suicides right here at SSU.

I hope I’ve been able to make the case of how powerful careful framing is.

So that ends the anthropological portion of this address; let me finish up by previewing just a few of the many things that faculty governance will address this coming semester and academic year:

  • How to organize and more effectively integrate the Green Music Center into the larger SSU pedagogical endeavor;
  • The appropriate structure and functions of the Academic Senate to meet the current and future needs of shared governance as we enter our Senate’s second half-century; and
  • Development of a Strategic Plan for our next 5-10 years, as well as more specific 3-5 year implementation plans to move us towards whatever vision is put forth by that Strategic Plan.

Let me take these in turn.

By now you’ve probably been hearing that the Board of Advisors for the Green Music Center are examining the feasibility of establishing the GMC as a new auxiliary unit of SSU, to join the other three auxiliaries: Sonoma State Enterprises, the Foundation, and Associated Students. I am well aware that reactions to this course of action are very mixed. Some of us fear that a relatively independent auxiliary unit might significantly reduce the pedagogical opportunities that having such a world class performance center allows. Others among us favor the financial insulation an auxiliary structure would provide, as the senate so stated when it passed a resolution to that effect in 2006. Yet others hold a range of opinions based on deeply rooted principles. Turning to the students’ views, some students are still barely aware of the GMC, while others have been attending events or even participating in the productions there. One common comment I have heard, however, is that many students still aren’t sure they are really quite welcome. Weill Hall at the GMC is one of few buildings on campus kept locked (when performances are not underway), and even when open, students sometimes don’t feel fully at home there. We’ve got to do something about that.

How will so many and such diverse positions be reconciled? Sounds like a call for our favorite superhero, Shared Governance! And I believe that much can indeed be accomplished if we look at how this issue is framed and discussed. (OK, I lied about being done with the anthropology; come see me and I’ll refund today’s admission fee.) So this topic is indeed already on the proposed agendas for the Senate Executive Committee (ExCom) and the full Academic Senate for our first meetings this semester. I invite you to come and be involved. Mentioning the Senate segues naturally into the next item….

Folks, we’ve got to take a long, hard look at the current structure and function of our Academic Senate. As we begin the second 50 years of the Academic Senate, this is an appropriate time to review the constitution of the various senate committees and senate processes. We’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to find sufficient faculty available to serve in a range of capacities. Let me give one extreme example. For those who haven’t already heard, because various schools couldn’t provide a sufficient number of faculty representatives for the Academic Planning Committee to make quorum, ExCom, on the recommendation of Structure and Functions, has declared APC to be on hiatus, and the functions of that committee now revert to the Executive Committee, or to other committees that ExCom so delegates. Now some faculty might argue that perhaps it’s just this one committee that’s having difficulty, but we see other committees chronically without school representatives, too. These unmet needs cannot be chalked up to simple faculty disaffection. Preliminary inquiry last year suggests that part of the problem may increased work load; our university serves more students, yet without a corresponding increase in tenure track faculty to cover necessary governance. Also, the existing faculty are serving on an increasing number of university committees. Note that while the number and size of Senate standing committees have remained nearly constant for the last 10 years, the number of university-wide committees with faculty representatives have increased. It’s time to revisit the charges and membership of the Senate and university committees, reduce unnecessary redundancies, and consider other efficiencies and improvements in process. We are NOT advocating for any less faculty voice in shared governance, but what we are advocating is establishing sustainable, effective governance. You’ll be hearing more about this, and we need your involvement!

Finally, a lot has changed here in the last couple of years, and we now need a new Strategic Plan. The contraction of the CSU is turning, we’re increasing the number of tenure track hires, and while not nearly at sufficient levels, funding is finally increasing again, bit by bit. Last spring, a draft revision of our previous (now expired) Strategic Plan was posted on the Academic Senate site [URL here], and we welcome your input. And to whoever posted the link to the very apropos Weird Al Yancovic music video, thanks! That piece made my day. (Talk about linguistic framing!)

All these topics will require discussion, in both formal and informal settings. We’ll continue the open conversations with the faculty chair and provost, and when possible, the president. Please watch for announcements.

OK, that’s it. Thank you for your time and attention this morning. Have a great semester, and let’s do our best to frame our work and our interactions in the most useful and humane ways possible.

We will now take questions from the audience for any of today’s speakers. We’ll be happy to pass along any questions for the president, who as we mentioned previously, had to catch a flight to Long Beach.