“All That is Gold Does Not Glitter” for the social scientist

While teaching my final graduate-level quantitative research methods class yesterday, one of my students asked about how a person can know whether they should study quantitative or qualitative methods. A very good question.

In response, another of my students quoted Tolkien: “Not all those who wander are lost.” A good response to a good question!

And it got me thinking–especially since I’m re-reading Lord of the Rings right now–what might the famous “All That is Gold Does Not Glitter” poem look like, if written for a social scientific audience?

Here is my attempt at it, by way of footnotes to the original poem:

All this is gold does not glitter(1),
Not all those who wander are lost(2),
The old that is strong does not wither(3),
Deep roots are not reached by the frost(4).

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king(5).

(1) Please note that the data supporting this claim are cross-sectional in nature, and thus these results serve only as weak evidence of causation. Only future experimental and/or longitudinal research can determine whether goldenness causes lack of glittering, lack of glittering causes goldenness, or whether the apparent association is spurious due to a third factor unmeasured in this investigation.

(2) Stated more formally: H(0): Wandering is not significantly associated with being lost; H(A): Wandering is significantly associated with being lost.

(3) I.e., strength significantly moderates the extent to which age predicts withering. The moderating effect of other demographic variables could not be examined due to lack of statistical power.

(4) p < .08.

(5) We offer these practical applications only tentatively(6), and these possible applications should be evaluated further in clinical and/or applied contexts.

(6) “Thanks” to the anonymous reviewer who demanded we include such a practical application section before s/he would recommend accepting this for publication.

A First Look at Communication Theory 9th Edition – It’s here!

So I went to my office after returning from the Central States Communication Association conference (awesome time, BTW!), and found THIS on my desk!:

AFirstLook9thed

Seeing this book in print, with my name on the cover, was a meaningful moment in my career. When I was a junior at Wheaton College, I took Em Griffin’s interpersonal communication course. That class whetted my appetite for more, so in the spring semester I took his class on persuasion–which was intriguing, applicable, and engaging.

Then I enrolled in Em’s communication theory course. I was so excited that I bought the theory book before I left campus for the summer. I’d read half of it by the time I returned in the fall. The subject matter fascinated me–and around that time, I knew that I wanted to be a college professor. Specifically, a professor of communication.

Years later, when Em asked me to join him as a co-author on the A First Look textbook–the textbook that played a potent role in leading me to my career–I felt honored beyond words (and for us communication scholars, that’s saying something…) And let me just say that Em Griffin and Glenn Sparks are outstanding collaborators. They’re also very good writers–for example, if you want an insightful and entertaining read, check out “Rolling in Dough,” Glenn’s memoir on growing up in a doughnut shop. I’ve learned so much about the writing process from both of these outstanding colleagues and friends.

So that’s some of the story behind the book–what about the book itself?

Even though a couple of new names appear on the front, the spirit and style of the book remains the same. To continue the book’s legacy of engaging students with communication theory, we’ve made several additions and changes in response to instructor feedback and our own close reading of the book. Some of the changes that excite me most include:

  • Updated examples throughout the text. Although some historical examples remain (e.g., the “I Have a Dream” speech analysis in the Rhetoric chapter), we’ve freshened pop culture references throughout. See especially the chapters on Mead’s symbolic interactionism and Tannen’s genderlect styles.
  • A new chapter on Robert McPhee’s theory of the communicative constitution of organizations. Reader response to this chapter interests me not only because it’s a fresh and popular org comm theory–but also because I was primarily responsible for crafting it.
  • The uncertainty reduction theory chapter now includes a section on Leanne Knobloch’s relational turbulence model. Likewise, the muted group theory chapter addresses Mark Orbe’s co-cultural theory. I hope readers will appreciate these modern extensions of classic communication theories.

In the end, I hope these additions and changes help students not only learn communication theory, but become passionate about it. That’s one of the things I appreciate most about the text’s earlier editions–Em always presents communication as an inherently fascinating object of study. And not only fascinating, but useful in everyday life. I hope this new edition of the book inspires students to communicate excellently in both their personal and professional lives.

Book review: Veronica Roth’s “Allegiant”

Yeah, this blog is generally a professionally-oriented blog. I’m not planning to post tons of reviews of fiction here.

But I know many of my professional colleagues (e.g., the wonderful Kristen Carr, Katie Forsythe, and Kaitlin Phillips) are fellow fans of Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” series–in part because, in its dystopian world, communicative and social factors take center stage. In other words, the first two novels, “Divergent” and “Insurgent,” are great fiction for social scientists.

Alas, my opinion is that the third book in the trilogy, “Allegiant,” isn’t good fiction for anybody.

I was so incensed by the third and final book that I wrote a 1-star review of it on Amazon. I’m posting it here too. The beginning is spoiler-free, but it gets really spoilery after that, so… you’ve been warned!

My thought after finishing Allegiant was: “Whoa–what on earth was that??” From the reviews here, seems like many others had that same reaction.

I felt such strong disappointment that I decided to post my first book review ever on Amazon.

It’s been three days since I’ve finished, and in that time I’ve weighed giving the book 2 stars or 1 star. In the end, I decided on the latter–there’s so much wrong here, and so little that really works.

I’ll get to specific, spoiler-filled reasons in a moment. But first, the non-spoiler thoughts: Much of the book is dull and talky. Characterization is much poorer than the previous books–lots of two-dimensional characters, and inconsistent divergence (ha) from what we’ve known of the characters in the previous books (chiefly Tobias). Many plot points and themes are inconsistent as well, and the ending is unsatisfying not so much because of *what* happens or *why*, but rather *how* it happens.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Many reviewers, here and elsewhere, have elaborated on the book’s weaknesses. I’d like to add three observations to the mix; I’m sure someone somewhere has already noted these, but I haven’t seen them emphasized in other reviews. So maybe it’s just me, but these three things bothered me greatly:

1) THE WORLD OUTSIDE THE FENCE IS DULL AND UNDERDEVELOPED: Insurgent left this as the chief story question: What is the world outside the fence? Allegiant offers a thin answer that doesn’t bear scrutiny. What’s up with the Fringe? We spend a lot of time on it, two long chapters–we discover people there are poor. And it’s violent. OK… so? Why is it that way? If it’s anything like real-world poverty, I assume there’s a variety of contributing factors. But the book suggests, somewhat vaguely, that government oppression of GDs is the sole cause. OK… well, how about that government then? The United States still exists apparently, but what does the current government look like? They seem pretty weak in their oversight of the Bureau, but are strong enough to keep many folks in abject poverty? And what exactly is the relationship between the government and the Bureau–surely the Bureau doesn’t act entirely on its own? Wouldn’t the government possess significant concern about a memory reset of the entire Bureau by a bunch of rebels from the experiment? It’s utterly unclear how the government and broader society operates here–thus, the chief story question left by Insurgent remains, in my view, unanswered.

2) THE BOOK FEELS LIKE A RETCON: OK, I get that it’s the nature of a story like this to discover that things we thought we knew just aren’t true. You can do that a bit and not only get away with it, but add significantly to the plot. From Insurgent, I’d put Evelyn’s non-death in that category. But in Allegiant, Roth backtracks so much that it gave me mental whiplash. Who is Edith Prior? Never mind, her identity doesn’t matter really. Sending an army of Divergent outside the city? Nope, that was a lie told for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Tori’s brother dead? No he’s not, but that fact contributes next to nothing to the plot. The faction/factionless conflict in the series really matters right? Doesn’t appear so–it gets little time and is (unbelievably) easily resolved. Tris’s mom was from Dauntless? Oops, no–and somehow Jeanine knew that, but don’t ask how. The Erudite developed the attack serum? Sorry, they were just toadies dependent on the Bureau. Being Divergent involves serum resistance? Well kinda but not really. So is Tobias Divergent? Well, actually not, but don’t expect an explanation for how Tris actually is beyond the word “genetics.” Perhaps Roth planned these things from the beginning. If so, she executes these revelations ineffectively; if not, well, this smells like the retcon it is.

3) HOW TRIS DIED: Now let me be utterly clear: I’M NOT BOTHERED BY THE *FACT* THAT TRIS DIED. Her death could’ve possessed tragic, artful beauty. I also get the sacrificial theme Roth was going for in her death (i.e., *why* she died). My problem is that *how* she died is inconsistent with the *why*.

If you read Roth’s blog post on why Tris died, you’ll find that she intended her death to demonstrate Tris’s understanding of love and sacrifice. Thematically, I can accept that. The problem is, the actual reasons–the “how”–of Tris’s death possess inconsistencies with that theme.

So why did Tris die? From this reader’s point of view, the following reasons, chiefly:

1) TRIS HAD A MOMENT OF STUPIDITY. Really–leaving her gun behind when going into the serum room? I could see Caleb doing that. But not someone Dauntless-trained.

2) HER ENEMIES WERE STUPIDER. So they found evidence an attack might occur. Now, what would you do in that situation, if you were David? I’d get those planes in the air, right away, or at least protect the pilots. I’d get some key decision-makers to safe, secure locations. I mean, I’d be more familiar with these serums that anyone else; I’d have safeguards in place to deal with death and memory serums getting loose in the compound. This is obvious–at least it should be obvious to people as supposedly smart as the Bureau. (Tangent: The Bureau seem like Erudite 2.0. Wish Roth had written a different kind of villain here–makes me wonder what bad experiences she had with science profs at Northwestern…) Or, at least station some more guards at the all-important serum room. Or inside it. I mean, they had just this kind of attack earlier in the book–that should’ve been a big wake-up call about their lax security measures. In short, the bad guys here are much too stupid to be credible enemies, especially given all the scientific prowess they’re supposed to possess.

3) TRIS WAS SELFISH. Now this strikes directly against Roth’s chief theme. Consider it. Why did Tris want to destroy the Bureau? Because the Bureau is a GP-dominated entity with a history of oppressing GDs. The Bureau was concerned about violent leaders in the city and wanted to erase their memories–never mind the collateral damage to the many innocent people in the city.

But, what about the city? Well, the city is a GD-dominated entity (the factions) with a history oppressing GPs (Divergents, and especially Factionless Divergents). On behalf of the city, Tris is concerned about violent leaders in the Bureau, and wants to erase their memories–never mind the collateral damage to the many innocent people in the Bureau (those poor GD underlings we see through Nita…)

And the thing is, this isn’t just my read of the narrative. Tris acknowledges this herself in a critical conversation in Chapter 39: “It’s not a perfect situation. But when you have to choose between two bad options, you pick the one that saves the people you love and believe in most. You just do. Okay?” So on one hand, Roth wants us to believe that the entire trilogy is about true self-sacrifice. On the other hand, she offers self-oriented relational interest as the chief, overriding criterion for making tough ethical decisions.

I think I just heard several dead Abnegation spinning in their graves…

So in the end, I found Allegiant to be a dull, slow, incoherent mess of a book. Some have taken this as an opportunity to bash Roth. I don’t think that’s warranted. We all make mistakes–and Roth is still a young (albeit very successful) author. And we know from Divergent and Insurgent that she can write an awesome book. She also seems like an author who possesses significant respect for her readers. My hope–and it’s a longshot, I know–but my hope is that her respect will translate into an apology. I think her fans still care about her–I think they’d take well to an, “I’m sorry, I really tried, but I goofed” sort of acknowledgment. (If only George Lucas had done that after Star Wars Episode I…) Then I’d welcome a fix–maybe a rewrite of the ending, if not the entire book. Until then, I’ll just pretend I have some memory serum to push Allegiant aside–and I’ll try to imagine an ending that’s truer to the story’s themes and roots.

How do we keep our romantic relationships going?–or, maybe the weirdest study I’ve published

One of my articles just came out in Southern Communication Journal. I think it’s the weirdest study I’ve ever published.

I’m passionate about understanding relational maintenance—in other words, what we do to keep our close relationships… well, close. The dominant line of maintenance research has been offered by Laura Stafford (Bowling Green State University), Dan Canary (Arizona State University), and their co-authors. And, boy howdy, all of us who study relational maintenance owe a tremendous debt to them. Across numerous studies, they’ve identified five categories of maintenance behavior: positivity (e.g., being nice), openness (e.g., self-disclosure), assurances (e.g., affirming commitment to the relationship), social networks (e.g., spending time with common friends), and shared tasks (e.g., doing chores together). It’s important work that represents a meaningful achievement in the field of interpersonal communication research.

I’m also passionate about online communication—and after doing my dissertation on relational maintenance, I realized that we don’t know whether these behaviors, identified in face-to-face romantic relationships, generalize to online communication. (As an aside—I later published some initial evidence that they probably do.)

So, five years ago, I and several Ohio University grad students set out to find what new maintenance behaviors exist online. Or, that’s what we thought we were doing. Research throws curve balls.

We asked participants (college students) how they maintained their romantic relationships. Our survey closely followed the initial 1991 Stafford and Canary study—but instead, we asked about both face-to-face and online behaviors.

The data surprised us—no, not the online data. The face-to-face data!

Participants reported that they maintained their romantic relationships by hanging out, by sharing meals together, by physical touch, by watching TV together. OK—I guess that doesn’t sound too surprising… probably sounds like a typical day in the life of a couple. But it was shocking to us because these behaviors really aren’t reflected in the Stafford and Canary typology (at least not specifically). Not that they are inconsistent with their typology. Rather, Stafford and Canary’s behaviors were more abstract, whereas those we found were less so.

And, I got excited. I mean, how cool would it be to have a survey instrument that would let us address specific communication behaviors that maintain relationships? That might let us give even more targeted advice to people struggling in their romantic relationships. Previous research lets us paint advice with a broad brush; “be positive” and “self-disclose” are important (but kinda vague) suggestions. But “update each other about your day” and “watch some TV together” are more specific and less open to interpretation—and therefore, just maybe, more helpful.

After reporting these open-ended findings, the second study examined the reason why people maintain romantic relationships. This study just published in SCJ is the third study in this line of work. It reports a survey measure that tries to get at those specific communication behaviors in romantic relationships.

Unfortunately, when analyzing the data, the number of different, meaningful behaviors was not nearly as simple as I hoped it would be. I ended up with 11 types of behavior that maintain romantic relationships. On one hand, that’s 11 exciting directions for future research; on the other hand, it’s daunting to understand how they all function together to breathe life into our relationships. But, as many interpersonal communication scholars have noted—interpersonal relationships are exceedingly complex.

The 11 behaviors are (with some examples):

  1. Sharing possessions (money, high- and low-cost items)
  2. Spending time together (hanging out, eating meals, going on dates)
  3. Sharing media together (movies, TV shows, video games)
  4. Verbal affection (“I love you, “I miss you,” using special nicknames)
  5. Informal talk (catching up about the day, talking about fun, light-hearted things)
  6. Deep talk (serious conversations, discussing problems)
  7. Sharing tasks (making a decision together, helping with chores)
  8. Managing conflict (handling disagreements, making up)
  9. Humor (laughing, telling jokes)
  10. Physical affection (cuddling, kissing)
  11. Shared networks (spending time with friends and family)

Researchers will be interested in the methodological flexibility of this instrument. And that is what’s weird about it—rather than our straightforward instruments that measure ‘X’ number of factors, this instrument possesses utility for many levels of abstraction. It can assess very specific behaviors at the item level, maintenance as a whole at the most abstract level, or two levels in-between (the 11-category solution above, or a 4-category solution you’ll find in the paper).

But many of you reading this aren’t researchers. What’s the practical upshot of this work?

First, I found evidence that all of these behaviors are motivated by thinking about the other person as part of the self. This seems to be a critical component of healthy romantic relationships—as the relationship progresses, we no longer think of ourselves as two, but one.

Second, maintaining that close, interdependent relationship takes a lot of time and energy across several different domains. I suspect that friendships (especially those that aren’t particularly close) and some family relationships may employ only a few of these behaviors. But a healthy marriage calls for commitment across all of these domains.

Third, some of these behaviors appear to be more costly than others. Although important, talk can be ‘cheap.’ I’ve blogged about this before. Shared possessions, time, and media are less so. The closest relationships seem to share these non-renewable resources deeply with each other. In other words, a couple with separate bank accounts might not be as close as a couple that shares all of their financial resources in common.

So there’s (maybe) the weirdest study I’ve ever published—weird because I thought we would study online communication, but instead found a grander mystery; weird because something so commonplace turns out to be complex, diverse, and elaborate. In the classic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Hide and Q,” Picard remarks to Data, “Perhaps someday we will discover that space and time are simpler than the human equation.” With all due respect to quantum physicists, I think Picard might’ve had it right.

What I’ve been up to lately…

… no, I promise you, I haven’t forgotten about this blog! Rather, I’ve been writing and working on other things. Today, I’d like to share three of them with you!

1. ADVISING AWESOME MASTER’S STUDENTS

I’m SO incredibly proud of these two:

Katie_cropped Natalie_cropped

Katherine (Katie) Fearer (left) and Natalie Fech (right) did absolutely fantastic work on their master’s theses. Both theses addressed relational uncertainty and relational maintenance (Natalie’s in romantic relationships, Katie’s in friendships), and both found really really nifty findings that I fully expect will appear in press soon. Neither are pursuing a PhD at the moment, but if any of y’all reading this are looking to add great doctoral students to your program, these two are well worth recruiting!

2. RESEARCH ON TEACHER TECHNOLOGY POLICIES

I’ve talked with many professors who have wondered how they should manage students’ technology use in the classroom: “Should I allow laptops only? Or cell phones too? Maybe I should ban all technology use?” My wonderful TCU friend/colleague Dr. Amber Finn and I have set out to provide answers to these questions.

In a study that’s soon to appear in Communication Education (and is already available online), we examined how a teacher’s technology policies predict student learner empowerment–in other words, the student’s belief that s/he can perform effectively in the class.

Based on previous research (i.e., Turman & Schrodt, 2005), we expected learner empowerment would be highest when teachers moderately encourage course-relevant technology use and moderately discourage non-course use. But, that’s not what we found!

For encouraging policies, we found nothing but a positive effect. The more teachers encourage course-relevant technology use, the more empowered students feel. (IMO–This should give teachers some pause about banning all tech use in the classroom.)

For discouraging policies, we found the effect depended on the student’s level of apprehension about communicating online. These findings led to this graph, which I’ll share here just because I think it looks kinda cool (well, ‘cool’ in a geeky way… :-):

disc_graph
What does this mean? Well, the most important line is that dark, solid line–that’s the highly apprehensive students. The curve of the line is lowest in the middle–in other words, they feel least empowered when teachers are moderately discouraging of non-course tech use!

The upshot here? We think clarity is important. As an instructor, you can discourage non-course tech use as long as you’re clear about it. If you’re wishy-washy, you’ll ‘freak out’ the apprehensive students because they won’t know what to expect–and, consequently, they’ll fell less empowered.

3. A FIRST LOOK AT COMMUNICATION THEORY

afl_8th

Several years ago, my dear friend and mentor Em Griffin invited me to serve as a “special consultant,” and now as a co-author, on his textbook A First Look at Communication Theory. It’s the book that, as a college student at Wheaton, got me all fired up about being a communication professor–so I was delighted to accept his invitation!

We (Em and Glenn Sparks at Purdue University) have been working on the upcoming 9th edition. (The image above is the 8th edition; the cover hasn’t been finalized for the 9th edition yet.) I won’t say much about it now, except that I’m excited about the updates we’ve been making to the book! Much of my work has involved a new organizational communication theory… I’m very excited to see the feedback on it from long-time users of the book.

I should probably also mention that, this April, I was awarded tenure and promotion to associate professor at TCU. Thanks to all of you who helped me on the journey to this point in my career! I feel very blessed to work at such a wonderful university with truly excellent colleagues.

Do colleges really “close” during the summer?: A critique of Fay Vincent in the WSJ

So yesterday, I read an article in the WSJ by former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent (this link may/may not allow you to see it without a WSJ subscription).

In the article, he argues that universities can become “more efficient” if they don’t “close for the summer.” Um, I wonder if he’s ever been on a college campus during the summer? Every school I’ve seen firsthand runs a slew of revenue-generating summer classes and conferences.

He also attacks faculty, arguing they are “underutilized” and could “be used more productively” during the summer. Um, has he ever observed faculty during the summer? The faculty I know produce a lot during the summer across the domains of teaching, research, and service.

Finally, he addresses time, claiming “As school administrations over the years have steadily shortened the educational year, students were the losers. It is difficult not to conclude that my generation got a better education because we got more of it.” He fails to consider that the relationship between time and learning isn’t linear. I guarantee you my students aren’t learning as much during the 14th week of the semester as they are the 3rd–the comparison between the 74th and 6th minutes of class is also apt.

I agree we need to ask serious questions about higher education practices and consider creative answers. And speaking of productivity, such brainstorming is most productive when it doesn’t betray basic ignorance about fundamental facts of academic life.

Is talk cheap?: Relational maintenance and scarcity, part II

In Part I, I discussed some of my recent research on romantic couples. My results suggested some things we do to maintain our relationships are scarce, and others are not. If a behavior is scarce, then if I give it to you, I can’t give it to someone else. That post mainly addressed shared media (e.g., TV/movies) as one such scarce behavior (as well as time and resources).

But, I hope we’d agree that only watching TV doesn’t make a relationship strong. After all, by way of analogy, we need to do many different things to keep a car on the road. Changing the oil is important maintenance work, but it isn’t going to fix your brakes! Likewise, relationships need a variety of behaviors to stay healthy—and human relationships are much more complex than cars!

Among the ways we maintain our relationships, the kind of talk we use is of utmost importance. Consider the Hebrew proverb: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” (Proverbs 18:21, ESV). Between couples, talk can craft a relationship of shining beauty or soul-crushing brokenness. The words we use in our close relationships matter.

But, what kind of talk are we talking about (ha!)? Not all talk is equivalent; chatting about the weather is not the same as discussing politics, and neither are the same as telling someone “I love you” (at least, I hope not!)

This study identified five types of talk romantic couples use to maintain their relationships. To make them concrete, I’ve included one survey item that measured the type of talk:

  1. Verbal affection (“We say ‘I love you’ to each other.”)
  2. Deep talk (“We disclose deeply personal, private information about ourselves to each other.”)
  3. Conflict management (“We handle disagreements with each other.”)
  4. Informal talk (“We talk about what’s up and about what happened during the day.”)
  5. Humor (“We tell jokes and humorous stories to each other.”)

Of course, the next logical question is: Which of these types of talk is most important to the health of a relationship? The answer is: all of the above! Close couples were more likely to use all types of talk in their relationships!

A few “take-away” points:

  1. It isn’t just the deep conversations. We typically think of our closest relationships as those where we can share our deepest thoughts and feelings. But, that’s not always a sign of a super-close relationship. Some people disclose very private thoughts to counselors or clergy, but don’t share the mundane details of their lives with them. In some ways, sharing our daily events over a period of time is much more intimate than one episode of deep sharing.
  2. Conflict can be healthy. This study wasn’t mainly about conflict, and certainly conflict can be destructive. When approached with the desire to sacrificially love the other person, and the heart to work toward the best solution possible, conflict also can improve our relationships and make them resilient. In this study, the closest couples didn’t always run from conflict.
  3. Variety is key. These talk types are remarkably diverse! If your conversation is always light and fluffy, or always super-duper-deep, that could be a problem. Just as the body needs a variety of foods to stay healthy, so romantic relationships need a variety of talk.

Finally, one type of talk emerged as uniquely important. All the talk types reflected a close relationship, but one especially did, and that’s verbal affection. In other words, the closest couples say “I love you” to each other frequently! It strikes me that some couples probably don’t say those words enough, and for others they say it without much meaning. My gut feeling is that it’s best not only to verbalize affection, but also to mean it when we say it.

So is talk cheap? Maybe—but it certainly isn’t scarce. And it’s important. What kind of talk would your romantic partner most like to hear today?

Whether it’s revealing the secrets of your heart, facing a long-standing conflict, or simply chatting about your day, that talk could improve the health of your relationship.