The Palantír Effect

I’m almost finished with a re-read of The Lord of the Rings. Wow, what an amazing novel! (I’ll call it a ‘novel’, singular, because Tolkien really wrote it as a single book, which his publisher later split into three.) I’ve seen so much more in the books as an adult than I did as a high schooler. One of those things I’ve gained is a name—a name for an effect of communication technology that I’ve talked about for years with my students.

To explain the effect, here’s a little quiz. Can you name:

  1. Your city’s mayor?
  2. Your representative to your state legislature?
  3. The important news stories in your local area?
  4. Your next door neighbors?

Maybe you’re one of the few that knows a lot about each of these. But that’s not most of us. Although I don’t have statistics to back this up, my guess is that the average person knows more about the president than they do their own mayor (I mean, at least they can name the president!), and more about their Facebook friends than they do about their neighbors.

This is the effect: communication technology shifts our attention from the local to the distant. I now call it the palantír effect.

What is a palantír (plural palantíri)? In The Lord of the Rings, it is a magical sphere. The person who looks into one can see things far away and communicate with someone who holds another palantír. In Middle-earth, only seven palantíri exist. In our earth, I think we each carry a little palantír in our purse or pocket.

Yes, part of the reason I like this metaphor is because I am a fantasy/sci-fi geek at heart… I can’t deny that. I also like the moral complexity of the metaphor. In Tolkien’s work, we see both good and bad effects of the use of palantíri. Regarding good, Aragorn used a palantír to see a dangerous military attack from the sea and took action to defeat it. He also used it to distract Sauron from Frodo’s quest. Earlier in the history of Middle-earth, a kingdom used the palantirí to facilitate communication and control across a vast territory. Likewise, communication technology allows us to coordinate activities across a distance. Anyone who’s ever had to ask a significant other what they were supposed to pick up at the grocery store knows this to be true.

On the other hand, communication technology may also focus our attention away from local matters we can address toward distant but fascinating problems we can do nothing about. (Have you heard anything about Ferguson, MO recently? Can you actually *do* anything about problems in Ferguson, MO? Yeah, me neither.) In Lord of the Rings, Denethor, the steward of the kingdom of Gondor, serves as the most potent example of this. Disturbed by images of distant armies, he despairs and concedes defeat, even to the point of ignoring the simple things he can do to protect his people and save his only living son.

Let me be clear that I’m not talking about time; I’m talking about attention. Some scholarship has argued that technology harms relationships because we spend time online that we could spend with local friends and family. That may happen (although research supporting that view has been weak).

However, technology may dominate our attention even when we spend a short amount of time with it. I’ve been guilty of glancing at a game of Words with Friends for a second, and then turning possible moves over and over in my mind for the next hour while I do other non-tech things. Likewise, Denethor didn’t spend much time using his palantír, but it controlled his emotions and decisions during every moment of the day.

This semester, as I teach my course on social media and personal relationships, I curious what my students will think: when does the palantír effect occur, when is it good, when is it bad, and who is most susceptible to it? Not easy questions, but perhaps important ones. In Middle-earth, the ability to harness the power of the palantíri for good helped save the day, whereas misuse of them nearly brought utter ruin.

Yes, Tolkien wrote decades before the age of Twitter and texting, But my re-read has taught me that, in the regard and others, perhaps his Middle-earth isn’t so different from our world after all.

 

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.

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.

My social networking site course featured in TCU Magazine!

The newest issue of TCU Magazine features a story on my social networking site seminar – one of my favorite classes to teach! The course takes students through the history of communication technology, then applying this history to understand our social media / smartphone world.

You can read the TCU Magazine article, or visit my teaching page to find the syllabi for both undergraduate and master’s-level seminars.