“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!:


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.


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.