Thursday, December 20, 2007

Things Not to Do in College

Things Not to Do in College
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2007

People who have known me for a couple years know me to be thoughtful and deliberate in my reactions to a situation. I carefully measure my response, weighing the pros and cons, before finally saying what I think.

People who have known me for several years just spit a mouthful of coffee all over their monitor.

I have not always been the careful, deliberate person I am today. I was more of the shoot-first-get-a-friend-to-apologize-later type. Although this approach usually got me into trouble, I could occasionally get a small victory. But nine times out of 10, it was the trouble thing.

One victory stands out in my memory though, not so much for its sweetness, but because I could have gotten thrown out of grad school. (Okay, it stands out more for its sweetness.)

I was in the Speech Communication program at Ball State University, studying interpersonal communication. It happened in one of the classes taught by my favorite professor, who I'll call Alvin.

During the first week, we discussed whether communication is sender or receiver based. That is, does the meaning of a message come from the sender or the receiver? Is the intent or impact of a statement more important?

Let's say I call my friend Edgar a slack-jawed mouth-breather. He gets angry with me, but I protest and say it was just a joke. Who's right? Does Edgar have the right to be offended (impact)? Or can I laugh it off as a bit of harmless fun (intent)?

This is the Ultimate Question in communication circles. (We don't get out much.) The entire foundation of communication studies is based on where meaning lies. It ranks right up there with Evolution vs. Creationism, Democrat vs. Republican, Britney Spears vs. Jessica Simpson. It keeps communicators up at night, and even caused a fistfight at communication conference. (Apparently, The Question had caused a Wisconsin professor to sleep with the wife of a Tennessee professor, but that's another story).

Alvin let us debate it for an hour before he brought it to an end.

"This debate has been raging for decades, and we're not going to solve it here in one afternoon. So for the rest of the semester, let's assume communication is receiver based."

That is, it's the impact on the receiver, not the intent of the sender. Fair enough. I was firmly entrenched in the receiver camp anyway, so I should apologize to Edgar

A couple weeks later, Alvin handed back one of his occasional 10-point quizzes. I shouldn't have been too upset when I scored 80% -- only two questions wrong. But I was. Especially because an undergrad scored a 90%! I was a grad student and five years her senior. She wasn't supposed to do better than me.

People who have known me for several years have also known me to be very competitive -- unhealthily so.

As Alvin reviewed the quiz with us, he changed one of the answers I had missed, which meant I was up to 90%. I was tied with the girl genius. Just one more correction, and I'd beat her. When we got to the other question I missed, I defended my answer, trying to change Alvin's mind.

"Given the way the question was written," I said, "there are two correct answers."

"Yes," said Alvin, "but only one is the best answer."

"Then the question wasn't written clearly," I persisted.

"Well, you have to take the question the way I meant it."

My voice quavered a little when I delivered my coup de grace, the shot that was heard 'round the department.

"But you told us that for the purposes of this class, all communication is receiver based. As the receiver, I assigned the meaning to the question, which lead me to my answer."

Alvin stared daggers at me for what seemed like several minutes, before he said, "Fine you all get a point for that one. Now, everybody out, class is over."

We hadn't even been there for 15 minutes. I realized what I had just done, and decided to go while my rear end was still attached.

"Not you, Erik."


Alvin stood six inches away, voice shaking with anger. "If you had ever done that in a Ph.D. program, they would have bounced your butt right out of the program. And if you ever do that to me in front of the class again, I'll make sure it happens. Do you understand me?"

If I had learned nothing else in the last 30 seconds, it was to keep my mouth shut, so I just nodded, and he stomped back to his office. We never spoke of that day again, and I knew better than to ask if he had changed my grade.

Over the next several years, I finally began to change my whole speak-first-think-later approach to life. I still have to practice from time to time, but I'm much more humble than I was 15 years ago.

I still know more than everyone else, I just keep quiet about it now.

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