By Bob Betts, RVC Speech Professor
Amy Winking and I sat next to one another awaiting keys and further instructions in August of 1994. We were called to a small, lettered building near the Rock Valley College theater and a few staff members would soon greet this new academic counselor and I. Years later, this energetic stranger, Ms. Winking became Dr. Diaz, but those initial memories from a different time remain fresh. During that era, members of all employee groups met at the Student Center from time-to-time for breakfast before morning classes began and people like TJ Herman in Maintenance and Dale Oij from the Student Center were consistently around to share a good word. At least that is the way I remember it.
2016 shook me and I was struggling with nostalgic longings while striding toward the PEC last Friday morning. Yeah, I was freezing to death too, but mostly, like many of us, I have spent considerable time trying to make sense of the now. Much of what troubled me in the final months of 2016 was what the Greeks once called a cultural nostos or opposition to the present. I told anyone who would listen in 2016 that the spirit of these times was a destructive march backward toward a peace that never was. And now I was doing it. Walter Benjamin, one of the important critical theorists of the 20th century concluded in Illuminations that humans often encounter the future while turned toward the past. We engage the next important step kicking-and-screaming.
This stalled choice should not stand and several colleagues used our development day as an opportunity to articulate a bridge between past and future. This is not easy, but as Hannah Arendt has said in various forms, acting together in public spaces has value. Each of my colored dots was the precursor to inspired conversation with colleagues on Friday morning. Words were not hollow vehicles for getting through the day; instead, people I admire and trust were making plans and creating strategies in the name of doing better by marginalized students of all backgrounds. We do that well and I love that about us. I could not wait to grab a bite, re-coffee, and head to the afternoon camp out at the PAR. Language and power all afternoon. Yes, please.
Chris Kramer gave an outstanding talk on common logic fallacies during the 2016 presidential campaign. One of several memorable insights from the discussion was Dr. Kramer’s call to see one another again during ideological disagreements. He asked that we might re-present the argument of a fellow citizen as an attempt to understand. Communication departments call this perception checking. You or I restate what we believe someone else is saying to let them know we’re listening, to ensure that they know we value their participation in this discussion and to focus on the position taken and not an individual’s identity. This talk signaled a way forward by attempting to separate debate from the animus that often prematurely ends it. The final session of the afternoon succeeded in this way as well.
Robert D’Alonzo and Matt Oakes were charged with taking stock of Donald Trump’s election and the effect this event has had and will have on teaching course content. Dr. D’Alonzo wondered in the opening moments, “What can I do in the context of the world I want to live in?” There was an important nod to imagination in addressing this question and spirited conversation followed. By spirited I mean the emotion was raw and everyone had their buttons pushed. Some colleagues called for us all to keep personal feelings close to our vests while others claimed that standing up for certain values was central to the teaching in particular disciplines. It got real and the tension was a reminder that this was exactly what we should be talking about. Dr. Oakes said more about how he has framed the struggle in his own classes. He concluded, “How do I remain face-to-face with my students?” I think almost all of us value ethics of recognition and this notion ties together the perspectives shared by Kramer and D’Alonzo as well. We have no chance to connect or teach someone that we don’t really see. I drove home with fragments of an idea about acting between past and future. This is what Arendt said in championing words after World War II. Rhetoric makes a present between what was and what might become.
Reminiscing is not a crime unless it signals the beginnings of resignation. Thankfully, we have jobs where a new present is consistently around the corner. Re-invention in response to the past can surely change what will be if free will is to be believed. That’s why the presenters you saw and the speakers I saw deserve our respect. This day mattered.
Bob Betts has taught Speech at RVC since 1994.
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