Uniting and Leading: Our Stories of Rocks

Mary Evelyn Collins

In the very middle of the Twentieth Century a family in Central Texas decided to downsize when the opportunity arose to build a house. With one son in college and three other sons evenly spaced at two year intervals, they took a look at their three-year old daughter and decided that this new house would be the last house–the house that would take them to retirement and beyond.

After the couple drew up their own plans, the father took his sons out to a ranch not far from town where he and his wife had spotted some sand stone outcrops just the color they wanted for the house. The father and sons gathered the rock and the house was built with a vivid pattern that reminded one of freckles, or a pinto pony, or peanut brittle. The required pecan trees were planted, rose bushes put in, and summer tomatoes set out. Another daughter was born. A happy family in a smiling, freckled house–solid as a rock.

But, when the father's job required that he move often and at regular intervals, with no hope to plan for schools, churches, or extended family ties, he chose family over job, and his interaction with his family over his house. He took a job with a lesser title, more benefits, and secure retirement. They left that rock encased bungalow, because the philosophy of home as a commitment was more important to them than the visual portrayal of it–the rock house, solid as the rock of which it is built. That little bungalow still stands, with its healthy pecan trees and rose bushes–as solid as the family that built it.

We don't have a specific visual place that is the Southern States Communication Association, but we have an intellectual and emotional place that is built with the metaphors we use to define ourselves, our work and our future. I want to touch on three of those metaphors: the rock, the marker, and the monument.

First, the symbol of the rock as a solid and permanent presence is strong in our communication heritage. Last year I had to introduce a professor of rhetoric from a sister institution to a group of high school students. He was going to talk about writing for contest. Of course, he was from an English Department. I try not to draw too much attention to my own emphasis in rhetoric and public address in an instance like this, because I don't want to become a point of derision, which I have found happens when a person from the English Department discovers that Speech Communication also claims rhetoric. This time I was happily surprised when I admitted that my area was rhetoric, also. "Oh, yes," he said, "you people really kept rhetoric alive in the academy until we rediscovered it." Kept alive and still keeping alive, I wanted to say. Instead, I just said I thought that we celebrated those wonderful foundations of the whole discipline of communication.
When I think of that strong foundation, I am reminded of the children's song about the foolish man and the wise man:
The foolish man built his house upon the sand
And the rains came down
And the floods came up
And the house on the sand went plop!
The wise man built his house upon the rock
And the floods came down
And the floods came up
And the house on the rock stood stout!
What is that bedrock that we celebrate as our foundation?
–Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Quintillion, and my students' favorite, Longinus On the Sublime.
Recently, in my Applied Rhetoric class, after a struggle through a contemporary approach to criticism, a young man said, "I don't think this is as clear as Aristotle or Longinus," referring to a textbook discussion. Of course, I said, time proves many things, and we've had a lot more time with the work from the Greeks and Romans. Do we have a rock solid basis for our scholarship as it has evolved into the areas of mass communication, interpersonal communication, small group communication, intercultural communication, and so forth? Of course, we do! We should claim our past as our own and celebrate the distance we've come.

"Like a rock," "Rock of ages," "On this rock," "I am a rock," "The rock that is higher than I," –all metaphors for our constant struggle with our humanity in a world vast and unfriendly and sometimes dangerous. But don't all of us study some part of the communication process that seeks to deal with our insecurity in the sand bog of relationships and shifting contexts? We all want to have an intellectual "piece of the rock," but we ought to be helping each other anchor into the same firm outcrop and work together to climb up to the solid plateau. Is your work taking you up or is it holding you down? If you step up on a rock it can't weigh you down. I find myself asking my inner person to evaluate the worth of my scholarship more these days. That's probably my age, but I also believe it is a strong sense that there are areas of discovery that need my attention because my students, my family, and my community have needs, serious needs.

How do I find my way to new ideas, to a new focus? I don't know about you, but I need some guidance and inspiration, some signposts. In the early years of our nation, Benjamin Franklin, postmaster, had a vision for better communication between cities and states. To Franklin that meant better postal service, and that meant better roads. Franklin pushed for a post road between New York and Boston. When the road was being cut, Franklin placed engraved stones as markers at intervals along the post road. The mail would arrive earlier and more accurately delivered if the post riders could clearly see the way. Those makers pointed the way. Simple rocks placed strategically sending the rider and his messages to their destinations. You can still see some of these markers toady where Franklin carefully placed them.

What are our markers? How are we pointed on the way? A marker could be that mentor that pointed us down the scholarly path. A major marker for me was Gregg Phifer, who offered to do a one on one course when my schedule would not allow me to be in his Monday night class. So each Tuesday morning we carefully went through his lectures and discussions for Contemporary Rhetoric. That intense quarter term convinced me to pursue more–Gregg pointed to way. Another marker life was Kenneth Burke. I was intrigued, usually confused, and more often than not, re-reading much of the Burke canon. I was challenged enough to get to know Burke before he died. I think he would prefer to be a marker, the directional signal on the critical trip, the fuel to get us on our way, but never he would never want to be the destination. I remember hearing Burke in the 1980's, before we knew about the Iran-Contra Scandal, challenge an audience to "really listen" to the discourse concerning Central America, because he saw indications of problems ahead. He was calling on us to be thorough critics, pointing us, pushing us, shoving us to deeper creative critique.

In recent years some of you have been markers for me. Michael Osborn's wonderful article on rhetorical Depiction sent me in new directions. True, I've used his vision of rhetorical depiction in the analysis of cowboy humor, but, as I shared with Dick Ranta, " If it hadn't been for Michael's work, I would never have been on Amazon Dot Com.

Is there someone who has been that marker for you? Take a mental moment and think of that person. I that person is here maybe you should take a moment to let them know. That's not being sentimental, that's just being a good professional.

I've discussed with you some of our sold rocks and our directional markers, but what of our monuments? When the Hebrews, the children of Israel, were nearing the promised land, the Lord told Joshua to have a representative from each of the twelve tribes to get a stone from the Jordan River just before they were to cross over into the promised land. Each of these twelve stones were to be a reminder to the tribe, but when placed together they formed a monument to God for His deliverance and His care. The monument celebrated the work of the Lord. What are our monuments? Our monuments are those gathered stones of our work that exist in our students and in our colleagues. Just like the Hebrews collecting and putting together the stones that would forever celebrate freedom, victory and community, we collect our stones of teaching, research and service into the lives of those who move onward. These are not empty egotistic monuments to ourselves, but they are the result of our selfless efforts to make an impact on a future that is not our own and is the effort of a collection of professionals. The best role model of the "stone-gatherer-monument builder" was my dear friend, mentor, brother and dean, the late Lawrence Clayton. Lawrence died after a short but grueling bout with ALS, Lou Gehrig's Disease, which leaves the body useless to a mind that is still active and creative. Lawrence was the dean of Arts and Science at Hardin-Simmons University, a popular teacher, and a prolific author and historian of western life and literature. He greatly encourage me in my professional efforts, especially with SSCA, and back that support with help in funding. Lawrence also supported the career of my friend Randy Armstrong, who is here this weekend. Lawrence early on offered advice and direction to Terry Thibodeaux and me in our study of dialects and culture. I will never forget Lawrence searching the trans-Southern folk speech derivations of terms from Gullah to Cajun to trans-Brazos ranch dialect.

What Lawrence would do, with no real reward for himself, except the sheer joy of it would be to help a willing faculty member to discover an interest, link them to others with similar interest, then provide venues or resources for them to be productive. I recall that he realized that he had a number of talented women faculty who had no outlet for that talent, at least not a showcase for it. Even with a very small budget, he pulled a core group of women together and from there, those young faculty women, designed and executed a women's conference in West Texas. Participants came from all over the country. It was so successful that two years later this same core with the addition of equally enthusiastic male faculty members , held the first Mosaic of Texas Cultures Conference with 600 participants. Randy won an award for his logo and advertising campaign. That conference is now held every other year and is well worth your consideration.

Some of you may remember Lawrence at our last conference in San Antonio, when he chaired the Intercultural Division's off-site program at the Center for Southwester Studies. Las year in New Orleans, his daughter, Lea, was on the program as a young professional. We had won his interest and his respect He could recognize the quality of scholarship among us and he celebrated our work, even though it was not like his own.

The last time I saw Lawrence, just days before he died New Year's Eve, we spoke of a student that we shared, Debra Pearsons. We also shared Debra with our colleagues at Texas A & M University, where she did graduate work in Speech Communication, before she entered the field of juvenile probation, a career to which she was truly called. Debbie shared stories with me about her work with young people in the affluent Dallas suburb of Lewisville. She pointed out that all those research classes had really helped her because much of her work was based in research. In late 1999 she discovered that a troubled thirteen year old girl from an upper middle class family, in trouble and with no real communication with her parents, had left home to pursue a career as a prostitute in Dallas. Debbi reported to the Dallas juvenile authorities, whose workload was enormous, and then set out to find the girl. Not many of us would know where to look for a thirteen year old novice prostitute. Debbi search until she found her, convinced the girl this was not a career with a future, and took her home, following up with counseling for the whole family. That could have been the daughter of any one of us. Debbi was the living essence of all of her communication education. She carried the celebration of our work in her and it took on her unique voice. I use the past tense because in January, 2000, after a thirteen hour stay in the hospital, Debbi died of acute, aggressive leukemia. At her memorial service teenager after teenager testified to Debbi's commitment and work, including a fourteen year old failed prostitute.

Lawrence and I agreed that a life like Debbi's was worth every effort, every long hour of preparation, every edited student paper. Before I left Lawrence that last day, I said, "I take you to class with me every day."

So, we have the rock of our past, the marker to the future and the living monuments to our work. What challenge can we see for the Southern States Communication Association here in 2001, at the beginning of the 21st Century? Look around you. Some of the best scholars in communication are here. Committed teachers who bring innovation and creativity to the classroom are here. Researchers willing to ask tough questions and seek answers are here. You are here. I have heard so many of you say how much SSCA mean as a community of colleagues and friends. We spend hours preparing for this conference and three or four days and nights together once a year challenging each other and sharing with each other our research. Is it worth it? Should we be here in 2101? I hope you will agree with me that it is indeed worth it and in whatever form it may be in 100 years SSCA should still be in the active role of encouraging the best scholarship, the best teaching and the best service that can be achieved by cooperating colleagues in the field of communication. In 1930 at that first conference few were concerned with the year 2000. It arrived and we survived. How can be best survive to 2101? By commitment. My students call it the dreaded "C" word.

It takes commitment to do good scholarship and consider how change will affect our work, because just as sure as taxes will be collected, change will occur. Recently we faced a change at Sam Houston State University. Our new Dean of Arts and Sciences asked each department and program to come up with a focus, that is, some area of research that the faculty could join together in research, curriculum development and grant writing. Each individual should continue to pursue his or her own research program, but this would be a joint effort. As I spoke with J. D. Ragsdale, our coordinator, I wondered where this might take us. Some departments have refused to do anything. J. D. said he was really concerned how I would fin it. Me, not fit in, after all, I'm in rhetoric and public address, I fit in anywhere. He of course, was thinking that he and Don Richardson and Terry Thibodeaux had much overlap, but I was definitely on one end of the communication spectrum. As we talked we thought of areas of relational communication including family communication. "Family communication," I exclaimed, "I've had a long-term commitment to child and family advocacy." "Really?" said J. D., " This might just work." Next fall J. D. will offer our first family communication course. This summer Chad, Brian, Ron, and Felina, four undergraduates, and I will form a research team to collect studies and cases, develop a course outline, syllabus, reading list and other materials for a course in child and family advocacy which I will offer Fall, 2002. I will insist that we include in the definition of family single person family structures. Of course, I will continue my interests in dialect, preaching, culturetype and visual rhetoric. But does this new focus deserve my best effort–certainly! Will this be hard–most certainly! Am I scared–oh, yes!

We then must have commitment in the face of change to do our best work if we get to 2101 as an institution that is professionally healthy. But what other commitment is needed? The mirror side of commitment to quality work is the commitment of resources to insure the financial life of the SSCA. If we put this much energy, time and love into our association we should put our money. Many of us have to pay all the expenses of participation, because educational institutions have done away travel funds. But, if we really do care, then we should think of ways to help. I challenge you to consider your own efforts and the efforts of these colleagues here to be worthy of regular gifts of whatever size, to our named awards. Or, check your network of friends and associates, is there a corporation that could give an endowment gift or underwrite one of our events? Or, sit down with your family, attorney, or estate executor and include SSCA in your estate or life insurance planning. You might save your family or estate some tax and help SSCA get to 2101 in "solid as a rock" shape.

Is it worth the effort of our best scholarship? Is it worth a financial commitment beyond membership dues? Certainly it is, or you would not be here, away from home, on a Friday morning in April.

In the book of Revelation we are reminded of the Roman tradition of sending a small, smooth, white stone to make an invitation to a guest. When the guest arrived they would present the stone. That small stone was the symbol of the invitation and the acceptance of it. Today there are some small, smooth glass stones on your table. Please take one. Later put it in your pocket or purse so that it will be a reminder to you. Right now take it in your hand and consider this invitation: the invitation to be committed to a professional life of excellence, of work that counts; the invitation to support this association so that we can financially reach into the future; the invitation to remember the rock of our intellectual foundation, to follow our markers pointing us ahead, and to celebrate the living monuments of our work together. Yes!

(If you were unable to attend the Association Breakfast, and would like to have an Invitation Stone, please contact Mary Evelyn Collins, 936-294-1970 or [email protected] and she will send you one.)