When I began my career as a PhD student in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University in the fall of 2004, my interest in Intercultural Communication stemmed from my experiences as a language teacher and a world traveler. I naturally assumed that my dissertation work would grow at this intersection of language, culture, and communication. A year later, though, as I began exploring dissertation ideas, Dr. Judith Martin gave me what I now believe to be some of the best advice I have ever had the good sense to listen to: If you want to get through such a long, hard project on time, sane, and still happy about your career choice, you need to choose a topic that is of great personal significance to you. She told me to look at my life and start asking questions that current bodies of communication research did not answer for me. The questions were easy to come by. I was a recently divorced single mother wondering just what the communication patterns of my marriage (to a crack addict/alcoholic) had been all about. I started reading about silence, and about the culture of addiction. Interpersonal, intercultural, health communication – no one had my answers, and I had found my dissertation topic: familial silences in the context of addiction.
My dissertation title was Relative silence: A phenomenological study of silences, families, and addiction. The study focused on questions of cultural meaning, seeking to understand the embodied phenomenon of communicative silence within the particular culture of addiction, as well as the range of ways that members of this culture experience silence. I incorporated a number of qualitative methodologies, because I believe they can work well in concert, sharing both histories of cooperation and certain fundamental philosophical similarities such as an experiential epistemology and a recognition of the irresolute and synergistic processes of research. In the study, I asked the following research questions:
- What is the nature of the phenomena? In other words, in human experience, specifically in the experience of members of families where addiction is present, what are various silences like? How do they communicate meaning? What are the possible bodily experiences of silences in this context?
- What correlations can be drawn between modalities of experiencing silences in this context and the intersubjectivities of family members? From a critical humanist perspective, how do structures of power within families and in the larger society make certain experiences of silence possible for certain people? What tension exists between these structures of power and the human agency of family members, and what role does that tension play in performances of and interpretations of silences in the context of addiction?
- What critiques might a phenomenological study of silences in the context of addiction offer of current common research practices regarding the topics of silence, family communication, and addiction? In other words, how might questioning past operationalizations of “addict,” “family,”or “silence” address a mismatch between academic research and lived experiences, and make such research not only more valid but more useful?
I completed and defended the dissertation in March of 2008, and graduated from ASU in May of that year.
My scholarship on silence reflects the diversity and interdisciplinary nature of silence literature, both within the traditional boundaries of several sub-fields of communication (intercultural, interpersonal/family, and health) and at its borders, intersecting with other fields like applied linguistics and anthropology. Much of my published and/or performed research in this area over the past decade has focused around either the preparation for or the resulting discoveries of my dissertation.
In 2006, for instance, I won a NCA Top 4 Paper award from the Ethnography Division for a study I had conducted as preliminary dissertation work. Titled “The Birth of Silences,” this study explored familial silences about addiction. The summer of 2006, I took the paper to the NCA Honor’s Doctoral Seminar in Boulder to polish it for publication, and it was subsequently published in a special issue of the Iowa Journal of Communication on autoethnography. In 2007, I performed a selection of the poetry from this auto/ethnography entitled Stupefied in the Empty Space Theater in Tempe, AZ. Another of my publications, “Silence in Dispute,” is a comprehensive cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary, and cross-paradigmatic literature review synthesizing recent and germinal literature on silence. This extensive manuscript, which I developed as preparation for my dissertation work, was chosen as lead chapter for Volume 31 of the International Communication Association’s annual state-of-the-discipline journal Communication Yearbook, published in 2007. Subsequently, I also developed a more theoretical piece based on my dissertation work: an article published in Communication Theory in 2008, titled “Silence as Gesture.” This article urges the study of silences as situated, embodied phenomena, and argues that silence is akin to, and not merely opposite of, speech in any language system. Furthermore, returning to the performance space of ASU’s Empty Space Theater in the spring semester, 2008, I produced and performed in a staged version of the poetry that constitutes the third chapter of my dissertation. This full-length performance, titled Relative Silence after the dissertation, involved 10 ASU undergraduate, graduate, and faculty cast members and was directed by Jennifer Linde.
Some of my more recent work centers on silence as well. I have written two book chapters based on my dissertation work. The first, “Navigating Silences in International Business Contexts,” was published in the sixth volume of the Forum for General and Intercultural Business Communication in 2010. The second, “Fences, Weapons, and Gifts: Silences in the Context of Addiction,” is a contribution to a volume on critical considerations of silences, Silence and Power: Feminist Reflections at the Edge of Sound, edited by Sheena Malhotra and Aimee Carrillo Rowe. Although the poetry from my dissertation work has been included piecemeal in several of the articles and chapters listed here, I have also been attempting to publish a popular press version of the full set of 33 poems I included in the dissertation. I believe this poetry may be of interest and of value to many whose families are affected by addiction. And, finally, I am currently working to condense the analysis chapters of my dissertation into two articles for publication in peer-reviewed journals such as Text & Talk and Discourse & Society.
Please feel free to email me if you are interested in reading any of this work. I would be happy to reply with electronic copies (Adobe Acrobat .pdf files) of papers or performances.
For me, research has always been intimately intertwined with teaching. So, in the midst of my dissertation research on silence, it was quite natural for me to ask for and receive permission to develop and teach an undergraduate course on silences, which I taught at ASU in Spring, 2007. At the time, I had recently studied for and passed my comprehensive exams. I was therefore steeped in the silence literature and eager to share my knowledge with students. I began the course with a two-pronged approach, concentrating not only on a review of research on silences, but also on the research method of phenomenology (of which most of the students had been previously unaware). Students then spent the latter part of the semester working in groups on phenomenological research projects examining a particular experience of silence that they had found each of the group members to have in common. All group members conducted interviews with each other and wrote narratives based on both the stories of those they interviewed and the stories about which they themselves were interviewed. Then the groups conducted phenomenological analyses of these narratives in order to determine the essential structures (the socially assigned meanings and the reasons for those assignations) of the silences under examination. Each group completed a full-length paper (25-30 pages) and presented their discoveries to the rest of the class at the end of the course.
Since this experience, research and teaching on silence have intertwined for me in other ways as well. For example, I have begun to incorporate my expertise on silence into the intercultural communication courses, and even the foreign language courses, that I teach. Because silence may take the form of a performed speech act (see my paper described above on “Silence as Gesture”), I think it is important for my students in these courses to understand how silence is operating as a part of the language system(s) they use to communicate, and to conceive of the fact that silence often operates quite differently within language systems unfamiliar to them. At GSU, I developed an interdisciplinary upper level honors seminar on silence for the Honors College titled Silences: From Silencing, Secrets and Taboos to Listening, Persuading, Worshiping and Healing. In this colloquium, I work with students to unpack the complex and contradictory uses and meanings of silence in a variety of fields, including medicine, law, politics, film, architecture, music, education, religion and business. I taught this course first in 2013, and it has been accepted for a second offering in 2016.