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In the Introduction to Linguistics class
last week, Professor Ivanoff asked if the students had any questions about
the material he had just discussed in his lecture. The preceding lecture
covered marked words (words that clearly define or describe only one object).
A student who seemed confused asked Professor Ivanoff how the use of marked
words was connected to our study of Linguistics.
A student said, “Everyone knows that when
you say table, a table is something with four legs and a flat surface.
So table is a marked word. In a sense we already knew that because we don’t
go around calling everything a table.” The student asked, “Is this just
a definition or will it be explained further at a later time?”
“I do not understand why you are asking
such a question,” Professor Ivanoff said. “I just explained to you what
marked and unmarked words are. Why do you ask such a question?”
“I am just wondering why you told us about
marked words. How is it important in our study?” the student asked.
“I explained it to you. There are marked
words and there are unmarked words. Marked words describe definite things.
Unmarked words are words that can be used to define more than one thing,”
Professor Ivanoff shouted. “You ask such strange questions. I hold a Ph.D.
in linguistics. Why do you question my authority on such subject?”
The student tried to explain one more time,
“I am not questioning your authority at all. I am just wandering what the
connection is between marked words and Ling-.”
Professor Ivanoff interrupted, “If you
want to question my authority you do so in my office. Please do not waste
Unknowingly Professor Ivanoff and the student
provided a perfect example of “Conversational Narcissism” and how continued
habits can hinder the process of “true” dialogue. Conversational Narcissism
uses “structural” devices to dominate the conversation and shift the attention
from one partner to another. The shift response is the structural device
that Professor Ivanoff used to change the focus of attention from the student’s
question, to himself. This conversation shows that even in a simple conversation,
one person will shift the attention away from the other person to themselves,
allowing them to dominate the conversation.
The conversation portrayed the shift response
when Professor Ivanoff failed to answer the student’s question and put
forth effort to understand what the student was asking. Instead of attempting
to answer the question Professor Ivanoff felt personally attacked and attacked
the student in return. This shifted the attention of the conversation to
Professor Ivanoff and his concerns. The student no longer had a say in
the matter and her question would not be answered.
When Professor Ivanoff employed the shift
response, dialogue could no longer take place. To make dialogue happen
between two persons, four characteristics must be present. The first characteristic
is two-way flow. Each participant of the dialogue must have an equal chance
to speak their thoughts on the matter while the other listens intently.
Two-way flow allows each speaker to have the same amount of time to share
and express their ideas. The second characteristic for a dialogue is that
the topic of discussion must be “non-empirically” verifiable. The topic
must not scientifically proven. A third criterion asks that both speakers
engage in the conversation with a spirit of fairness. Each participant
needs to be willing to inspect their own position as vigorously as they
do that of the other speaker. Each speaker needs to have the attitude that
there is a possibility that the other person is correct. The final criteria
concludes that each speaker needs to have courage. Courage defined as a
willingness to put your self-identity on the line and lose your self image.
By examining the four criteria of a dialogue,
two-way flow, suitable topic, a spirit of fairness, and courage, and examining
the conversation taken place in Professor Ivanoff’s classroom, one can
see that what took place cannot be a dialogue. Professor Ivanoff did not
allow the two-way flow to be constant. He did not listen to the student’s
question or attempt to answer them. The two-way flow was disrupted when
Professor Ivanoff interrupted the student. The topic also is one that neither
has a right or wrong answer. To different professors the answer to the
student’s question may be different. The answer would depend on the objective
of the course. A spirit of fairness was not present either. When the professor
felt attacked, he would not listen to the student or answer her question.
He did not have the mind set “That there is a possibility that the student
is right and she is not attacking me.” Perhaps being a professor, and one
of higher rank than that of the student is why the professor was not willing
to put his self-identity on the line. He became angry when he felt his
sense of self attacked.
The conversational narcissism the professor
and student displayed led to a corruption of dialogue and dialogue simply
did not take place. This can be a potential problem in the classroom setting.
If conversational narcissism continues to take place, students will be
intimidated by the professor to ask questions about what they are learning.
The student should not question the professor’s authority or knowledge.
When a student does not understand the material and makes an attempt to
ask a question, in a spirit of fairness a professor should answer that
question. It will allow the student to ask the question and be listened
to by the professor and in turn the professor will be listened to by the
If dialogue were present in the classroom
structure students and professors would be able to interact fairly and
in a respectful manner of each other. Dialogue would make the learning
experience for the students more comfortable and the job of the professor
more rewarding. Conversational Narcissism, as we have seen, hinders that
process of dialogue and should be eliminated from the student-professor
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