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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

class time.”

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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