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2016 February 25 - 03:15 pm

It's Election Season: Watch, Listen, Learn and Vote

 Presidential primary races and caucuses are in full swing, as this shortest month of the year grinds to its leap-year extra day halt.

And the shouts are definitely louder than are the murmurs.

If there is one thing that these early votes are revealing, it is that Americans do not yet know if they want a shouter or a murmurer to lead their country, if they want a representative of The Establishment or an outlier, a Rich Guy or a faithful conservative, an old guy or a young buck, a man or a woman.

But this voter-hunting season, like every season in our community-is-the-college lives, can and should spawn at least a bit of academic thought, including, of course, remarks upon rhetoric and argumentation, efforts to persuade, and the need to be “liked,” but also reflections upon what linguists call the “paralinguistic” and “kinesic,” the two-thirds of any linguistic message that is not just its simple words but is instead the way those words are said and the way the body behaves as it says them. 

In an article written for the Feb. 20 issue of The Atlantic, Michelle Cottle acknowledges that “It makes sense to score...style points,” holding that “stylistic judgmentalism speaks directly to a vital aspect” of any job, and particularly to that of the American presidency.

Many—if not most—community college students are attending classes so as to improve themselves and their lot, hoping to learn something useful that will help them to land a (better) job, to improve their earning potential, to broaden their horizons. As a study reported in the French newspaper Le Monde has revealed, although scores in basic literacy, use of language and numbers, and awareness of simple arithmetic facts may be descending at a rapid rate nearly everywhere in the world, young people’s interest in and attention to the extra-linguistic seem to be on the rise, in an almost parallel fashion.

And so, as Cottle writes, although “people can lament how this should not be so, it is so.” It is the case that “clothes make the man,” that “POTUS (President of the United States) wannabes are graded on style as much as substance.” Although “the content of a message matters,” as Cottle admits, so does “the appeal of the messenger.” 

We must educate our students in substance and in style, we must make them aware of their own stylistics, and we must show them, not just tell them, how a message can be altered by its delivery, its tonal aural context, its gestural accompaniments. Mock interviews are good, presentations before others are nice, and arguments out loud that use varied rhetorical devices will serve both in the classroom and out.  

And notably, since this is an election year, we would do well to do as Cottle suggests, “weighing the candidates' various idiosyncrasies...all of the candidates...keep(ing) a very close, critical eye on all the ‘performer’ candidates...embrac(ing) our inner Simon Cowell.” Although the meaning of a message may be massaged as it is delivered, it will remain a signifiant nonetheless. When a candidate uses only three-word utterances, when he shouts “terrific” and “great” more than a dozen times in fewer than 30 seconds, when he uses rhetoric to divert or diverge rather than to divulge, we as educators must be sure that our students take note. 

We can use candidates” stances as literary grist against illiteracy, we can deploy data as a solution to innumeracy, and we can use what specialists in zoosemiotics, or animal communication, call the “envelope” of unspoken meaning to shed prisms of alternative light on the cultural, extra-linguistic, sometimes-subtle and sometimes less so significance of statements that may or may not be facts but that must be scrutinized by the engaged and responsible world citizens of our college community.

Watch, listen, learn, and then vote.

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