Gospels and Jeremiads

On Tuesday, September 29, I will be presenting the fall all-faculty address. As a result of a quirk in the academic calendar, this Tuesday is a Monday in terms of class schedules, so much of the audience who would normally not have classes for Common Hour will have classes–so attendance may be limited (but there will still be lots of food!)

In this address I will get to celebrate tenure decisions and promotions, and welcome new faculty (who, after almost a month now, probably have some of the “new” gleam worn away, to be replaced by good, hard working exteriors). As expected in these types of addresses, I also will talk about the good and the not so good that is facing all of us at William Paterson (and most of us in public higher education).

This is where I hit a block, at times.

As I’ve noted before, my academic background is Rhetoric. I study language. And while there are many variations of what people do when they study rhetoric, there is (almost) one constant. Rhetoricians generally look at language as interpreting the world, not objectively reporting the world. To rhetoricians, the language we use–the words, the gestures, even the settings in which communication takes place–is a way to try to shape reality, not just describe it. Rhetoricians, then, approach almost all communication with the attitude of the critic/skeptic–we look for how language is being used to shape perception.

Now, I’ll have to admit, by nature I seem to have a bit of a critical (even skeptical) bent–and spending years studying and teaching about how language shapes perception has done nothing to lessen that critical approach. Offer me a proposition or a statement, and I’ll have a counter. Looking for someone to be a devil’s advocate to help sharpen your argument? Look me up. As a debater, I preferred the negative to the affirmative–easier to tear down than to build up.

So the dilemma: An all-faculty address is an occasion to spread the good news and to inspire and motivate–to tell the gospel. And so I shall, because there is plenty of good news to tell. But I keep being drawn to the opposite. In rhetoric, the opposite of the gospel is the jeremiad–dark, prophetic utterances–“Woe unto you Jerusalem,” and so on.

As a rhetorician (and just because of who I am), I can’t just tell the good news–I have to mix in prophecies of the potential of dark times. When I hear and read speeches that tell only of the good, I wonder what is not being said–and I begin to question the veracity of the speaker.

Yet too much bad can shape how we act and respond–if we think the world is a dark and terrible place, we generally find support for that view and begin to act in such a way as to make sure that darkness happens.

A balance is needed–we have good news to share; we have continuing difficulties ahead of us.

Strangely enough, even as a critic/skeptic/rhetorician, I’m still an optimist. I do think the good outweighs the bad, that we can overcome our troubles, and we will succeed in doing what needs to be done.

So we balance the gospel and the jeremiad, and we fight on.

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