Thursday, November 17, 2011

W. Barnett Pearce: The Legacy of CMM

Last month, I attended a Villanova University conference on “Making better social worlds.” The conference centered on the work of Dr. W. Barnett Pearce. If you graduated with a Communication Studies degree, you will recall that Dr. Pearce co-founded the Coordinated Management of Meaning theory.

I went to Villanova, in part, to meet Barnett. I have long admired him from a distance. Unfortunately, he was ill and unable to attend. Last week, I received the sad news of his passing.

I want to share three reasons why I admired this person. In celebrating what he did, I find inspiration for what Communication teachers can do.

First, Pearce taught "beyond the data" (p.6). When leaving grad school, he felt obliged to teach only content verified by empirical research. As a result, he found himself producing “lectures that were very thin and narrow in their content but ‘certain’ in their tone.” Barnett determined to offer a "richer, wider, and much more tentative curriculum." He facilitated learning that helped students "live beyond the data."

Second, Dr. Pearce transcended typical academic boundaries. He worked between disciplines, taught at different kinds of universities and took his ideas to the larger world. He was a "cosmopolitan." The Villanova conference was attended by Communication scholars, teachers, students, corporate executives, lawyers, artists, and distinguished psychologists. It reflected the spirit of a person whose classroom became the world.

Third, Barnett worked not only to understand social worlds but to change them. Near the close of his life he wrote an essay on "Being at Home in the Universe." Here is the essay’s thesis:

To be at home in the universe is to know the universe as well as we can, to know our place in the universe as well as we can, and to be, as fully as we can, what we are …; the makers of better social worlds through the coordinated enactment of compassion, empathy and mindfulness.

Profound tributes appear online for Barnett Pearce. As I read them, three maxims for teaching came to mind. The maxims are mine. The exemplifying quotes are about Barnett’s life from his colleagues:

Great teachers live what they teach

"Barnett modeled his work in every moment, in every engagement, in his life as mentor, colleague, scholar, practitioner, father, husband, son, brother, friend, facing his diagnosis and anticipating his death." - Ilene Wasserman

Expertise is no substitute for care

"With all of the academic focus, all the writing and reading in which Barnett engaged, he never lost his pastoral presence. His support and encouragement not only carried me through the dissertation process; it re-formed me as a person." - Michael Sayler

Paradigm breakers need trusted colleagues

(In co-creating CMM, Barnett Pearce and Vernon Cronin considered themselves "paradigm breakers." There is always a kick-back of opposition to such ventures)

"We could not have weathered the early days of criticism, rejections, even personal attacks without each other’s support...
I [Vernon] reminded him [Barnett] of an analogy we used to use when critics said that CMM kept changing. We would reply that there are many ways to compare theories and this is one: Some theories are like Jack-in-the-box toys, you turn the crank, the clown pops out, and that is it — so there! Others are like Legos. They open new possibilities and create new parts and new plans."  -Vernon Cronen

Possibilities, parts and plans of the Pearce legacy appear online. Search the links that follow for essays and teaching resources that define CMM as a practicing art:

Practical Applications of CMM

Using CMM (especially pp. 50-54)

W. Barnett Pearce

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