This is going to be a weird semester.
We are back on campus, more or less, with mandates for masks and screenings and shots. We’re meeting people for the first time whom we’ve known on Zoom for a year. Some of you (and some of your professors) are at GW for the first time, even though you’ve been “here” for a year. We will be talking to people in person without the benefit of seeing a third of each others’ faces, we will struggle to make ourselves understood behind layers of fabric, and every time anyone sneezes the room will freeze for a moment. For the first time in a year and a half you’ll have to build in commute time between your bedroom, classes, and internships (it takes longer than you think – plan accordingly).
We will manage, and even succeed, in this weirdness as we do everything else: As a community.
By now you’ve heard the phrases “GW community” and “SMPA community” countless times. You are told you are part of a community of scholars and community of learners, the Greek community (if you are in sorority or fraternity) or the Greek community (if you’re from Greece), the athletic community, the artistic community and more. “Community” is the sort of easy word whose thought-free use would make Orwell cringe.
Last week I was reminded that the word “community” doesn’t have to be a lazy choice. On Thursday I helped welcome first year graduate students into our SMPA community. On Friday I met first year undergraduates, second year undergraduates on campus for the first time, and returning students who serve as mentors. Some I knew before the pandemic, others I’ve only known on Zoom, most I met for the first time. One of you is the daughter of a college classmate, and another is from a town of 525 people in which my great grandfather built a house.
It was exciting and energizing being together, adding depth to faces we’ve only known in two-dimensions, talking over each other and moving from group to group. It was great to ask someone to speak up because we couldn’t hear them, not because they forgot to unmute themselves. Students traded tips on networking, plugged The Hatchet, the Association of Black Journalists, GW TV, WRGW, and the director’s council. They talked professors and classes, internships and orientation. They talked SMPA-talk.
This community doesn’t exist a priori. There wasn’t a group of students lamenting the state of political discourse and praising food carts on a corner in what is now Foggy Bottom in February 1821 leading Congress to declare, “let’s set up school around these people!” Our SMPA community exists because we say it exists. We talked this community into being. Its contours, expectations, and assumptions are those we assert. Our SMPA community, like all communities, is a rhetorical one.
This isn’t to say the buildings and tax documents that make up GW’s physical and legal existence aren’t there unless we say “VEX” five times. But our rhetoric is what gives the paperwork and concrete meaning.
In “In Search of ‘the People’: A rhetorical alternative,” Michael McGee argues that when we talk about “the people” we don’t mean a lot of individuals milling about in roughly the same place. “The people” is not the plural of “person.” Instead, we assert or argue for a shared bond among a group. We construct “the people” out of what we say ties those individuals together. When a politician says “Americans are optimistic by nature…” she isn’t citing research on the genetic makeup of those born within certain geographic boundaries or who passed a test; she is asserting a shared trait that implies all sorts of other traits and behaviors. “The people” is an argument, it’s not a statement of fact.
Similarly, the rhetorical scholar Ernest Bormann wrote that people form “rhetorical communities” that create a common identity. This identity is shared through a “creative and imaginative interpretation of events that fulfills a psychological or rhetorical need.” Rhetorical communities share an explanation of the world, establish good reasons for doing things, reinforce who is in (and outside of) the community, and otherwise help make sense of a chaotic world.
For Bormann and others, these rhetorically constructed communities are no less important because they only exist as their own explanations. They may be fictions, but they are necessary ones. The argument of who “we” “are” makes the case for what binds us, what we can expect of each other, and what we should demand of ourselves. The rhetoric explains our here-and-now in the context of who we are together, and where we should go next. The “rhetorical fantasy” (in Bormann’s terms) gives us a shared and coherent past and sets a path for the future.
In this light, when we say that SMPA is a community, we are arguing for a set of ideas that bind us. We are rhetorically constructing an “us” out of the “I”s that make up students, alumni, faculty and staff. Like Bormann’s rhetorical communities we share inside jokes, language, and symbols that mark “us.” We talk about The Vern, Gelbucks, and Kogan. Even when we use GW shorthand ironically or critically we are reinforcing our community (losing wi-fi in a classroom in which we’re discussion social media is an eye-rolling #SMPAProud moment which has the effect of both criticizing and reinforcing SMPA; it says “SMPA is a thing that matters, and it should be better than this”). The school store sells shirts that say “Gdub,” insider shorthand for those for whom GW is too long or not insider-enough.
SMPA is a community we rhetorically construct together – a discourse that was here before us, that we shape as we participate in it, and that we pass along.
This means we have a hand in deciding who “we” are. We decide that we are committed to making our world a better place for everyone. We say that we are a community of scholars, of activists, of writers, and creators. We say that we are members of a community that is curious and hard working. We say that we are a community committed to excellence, and committed to each other. This is our community to create and sustain through our description of it and through living that description. We need to talk what we want the walk to be, and then we need to walk it. We need to live up to what we say we are together.
If we take our responsibility as both creators and members of this community seriously we will succeed together. If, on the other hand, if we assume the slogans are only in brochures and that whatever was was and whatever will be will be whatever, we will fail while milling about in the same place. If we treat SMPA as nothing more than a massive and expensive networking event, that is all it will be. If we say it and don’t act it, the explanation will collapse and we will lose that which binds us. That would be a shame.
We will navigate this fall as we navigated last year and the years before that, and as we will navigate next spring the falls and springs to come – as a community. We will take care of each other, which means getting vaccinated and tested and wearing a mask indoors. It means not coming to class if you’re sick. It means being patient with each other (and yourselves). It means standing up for and being the best that journalism and politics can be. It means acting in ways that make us #SMPAProud.
I can’t wait to see you around campus.