Reliable Discourse

The reliable moment we experience on a campus may not be positive or even comforting, observes Jeff Rice, but rather a confirmation of frustration.

October 13, 2017

I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t hear Queen’s “We Are the Champions” on the car radio. Sometimes I flip from one station to the next, and “We Are the Champions” is on both stations at the same time. I doubt that “We Are the Champions” is played on the radio so often because it is one of the greatest songs of all time; it’s not.

“We Are the Champions,” classic rock stations seem to believe, is a reliable option for airplay. That is, if there is any Queen song a radio station should take a risk on playing, “We Are the Champions” is the one most likely to find a sympathetic audience. Reliability, classic rock stations also seem to believe, is the most compelling reason to tune in when drivers are stuck in their cars or when listeners are playing background music at work. “Don’t surprise me with a Queen song I’ve never heard of,” a given radio audience must believe. “Play ‘We Are the Champions’ yet again.”

In the university, reliability is a keyword as well. We produce reliable discourse by repeating -- over our own metaphoric two stations at once -- the same messages daily. We have our own versions of “We Are the Champions,” and we typically call them “policy,” “email correspondence,” “strategic planning” and “administration.” We might hate to hear our version of “We Are the Champions” over and over again, but we are still compelled to listen when it’s played, and in some cases, we are even sympathetic to the repetition. That reliable repetition includes the promotion of “cutting-edge research” and “innovative teaching.” It also includes the support of “critical thinking” and “lifelong learning.” We are “transformative.” We prepare students to be “citizens.” We are the champions, indeed.

I am sick of hearing “We Are the Champions” on the radio when I’m driving around town. Yet what’s wrong with being exposed to what is reliable? Reliability suggests boredom (“Oh, that again?”), but is also suggests dependability or expectation. To teach critical thinking is a reliable gesture (and a sympathetic one).

As department chair, I often feel the pressure of being reliable. I am in my office every day, so people who never stop by can still find me if they one day feel the desire. I schedule meetings at regular intervals. I write letters of support for various initiatives, grant applications, sabbaticals or special requests in a timely fashion. Emails are responded to quickly. I often ask colleagues “How is it going?” and “How’s your semester?” in order to project the image of reliable concern.

The average person would, no doubt, describe this type of work attitude as “reliable” as it attempts to establish comfort and an overall feeling that everything is going according to plan. No worries. It’s all going to be OK. Everyone is all right. At the same time, I don’t want to be my department’s version of “We Are the Champions.”

What is the difference between being reliable and repetitive? If we feel comfortable with having our research called “transformative” by an administrative strategic plan, are we not also admitting to the comfort of meaningless repetition? Still, our academic lives must be regulated by reliability. The semester begins on a specified date and ends on a specified date. Classes begin and end as listed in the course bulletin. Every year, departments collect materials for merit evaluations on the same date as the year before and turn in tenure materials on the same date as the year before. Such acts demonstrate reliability. Such acts give direction and meaning to the academic life. Such acts respond to audience -- the faculty members’ and the students’ -- expectations.

Our discourse, however, walks the tightrope between being reliable (we know what to expect) and simply being repetitive (we’ve heard this before). Administrative email communication to the faculty reminds us monthly that we are “exceptional,” that we provide “leadership,” that we “must work together,” that “we look forward” to something or other, and that despite all of our supposed success, “we must work harder.”

Every administrative presentation to the college’s leadership features a PowerPoint presentation, a printout of that PowerPoint presentation and a follow-up email with an attached file of that PowerPoint presentation. What could be more reliable than three versions of the same presentation? Everyone now can rest comfortably knowing that three times I have heard the same update about the university’s formation of a panel that will investigate how to “envision” an “intellectual vision,” and be “better before we are bigger.”

The standard cliché is that nothing is more reliable than death and taxes. Reliability, indeed, is often situated in terms of clichés: Old Iron Horse. Like a rock. Lean on me. Clichés, too, are simultaneously meaningless and meaningful because of their cultural repetition.

When a novice and inexperienced worker writes a CV, they often include the meaningless phrase “I’m hardworking and reliable.” A young writer might turn to the reliable (and meaningless) introductory phrase to begin an assignment for a first-year writing course (“Since the beginning of time”) and conclude with an even more meaningless yet reliable sign-off (“For all the reasons I stated above …”).

We used to joke that it was reliable to expect someone’s grandmother to die in a freshman writing class. The death announcement after excessive absences was something an instructor could depend on occurring. These are meaningless acts. But they are meaningful in that we find a common knowledge in their repetition.

As much as I hate hearing “We Are the Champions” every day on the radio, I also find the lyrics disturbing, and thus, the song’s reliable appearance during drive time is interrupted by its overall message of despair. Freddie Mercury may be describing a state of eventual success, but everything he says up to that point of becoming a champion is depressing: “Bad mistakes, I’ve made a few/ It’s been no bed of roses/ No pleasure cruise/ I’ve had my share of sand kicked in my face.” When a given audience requests reliability -- whether in administrative presentations, semester scheduling or the department chair’s behavior -- what they are really saying is “Don’t show me the shit that happened prior to the moment repeating itself in a familiar and comfortable way. It’s been no bed of roses. That’s why we want everyone to believe we are transformative. Don’t look at how messed up we often are.”

Thus, the reliable moment may not be positive or even comforting but rather a confirmation of frustration. For every administrative call for action (new program initiative, new courses addressing X, entrepreneurship, diversity in our faculty) we can reliably expect a colleague-led committee to throw up an obstacle, another administrator within the university hierarchy to withhold funds, a department colleague to cast doubt on the project’s potential based on their gut feeling, the administrator who asked for the initiative to have since forgotten about it, or a lack of university capital investment to get the called-for project off the ground. Mistakes, we’ve made a few.

We are the champions. And yet, we’re not. We’re merely audiences positioned in front of repeated messages that appeal to some type of insecurity we possess. Repetition is among the most comforting acts we can engage with, but in the end, repetition becomes frustrating, tiresome and annoying. I don’t want to hear “We Are the Champions” ever again when I am driving through Lexington. I also don’t want to hear about “lifelong learning” or “student success” or “our exceptional faculty,” either. I have to change the channel at some point and hear something else. The only problem is that when I eventually reach for the metaphoric radio knob and switch stations, I hear the Eagles’ “Hotel California.” This song, unfortunately, also is reliable.


Jeff Rice is chair and Martha B. Reynolds Professor of Writing, Rhetoric and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky.


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