Monday, May 15, 2006

Today turned out wonderful. Difficult and emotional, but wonderful. Liz came down from NYC in the morning and saved us all by coming up with a plan that would actually get us all to graduation and get Baxter home in the afternoon. Thank you to Liz and Tresa for helping with the transport issues today - and to Tresa for hanging out with Baxter this evening and feeding him dinner.

It was wonderful being at Annenberg today - seeing the peers and faculty members that I haven't seen in a few months. Joe introduced me with some meaningful and kind words. After the ceremony, they had a cocktail reception. Liz and Tresa took Bax back home while Jonathan, Anna and I went to the hospital to visit with Mike and show him my poofy hat (pictures soon to come...). We got Mike up in a chair and he ate a good dinner. We talked with him about the last episode of West Wing. (Mike said that the West Wing was a "tightly written" show). Anna and Jonathan asked him if he missed work and what he missed most. He said he missed "coming up with a big idea." We had some great conversations with him, but he did get exhausted very quickly. Thank you to everyone for making today special in spite of these circumstances.

Here are the remarks that I made today at graduation:

I would like to start by saying thank you. Thank you first to Walter and Leonore Annenberg whose great gift has enriched many of our lives. Thank you also to my husband, Michael. As most of you know, Michael has been battling complications from a brain tumor and is not here today. He the person to whom I owe the greatest thanks - for his love, patience and for his ability to keep my feet on the ground and always make me laugh.

Thank you to my family for supporting every path I have chosen - and for letting me watch too much tv as a kid, the key to any successful communications graduate career. Thank you to my peers and colleagues here whose warmth in dealing with Michael’s illness has been an important source of strength. And thank you to our dear friends – who are so dear, in fact, that we refer to them by the more accurate term “the family.”

There is one person who has had the most direct impact on my academic life and who has shaped my approach to and passion for the field – and that is Joe Cappella. Joe is my role model, mentor, and friend.

Throughout my time at Annenberg I’ve been plagued – as many of us have – by a sort of impostor syndrome – that if I’m not careful, they’ll find out: That I don’t really know what I’m talking about. That I’m just a kid playing around with some goofy ideas. Joe has spent much of seven years trying to set me straight. When my first journal article submission was rejected and I was ready to go wait tables again, he explained “This is the business that we are in as academics,” he said. “For our ideas to become science they must go through this process. Sometimes it may seem less than fair and sometimes it may leave us feeling low, but it comes with what we do.” He described it as a critical moment in my career. I could either let it get me down or I could try again. So, I tried again, and it is now in print. Joe gave me a similar pep talk after I took my comps. In the week between taking the comps and learning I had passed , I convinced that I must have failed. Joe sent me an encouraging email that still hangs above my desk. He wrote that even he has doubts about his own abilities from time to time and assured me that if I didn’t question myself at all, I probably wasn’t being challenged.

But what makes Joe stand apart as an inspiring mentor is his ability to support me in pursuit of what is best for me – not necessarily what is ideal for a strictly academic career – but what is ideal for me as a person. When I shared with Joe the news that my husband and I were expecting a baby, he was thrilled. He never once expressed concern that a baby might impede my progress towards the degree. Because of his confidence in my ability to finish, I see the completion of my dissertation as not only attainable, but simply inevitable.

The most important interaction I have ever had with Joe came when he visited Michael and me in the hospital recently. When he came into Mike’s room, I asked Mike if he knew who was there. And after years of using my affectionate nickname for Joe behind his back undiscovered, Mike let it out of the bag: “Yeah, I know who’s here. It’s Jo jo!”

After our visit, I told Joe the truth - that my life is turning upside down, that I don’t know what Mike’s future looks like and I certainly can’t venture to guess what my career will look like. When I shared this told me what I needed to hear from the person who mattered most. He told me that even if I never published another article or never presented at another conference – it would be ok… that what I am doing right now, taking care of Michael, serving as his advocate, and keeping Baxter cared for, may well be the most important thing I ever do in my life.

I know I will publish more articles and present more papers. But Joe’s words helped me focus my energies on the more important job I have before me right now.

Finally, I have a few observations about how the theories of our field have become an important part of my non-academic life.

Over the past few weeks I have realized that except for those few hours in which Michael is in the operating room, the quality of his life is more influenced by concepts central to our field, than by neurosurgery. I have come to see my role as his advocate as a communication campaign designed not necessarily to persuade, but to mobilize people and to increase the salience of various aspects of his care among his nurses and doctors to maximize his quality of life. I capitalize on the privileged role of vivid exemplars in memory by telling nurses stories about Mike to bring him alive and make him seem real. And, of course, there is the role of humor. More than ever, I am confident in the underlying premise of my dissertation – that humor suspends cognitive elaboration, and the generation of counterarguments. This has proved useful in interactions with nurses and doctors and in maintaining my own sanity day to day.

And then there is the sociology involved - the strength of weak ties. The use of a blog to create a community around Michael. Our large heterogeneous social network has provided me with lawyers, specialists, lawn-mowers, plumbers, additional medical opinions and countless dinner dates for my husband.

Communication theory has allowed me to be a thoughtful advocate – to not be a victim of my own cognitive predispositions and to better understand the decision processing of others. I remind myself that prospect theory posits that I will tend to opt for certainty in the face of messages framed in terms of gain and will be willing to gamble when framed in terms of loss. I remind myself of the human tendency to overweight negative information – so I try to counter that tendency with deliberate attention to the positive.

And finally – there is the fact that the body of concepts and theories with which I work most often – network models of memory, construct activation, and priming – rely on a form of cognitive functioning that my husband currently does not possess. He lives in a world in which information obtained from the outside is never stored – is never sent “back” and filed in long term memory. So construct activation of any kind does not occur – rendering priming and framing inoperative for him. I witness the difficulty posed by having to function without a link between what is and what was. This experience has renewed my fascination with these two theories that had begun to seem like nothing more than common sense.

Ultimately, our field is about people, psychology, sociology, messages, and processes. It’s about using what we know about people and institutions and how they work to create something better, in health communication, politics, journalism, or in our own interaction with others. Communication theory extends far beyond the contexts in which we examine it. In that regard, what we do here might not be brain surgery – but I dare say it is even more important.


Jalena said...

Bravo!!! I am so glad you shared this and most of all, I am so glad you are "getting" it where Mike is concerned. Sadly, some dont, you know? As to short term memory loss, not always, but often, the key is repetition, repetition and eventually it gets where it needs to be, the longer picture. Not now, there is enough on the plate, and too much fatigue, but later, and I think I am safe in saying, you of all people will know when it is the right time. Again, Bravo for the wonderful things you said today and for sharing those with us.

The Brain said...

Thank you Jalena! I recalled your talking about the importance of repetition and it makes me optimistic that maybe if information is repeated enough or is simply important enough (like baxter visits) he actually can remember it. Hugs to you, danna

mike weissman said...

mazel tov! i'm really happy that your special day was so terrific for you. you deserve all the rewards this life has to offer.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations Danna!!
In a nutshell, to be able to go and wear that poufy hat and say what you said and then continue on with your daily life with Your Mike...you are one in a million. I know it's not easy, but the grace, dignity and determination you have and share with us all is inspiring.
You have made Mike and Baxter proud, and for so many more reasons than the poufy hat. The love you have is endless.
Wishing you all the best.

francine said...

Congratulations Danna! Your speech was so fascinating and beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing it here.

Don said...

"Communication theory extends far beyond the contexts in which we examine it. In that regard, what we do here might not be brain surgery – but I dare say it is even more important."

Brilliant! All it needs is a quote from 8 MILE and you'd be set.


karenle893 said...

Dr. Danna
Dr. Danna
Dr. Danna

It rolls off the tongue.

Though it will require every working synapse in my brain to understand what you say now that you are all PHDed, I am UBER proud to call you my friend. Beautiful speech.


Anonymous said...

Having witnessed Danna's speech, she was easily the second best moment of Annenberg's graduation, upstaged only by the unlikely occurance of a septuagenarian professor rapping over the speakerphone. In third place: Baxter's chanting of "mama, mama, mama" as Danna took to the podium.
Conrats Danna!

Anonymous said...


Congrats on all your hard work! Can't believe your "Dr. Danna" now. Much better name then what Matt dubbed the two of us all those years ago. Can't wait to see the pics!