Syracuse University Magazine


Cynthia Gordon

Understanding Talk

It’s a pivotal moment in the life of a scholar when she comes across an area of study that speaks to her—something causing her to say with quiet certainty, “This is what I want to do.” For Cynthia Gordon, that instant came in her sophomore year as a French and linguistics major at the University of Michigan, when, during her first discourse analysis course, she encountered the work of renowned linguist and best-selling author Deborah Tannen, a professor at Georgetown University. “I ended up doing my Ph.D. in linguistics at Georgetown and studying with her,” says Gordon, the new chair of the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies (CRS) in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, where she has been a faculty member since 2008. “So it worked out well!”  

While at Georgetown, the focus of Gordon’s research was a project with Tannen and co-principal investigator Shari Kendall in which four dual-income couples with children recorded themselves from morning until night for a week. She says the process that followed—carefully transcribing the recordings to better understand how the details of language “do things for us in the world”—is a favorite aspect of her work. “In this study, we were interested in how people balance the demands of work and family and how they create relationships in their everyday conversations,” says Gordon, who published two books based on the project’s findings. Former research has also included working with medical professionals to understand and improve communication between physicians and their patients. “Overall, I am interested in how people use language to create identities and shared meaning—how they use language to solve problems,” she says, “and I look at that in all different kinds of contexts.”

The world of electronic communications occupies an increasingly significant place among those contexts, Gordon says. As a research fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University while on leave from SU last year, she was part of a small group studying the language of digital media. “My specific interest was in online discussion-board communication among people who used a mobile phone-based weight loss application,” she says. “I’m interested in the ways they ‘talk’ in their online discussions about how bringing a cell phone into the social eating experience impacts their family relationships.” She describes her time at Stanford as a “really lovely” experience, both personally and professionally. “It was a nice interdisciplinary group of people from all over—people with different kinds of projects and interests who were brought together to have this year of intensive focus on research and collaborative discussion and seminars,” she says. “I felt fortunate to have the time to focus on my own research and to interact with these wonderful scholars.”

Although she says she “didn’t mean to become interested” in computer-mediated discourse, Gordon finds herself branching out in other new directions, including collaborating with School of Education professor Melissa Luke to study how professional identities develop through communication between counselors in training and their instructors, who supervise them by e-mail. She is also teaming up with a colleague at Howard University and another at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, collecting data from first-year students in Ukraine, the Middle East, and at SU to learn how they perceive using mobile phones in educational and social contexts. In that study, she hopes to eventually use video recording—a research tool that’s receiving increased emphasis in the field of discourse analysis.

As CRS chair, Gordon is excited to be leading a thriving department that she believes is well-poised for further growth. She’s also happy to be back in the classroom after her year at Stanford, and looks forward to the challenges of her new role. “We have a good, strong, and diverse group, and we’ll keep building on that,” she says.     —Amy Speach

Photo by Susan Kahn