The Challenge of Teaching Semiotics

By Paul Bouissac

Attempts to teach semiotics as a discipline in the institutional frameworks of post-secondary education have met with mixed success. A few centers of higher education and research, such as the prestigious Department of Semiotics at the University of Tartu in Estonia, have survived the test of time and a change of guard. But there have been many resounding failures. In North America, the once high-profile Center for Language and Semiotic Studies at Indiana University, and the Graduate Program in Semiotics at Brown University have become history shortly after their founders and promoters retired. Recently, a notorious undergraduate Major in semiotics at the University of Toronto was drastically scaled down, and a graduate program was discontinued. The same fate fell upon a well-known doctoral program at the Technical University in Berlin. Little is known about the actual state of semiotic teaching in the world. SemiotiX endeavors to remedy this lack of information by documenting, among other things, the situations that prevail in various countries. In its world reports, it features the creation of new centers and programs of study, and monitors their progress…or failure, both being equally worthy of attention. Semioticians have indeed a vested interest in knowing what succeeds and what fails, and in understanding the reasons that may account for these contrasted results.

The question that should be raised is whether semiotics, as it stands now, can truly afford the substantial and consistent curricula and research agenda it would take in order to operate as a discipline. Failures to succeed in doing so have been sufficiently numerous and widespread to suggest that today’s semiotics is probably not epistemologically sustainable in the contemporary academic context worldwide. More studies should be done to comparatively investigate the existing models of semiotic teaching and research and the causes of the discontents they often generate and which occasionally lead to institutional extinctions.

In the absence of such a systematic study, let us tentatively propose a heuristic diagnosis. It is important to distinguish the theories and models that have been intuitively constructed to date by influential Semioticians from the questions that these theories and models were meant to answer. If teaching semiotics is implemented as a top-down process consisting of selectively spelling out one or the other of these theories and models as the basis from which meaning and communication in all their forms must be understood in isolation from the array of disciplines that map modern knowledge, such endeavors are bound to rely on dogmatism in order to sustain their epistemological and sociological survival. But this strategy can work only to a certain point. Limiting oneself to the problems that have been defined by a school of thought is quickly becoming an irrelevant exercise. Teaching cannot be founded on a mere doctrine.

If, on the contrary, the teaching of semiotics takes a bottom-up approach and starts with an understanding of the problems as they were initially experienced and formulated, then the various existing theories and models simply appear as possible solutions to these problems, and can be evaluated in terms of the contemporary state of knowledge in other disciplines. Since constant references are made to Peirce, Saussure, Jakobson, Bakhtin, Lotman, Hjelmslev or Greimas and others, these authors should be treated as historical figures who attempted to provide some answers in view of what was known in their own time rather than as sources of authority applicable to any problem that may arise today. If their exemplary works, often painstakingly achieved over long period of time, are artificially disconnected from the problems to which they were confronted in particular historical contexts, their assumed systems can be learned, like anything else, but at the cost of becoming empty dogmas that isolate students in a fallacious epistemological bubble.

However, semiotics, in its many forms, remains an intellectually provocative and attractive proposition if the agenda of its pioneers – who never claimed to have solved the problems they conceived – is taken seriously, and if these problems are addressed not in terms of nineteenth century philosophical models but in view of the current state of knowledge in the domains relevant to this agenda. Perhaps it is time to reassess the ways in which semiotics should be taught. The prevailing method to date is ultimately a medieval one, with presumably knowledgeable masters authoritatively interpreting the texts of other (often medieval) masters in the philosophical mode. Perhaps the pedagogic method of Jean-Jacques Rousseau would be more appropriate. Semiotics, after all, can be first considered as a technique. At a time when students are swamped with open sources of information, it may pay off just to look (and surf) around, confront real problems, and work out solutions (both practical and theoretical) by innovatively matching problems with available knowledge resources. Many professions need the practical knowledge semiotics yields rather than the fanciful, usually obscure philosophies that go under this name. This is what semeiotike techne initially was (and still is under other names) in the medical tradition. Then, perhaps, semiotics should be taught as a practical art, in vocational schools rather than in literary or philosophy departments. And perhaps it should be taught in the way Rousseau wanted his student to acquire knowledge: first discover the problems, then, try to solve them. This became a difficult proposition in the nineteenth and twentieth century with the rise of multiple academic specialties that were built as ivory towers. But, now, knowledge is an open book on line! One just needs the motivation and the will to engage in a serious quest. Today’s students have already acquired the know-how in their very early years, practically at the same time as they learned their native language. They may need mentors, and some guidance, at the beginning, but they certainly can skip the painful learning of the obsolete knowledge that still make up many textbooks.

This is why Semioticians concerned with the issue of teaching their trade would benefit from pondering the innovative approach to higher learning created in Sweden by Hyper Island. This should be of great interest to those who are concerned with an efficient teaching of semiotics. This institution implements a bottom-up approach to university education. This is a vocational school but there is no reason why the model could not be extended and adapted to other domains of higher education, including semiotics.