World Report

Teaching Semiotics in Hong Kong

By Geoffrey Sykes

The subject “Signs of Communication” has been run for a decade as a summer session elective at the University of Wollongong. It commenced as a more theoretical subject, using Robert Innes’ Semiotics, An Introductory Anthology, and gradually introduced varied teaching and empirical materials. A major case study required analysis of an observed communication event or conversation using concepts derived from readings. Readings include semiotics, gestures, conversation analysis, pragmatic and functional linguistics. The concepts used are eclectic – the title of the subject is justified in that semiotic perspectives are consciously and centrally located in a comprehensive, hybrid and complementary set of accounts of communicative process.

In 2007 the subject was further developed and presented as one of a suite of programs conducted externally by the University of Wollongong at the Hong Kong Baptist University. The cross cultural adaptation and teaching of the subject required further close writing up of exercise lecture notes and teaching materials, and this process increasingly fore-grounded the contribution of Peircean concepts. The main semiotic concepts – iconicity, indexicality and symbolic mediation – came from his earlier writings on sign types, although gradually Peirce’s mature tri fold sign functions will be introduced into the subject.

This subject, it is fair to claim, has been somewhat distinct in Australia in foregrounding semiotics in its title and subject matter. The subject of semiotics is usually treated as a minor subject or tool for more explicit forms of cultural, social and artistic analysis.

The teaching of semiotics seems to be perennial topic of concern at conferences – the program of the 2006 American Society of Semiotics Conference at Purdue University proved this to be the case. On the other hand, there have been leading edge programs at centres at Toronto, Helsinki, Berlin and Tartu, to name just a few.

The focus on Peirce, within a comprehensive account of communicative processes, makes “Signs of Communication” somewhat distinct. What was also distinct was that the teaching in Hong Kong was cross cultural, and to students undertaking associate or top up degrees – that is, dissemination or teaching was undertaken to a wide, comprehensive group of students, with varying proficiency in English.

The aim was to prove that semiotic teaching could occur for a wide range of student types and levels of education. To achieve this end a conscious use of carefully edited, structured and sequenced subtopics and exercises were used.

Aspects of the subject were tailored to become a mini course in language theory and English instruction. In teaching semiosis as social discourse it is inevitable that perspectives on verbal and non-verbal language were presented. It also seemed suitable that bi-lingual expressions and inquiry were included.

The subject had a general aim to develop a semiotic grammar or theory of language. It can be argued that Charles Peirce, over one hundred years ago, had a similar goal for his “system of signs”. A teaching program provides a good opportunity to demonstrate and test, through detailed and articulate exercises, general claims that have been made about the relationship and relative importance of semiotics and linguistics.

It is pleasing that student responses and feedback to the subject appear to be very good, and that it appears to be an effective tool for accessible and practical teaching about functional language.

This project involved team teaching with a Hong Kong post doctoral partner, June Lam. We intend to introduce a topic in the curriculum on “An Eastern Theory of Communication”, and also plan to co-write an academic paper about urban space and proxemics in Hong Kong. This could follow on from the paper I gave at Hong Kong University in February, on Deleuze and Peirce, and from June’s own doctoral work. So, in addition to the conscious development of a semiotic grammar as part of a teaching program, there appears to be a clear research edge to this teaching program.

Is it too exhortative to remember Peirce’s own educational aspirations for his theory of signs, a Carnegie application? His own motivations for considering education were in part due to frustration at finding an adequate, collegial and research audience. Even where such an audience exists for us today, it can sometimes seem parochial and small, and there is a constant desire to disseminate and share, to students and the wider community, ideas and perspectives that are well established in research literature.

There has been a nice circle in terms of teaching resources for this subject. Innes’ anthology is no longer used, yet a variety of video clips featuring Robert discussing topics on Peirce and semiotics have recently been introduced. Robert assisted in the making of these video clips, as part of a longer video work I had commenced that was to feature Gerard Deledalle. Regrettably Gerard passed away before the planned work could be completed. A revised teaching video is planned for completion this year.

Students seemed to respond very well to these clips. Hopefully some of them will soon be available on the Semiotics Resources Centre site.

Inquiries about the “Signs of Communication” teaching program are welcome and can be made to gsykes@uow.edu.au