The Dignity Tour: Penn State laureate's second reflection asks what's in a word

October 09, 2014

Susan Russell, the 2014-15 Penn State Laureate and associate professor of theater, is taking her "Dignity Tour" to Penn State campuses, high schools and other locations across Pennsylvania, discussing "various languages of creativity, and how these languages can bridge communication gaps between diverse cultures and disciplines." She also is maintaining a website,, where her students post videos, images, music and texts intended to inspire people to thrive for their highest personal and collective goals as global citizens. Russell is reflecting on her laureate experiences through a series of essays. Her second essay appears below. You can read her first essay here. Previous essays and posts about her travels are archived at

The Dignity Tour: Second reflection

The good news: everyone wants dignity. The bad news: everyone is having difficulty defining the word. In the last two months, I have been to four Penn State campuses and two high schools, I have given three keynote speeches, attended several faculty and staff retreats, and worked with my students to build an interactive website at All of these events have circled the same question: “What is dignity?” In every location we stumble about trying to find words and phrases to describe this basic human right.

As a playwright, I ask myself to use “saturated” words, words that are full of meaning, words that disappear into people’s conscious minds and emerge as emotions and actions and memories. It’s a playwright’s job to choose words that “do” something. It’s a playwright’s job to choose words that change people’s experience, and it’s a playwright’s job to find a domino, a word that once it’s spoken, it falls into all the other words leaving nothing but self-knowledge behind. In order for an audience to know what dignity is, a playwright must find its action. Dignity must have a “do.”

Contemporary playwrights don’t get a lot of time or a lot of words because attention spans are getting shorter and audiences are becoming less likely to listen. Educators are sort of like playwrights. They are expected to deliver information and create critical engagements in a listening environment that is shrinking in from all sides. Technology is education’s friend, but technology shrinks language to fit the speed and ease of transmission, and as a result, verbal communication and close listening become less and less part of our cultural experience. It is not technology’s job to make us talk and make us listen; that job belongs to human beings. It’s actually one of the things we do best.

I stand in front of young people every day, and I see their potential. I also see the world of communication falling away from all of us, and if we stop listening, all that’s left to us is action and re-action. There are only three parts of a play: the circumstances of the plot, how the characters behave and the actions the characters take. If we are busy writing the play called the "United States of America," I guarantee you that the language or lack of language we choose to use will create what we do or don’t do as local and global citizens.

Maybe if we do more listening and more talking, we might create more options for our behavior. And by the way, there are young people everywhere who want to talk about suicide, self-esteem and how to survive in a world where they are afraid to fail. I listen to them all the time, and now I’m talking to you. Be brave. Start small. Ask someone what he or she wants to talk about. Then listen. It might take them a minute or two, but you can make the time.

Last Updated September 04, 2020