For thousands of years, the treatment of illness involved some combination of superstition, trial-and-error, inadvertent torture, and just plain dumb luck. A treatment counted as effective if the patient survived.
Whatever doctors were doing before the middle of the 19th century, it’s hard to consider it medicine – certainly not by the standards of the 150 years or so since the advent of local anesthesia. Physicians have understood the principles of antisepsis for about as long, while aspirin was synthesized only in 1897. We are spoiled. Not for us the clinical technique of Theodoric of York -- the medieval practitioner Steve Martin used to play in a "Saturday Night Live" sketch – whose treatment for every condition included the draining of excess blood.
Comforting one patient’s mother, Theodoric reminds her of how far the healing arts had advanced as of 1303: “Why, just 50 years ago, they thought a disease like your daughter's was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft,” he tells her. “But nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach.”
Insofar as Theodoric and his colleagues brought any book-learning to their practice, it came from the pen of the Greco-Roman philosopher and physician Galen, born circa 130 A.D. in what is now Turkey. Susan P. Mattern, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, does not exaggerate in calling her biography The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire (Oxford University Press). His posthumous career was, if anything, one of almost regal authority.
An earned authority, just to be clear about it. Galen had an ego the size of the Empire itself. He never tired of pointing out the abject ignorance of other physicians, and was prone to quoting tributes by illustrious people to his own erudition and skill. It is not charming. But Mattern shows Galen to have been tireless as both a practitioner and a scholar -- and his output of treatises, case histories, popular textbooks, and editions of Hippocrates and other medical authors was astounding. “The most modern edition of his corpus runs to 22 volumes, including about 150 titles,” writes Mattern, “and is one-eighth of all the classical Greek literature that survives.”
Tireless in his efforts to accumulate, compare, and synthesize the recorded medical knowledge of previous centuries, Galen also conducted a great deal of anatomical research (including animal vivisection) to test the theories of the day. In his 20s, he did the second-century equivalent of a residency as the physician-on-call to the gladiators of his hometown. A standard treatment for open wounds was to bathe them in hot water, followed by a plaster made of boiled flour, which Galen reports as totally ineffective – crippling, when not lethal. By contrast, he “soaked linen cloths in wine and placed the folds on the wounds,” the biographer says, “covering the cloths in soft sponges which he moistened day and night.” Whether or not the technique saved the lives of all the gladiators in his care during his first year (so Galen claimed) he definitely understood the antiseptic property of alcohol.
Opening a practice in Rome, he distinguished himself in the constant, cutthroat battle of reputation among physicians, both for his skill in diagnosis and treatment and his erudition. He seems to have been acutely sensitive to changes in a patient’s pulse and body temperature. “Long before laboratory testing,” Mattern writes, “he examined urine and feces, sweat, sputum,” and “vomit, pus, and blood for color, texture, viscosity, and sediment.” Galen’s case histories show he “scruitinized his patients’ faces for signs such as change in skin color or the shrunken eyes of wasting or extreme dehydration.” And he knew how to interview patients about their history and symptoms with more finesse than you can expect from one HMO that I could name.
Mattern stresses that Galen was also an exemplary product of Hellenistic culture – urbane, deeply familiar with Greek philosophy and literature as well as the medical authors, and capable of writing in either a matter-of-fact or a high-flown style as the circumstances required.
She notes that we have no evidence that Galen bothered to learn the language of the Empire. He wrote in Greek and did not cite Latin authors, and his reputation took root among the aristocracy, for which familiarity with Greek was the sine qua non of intellectual sophistication. Medical science in particular was a fashionable topic, and a number of Galen’s works were composed as memoranda or instructional guides for the amateurs in his entourage.
The audience for Galen’s work was not limited to the scroll-buying public. He had also learned the arts of oratory and debate practiced by the sophists -- and his encounters with other physicians were brutal rhetorical showdowns, as were his lectures on anatomy, during which slaves held down monkeys and livestock as Galen and his opponents cut them open to demonstrate their points.
Much of it was done in the street. At one point while reading the book, I got an image of the Prince of Medicine crossing paths with the adherent of some medical philosophy he opposed -- the Empiricists, say, or the Dogmatists -- and performing dissection battles while surrounded by their respective crews (students, patients, slaves, aristocratic fanboys, etc.) as well as random passers-by. Like break-dancing, in togas, with gallons and gallons of blood.
It did not hurt Galen’s reputation that he had inherited considerable wealth and could refuse payment for his services. He disdained the very idea of practicing the divine art of Asclepius (the god of medicine who had visited Galen’s father in a dream to provide vocational guidance on the boy’s future) for money. This, too, had its rhetorical side: it meant he could cast aspersions on doctors with more worldly motivations than pursuit of the pure good of healing.
In his writings, Galen expressed reluctance at being summoned by the emperor, Marcus Aurelius, to serve as court physician. He accepted, of course (it was an offer he couldn’t refuse) and was also retained by the succeeding emperors. Mattern suggests that there may have been more to his professed misgivings than thinly disguised braggadocio. Whatever the boost in prominence, the position also meant less autonomy.
Self-aggrandizing as Galen’s devotion to medicine may have been at times, the biographer calls him “a surprisingly pious man,” fascinated by the “cumulative and overpowering evidence of an intelligence at work” in the animals he dissected in hopes of understanding the human anatomy. This made him one of the more appealing pagan thinkers for adherents of the three major monotheistic religions, who translated them into Hebrew, Latin, and Arabic. A number of his works have survived only because Islamic scholars translated them, although it’s entirely possible that the original Greek texts may yet resurface. As recently as 2007, Galen’s treatise “On the Avoidance of Pain” – long presumed lost in any language – turned up in a Greek monastery.
His biographer points out how unfortunate it is that Galen never challenged the medical value of bloodletting – a practice that continued for so long that historians have wondered if it perhaps have had therapeutic value in treating something, though it could prove fatal when done with a shaky hand.
“While it is perhaps wrong to blame him for failing to break from a tradition that his followers, including the great physicians of the Islamic Middle East and of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment mostly did not question,” writes Mattern, “one wishes he had turned his scorn on this therapy” instead of on the “three-day fasting cure” promoted by some of his peers. “For while Galen did not invent bloodletting, he had the power to consign it to oblivion.”
Maybe he did change his mind, but history lost the memo?
Earlier this year, I gave an invited talk at a conference sponsored by the University of Caen on the procedures of proof in French medieval law. The conference, held at a medieval château, was open to le grand public — the general public. An audience of about 100 people showed up to hear a dozen academics talk about judicial duels, animal trials in medieval romances, torture, and other topics. A local official opened the proceedings, and during the coffee and lunch breaks, the speakers mingled with the le grand public.
I spoke with a retired corporate executive, a group of young law students, and a novelist who runs a local crêperie, as well as a doctoral student in history who was researching medieval noble courts in the regional archives. In nearly 30 years, I had never attended a conference attracting such a wide range of people. What, I wondered, are we American academics doing wrong? And could our tendency, at least among literature professors, to avoid the general public have anything to do with the widely discussed “crisis” in the humanities?
A few months before my trip to France, I was chatting with a publicist who works for a university in my state. His job is to publicize faculty research within his university and to the general public by pitching news articles or features to media outlets — online, print, radio and TV.
I asked him what he was working on right now. He told me that he was reading — or trying to read — a new book by a literature professor at his university. "What do you mean, trying to read?" I asked. He explained that the book, about a popular British novelist still widely read today, was impenetrable, and he simply could not make heads nor tails of it. The jacket blurbs from other literature professors praised the book as groundbreaking and worthy of a wide readership. But the publicist would read a chapter, a paragraph, even a single sentence over and over again without being able to understand it. The book had now been on his desk for several weeks, and he had no idea how he was going to finish it, let alone recommend or publicize it to others.
Wow, I thought. This is not a problem just for you, or the author. If a smart, dedicated publicist at a major research university cannot make sense of a newly published book about a major novelist still widely taught in English departments, this represents a problem for the whole profession of literature.
The problem, of course, is not new. For several decades now, literature professors have been retreating into a new ivory tower built from bricks of abstruse theory and mortar of impenetrable jargon. As a profession, we have abandoned the warm campfires of story where people once took comfort in meaningful narrative and each other’s company, and we have ascended the frigid heights of a new tower of Babel.
Moreover, in a strange irony, as the profession of literature has opened up by breaking down barriers to many previously excluded groups — including women and underrepresented minorities — an admirable record of progress, we have managed at the same time to close off our profession to much of the general public. Who woulda thunk it?
Higher education is now under fire everywhere, as tuition costs climb, legislators slash university budgets, the public views tenure as inexplicable or unjust, and skepticism grows about the value of the humanities or of a liberal arts education in general. It’s easy for academics to blame budget-cutting politicians, pragmatic university administrators, or a supposedly ignorant public, but we may bear some responsibility ourselves, as pointed out in a recent letter to The New York Times by a professor of Japanese studies at Tufts University:
“In recent decades the tendency has grown among academics to produce jargon-laden articles about obscure subjects that only their mothers and a few colleagues might appreciate. This tendency has helped alienate our core constituents — the intellectually curious public — who might like to read a stimulating academic work but who are too often befuddled and annoyed by baffling academic prose.”
Granted, academics in all fields, including literature, frequently write about topics or use terms that are difficult even for “the intellectually curious public” to understand.
No one expects the scientist to put her research on particle physics, dense with mathematical formulas, into “everyday language.” Or the linguistics scholar to report his findings on Indo-European velar consonants as a readable script for the evening news. But as the famous “Sokal Hoax” suggested nearly two decades ago, using technical language to share unavoidably abstruse research findings is different from the cultivated obscurity of some humanists, especially literature scholars, whose arcane theory and off-putting jargon often seem intended to drive off all but a tiny cohort of colleagues and acolytes who possess the secret code.
True, not all academics are good rhetoricians. Not every biologist can explain her subject in a layperson’s terms, nor can every sociologist turn his research findings into an immediate take-away. But literature professors? Our subject is very popular. People everywhere read novels, stories, poems, and plays — the things we teach and write about. Reading groups all over the country devour books. And we’re supposed to be good with language. So why do so many of us often keep to our own kind?
If a crisis should never be wasted, now would seem to be an especially good time for us to be reaching out to the general public, giving talks to alumni or civic groups, participating in programs at the local library, or just talking to people outside of academe about our teaching and our research and why it’s important. Not that it should take a crisis to pry us out of our offices and classrooms.
There are plenty of excuses for avoiding the public and staying in our own comfort zone with our fellow academics: People won’t understand my work. I don’t want to dumb it down. It’s a waste of time. I’m too busy. But how long can we remain in our protective tower before the growing pressures around its base — budgets, politics, anger, ignorance — cause it to crack apart and come crashing down?
* * *
A couple of years ago, while I was having a cavity filled, my dentist startled me by asking if I would give a talk to his Rotary Club. He’s a dedicated reader, and we always have a good talk about books, at least when my mouth isn’t full of dental equipment. But now he was asking me if I would give a talk, as he held his drill at the ready.
I quickly said yes.
The Rotary Club meets quite early in the morning — 7:30, to be exact, although they do serve you breakfast.
The meeting was held at a restaurant, and about two dozen local businesspeople and other club members were there, including my dentist. Over breakfast, I chatted with the people sitting near me, and then, as the dishes were being cleared, I was shown to a little lectern set up on one side of the room, as everyone settled down to listen.
The talk was on my recent book about a celebrated duel in medieval France. By now, I had given quite a few talks on this topic — a series of invited lectures around the state for a literary society, some talks at local bookstores, and several more at historical societies or book fairs. I had also done some radio interviews and even appeared in one television documentary, so I not only knew the subject back and forth but also had had some practice talking about it outside the academy.
Still, I had prepared carefully, trimming down an originally much longer talk to just 15 minutes, making it as interesting as I could, and including some informative background about the Middle Ages. I used short, punchy sentences written for a listening audience, and I strenuously avoided confusing academic buzzwords, such as “hegemonic” and or “subaltern.” I provided some history and analysis of the medieval judicial duel, even describing the specific legal conditions required for a duel in late 14th-century France. But mainly I told a story — about characters, and places, and remarkable events — since that’s what seizes people’s attention and helps them follow what you’re saying.
The talk went well and was over in no time. I got some good questions afterwards, and then had a chance to talk with a few more people, some of whom had children or grandchildren at my university and seemed to enjoy hearing from a member of the faculty. My dentist was obviously pleased, too.
As I was getting ready to leave, one of the Rotarians came over and asked if I would do the same talk for the local Optimist Club, to which he also belonged. Sure, I said, a little surprised to be asked again so quickly.
Two weeks later I was back in the same part of town, giving the same talk, to another early-morning and equally enthusiastic group. And once again, I found myself actually enjoying it. After talking to the Rotary Club, and the Optimist Club, I’d gladly talk to the Pessimist Club, too, if there were one.
* * *
One of my friends is a commercial pilot, a lawyer, and an M.B.A. Very smart and accomplished, he also claims to be “very unliterary.” But he can explain with great clarity the most arcane technical, legal, and financial matters.
Whether we’re talking about the global financial crisis, or a legal case in the news, or a recent airline mishap, I’m always amazed by how well he can explain a concept, a problem, or a situation so that I can understand it, and how he can do so in such an interesting and memorable way. Above all, he tells a good story.
Not all experts are good explainers. But every profession needs people who can describe a complicated thing in clear, everyday language to others — to members of the general public. And right now, when the profession of literature has some explaining to do, we could really use some more people like this.
If we in literature departments, and in the humanities generally, are as smart and accomplished as we think we are, and our work is as important as we claim it is, and the public appreciates us as little as we often say, why don’t we get out there more and talk to people about what we know and what we do?
What are we afraid of?
Eric Jager is a professor of English at the University of California at Los Angeles. His next book, Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris, will appear from Little, Brown and Company, in 2014.
It’s been a few weeks since "The Heart of the Matter," the congressionally ordered report on the state of the humanities and social sciences, was issued by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. And while there is little to object to in the actual text, which brims with veracities on the importance of education and good citizenship, the smarting hasn’t stopped.
In The New York Times alone, we heard from three pundocratic naysayers. David Brooks, a member of the commission, bemoaned the collective suicide of the humanities professoriate, Verlyn Klinkenborg lamented the decline and fall of the English major, and Stanley Fish excoriated the report itself for its "bland commonplaces" and "recommendations that could bear fruit only in a Utopia" (and as a Miltonist, he knows that’s not the world we live in).
There have been valiant attempts to parry this latest volley of gloom regarding the "crisis of the humanities."
But even if "our classrooms remain packed," that still leaves the population at large. And there, a basic contention remains unanswered: the, by now, self-evident truth that the humanities are a "public relations failure" (Fish ventriloquizing Klinkenborg). Humanists are just no good at explaining why their work matters. No wonder, then, that the public has little use for their efforts.
The marketing problem is such a commonplace in the debate, it goes virtually unremarked these days. But to me, it raises a very basic question: why is it the job of a humanist to be her own advertiser? Other creative types have managers, agents, and publicists for that task, to say nothing of film studios, theaters, galleries, and museums – infrastructures, in other words, that allow them to focus on what they do best.
What would such an institution look like for humanists? As it happens, I help lead one. The Chicago Humanities Festival, which I serve as artistic director, is the largest organization of its kind in the United States. In fact, we were name-checked as such in "The Heart of the Matter," praised for our success in "inviting academics and artists to share their passions and expertise with new audiences."
We’re in our 24th year of doing so. Our annual fall festival features about 100 events, always organized around a theme. Attendance is around 50,000, with hundreds of thousands more consuming our content digitally. Not your average public relations failure, we like to think.
But how do we do it? How do we get thousands of people to come out to hear humanities professors lecture?
It’s really quite simple: we treat our presenters as stars and our events as performances.
It’s probably best to think about this mode of operation in contrast to your typical university programming. Sure, those lectures are free and open to the public. But how would that public even know? Dreary leaflets on campus bulletin boards aren’t likely to draw general audiences. Nor would such crowds feel particularly engaged by often dry and specialized presentations. (I should hasten to add that in my other life as a university professor, I can get quite excited about an earnest announcement circulating on a listserv; but then again, I’m already sold on the product.)
Everything we do at the Chicago Humanities Festival is designed to break those kinds of barriers. We write tantalizing copy for our events, place our ads in all the local media, and hustle for coverage in those same publications.
And we make sure that our featured talent appears in the best light possible. We think about stage sets and backdrops and fuss endlessly with our sound systems. Even more importantly, we spend a huge amount of time thinking about the best way to showcase a speaker. Is the great Harvard historian we invited known to go on and on when lecturing? No problem, we feature him in conversation with that gentle, yet firm journalist who has a deep passion for his subject. Is there worry about the density of a speech on continental philosophy? We coach the presenter in the joys of multi-media.
When it all works out, we get big, expectant audiences who, after basking in the erudition of our speakers (and asking sometimes stunningly insightful questions), can’t wait to come back for more.
This isn’t so different from the way other cultural organizations operate. Let me take an example from the world of opera, another domain whose utility could seem suspect in the glare of neoliberal scrutiny. When soprano Anna Netrebko was scheduled to make her Chicago debut in the 2012-13 season, it brought shivers of anticipation to local opera fanatics. But for a good chunk of Lyric Opera’s patrons, she was just a Russian-sounding name. It was the task of the company to create the appropriate excitement for her bow as Mimì, to say nothing of providing her with all the theatrical props needed for an optimal performance. The result: a sold-out run and something approaching collective hysteria (of the good kind).
Why should it be so different for humanists? Sure, in the academy we recognize folks like Julia Kristeva, Frans de Waal, and Maria Tatar as stars (to mention three of the speakers who will join us for this fall’s festival on Animal: What Makes Us Human). But just like your average opera diva, they need a bit of professional marketing and a decent production to find and captivate their audience. As a performing organization in the humanities, that’s our job. And after 24 years, we know how to do it.
Matti Bunzl is artistic director of the Chicago Humanities Festival and professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois.
Six years ago I began my first term as dean of a leading communication school. I came to the deanship from a background as scholar and a practitioner, with a political economy degree from Berkeley, and having taught at Michigan, Penn and Maryland College Park, publishing a half dozen books in a variety of fields. I devoted part of my career to public service in the White House, on Capitol Hill, and various international agencies, and even companies, and did stints at top Washington think tanks and in the private sector. .Over time, my focus shifted to the political economy of global communication. I embraced my new field with all the enthusiasm of the convert. I retain my affection for the field, and am thrilled to have recently been re-appointed to my post.
But after six years of active engagement with my chosen field, I am struck by what I see as tremendous opportunities and some serious problems, problems deep and broad enough for me to give the "communication" field as a whole a barely passing grade of C- . Why so grouchy?
It has become conventional academic wisdom that the modern world is leaving the industrial age and entering a post-industrial age driven by networks of digital communications. Yet despite the unprecedented shift of technology-enhanced communication to the center of our modern lives, paradoxically the academic field of communication has failed to live up to its potential as a central scholarly field for our time, and remains, relatively speaking, on the sidelines. Communication scholars have failed to seize this moment’s unprecedented opportunities, and the field remains too much at the periphery of scholarship and public engagement. The field is failing to live up to its great potential.
My critical judgment does not gainsay remarkable, world-class work in the field by top scholars like Manuel Castells of my own school, one of the most widely cited social science scholars in the world. Nor does it deny the explosion of interest among smart, eager college students enrolling in communication classes in ever higher numbers.
Still, the growing centrality of communications in the "real" modern world is not matched by the growing centrality of communication as an academic field. I think we need to do better, and can do better.
Observers of the field regularly point to several stubborn failures:
Comparing scholarly citations across fields, communication is a net importer of new, generative ideas; it rarely exports them to other fields.
The absence of a commonly accepted core of methods and theories undercuts its rigor and intellectual utility.
Practitioners in government, the private sector and nonprofits rarely draw on communication scholars for advice, nor their scholarship to inform their work.
It is derivative -- of psychology, political science, sociology and other fields; it doesn’t stand on its own.
In the hard-to-measure hierarchy of university status, communication is not in the big leagues of economics, psychology or other disciplines.
While I agree with these critiques, I find it more compelling and fruitful to reframe them as interrelated paradoxes that, taken together, identify our biggest challenges and lead us toward redefining them as well-deserved opportunities. If addressed together and resolved, we will be on the path to a well-deserved grade of "A." (Otherwise, other neighboring fields will be happy to become the intellectual leaders of communication. It is perhaps telling that the leading journals in the discipline of economics, and others, are publishing far more articles on communication than communication scholars are publishing on economics.)
To become more intellectually rigorous, the field must respond to the growing practical pressures to become more relevant to society.
To become more relevant and helpful to those beyond the academy, the field must become more coherent and rigorous.
To meet its vaunted commitment to interdisciplinarity, communication must carefully define and effectively articulate a distinctive disciplinary core.
The field whose domain is communication has not effectively communicated its own uniqueness and value to others.
To become more rigorous, the field must recognize the practical pressures and opportunities it faces and become more relevant to society. To become more relevant, the field must become more rigorous.
A widely held academic convention is that when scholars engage with practitioners they run the risk of losing their scholarly objectivity, becoming trivial and losing rigor. Research and writing are "dumbed down." These are risks, but they are trumped today by the field’s need for a couple of reality checks, especially reality that lies outside our campus walls among the communities of practice for which we educate our students.
Over the past 18 months I interviewed scores of practitioners and I found the opposite effect – senior executives and managers of companies and nonprofits in media and communication pushed my team toward greater rigor and precision. Said one CEO of a media company: "When I hire an engineer or business grad I know what I am getting. What special attributes do your graduates bring to the table? What is your premium?" They are right to press us toward greater precision about our core competencies, of what specialized knowledge we possess and what we can do that others cannot.
Let me cite two other examples where people in our communities of practice pressed us for greater precision, clarity and rigor. One foundation president in the health domain insistently pushed back on one of our research projects by insisting that the claims of causality be more carefully spelled out and demonstrated. In another example, senior officials at the Federal Communications Commission, seeking new ways to understand the emerging ecology of digital and legacy media environments, kept asking us researchers to define our terms more carefully, and especially to be more explicit about our assumptions of causality across different levels of abstraction – from macro to meso to micro, and how interventions at one level could affect conditions at another.
In each case, the impetus was not better social science, per se, but better practice. For foundation and federal agency – the stakes were high in terms of subsequent decisions that professionals needed to make based on the evidence and logic we provided. And in each case, the result was more rigorous conceptualization and theory. In these cases relevance demanded, and advanced, rigor.
Curiously, while other fields like law, medicine, economics and psychology have enjoyed robust and regular relationships with their communities of practice – lawyers, doctors, businesses and clinicians – the communication field does not. When I visit senior executives in private firms or nonprofits, they usually report that my team is the first or one of the few to visit them and solicit their views on what communication schools should be teaching or researching (the subfield most likely to be engaged seems to be health communications). In the absence of consistent external demands for validation, and for clear statements of communication’s links to important issues of the day, the field has fallen victim to the enticing dangers of the opposite risk – self-absorption. Internal validation from a small community of other scholars in one’s own subfield comes to substitute for robust scholarly and societal engagement.
The field suffers from a kind of academic log-rolling behavior which feeds the reification of silos in the field. Each subfield claims control over its definition of the field, its preferred syllabi, its students. In return, it agrees to let other subfields do the same. Rhetoricians and quantitative psychologists alike resist having colleagues beyond their subfield define for them what rigor should be in Ph.D. exams or curriculums. This has led communication toward becoming a loose collection of fiefdoms denying overarching intellectual priorities. This contrasts powerfully to the other fields I have worked on, political science and economics, where disciplinary cores are stronger.
Frankly, I find a kind of arrogance in which university based teachers wish to remain too pure, and reluctant to engage with the publics whose tax dollars support them. At the Annenberg School, hardly a week goes by when someone from a local neighborhood organization, a media company, a local or global government agency, or even business, doesn’t come seeking answers to important questions they believe scholars might help them answer.
To put it bluntly, I believe it is irresponsible for scholars to ignore or turn away from the entreaties of practitioners in South Central LA (where we often work), or in southern China (where we also often work), who are seeking counsel about the tumultuous times in which we live. Indeed, what a remarkable opportunity this is for an important field. If we are able to combine the rigor of traditional disciplines while remaining true to our interdisciplinary roots as we seek out new partnerships with practitioners seeking our guidance, we will certainly advance the rigor and relevance of communication as a field. We should aggressively advance toward engagement and rigor, not retreat behind shopworn ways of being in the world.
Pressures for precision also come from across campus. As my faculty reach out to colleagues across campus – especially in area studies, engineering, international relations and business, they too press us to clarify our core academic competencies. In engineering, economics and medicine thoughtful scholars are running up against communication phenomena they don’t understand, and are seeking more collaboration. Sometimes they begin with simplistic notions of "communication": how to popularize complicated ideas to their audiences, to teach engineers to speak and write more clearly, relegating us to a kind of remediation program. But once we begin to specify our unique intellectual competencies, we move on to conducting joint research and teaching joint classes and offering joint degrees, as we now do with our Viterbi School of Engineering, We also have a collaborative chair with the Marshall Business School.
Though much of the institutional trajectory of the communication field has been evolved from the humanities, and other large percentages draw from the social sciences, rhetoric and professional traditions, contrary to some of my colleagues, I believe there is a unique core to our work, consisting of unique intellectual competencies. I have tried to be a good student of communication, and through countless conversations with my generous Annenberg colleagues and by attending the annual professional associations I have concluded that the field does have the focus, the disciplinarity, and the premium that others seek. While this may seem obvious to some of my communication colleagues, in the spirit of over-communicating rather than undercommunicating across disciplinary and professional boundaries, let me modestly suggest the following five attributes of good communication scholarship in the field, which taken together and acted upon do provide us with an intellectual premium that others do not have.
1. At its earliest core, communication was a once widely appreciated tradition of deep enquiry into the meanings behind the words we speak and write, and how those meanings are framed and communicated. This is the rhetorical tradition, and communication literacy is even more essential to today’s multimedia world than it was in the time of Aristotle.
2. This unique field opens up a black box that other disciplines and fields leave closed, by exploring the distinctions and relations among sender, receiver, message, channel and context.
3. Communication retains deep respect for the audience and its own interpretations and definitions of meanings, which in turn reflects and produces a normative commitment to understand and value multiple voices and perspectives, a respect for popular culture and ultimately for democratic values.
4. The field is quite tolerant of studying a wide range of problems and topics at many levels of social action and abstraction, from micro to macro to meso.
5. The field has a long-standing practice of multidisciplinarity and a rhetorical commitment to interdisciplinarity.
Taken together, these elements provide a unique approach to the modern world not fully captured by other disciplines or fields. Perhaps the greatest paradox is the failure of communication to communicate well with other fields and professions. If any field should know that communication is important, and understand that communication is a two-way street, it should be this one. To better link rigor and relevance, therefore, the first step is for communication programs to (re)engage with the people in the communities of practice for which they prepare their graduates.
These matters are highly relevant because more so than any other field (except perhaps medicine), communication professors need constantly to ask whether their own learning and understanding, as reflected in their syllabuses, courses and whole programs, are keeping up with contemporary challenges and opportunities.
Indeed, communication schools (especially those with journalism programs) should recognize that they have become a potentially important element of a communicative ecosystem with multiple new and legacy actors, linked in new and exciting ways. (Our school, for example, has one of the largest newsrooms in Los Angeles).
As I mentioned above, consider for a moment the structural position of other professional schools in their ecosystem. Professional disciplines such as law and medicine, and academic disciplines such as economics and psychology, enjoy close, regular and reciprocal relationships with the communities they serve. Schools regularly provide their communities’ graduates with talent and training, relevant research and even professional exchanges (teachers sometimes practice, practitioners sometimes teach). These relationships are likely to be especially fruitful when schools assume the benefits will flow in both directions.
But this two-way relationship is rarely the case with communication. Teachers do not practice much, practitioners rarely teach, and the research produced in the academy is rarely used by anyone beyond the campus.
This is not to say that we should transform the entire field into something completely new, or a strictly policy applied field. But we must create more permissible open space in the field for our students to respond to the entreaties and expectations of a growing number of citizens and other scholars for policy relevant engagement. There is a need for all subfields of communication to be more ambitious, outward looking, and rigorous, relevant and re-engaged. We must transform the relationships among relevance, rigor and re-engagement from a vicious cycle to a virtuous circle. The first step is re-engagement from a stance of ambition, empathy and willingness to listen carefully and respond aggressively for partnerships and for our own communication campaigns.
As the reader might imagine by now, we at the Annenberg School are engaging with each of these critical issues – creating two dozen new partnerships in two years with the likes of IBM, Warner Brothers, Apple, Verizon, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, France Telecom and the city of Chattanooga. We are also partnering with the Social Science Research Council to explore the competing definitions of relevance and rigor in the field, and how we can enhance principled and mutually respectful conversations with relevant communities of practice. We have introduced a new media economics and entrepreneurship track that is directly relevant to our students and the communities of practice they will join, and is also quite rigorous. (Happily, it is attracting lots of students and the attention of lots of practitioners, helped by having an entrepreneur in residence and an innovator in residence each year.) By combining rigor and relevance, our graduates have an 80 percent placement rate within 12 months of graduation
Rigor and relevance must be a two-way street, with excellence achieved through greater disciplinary focus. We are learning from our partners as they are learning from us. At the risk of sounding imperialistic, now is the time for communication to act more like economics, which boldly goes where others dare not. Communication has been far too bashful and timid in its ambitions. As mediated communication moves more to the center of society, shouldn’t the field of communication move to the center of modern intellectual life and purposeful action? And if not now, when?
Ernest J. Wilson III is dean of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
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