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Essay on state of communications scholarship

Communication Scholars Need to Communicate

July 29, 2013

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.)

Therefore:

  • 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?

 

Bio

Ernest J. Wilson III is dean of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

 

 

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