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Essay defends the state of communications scholarship

Another View on Communication Scholarship
August 13, 2013

As the scholarly society dedicated to serving the nation’s communication scholars, teachers, and practitioners, the National Communication Association (NCA) took a special interest in Ernest Wilson's essay, "Communication Scholars Need to Communicate," as well as the comments elicited by Wilson’s piece. Wilson’s lament has sparked interesting debate and discussion not only among those in our discipline, but also among administrators, faculty, and students throughout higher education. Wilson’s central claims, while provocative, are decidedly at odds with what we know to be the nature, relevance and rigor of the wide range of communication scholarship. A corrective vision of the discipline is, therefore, necessary.

The Coherent Core of Communication

What Wilson believes about the discipline’s core is, quite frankly, unclear from his piece. On several occasions in the early part of his commentary, he issues a call for a carefully defined distinctive disciplinary core, only to later enumerate what he says is indeed a core of the discipline. In any case, it seems a cogent summary may be useful.

Rooted firmly in the classical imperative of understanding the power of speech to sway public audiences, and in the contemporary imperative of understanding the power of mediated messages to move millions, communication scholars are engaged in rigorous, sustained research that appreciates the role and influence of communication across all aspects of public and private life. Free of a stultifying adherence to methodological or theoretical orthodoxies, communication scholars and teachers embrace the ubiquity of communication and work to explain, understand, and analyze it.

Communication scholars are also mindful of the pedagogical core of the discipline — the inherent civic value of speech to meaningful citizenship — which emerged from the democratic impulse embodied in 19th- and 20th-century progressivism. As we pursue our research and teaching, we remember the words of the ancient Athenian orator and rhetorician, Isocrates: "Because there has been implanted in us the power to persuade each other and to make clear to each other whatever we desire, not only have we escaped the life of wild beasts, but we have come together and founded cities and made laws and invented arts."

Publicly Engaged Communication Scholars

Beyond the confines of the academy, and contrary to Wilson’s assertions about the lack of relevance of much research, communication scholars bring their discipline to life with communities of practice across the nation and around the world. These interactions span a multitude of contexts, from the corporate realm to public policy-making to movements for social justice. Such engagement is not confined, as Wilson suggests, to only the scholars at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School. While Wilson’s colleagues are indeed doing good, engaged work, they are not alone. In the next few paragraphs, just a few of the countless, diverse, and illustrative examples of rigorous, engaged communication scholarship are articulated. Communication is ubiquitous, so our communities of practice are far more varied than those of professional schools (law, medicine), and our colleagues around the country actively embrace this breadth of opportunity.

Professor Rebecca Townsend of Manchester Community College was named a 2012 "White House Champion of Change" for her work on transportation planning. With funding from the Federal Transit Administration, Townsend developed an initiative that brings community members from typically underrepresented groups into culturally sensitive, deliberative discussions about transportation needs in the interest of ensuring that planners hear more from transit-dependent residents. Townsend has been asked to discuss this work with many parties involved in transportation policy including the Transportation Research Board, the National Science Foundation, the Open Government Partnership, and legislators at the federal and state levels. Her strategies are being adopted across the country.

Professor Stephen John Hartnett, chair of the department of communication at the University of Colorado at Denver, has a commitment to community-based civic engagement that is reflected in the Prison Justice Project. Through this initiative, students bring communication skills to people in prisons and jails to improve their likelihood of succeeding in both public and private life upon release. Among the activities in this program is a prison workshop focusing on presentational speaking and the publication of Captured Words/Free Thoughts, a magazine of writings and images created by inmates. Several people who have participated in this program have productively engaged in post-release activities that incorporate communication skills.

Patrice M. Buzzanell, professor at the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University and a past president of the International Communication Association, has for many years taught and conducted research in her university’s Engineering Projects in Community Service program. She has led or co-led four service-learning design teams focused on several goals, including encouraging girls’ voices in engineering design and consideration of the field as a career possibility; engaging middle-school students in nanotechnology; promoting community environmental education and sustainability; and creating and maintaining global partnerships for water-energy-education systems in rural Ghana.

A past president of our association, H. Dan O’Hair, who is the interim senior vice provost and dean of the College of Communication and Information at the University of Kentucky, leads a large team of engaged scholars by example. His National Science Foundation-supported work focuses on hurricane warnings and involves close partnerships with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Hurricane Center, local emergency managers, and broadcasters in Miami and Houston. O’Hair has been asked to present his findings to members of Congress and key staffers from most of the government agencies involved in risk management, and his work has been influential in policy decisions.

Applied research of this kind is not new to the discipline. Nearly 30 years ago, University of Kentucky Professor Lewis Donohew pioneered the field of health communication by applying behavioral science research and technology to the development of drug prevention messages that targeted thrill-seekers.

Relevance and Rigor

Wilson argues that much communication scholarship is not sufficiently relevant to society, coherent or rigorous. We contend, based on the examples above and many others, that there is, in fact, a large body of existing communication scholarship that refutes this claim. Research that lacks rigor or relevance is simply not supported by major funders like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and NSF, nor is it engaged by policy makers in Congress and beyond. All of the examples cited above are meaningful instances of communication scholars and teachers pursuing relevant, effective, coherent programs for the betterment of their students, their communities, and society at large.

Another unsubstantiated assertion in Wilson's piece is that there is a failure of communication as a discipline to communicate well with other disciplines, and that this leads to a lack of interdisciplinary recognition. Communication scholarship is indeed widely recognized by interdisciplinary academic organizations as a crucial component of their scholarly efforts. The American Academy of Arts & Sciences, for example, recently released its congressionally commissioned report, "The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation," which prominently recognizes the value and relevance of communication skills as both central to a liberal education and desirable for employers and employees in the expanding global marketplace. The commission also "calls for a national commitment to building critical intercultural skills at every stage of the education system," skills that undeniably are rooted in an enhanced appreciation of intercultural communication.

The National Academies of Science recently announced its second Arthur M. Sackler Colloquium on "The Science of Science Communication," which will feature several communication scholars, including Dietram Scheufele (University of Wisconsin) and Edward Maibach (George Mason University). And the American Council of Learned Societies has announced that among the recipients of its highly competitive Public Fellows Program is Margaret H. Kunde, a newly minted Ph.D. in communication studies from the University of Minnesota.

Sadly, Wilson was not more rigorous in developing his commentary on the state of the communication discipline. He states that he has tried to be a good student of communication, but he clearly still has more to learn. While we appreciate the fine work at USC that Wilson touts, we encourage him to expand his focus beyond the walls of his own institution.

Can our discipline do even better? Of course we can — for thousands of years, scholars of communication have evolved and adapted in response to changing social and technological needs. Despite Wilson’s dismal prognostication about the discipline, communication scholars frequently work with communities of practice across an array of the human experience, boldly bringing with them insights, knowledge, and rigorous engagement that are at the center of modern intellectual life and purposeful action.

Bio

Nancy Kidd is executive director of the National Communication Association, where Trevor Parry-Giles is associate director for academic and professional affairs.

 

 

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