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.
Wednesday started as a fairly normal day. I got out of bed bleary-eyed, stumbled down the stairs, and walked outside to get The Bloomington Herald-Times. As my eyes scanned the front page, an Associated Press story headline grabbed my attention: "Daniels Targeted 'Propaganda,' Critic." Frankly, I wasn’t too surprised to see that, given the multiple recent revelations of government spying. Nor was I shocked, as I started reading, to learn that Mitch Daniels, former Indiana governor, was virulently opposed to the writings of the late left-wing historian Howard Zinn. But as I read further in the article — based on e-mails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act — something else stopped me in my tracks: one of those opponents was me.
Let me explain.
In the summer of 2010, I taught a one-week module on the history of the labor movement as part of a three-week institute for high school teachers at Indiana University in Bloomington, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was called "Social Movements in Modern America: Labor, Civil Rights, and Feminism." Along with Professors Jeffrey Ogbar (University of Connecticut) and Jennifer Maher (Indiana), and supervised by Professors John Bodnar and Ted Carmines at Indiana, I worked with a highly motivated, talented and diverse group of high school and middle school teachers from around the United States.
In my section of the course, I focused on the history of labor organizing in the meat-packing industry. The week culminated with a field trip to a unionized slaughterhouse in Louisville. It was an intense week — with five hours of instruction per day — but also one of the most rewarding of my career. These were ideal "students" and they really appreciated the opportunity to expand their horizons. At the end of the week, they handed me a card with notes of gratitude from all participants.
Three years later, I still look back fondly on that experience. But I will never think of it in quite the same way, now that I know that Big Brother, aka (then) Governor Daniels, was watching.
It was February 9, 2010, a few weeks after Howard Zinn had passed away. Governor Daniels had just sent his staff an e-mail denouncing Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States, and asking staff if they could assure him that "it is not in use anywhere in Indiana." In short order, Scott Jenkins, the governor’s education adviser, e-mailed his boss with the URL to our institute website, prefaced by the comment: "Oh, and this is why my children will not go to IU." He added, "Zinn along with other anti American leftist readings are prominently featured." He also quoted from our site, which contained a detailed schedule of readings, and which informed teachers that they could earn professional development credit for attending.
Three minutes later, Daniels fired back the following: "This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state. No student will be any better taught because someone sat through this session." It's unfortunate, to say the least, that Daniels viewed our curriculum about three social movements that transformed the lives of millions of Americans for the better to be "crap."
But in a sense, it was precisely to combat such attitudes that we offered the institute in the first place. Despite the changes that have taken place in the teaching of U.S. history — most obviously exemplified by Black History Month — most American students still get the message that the real movers and shakers in history are the wealthy and powerful; or if they learn about grassroots activists — such as Rosa Parks — they learn about them as heroic individuals, not part of a movement.
Now, it is true that there was an excerpt from Zinn’s People’s History included in the readings for our opening session, a roundtable on the theory and history of social movements. It was a chapter on the civil rights movement entitled, "Or Does It Explode?"
But the reason I put it there illustrates just how misguided and harmful it would be to try to censor Zinn’s ideas. In designing that session, my aim was to help teachers appreciate the challenge of explaining how and why social movements develop. In addition to reading Zinn, the teachers were assigned a wide range of pieces based on social movement theories, some of which actually challenged aspects of Zinn’s account as romantic and misleading. (I found Zinn inspiring when I first read him, but now, for my money, Zinn is actually not left-wing enough.) So, by including Zinn, my aim was not to shove his views down teachers’ throats — precisely the opposite. Which is also why I included both pro-union and anti-union websites on the syllabus. After all, the purpose of education is to help people think for themselves. That is why censorship strikes at the heart of the educational mission.
Finally, in regard to Daniels’s claim that no student would benefit from their teachers having sat through our institute, I can’t prove that we had a positive effect on the "end-users" in cities all over the country. But I can let the teachers speak for themselves. Here’s what some of them said on my thank-you card:
“What an amazing informative week.”
“You have turned one of the ‘boring’ chapters into a relevant & interesting theme in U.S. history.”
“I have learned so much and been truly inspired.”
“You successfully ‘changed’ me and the way I see the world.”
“Your enthusiasm is contagious.”
“I learned a ton. This will be very useful for me in my teaching.”
So, despite his disparagement of the value of what my colleagues and I taught, I want to thank Governor Daniels and his associates for reminding me of how much I enjoyed that summer institute and why I love teaching.
Carl R. Weinberg is senior lecturer in the College of Arts and Sciences and adjunct associate professor of history at Indiana University at Bloomington.
High school and middle school teachers think students' writing is affected by digital tools, for better and for worse, according to a survey led by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. Of the 2,462 Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers surveyed, 68 percent said digital tools make students more likely to take shortcuts and 48 percent said students are writing too carelessly and quickly. But, at the same time, teachers said students' potential exposure to a broader audience online and the feedback they receive from peers encourage investment in writing and the process of writing. “These results challenge in many ways the notion that students’ writing skills are being undermined by their increasing engagement with digital tools and platforms,” said Kristen Purcell, the associate director for research at the Pew Internet Project. “Teachers do have concerns that digital tools are blurring the lines between formal and informal writing and see writing skills that need improvement, but they also see the benefit of students having more people respond to their writing and the increased opportunities for expression these digital tools offer.”
For more than half a century, social scientists have taken for granted the fact that college faculty lean left. Some of the first systematic evidence of the faculty’s leftist politics was reported in 1958 with the release of Lazarsfeld and Thielens’s classic study, The Academic Mind. In 1975 Ladd and Lipset showed that faculty leftism persisted in the post-Vietnam era in their book The Divided Academy. More recently in The Still Divided Academy, my co-authors and I provide detailed evidence that faculty hold political views well to the left of both students and the public at large. Not only are right-leaning professors a tiny minority of the faculty, the left’s dominance among the professoriate tends to be more pronounced at America’s elite institutions. Cognizant of the left’s hold on many institutions, the University of Colorado’s Board of Regents recently called for a “climate survey” to determine whether liberal bias chills the free exchange of ideas on campus.
Given the academy’s educational mission, which presumably involves the transmission of both knowledge and social values, this profound ideological imbalance raises an obvious and important question. To what extent do the leftist faculty transmit their ideological world-view to the students? This is an inherently more difficult question, as it requires that we document subtle changes in students’ political views, and show evidence that the observed changes are as a result of the faculty’s influence. It’s not enough to point to a handful of cases where conservative students have been indoctrinated by their liberal professors. The real question is, what is the experience of the typical student on a college campus?
Research Confirms Students Aren't Sponges
Recognizing that some college instructors are pushing an ideological agenda in the classroom, there is scant evidence that students are being profoundly influenced by the political views of their professors. Indeed, a number of recent studies cast increasing doubt on the proposition that students are readily adopting the views of their liberal faculty. In our 2009 article for the Journal, PS: Political Science and Politics titled "I Think My Professor Is a Democrat: Considering Whether Students Recognize and React to Faculty Politics” April Kelly-Woessner and I track the partisan leanings of more than 1,000 individuals enrolled in undergraduate political science courses throughout the United States. Somewhat surprisingly, we found that students’ party preferences shift somewhat randomly over time, with only the slightest shift toward the Democratic Party.
In The Still Divided Academy, Rothman, Kelly-Woessner and I examine the question of faculty influence on specific political views like taxes, regulations and abortion. Using aggregate data, we look for evidence that student cohorts move leftward as a function of time. As in our 2009 study, we don’t find compelling evidence that students' views shift leftward. On social policy, fourth-year students exhibited slightly more liberal views than do first-year students. However, on a few economic questions, we find that students actually drifted slightly to the right. We noted, with some interest, that the shift tends to move students toward the views of their professors. However, the difference between cohorts was relatively small. Over all, students completing their education hold very similar views to those just entering the academy.
These snapshots of evolving student beliefs don’t suggest that faculty refrain from shaping student values, or even trying to influence their political views. Whereas some disciplines, such as political science, often shun partisan advocacy, many fields, including sociology, ethnic studies, and social work, openly advocate a distinct ideological worldview. If these and similar studies are correct, it suggests that student beliefs are surprisingly resilient. For every one student who is actively recruited to a leftist political cause, a vast majority complete their education with their values largely intact.
Considering Academia’s Persuasion Paradox
Since the left maintains a powerful hold on higher education, dominating a vast majority of disciplines and most individual departments, including political science and economics (see Klein and Stern’s essay in The Politically Correct University and Gross’s book Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservative Care?), what are we to make of the seemingly stable political beliefs of undergraduates in these presumably formative political years? While it is doubtful that there is any single explanation to resolve what I’ll call academia’s Persuasion Paradox, there are several probable explanations that may contribute to undergraduates’ apparent political stability. Although we do not yet have sufficient evidence to fully account for students' ideological development, it's worth considering the range of explanations.
Explanation #1: Faculty Truly are Committed to Impartiality
It is possible that students are politically unaffected by college because most faculty deliberately conceal their views in the classroom, or at least strive to cover both perspectives even-handedly. If most faculty cautiously avoid political advocacy, it would come as no surprise that students don't lurch leftward as they complete their college degree.
In many fields, particularly in the natural sciences, it seems plausible that faculty politics do not enter into the classroom or shape the views of students. Professors teaching nuclear physics, volcanology or paleobotany would have to go way out of their way to politicize their lectures. However, in the humanities and social sciences, academic disciplines often collide with contemporary politics. Unless the instructor is strongly committed to carefully balancing the curriculum, it is all too easy to inject politics into the coursework. Without systematic studies of instructional norms, it's difficult to know how many faculty deliberately embargo their political opinion, opting instead to present the material in a fair and balanced manner. Judging from the anecdotal evidence provided by conservative activists, it seems clear that many faculty deliberately politicize their classrooms.
Even if most faculty try to constrain their political beliefs, it seems improbable that their ideological worldview wouldn't inadvertently bleed into the classroom. As a point of reference, consider how journalism, which explicitly rejects editorial manipulation, nevertheless, tends to reflect the political views of its predominantly left-leaning practitioners. In his book, Left Turn, UCLA professor, Timothy Groseclose, provides evidence that nonpartisan journalists tend to cite the same sources as do Democrats in Congress. Even journalists, who are trained to be impartial and are consciously motivated to report a story fairly, often cover political controversies with undue deference to the liberal ideological perspective. Given the obstacles to impartiality in journalism, it seems probable that leftism among the faculty probably affects the curriculum. As such, it seems improbable, although not impossible, that faculty efforts to be impartial are the driving force behind students' political consistency.
Explanation #2: Leftist Influence Often Precedes College Coursework
Although college, dominated by the left, may provide students a less-than-objective worldview, the experience may not differ appreciably from the slanted messages they receive from their K-12 teachers, Hollywood and social networking. If students’ political values have already shifted left as a result of the messages they received in the 18 years prior to entering higher education, college may serve to maintain a liberal worldview, rather than drive students appreciably leftward.
Efforts to measure the impact of higher education on political development may be incomplete, as we tend to overlook the ideological influence that teachers, the media and social networking have on students before entering college.
Explanation #3: Many Students Aren't Listening
Like people outside of academe, students may not be easy to influence, either because they are set in their ways or because they are not paying attention. In either case, left-leaning faculty may have a difficult time molding students in their political image.
For professors pushing a leftist worldview, liberal students are clearly a receptive audience because left-leaning undergraduates are both interested in politics and receptive to the professor's ideas. Whereas the faculty can validate liberal student’s preexisting views, they can't, by definition, win converts. Selling liberalism to liberal students is preaching to the choir.
When interacting with conservative students, faculty do have an opportunity to win converts. However, precisely because conservatives come to college with a defined set of political beliefs, they won't easily accept the professor's political messages. The social psychology literature is replete with studies that confirm how resistant people are to accepting new ideas as people tend to discredit information that conflicts with their preexisting beliefs, or simply tuning out. As such most adults, including young college students, are capable of resisting countervailing messages. Scholars are just beginning to explore how conservative students adapt to a hostile ideological environment (See Binder and Wood’s book Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives).
It seems clear that they don’t readily accept hostile messages, or take what professors say at face value. Speaking as a conservative who attended two liberal undergraduate institutions, I suspect many right-leaning students opt to lay low. As an undergraduate, I quickly learned that it was sometimes necessary to regurgitate professors' leftist diatribes in order to demonstrate that I understood the assigned material. Prompting students to parrot elements of a liberal worldview is a far cry from meaningful indoctrination.
For proselytizing faculty, nonaligned students represent an entirely different challenge. Whereas non-ideological students enter college without a strong connection to either perspective, they tend to be especially uninterested in politics altogether. Accordingly, nonaligned students don't necessarily understand or care about abstract ideological debates on executive power, federalism, or civil liberties.
While non-ideological students are, in some ways, the perfect targets for political evangelism, faculty must first inspire them to care about politics. For students often distracted by friends, work, athletics, video games, and social media, getting them interested in politics can be an exceptionally difficult task.
The potential impact of a disengaged student body resonates with college instructors who often struggle to hold students’ attention. Whereas a generation ago, faculty often worried that students were daydreaming in class, today’s instructors are preoccupied with students surfing the web, blogging or reading Facebook. Far from being receptive to political indoctrination, nonideological students are easily in a position to tune out if a professor’s lecture degenerates into a political rant. Noting her difficulty in holding students' attention, one of my liberal colleagues once remarked, "I wish I could politically indoctrinate my students, but I can’t even get them to do the reading."
Explanation #4: Conservative Students Deliberately Avoid Ideological Minefields
Whereas most faculty identify with the political left, the bulk of outright political advocacy may be confined to select majors already populated by leftist students. The few conservative students who explore these politicized majors are often free to alter their course of study to avoid topics that seem closed off to a conservative worldview. Although there is little systematic evidence to sort out whether conservative students deliberately opt out of leftist majors, it seems reasonable to suppose that right-leaning students would instinctively avoid fields dominated by proselytizing faculty.
Even if a naive young conservative enrolled in an introductory anthropology course, thinking it would provide an evenhanded look at culture and civilization, she would quickly learn that the field is dominated by faculty that are often openly hostile to conservative social policy. As such, majors dominated by ideological faculty might act to repel nonconformists, thereby reducing conservatives’ exposure to conflicting points of view.
In my piece "Rethinking the Plight of Conservatives in Higher Education," I tell the story of my first (and only) sociology class, taken my sophomore year of college. I was shocked to discover that my professor was an avowed Marxist. Using this one course as a barometer for the discipline, I kept my distance from sociology courses thereafter. Whereas most students are probably aware that courses in gender or ethnic studies are inherently political, it is not necessarily obvious that psychology, archeology or English literature are often dominated by highly ideological instructors. As students stumble their way through their introductory courses, conservative students may well shape their curricular decisions, at least in part, to avoid ideologically charged majors.
In our 2012 article “Diversifying the Academy: How Conservative Academics Can Thrive in Liberal Academia” for the Journal PS: Political Science and Politics, Robert Maranto and I suggest that conservative faculty should (and probably do) adopt these conflict avoidance strategies as they move toward tenure. Academe might be left of center, but many clever conservatives can find islands of political tolerance if they know where to look.
Students' academic discretion would not only provide conservatives with the option of avoiding ideologically hostile majors, but also afford them the flexibility to work with faculty they perceive as tolerant of their political views. As a young conservative studying at UCLA, I was delighted to find professors, such as John Petrocik and Leo Snowiss, who approached political science from a minimally ideological perspective. I took four history courses with John Montaño, a masterful lecturer, who never once hinted at his own political views. Grateful that I had identified a handful of professors who weren't pushing a political agenda, I took a disproportionate number of courses from a relatively small pool of faculty
Ironically, if students commonly gravitate toward what they perceive to be tolerant instructors, then higher education's "liberal" approach to selecting a major and designing a unique course of study could be a major contributor to conservative students' seemingly stable political views.
Explanation #5: Academe's Persuasion Paradox is an Illusion
It's entirely possible that academia's persuasion paradox is, itself, an illusion.
Stephen Balch, founder and former president of the National Association of Scholars, remains skeptical that students aren't internalizing at least some of the faculty's political beliefs. Considering the evidence that many faculty actively try to shape the political values of students, he argues that it is inconceivable that instructors would consistently fail to transmit their most intensely held political beliefs.
Challenging the assertion that students are unmoved by faculty leftism, Balch points to a finding in our book The Still Divided Academy. Whereas the left dominates the faculty throughout academe, its influence is more pronounced at America’s most prestigious research universities. To the extent that the left holds a near-monopoly among the faculty positions at top institutions, students may come to see leftism as the only acceptable worldview among the social elite. Even if students aren’t moving left in higher education as a whole, America’s top students may be mentored in a uniquely insular environment. Over time, this elite socialization would have a important impact on the evolving political beliefs of many of America’s best and brightest students.
Whereas the jury is still out on whether student’s political stability holds true at America’s elite institutions, Balch raises an important point. Researchers shouldn't ignore the possibility that, despite some of our preliminary findings, higher education does indeed shape students' outlook in subtle but important ways.
It is unlikely that academia's persuasion paradox can be resolved with any single explanation. It seems probable that students' apparent political consistency is driven by a combination of faculty restraint, conflict avoidance, and outright political uninterest. Given our limited understanding of student attitudinal formation, it will take years to sort out these competing explanations.
Motivated by a healthy scientific curiosity about academe’s role in shaping societal attitudes, researchers should take a second look at students’ stubborn political dispositions. If undergraduates’ political values are stable, largely because leftist faculty manage to contain their political views, it would represent a vindication of higher education's mission to train students to think for themselves. On the other hand, if ongoing research finds evidence that conservative students maintain their worldview by fleeing from highly politicized disciplines, then at least some of the right’s criticisms of higher education are justified. In either case, unraveling academe’s persuasion paradox represents one of the next great challenges for social science, as we consider how higher education plays a role in shaping the views and values of the nation, and indeed the world.
Imagine a bright sunny day at a major league baseball park. It’s the middle innings of a good, but not notable, game. The lead-off batter hits a long ball down the third base side that arcs foul and heads for the seats. Just as it’s about to land in the bleachers, a gloved hand seems to appear from nowhere and snags a souvenir. The crowd goes wild and the recipient waves his trophy for all to see.
But what’s the big commotion really all about. The ball itself is only worth a few dollars. If that same person found something much more valuable, like a $20 bill, on the sidewalk, people might congratulate him, but no one, let alone thousands, would stand and cheer. The cheering has little to do with the value of the ball, but rather the process of receiving it. Some in the stands will say to their friends “Nice catch, huh?” Others may remark on the preparation needed for someone to bring a glove to the ballpark and stay alert enough through the entire game to be ready for just that moment. Everyone will appreciate that few get the chance to make such a "big catch." But few will say, "Wow, he got a great baseball out of that!"
This scene provides a lesson to those of us in academe: While the knowledge we create has value, it’s the process of creating that knowledge that generates passion and excitement. This lesson probably seems trivial to many of us who have spent our entire careers pursuing our passions in the lab or the library, but unfortunately, too few of those outside of the academy appreciate this basic reality, and this lack of appreciation is in large part our own fault. More than 1 million students earned bachelor’s degrees last year in the United States and more than 600,000 others received associate degrees. That’s 1.6 million people who voluntarily signed on to serve as academic apprentices to us. We had the chance to show them how to make the great catch, but too often we simply gave them the baseballs.
Think of an undergraduate history course, for example. If you ask most undergraduate students to tell you about what they learned in their history courses they will talk about dates, or major social-political upheavals, or great battles and their consequences. But surprisingly few can talk about how that history was written, the scarcity of contemporary records for some events, the difficulties of verifying first-person accounts, the recasting of events over time to be consistent with changing political perspectives.In other words, they have received the baseball, examined it, and come to understand it; but we failed to share with them the excitement of how it came to be. Similarly, too many students come away from our natural science courses thinking that science is knowledge consisting of equations, principles, and specific laboratory techniques, like titration.
I am of course generalizing in many ways. Chemistry majors understand that science is about discovery and history majors have wrestled with trying to reconcile contradictory sources, but most students in history classes are not going to become historians; for many this may be the only history course they take from a real historian. How unfortunate that those students didn’t come to appreciate what historians are and what they do. And the same holds true for most students in our introductory science courses.
How the world would be different, if each year more than a million people left our institutions understanding what we, as faculty, do with all of that time that we’re not in the classroom, what excitement there is in discovering something no one else has ever known, and the value that these discoveries bring to society. Those million-plus people become voters and taxpayers and some of them become corporate leaders and politicians. The world could be a very different place if they better understood faculty work and why universities are important.
This is not simply another call to include undergraduates in research. That is important, but not sufficient. Clearly, students who spend several years, or even a semester or summer, working closely with a faculty mentor in research are likely to come to understand the importance of knowledge creation and the impact such work has on faculty, students, and society. But, given the pace of expanding national enrollments versus the pace of expanding the faculty, we will not be able to offer that kind of experience to the majority of our students any time in the foreseeable future.
Instead, we must reshape our courses to reflect our passions for discovery as well as the ideas and facts that those passions have generated. The current emphasis on team-centered learning and “flipped” classrooms provides an opportunity to rethink not only how we teach, but what we teach. Much of the work to date, however, has been on the incorporation of student skills (participation in a team, student-led learning, etc.) into existing courses. We must also use this opportunity to create course objectives that are defined not simply by content and student skills, but also by creating an understanding of the nature of the discipline(s) upon which a course or curriculum is built. In the future, our courses must be designed to help students appreciate the processes of discovery that define our disciplines, and they should make evident to our students the rewards and the excitement that comes from creating knowledge using those processes.
Just as few of us will have the chance to snag a foul ball at a major league baseball game, so too will few of us succeed in making that really big discovery that redefines a discipline. But, all of us can appreciate the excitement of such a discovery and feel envious that it wasn’t us who made it. Those emotions are what drive us as faculty members and our students deserve the opportunity to see and understand that passion, as well. It will make them better students and better future citizens.
Kim A. Wilcox has just finished his tenure as provost at Michigan State University, and is returning to the faculty.