Non-Communication Association?

Scholars who focus on rhetoric, persuasion and debate want to know why their disciplinary group doesn't seem to engage in those activities.
November 16, 2009

CHICAGO -- At last year's annual meeting of the National Communication Association, some scholars held a protest in the convention hotel, trying to draw attention to what they believed was too much silence on the part of the group. Apart from drawing a few complaints from the hotel, the protest didn't disrupt much of anything. But when the organizers tried to write up their protest for the association newsletter, they were turned down.

Harvey Jassem, a professor of communication at the University of Hartford, noted that the association's newsletter for this month featured advice on fun things to do in Chicago, where this year's annual meeting convened, but couldn't handle something as "controversial" as an article he wrote about why some members last year held a peaceful protest at their own meeting. "We and our association are, more often than not, silent," said Jassem, at a session on "What Does NCA Stand For?"

The session was among several held at the meeting, in part at the request of scholars like Jassem who want their association to be more vocal on a range of issues. There was some disagreement at the session and in discussions at the meeting about how vocal and on which issues, but there appeared to be considerable sentiment for saying more on at least some things.

Even recent issues that might appear directly related to the NCA's strong inclination in favor of free expression and academic freedom -- say the University of Maryland's consideration of and ultimate rejection this month of limits on viewing pornographic films -- have passed in recent years without a public word from the NCA, and that bothers many.

Nancy Kidd, the new executive director of the association, said that leaders of the group were indeed considering the idea of becoming more vocal on selected issues and viewed the discussions here part of the process of figuring out what the next steps should be. Through the mid-1990s, several association leaders said, the NCA did take positions on selected issues, much the way other scholarly associations do. But somewhere along the way, that stopped. And many said that there is no established system for deciding what stances to take, who should take them and who should publicize them.

"It's a difficult question: How do you respond to things that are time-sensitive and still reflect the voice of the body?” Kidd said.

These questions are by no means unique to the communication association. Annual meetings of groups like the Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association have regularly included debates over various stances of those bodies. And there are perennial debates over how broadly or narrowly associations should define those policy matters on which they should weigh in as a group.

But for communications scholars, many here said that the debate is particularly challenging. How can they teach students the value of reasoned persuasion in its many forms if they don't model the behavior they are encouraging?

Lewis Freeman, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University, said that while he would be happiest if the association took more stands, he would be "three quarters satisfied" if the association simply debated whether to take stands, and actually had discussions of how issues of public policy affect members' scholarship and can be informed by it.

Susan Drucker, professor of journalism, media studies and public relations at Hofstra University, said "we've become extremely effective at talking to ourselves," when the association's members should be talking to Congress, the press and the public. “I’m not advocating for us to take political positions that we don’t like x, y and z if it has nothing to do with communications,” she said, "but when it's germane to our teaching," the association should.

One person's "germane," however, is another's inappropriate stretch. For instance, some cited the Guantanamo prisoners as an issue on which the association should speak out because of the prisoners' inability to speak out, or of the public in the United States to know what has gone on there. Others advocated for a narrower definition of relevance.

Donald Fishman, a professor of communication at Boston College, said that he is impressed by the model used by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. That group has a special committee that advises its president on whether and how to respond to breaking news events on which the association may want to weigh in. As a result of this system, Fishman said, that association regularly offers views on topics the communications association never touches. "They can get a press release out in hours," he said.

But Fishman said a key to this system was a consensus within that association that it would act only on "narrowly" defined issues on which there is a clear consensus about both relevance and what to say about the question at hand. Fishman said that he favored such a system for the NCA as well. He noted that he is active in Democratic politics and various activist groups, so he respects political activity. "I don't want us to cover every issue," he said. "If we are just another lobby, I'm not going to join the NCA."

Fishman said that he did see some "super issues on which you just can't withdraw," issues such as the Vietnam War, he said as an example. But he said that such issues truly needed to be unusual and that a criterion for taking a stand couldn't just be that some scholars study the issue. Flipping through the program for the meeting, he said that "it troubles me if we want to be active on every issue covered here," given that communication scholars' work "covers the spectrum of human life."

At least one communications instructor present didn't think Fishman went far enough in his call to limit political stances. She said that she attended the discussion because she thought it would be an interesting topic but didn't realize that the focus would be political stands on national issues. "I'm looking for something to help me with my students," she said.


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