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.
Nancy Kidd is executive director of the National Communication Association, where Trevor Parry-Giles is associate director for academic and professional affairs.
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.
Amid newsroom cutbacks and a rapidly changing media landscape, journalism schools are trying to find ways to adapt. USC is crunching a two-year master's into nine months. At Columbia, the concentration requirement will be eliminated.
It seems that whenever a university administration issues a statement undermining academic freedom it begins by reaffirming its undying commitment to exactly the principle it is about to damage. While such doublespeak, as Orwell famously demonstrated, is common to bureaucracies, that does not much help the cause of higher education when our own administrations once again prove his point. The administrative conundrum — how to appease angry stakeholders with contempt for academic freedom, while covering yourself with a ritual incantation supporting that very principle — was very much in evidence in Florida Atlantic University’s public statements about its "Step on Jesus" controversy. Unfortunately, the ultimate effect of the kind of disingenuous rhetoric the university used is to disable a principle by turning it into a hollow piety.
The context, for those who may not have read earlier stories, is that an FAU student was about to be investigated for allegedly threatening a faculty member who followed a textbook exercise to teach the power of symbols. A class was asked to write "Jesus" on a sheet of paper, then step on it. When students hesitated, they were given the opportunity to explain why, and the instructor pointed out that a symbol — the word "Jesus" — can be so identified with the idea of Jesus that stepping on it is offensive. In a viral frenzy, bloggers and press stories echoed the student’s inflammatory change of diction from "step" to "stomp," and petitions calling for faculty member Deandre Poole to be fired began to circulate. Florida’s Republican governor chimed in with calls for a state investigation of the incident and with a demand that the classroom exercise never be repeated.
Here, then, is FAU’s effort to eat its cake and have it too: "Florida Atlantic University is deeply sorry for any hurt that this incident may have caused the community and beyond. As an institution of higher learning, we embrace open discourse in our classrooms. Based upon the emotions brought about by this exercise it will not be used in the future and no students will be disciplined in any way related to the exercise, either inside or
outside the classroom. The university supports its faculty members in their efforts to develop [a] curriculum that will bring about learning and enhance students’ experience at FAU."
It’s hard to see how FAU could have waffled more often in a few sentences. Its leaders support academic freedom but apologize for its exercise. Academic freedom will not be permitted to be exercised in this way again. Anything that arouses strong emotions may be barred from classrooms. And, of course, if people protest your assignments — even assignments taken from a popular published textbook — FAU will not get your back. And finally, as subsequent events have shown, if fanatics phone in death threats, you will be removed from campus to protect your own safety and that of others. That most recent step is eerily reminiscent of the University of South Florida’s 2001 decision to exile engineering professor Sami Al-Arian from campus after death threats were received. Some of us wondered at the time whether phone-in threats would prove a popular way to remove faculty from campus.
FAU went still further in undermining academic freedom and the First Amendment by subjecting Poole to a gag order, making it impossible for him to defend himself. The student meanwhile was free to claim his religious beliefs had been "desecrated," and the conservative blogosphere could promote the story as part of a long-running project of discrediting godless universities.
The United Faculty of Florida did a very good job of coming to Poole’s defense, but a faculty member identified as an appropriate commentator by the National Communication Association did not do much better than the university, affirming that "a momentary feeling of discomfort or hurt by a student could contribute to a positive learning experience through discussion.” If ideas offend a student, be sure to relieve the discomfort immediately. Extended intellectual distress apparently has no place in higher education.
Devout students who cannot tolerate fundamental and continuing challenges to their beliefs may well find a campus devoted to open discussion and debate to be a hostile environment. That is one of the reasons religiously affiliated colleges and universities exist — to provide a more comfortable place to study for those preferring a more constrained speech environment. Secular universities exist in part to challenge received beliefs. That includes confronting the rather less than sympathetic statements various religions have historically made against one another. That includes confronting scientific evidence that calls religious beliefs into question or effectively demolishes them.
Indeed, religious conviction cannot be separated from all the other beliefs a university education may challenge. That is one reason why any general resolution or law passed by the Florida legislature on this incident is likely to do broader damage than politicians may realize in the opportunistic heat of the moment. We cannot confront the brutal facts of 20th-century history — from enforced mass starvation to total war to genocide --
without doubting that human nature is any better, more consistent, or reliable, than cultural pressures make it. We cannot study the history of science without learning to tolerate and understand the variable interplay between doubt and certainty in science. Students may not all enjoy discovering that their assumptions about human nature are unfounded. They may not like learning that scientific certainty is not always unshakeable.
And they may not like realizing that religious faith is not grounded in anything more than faith itself, but these are some of the challenges to pre-existing values a university must entertain. And instructors need the freedom to invent classroom assignments that test the limits of student beliefs and put them under sustained --- not just temporary — pressure. However expedient it may appear to be, universities risk doing themselves long-term damage if they cave into fear and appease those on the left or the right would limit academic freedom. We are better off standing politically and culturally where we must if we are to remain institutions devoted to open debate and free inquiry. That is where our responsibilities to a democracy lie. However the facts about the Poole case may be revised in time — and they may well be — the assignment he reports giving was well within his academic freedom rights, and the FAU administration should not have weaseled its way out of giving it an unqualified defense.
Cary Nelson served as national president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006 to 2012. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.