On Increased Accountability in Higher Education, Communication is Everywhere

From Kansas City to Washington, DC, at conferences about General Education, the Humanities, and the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Communication (as a discipline and as a practice) is simply everywhere.

  • How do we communicate the importance of General Education to students, parents, and colleagues?
  • How do we best communicate the value of social and behavioral sciences to policymakers who don’t appreciate the role of social science and who don’t support the continued federal funding of such research?
  • How do we best communicate how the humanities contribute to the “common good” to students and parents who believe the errant discourses about employability and college majors?

AAC&UIn its mid-February meeting on General Education and Assessment, the American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) presented a series of challenging and provocative panels organized around the meeting’s theme: “From Mission to Action to Evidence: Empowering and Inclusive General Education Programs.” As should be evident from the theme, many of those panels involved meaningful discussion about how best to communicate to various audiences. At AAC&U, two levels of communication emerged.

On a disciplinary level, participants at the conference often engaged in careful discussion about how best to demonstrate the value of communication skills and knowledge as an important part of the General Education program. Increasingly, colleges and universities are discovering that students, parents, employers, and just about everyone else is recognizing the centrality of communication skills and knowledge for students’ professional, personal, and civic success. Often cited was AAC&U’s 2015 report “Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success,” that recounted the results of AAC&U’s survey of employers and students alike. Communication skills and abilities were clearly the most important sets of learning outcomes for college graduates.

On a more practical level, scholars and administrators at the AAC&U meeting were also quite concerned about how best to communicate the importance and value of general education and assessment to their colleagues and administrators in an increasingly challenging political environment for higher education. So Danette Ifert Johnson, the immediate past president of the Eastern Communication Association and an associate provost at Ithaca College presented a discussion of “Making General Education Reform Stick: Using an Organizational Change Model to Guide Implementation” to a standing-room only crowd. Another Communication scholar, Lori J. Carrell, who is now the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of Minnesota-Rochester offered a plenary session presentation highlighting the communication challenges facing General Education reform efforts—and received a standing ovation!

Communication, as both discipline and practice, was also on full display at the annual meeting and advocacy day for the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) and the National Humanities Alliance (NHA). On two successive weeks in March, these two groups convened scholars, administrators, and association officials in Washington to discuss how best to advocate for the humanities and social sciences.

COSSAAt COSSA, attendees heard from scientists who have been attacked in the news media and over social media channels by politicians and others who deem their research frivolous. From “shrimp on treadmills” to sociological explorations of the Chinese dairy industry, these scholars offered a bleak assessment of the media and political landscape even as they remained optimistic about the potential for social and behavioral scientists to respond successfully to such attacks.

NHAThe keynote address at NHA was presented by Scott Jaschik from Inside Higher Ed, who highlighted the challenges confronting the humanities as these disciplines seek to preserve funding for humanities research and to enhance legitimacy and viability on college campuses and in society at large. Jaschik’s comments highlighted the emerging sense among humanities scholars everywhere of the imminent importance of effectively communicating the value and place of the humanities in promoting what NEH chairman Bro Adams has called “the common good.”

Even the physical and biomedical sciences are coming to see the value and importance of Communication: NCA just received an invitation to the National Research Council’s 2015 Harry and Byrna David Lecture, featuring none other than Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Her title: “Communicating the Value and Values of Science.”

Whether as a discipline or as a practice, Communication is everywhere.

It’s Budget Season, Again…and NCA’s on the Hill, Again!

Obama BudgetIf it’s springtime, it must be budget season in DC. And with budget season come new (re-newed) attacks on research funding, peer review, and the value of the social sciences. Right now, the fight is over HR 4660, the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) Appropriations Bill. As this legislation has worked its way through markup and  committee, on its way to the House floor, several disturbing provisions of the legislation have emerged.

First and foremost are various attempts to slash funding for the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate (SBE) of the National Science Foundation. Some amendments have zeroed out funding for SBE entirely while other provisions have sought dramatic cuts to the Directorate’s funding. Concerns about SBE  were crystallized by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) on the House floor in a speech delivered on May 28th. Cantor praised the efforts to “reform” NSF by reducing funding for SBE, so as to “eliminate wasteful spending and prioritize research that has the potential of truly benefiting our Nation.” Here’s the entire May 28th House floor debate on HR 4660.

Rep. Cantor’s remarks were challenged by the ranking member on the CJS committee, Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA), who defended NSF’s processes of merit-based peer review. In his floor remarks, Rep. Fattah argued that NSF’s peer-review processes are world-class:

“All of our competitors are actually trying to mimic the merit-based selection process that the National Science Foundation utilizes, and it is critically important that the National Science Board, in the ways that these decisions are made, is not going to be influenced by politics.  That was in the wisdom of the creation of this, and it has worked so well that we now lead the world. If we want to continue to lead the world, the last thing we want to do is to interject politics into the decision-making process of what basic scientific research should be supported.”

Update: Another defense of SBE funding at NSF was provided by Rep. David Price (D-NC), a longtime champion of research funding for both the social sciences and the humanities. Many of the projects he highlights in this speech relate to Communication either directly or indirectly.

NCA–Back on the Hill

Partly in response to the lingering, ongoing attacks to SBE funding, and to the peer review processes at NSF more generally, NCA joined with approximately fifty other organizations, learned societies, and universities to host and participate in the 20th Annual Capitol Hill Exhibition, sponsored by the Coalition for National Science Funding. On a Wednesday afternoon, representatives from the CNSF organizations came to the Rayburn House Office Building to display their projects–all funded by NSF and all making a compelling argument for the value of sustained, peer-reviewed research funding.

NCA members John Gastil (Penn State University) and Katie Knobloch (Colorado State University) came to DC to discuss their project entitled “The Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR), 2010-2014: Evaluation and Analysis of an Electoral Innovation,” principally funded by an NSF grant from the SBE Directorate. Their poster is below and is available here as a PDF.

CNSF Exhibition Poster-Gastil and Knobloch

Gastil and Knobloch discussed their project with numerous attendees at the Exhibition, including NSF officials, liaisons with other funding agencies and universities, Capitol Hill staffers, and Members of Congress. Notably, Representatives Fattah (below, with Knobloch and Gastil) and Jerry McNerney (D-CA) spent considerable time at the NCA exhibit, learning about the role of social science in bettering democratic deliberation and citizen engagement.


As a member of the Coalition for National Science Funding, NCA regularly participates in CNSF activities and has for the last two years brought NSF funded Communication scholars to DC for the Capitol Hill Briefing and Exhibition. Attending the event, along with Gastil and Knobloch, were NCA Executive Director Nancy Kidd (below with Knobloch and Gastil), NCA Director of Academic & Professional Affairs Trevor Parry-Giles, and Academic & Professional Affairs Associate Megan Moore.


General Education and Assessment

PortlandEven if I hadn’t lucked into the last seat on the only flight home ahead of the impending snowmaggedon in DC, I’d have been glad I had the opportunity to attend AAC&U’s networking meeting, General Education and Assessment: Disruptions, Innovations and Opportunities, in Portland, OR, the last weekend in February.

The conference began with a keynote delivered by Randall Bass of Georgetown University and Sybril Bennett of Belmont University. What struck me most during the keynote was Bass’s tactic of predicting what the work world might look like in 2030 and reflecting on what higher education should be doing now to prepare. He envisions that there will be three types of work: work that requires creative problem solving, work that can be done by computers and robots, and low-paid service work. Predicting the future, of course, is rough sailing, but his forecasts ring true to me.

Rather than being alarmed, though, I was hopeful. The Communication discipline and its graduates who are entering the work force are creative problem solvers. From figuring out how to address a hostile audience, to motivating a lackadaisical group member on a small group project, to analyzing and creating messages for a variety of contexts, our graduates are adept at using communication to creatively address problems. Although I’m not certain that Bass’s predictions of the work world will come to pass exactly as he envisions, it makes sense to be thinking about and preparing our graduates for the work world they will encounter not just in the first few years, but through mid-career and beyond.

Of course, we want our graduates to do well when they leave our environs, but we’re not just about turning out workers to serve the needs of the labor market. Many sessions addressed this issue, focusing on civic learning and the importance of having a framework to make informed ethical judgments in varied situations. In particular, sessions that addressed the next version of Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile focused on the importance of both areas in general education curricula.

The main reason I attended the conference involved presenting with NCA member and NCA Advancing the Discipline grant recipient Leslie Reynard of Washburn University.  Our presentation was titled “Calming 21st Century Disruptions in Higher Education: Aligning General Education and Program Goals.”  Leslie discussed the results of her related project, which investigated best practices in Communication capstone courses, and I discussed the many related initiatives NCA supports, from strengthening the basic course, to providing resources, to helping programs better position themselves in their institutions. The program was well-attended by faculty and administrators from many different disciplines.

The meeting was a wonderful opportunity to interact with higher education faculty and administrators from multiple disciplines who in the wake of “initiative fatigue” and dwindling resources, still work hard to serve students well and provide a compelling case for the high-quality outcomes higher education produces.

AACU Logo 2

Samuel Becker’s “New Enlightenment”

As I write, from the Samuel L. Becker Memorial Conference at the University of Iowa, I’m listening to Ashley Duggan (from Boston College and Tufts) give the penultimate presentation of the conference. Her talk, like all the plenary sessions at this meeting, beautifully captures the wonderful diversity, even eclecticism, of this conference where scholars of rhetoric  and cultural studies, health communication, film, media technology, and many other areas came together to share their research and camaraderie. And, of course, to celebrate the legacy of Samuel L. Becker.

imagesI’ve come to believe that the discipline we all pursue and the work that we all do as Communication scholars and teachers would be vastly different today, and much less stimulating and productive, were it not for the efforts of Sam Becker. As the discipline confronted significant challenges of identity and scope in the late 1960s and 1970s, Sam Becker was always present, always pushing the discipline toward “enlightenment” and progress.

Whether at the New Orleans Conference on Research and Instructional Development in Speech-Communication in 1968, or the National Development Project on Rhetoric, or at the Airlie Conference on Long-Term Goals and Priorities for the discipline and the association, Becker was there, in every picture, at every meeting, shaping and guiding the discussions. As Bruce Gronbeck noted, the work at these meetings “gave the SCA/NCA its basic structure, shape, and direction,” and Becker was right in the middle of the action.

One of eight NCA presidents from the University of Iowa, Becker’s presidential address in 1974 was entitled “For a New Age of Enlightenment.” Noting that the Communication discipline was “shocked into self-examination” in the 1960s, Becker called for a renewed enlightenment in the discipline, an enlightenment that is “more than sporadic and lacksidaisical,” one characterized as a “cooperative venture, a community affair.” The acceptance of such core values, he maintained “will not restrict creative or innovative scholarship,” but “will give support to such scholarship by reducing the probability of individual scholars being forced to work in isolation, without the intellectual stimulation and support of a community of which they are parts.”

As I’ve listened to many of the presentations at this Becker Conference, it seems to me that this vision of cooperative venturing, collective inquiry, and a community affair are at work in this conference—the eclectic theme, the varied and rich array of scholars and scholarship that were featured at the meeting, the renewal of inquiry and discovery made possible by all of these scholars coming together in the heartland. All in the spirit of Samuel Becker and in the shadow of his remarkable legacy.

The roster of the speakers at the Becker Conference included Vanderbilt’s John Sloop, Erin Donovan from Texas, Phaedra Pezzullo from Indiana, Michigan State’s Joseph Walther, Lynn Spigel from Northwestern, IU’s Ted Striphas, Dudley Andrew from Yale, Wisconsin’s Derek Johnson, Duggan, and Karma Chavez from Wisconsin.

Along with NCA, sponsoring the Becker Conference were many administrators and units/offices from the University of Iowa. The conference was tweeted at #BeckerCon14 and was live streamed and will be available online at clas.uiowa.edu/commstudies/becker-conference.

It’s Convention Time!

NCA Website Rotisserie Banner

Each November, since 1986, I’ve eagerly planned my trip to NCA’s annual convention.  That first fall convention trip, I piled into a room at the Palmer House with six other graduate students and enjoyed my first of many weekends in Chicago attending NCA’s convention.  While working on my M.A. at Penn State, the faculty ingrained in me the importance of attending conventions and interacting with other scholars in the field.   I’ve rarely missed a convention since.

This year the convention is only a short Metro ride away for me.  It’s exciting to be in the city I’ve called home since 1993!  I’m looking forward to enjoying the city from a different vantage point.  Woodley Park is an exciting neighborhood and near many great restaurants and nearby attractions and with the Metro only a few steps away, the location can’t be beat.  More importantly, though, the scholarly activities and events planned over the next few days will be enlightening, and in the case of the opening session, entertaining.  I haven’t seen Capital Steps since my first year living here!  As a student of political communication, I am sure their performance will provide much food for thought.  Other panels, many focused on teaching and learning issues, such as using NBC Learn Archives on Demand, a service available to all NCA members, will certainly provide new ideas that I can incorporate into classroom activities.

What convention events are you most looking forward to attending?  Which city sights will you be sure not to miss? Share your ideas with our blog readers!  Safe travels to everyone – see you in DC!

The State of Doctoral Education in Communication

If it’s autumn, it’s time to talk about the state of doctoral education in Communication.

Graduate in gownsNew cohorts of graduate students are beginning their programs of study in graduate programs across the country. Prospective graduate students are looking at programs, talking to advisers and mentors, and figuring out what’s the best plan for their future. More and more students are pondering a future in graduate school–even in the arts and humanities, where enrollment in doctoral programs in 2012 increased by 7.7%. Faculty members and administrators are determining hiring plans and assessing the state of individual doctoral programs in their yearly process of self-study and internal assessment. In short, it’s a good time to think about doctoral education in Communication.

NCA examines and provides information about doctoral education in Communication via its Doctoral Education Committee (DEC). These dedicated volunteers work to enhance NCA programming that promotes doctoral education in Communication, including oversight of the annual NCA Doctoral Honors Seminar and the Miller Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award. At the DEC’s urging, NCA has prepared the Doctoral Program Guide that provides information about 76 doctoral programs in Communication. Along with the program information, the Guide also includes NCA’s latest report, “Assessing Doctoral Program Quality in Communication.”

Among the most frequently asked questions we receive at NCA concerns the 2004 NCA Reputational Study that ranked doctoral programs in several research specialties and along three different criteria. We are often asked if we’re going to replicate the study or offer another ranking system for doctoral education. All of these requests prompted serious thought and discussion in the National Office and among the DEC. We also researched the historical and current attempts to rank or rate doctoral programs, particularly in Communication, and the “Assessing Doctoral Program Quality in Communication” report is the result of that research.

DPG ImageInstead of sponsoring or conducting another reputational study, DEC and the NCA staff decided a better approach would be to provide current and relevant information about doctoral education in Communication. Hence, the Doctoral Program Guide. There are many concerns with both of the main methods for ranking/rating doctoral programs–reputational studies and productivity studies. Reputational studies are inherently difficult to conceptualize and execute. Response rates to such studies are often low and the measurement instruments can be complicated and onerous for the respondent. Who is sampled for reputational analyses and what factors contribute to a program’s reputation are persistent issues for reputational studies. Timeliness is also a concern, as program reputations change quickly, faculty members change affiliations, and program offerings vary from time to time.

Productivity studies of research output are also complicated. What research is counted, what databases are used, what citations are measured—these are all issues that such studies must grapple with as they proceed to assess doctoral program quality. On a related note, because Communication is a multi-methodological, pluralistic discipline, its scholars conduct and disseminate their research differently and those differences may well involve publication patterns and frequencies as well as citation practices.

In the end, as we say in the “Assessing Doctoral Program Quality in Communication” report, “Consumers of rankings and ratings of doctoral programs in Communication would be well-advised to consider such limitations and to adapt their expectations about such quality measures accordingly. Whether prospective or current graduate students, faculty members or unit administrators, anyone who attends to assessments of doctoral programs in Communication, or any discipline, should seek out and consult as much information as possible, recognizing that no single assessment or measurement of graduate program quality is definitive and that, in the case of doctoral program quality, more information and more data is better than less.”

Breaking Bad News about Financial Aid–Sharing COMM Knowledge

Blog ShotNCA Associate Director for Academic & Professional Affairs Brad Mello recently contributed to the blog of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. The post discussed how knowledge and insight from Communication scholarship can assist financial aid professionals in their dealings with students and families, particularly when they have to break bad news.

Drawing upon his own experiences as a graduate student confronting a financial aid crisis, Mello discusses the research by Villagren and her colleagues in social support communication to offer advice on key strategies for breaking bad news. As Mello concludes “Breaking bad news is never easy, and the outcomes are not always positive, but good communicators can improve the experience by following the COMFORT model.”

Read the post here.

Share your wisdom with new communication graduate students!

Water Cooler GossipIt’s back to school time and very soon many budding communication scholars will embark on their graduate studies.  I asked a favorite professor of mine from my Penn State days when I was about to begin my doctoral studies at the University of Oklahoma if he had any advice for me.  Without hesitation he offered this, “Stay away from the water cooler and read.” Wise advice for sure – but certainly not the only advice one might offer new graduate students.

Let’s fire up the comment feature on this blog – please share your most sage advice you’ve heard or offered to beginning graduate students.

Update: The Tenured Radical at The Chronicle of Higher Education recently offered the Ten Commandments for New Graduate Students–more good advice. Here’s a link.

From Maine…the 2013 NCA Doctoral Honors Seminar

SERCSince at least 1970, NCA has sponsored annual or biannual Doctoral Honors Seminars, bringing together promising doctoral students and prominent faculty leaders in the communication arts & sciences for an intensive weekend of discussion and dialogue around a specific theme. Doctoral Honors Seminars have been held all over the country, at dozens of prominent doctoral-granting institutions. For the first time, in 2013, the host for the DHS is the University of Maine. On July 18-21, about 30 doctoral students joined with eight faculty leaders at the Schoodic Education &  Research Center (right) in Acadia National Park for the 2013 NCA DHS.

The general theme for the 2013 DHS is “Research Collaboration on Disciplinary Frontiers,” and working from this theme, students are divided into three groups for engaged interactions with one another and with faculty leaders about their doctoral research and the research process in general.

DHS 2Discussing “Spanning Methodological Boundaries–Communication & the Environment,” were faculty leaders Stephen DePoe (U of Cincinnati), Laura Lindenfield (U of Maine), and Tema Milstein (U of New Mexico). Ten students in this group discussed transdisciplinary and intra-disciplinary dimensions of research in environmental communication, engaged in a “World Cafe” style program to discuss research and professional development issues, and pursued individual workshopping of ongoing research endeavors. The doctoral students in this group included Maria Blevins (U of Utah), Tover Cerulli (U of Massachusetts), Katherine Cooper (U of Illinois), Brian Cozen (U of Utah), Bridie McGreavy (U of Maine), Renu Pariyadath (U of Iowa), Aaron Philips (U of Utah), Jessica Rich (U of North Carolina), Elizabeth Schwarz (UC-Riverside), and Yuanxin Wang (Temple University).

DHS 1Focusing on “Rhetoric & Materiality” were faculty leaders Greg Dickinson (Colorado State), Brian Ott (U of Colorado-Denver), and Nate Stormer (U of Maine). Ten students in this group discussed general theoretical issues and problematics in the relationship between rhetoric and materiality, identified common research problems in this sub-domain of rhetorical studies, and read and engaged in discussion about individual student research endeavors. The doctoral students in this group included: Cynthia Bateman (U of South Carolina), Roberta Chevrette (Arizona State U), Mary Domenico (U of North Carolina), Emily Winderman Hallsby (U of Georgia), Brook Irving (U of Iowa), Marie-Louise Paulesc (Arizona State U), Pamela Pietrucci (U of Washington), Yvonne Slosarski (U of Maryland), Scott Tulloch (Georgia State U), and Justine Wells (U of South Carolina).

DHS 4The final group of nine students joined with faculty leaders Robert Brookey (Northern Illinois U) and David Gunkel (Northern Illinois U) to discuss research issues related to “Digital Media Convergence.” While discussing individual student research projects, this group also emphasized professional development concerns, networking, and issues of interdisciplinarity and engagement across disciplines. The doctoral students in this group included: Bryan Behrenshausen (U of North Carolina), Sarah Bell (U of Utah), David DeIullis (Duquesne U), Eunice Kim (U of Texas), Lindsey Meeks (U of Washington), Ben Morton (U of Iowa), Renee Powers (U of Illinois-Chicago), Jessica Rudy (Indiana U), and Julie Wight (U of Minnesota).

Hosting the DHS was the Department of Communication & Journalism at the University of Maine–and the primary organizers for the event were Nate Stormer and doctoral student Bridie McGreavy. From lobster bakes to hikes out on Schoodic Point, from great conversation and compelling discussion, the 2013 NCA Doctoral Honors Seminar continued the tradition of NCA Doctoral Honors Seminars with a decidedly New England flair.


2nd NCA Chairs’ Summer Institute, June 28-30, 2013

DSC_0029It’s late June in hot, steamy Washington, DC–and a dedicated group of department chairs from communication departments across the nation have gathered together for the 2nd NCA Chairs’ Summer Institute (CSI). In pursuit of one of its strategic objectives–“to increase support for communication administrators”–NCA has hosted the Chairs’ Summer Institute for two straight summers, welcoming almost fifty department chairs in two years to Washington for an intensive weekend of discussion and dialogue. The theme of the 2013 Institute was “Building Connections, Creating Community: Best Practices for the Communication Department Chair,” and the Institute featured in depth discussions of interdisciplinarity, the Basic Course, conflict and difficult personnel and other important concerns facing department chairs.

After a rain-soaked journey to the NCA National Office for an opening reception, the CSI began in earnest with a keynote presentation from Bryant Keith Alexander, dean of the College of Communication & Fine Arts at Loyola Marymount University. Dean Alexander highlighted the relevance and importance of the department chair in the success of the communication discipline, drawing upon his own considerable experience in a variety of institutions and positions.

DSC_0018Addressing the relevance of interdisciplinarity for communication departments were Linda Aldoory, Director of the Herschel Horowitz Center for Health Literacy at the University of Maryland, and Stephen Kidd, executive director of the National Humanities Alliance. Cheri Simonds, from Illinois State University, added a discussion of the role and relevance of the Basic Course for department chairs. Simonds chairs NCA President Steve Beebe’s Task Force on Strengthening the Basic Course, and provided the participants of the CSI with a personal and insightful presentation about the Basic Course as the “front porch” of the discipline.

Two members of the NCA Chairs’ Advisory Council, Carl Cates and Jon Hess, led an afternoon open dialogue about the challenges and rewards of serving as a department chair and the institute concluded with a discussion of managing conflict and dealing with difficult personalities in the contemporary academic environment.

Attending the 2013 CSI were Cynthia Cooper (Towson University), Cheri Hampton-Farmer (University of Findlay), Andrew Hayes (DePauw University), Kenneth Lachlan (UMass-Boston), Noemi Marin (Florida Atlantic University), Chad McBride (Creighton University), Kristan Moran (University of San Diego), Bala Musa (Azusa Pacific University), Anne Nicotera (George Mason University), David Petroski (Southern Connecticut State University), Rhonda Sprague (University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point), Tim Steffensmeier (Kansas State University), Helen Sterk (Western Kentucky University), April Trees (St. Louis University), Jill Tyler (University of South Dakota), Claire Van Ens (Kutztown University), and Shawn Wahl (Missouri State University).


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