The Uneasy Institutional Position of Communication and Media (1-3)
The theme of the 2011 International Communication Association Conference in Boston was “Communication @ the Center,” and there is certainly a strong argument to be made that the study of communication forms a nexus among the human sciences. Communications is, indeed, central to the processes of constructing and maintaining social formations, cultural structure, and political discourse, and an understanding of the essential social role of communication has arisen over time from far-ranging interdisciplinary and ethnographic studies of language and symbolic systems, social interaction, media institutions and production, and art and visual culture. This is echoed in the institutionalized teaching of communication studies (in the United States) across a range of academic divisions whose nomenclature include communication, speech, rhetoric, journalism, media, culture, and art. Communication studies spans and draws from numerous traditional academic disciplines, including linguistics, anthropology, sociology, psychology, economics, political science, English and literary criticism, history, art history, and philosophy. Yet, in the realm of academic administration and labor, the elasticity and overlapping centrality of the field seems to foster fragmentation and marginalization, inviting challenges to program stability and increased uncertainty for long-term academic employment.
Faculty labor casualization has been an issue of growing concern for decades (Anderson, 2002; Miller, 2001). But the disciplinary history of communication studies seems to have facilitated this trend, both in large universities and small colleges. For 17 years, I taught at large research universities before moving on, for the last 12 years, to small, selective liberal arts colleges. Looking back, I am struck by the contrasting positions of communication-related programs in each case. At large research universities, especially the “Big Ten” state university model with which I am most closely familiar, communication studies seems institutionally Balkanized, often with three or more programs laying some claim to communication research and scholarship, yet with remarkably little interaction among the faculty and students of each separate program. In my experience at such institutions, there are usually three or four faculty in a given department (out of a total of 15–20 or more) who serve on graduate and undergraduate student committees across several communication studies-related departments. The majority of faculty, however, remains relatively insular in their perspectives and attitudes, proceeding with teaching and research as if cognate departments and programs were foreign territory. It is fair to say, I think, that the faculty in research universities where I have worked tend to view their scholarship and expertise as highly specialized, and the consequent divisions of labor that characterize these universities remain relatively narrow and rigid. My colleagues in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, for example, tended to see little overlap between their scholarly interests and curricular responsibilities and those of faculty in the Department of Communication Studies on the same campus.
From the point of view of university administrators, on the other hand, multiple departments and programs with overlapping interests in communication often seemed to represent cases of replication that presented salient opportunities for consolidation and retrenchment. What seem like obvious distinctions in subject matter and approach to specialized and insular communications faculty can appear much less distinct to administrators trained in political science or biology. The results are evident: Departments of speech, communication studies, and journalism and mass communication have been merged at dozens of universities across the United States, and where such departments have remained separate and intact, they have struggled to fend off recurrent consolidation pressures and proposals.
Consolidation and retrenchment has occurred at smaller schools as well, but usually for different reasons in different contexts. The significant post-WWII expansion of speech communication, journalism and mass communication programs in public universities made communication studies (in various manifestations) a regular feature of large campuses, but had little effect on curriculum in small liberal art colleges. There, communications-related courses emerged only sporadically, usually appended to graduate thesis committees across several departments and major programs, including journalism and mass communication, speech-communication (later communication studies), rhetoric (later merged into the Department of Writing Studies), American studies, history, sociology, anthropology, women’s studies, film studies, and cultural studies and comparative literature.
When I first arrived at the University of Minnesota, for example, I was routinely referred to by other faculty as “the photo guy” (I was teaching a course called “visual communication”), despite my graduate training at the Annenberg School for Communication at Penn being in communication theory and research, not photography. The “photo guy” label also did not reflect my publications, which involved ethnographic research on film and television production, children’s acquisition of symbolic skills, media socialization, industrial influences on the naturalization of technical formats and media aesthetics, and critical theoretical writing on documentary film and television news representations.
It should be noted that in many cases these departments emerged from previously more integrated units. The post-WWII growth and diversification of communications as a field coincided with the expansion of universities and higher education funding more generally, facilitating increased specialization, and often separation, among faculties.
In the city where I work (Minneapolis-St. Paul), two universities and at least one college have merged communication, journalism, or rhetoric departments in the last six years.
By Michael Griffin, Macalester College, 19/06/2012