The Uneasy Institutional Position of Communication and Media (3-3)
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.
Clinical faculty normally occupies non-tenure track positions, contributing further to a more stratified faculty and shifting further away from the traditional model of a scholarly college. This has also, I believe, further fueled perceptions among faculty in other disciplines that communication and media studies, like other applied fields, are peripheral to the core scholarly missions of universities and colleges, leading to even greater pressures for consolidation, department mergers, and reductions in core faculty.
Small liberal arts colleges have not been immune to many of the same dynamics, but they start from a different position. Because programs of communication or media studies at small colleges tend to have small faculties and often much shorter institutional histories than do other departments, they tend to be organized around a relatively limited core curriculum taught by only a few tenure-track professors. The teaching and scholarship of faculty in these departments, perhaps by necessity, tends to be less specialized than that of faculty at research universities, with each member of the department covering a broader range of subjects and often living an intellectual life that is more generalist in orientation. Still, even a more general focus among core faculty cannot suffice to provide the breadth required of major degree programs, and these small departments frequently depend upon supplemental teaching resources to cover their curriculum. As with larger university programs, this often involves part-time and adjunct teachers, some hired for long-term part-time positions—especially, if they also work as lab supervisors or undergraduate program advisers—and others hired for temporary, visiting, and postdoctoral fellow positions. The small college departments with which I have been affiliated have operated precisely in this fashion, regularly utilizing visiting and part-time faculty to sustain major and minor programs. These programs also rely upon affiliated faculty from other departments and upon cross-listed courses, a natural option for a discipline that transcends the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Yet, my experience indicates that college administrators (and fellow college faculty) rarely recognize or appreciate the interdisciplinary centrality of communication studies for the liberal arts, and they continue to view communication and media studies programs as newcomers, peripheral to the core of traditional disciplines and departments.
In the last decade alone, I have witnessed firsthand, as acting chair, the closure of a well-established communication studies department and the movement of its media studies courses into a merged hybrid program of humanities & media & cultural studies. Now, only a few years later, the reformed media and cultural studies department faces a review of the long-term viability of a department with only three tenure-line faculty. The curriculum has survived, as is so often the case, because of student demand and the presence and support of visiting faculty, temporary postdoctoral fellows, part-time adjunct faculty, and affiliated faculty from other departments. Despite its success in attracting majors, as well as the success of those majors in prestigious graduate programs in the United States and Europe, there is little sense that the college as a whole considers the program vital to the larger liberal arts curriculum. That college faculty in various related disciplines are strong supporters of the department seems to only bolster administrative notions that further mergers and consolidations are possible. This not only fuels department uncertainty about retirement replacements and potential tenured faculty transfers, but also keeps the long-time visiting and adjunct faculty—a group that has proved indispensable to the strength and continuity of the curriculum—unsure of even part-time employment.
At a second liberal arts college where I recently taught, a plan was launched to expand the two-person cinema and media studies program—originally an annex of the English Department—to create a more comprehensive program and free-standing major for undergraduates. Visiting faculty were hired to create new courses in visual culture, journalism studies, global media, social theory and the media, and environmental issues and the media, as well as to expand on existing course listings in film studies, video, and documentary and digital media production. Declared majors and minors quickly grew. However, college support for the expanded vision of the department faltered, and the decision was made to return to the previously tighter focus on cinema and video arts. Again, the hesitance of college administrators to view communication and media as central to the college-wide liberal arts curricula led them to pull back from a longer term investment in media studies. The end result was great uncertainty regarding future faculty positions and cancellation in midstream of long-planned faculty searches. Some faculty, hired for two-year visiting positions with the understanding that there would be an expanding academic program and new tenure-track positions in the near future, spent the two years designing and creating new courses and a new major curriculum only to have the new courses discontinued and much of the new major program scrapped.
I learned two lessons from my small college experiences. First, the life of communication and media studies in such institutions remains marginalized and tenuous. College administrators do not seem to value communications as an essential part of a liberal arts curriculum. Of course, there are external pressures, given our rapidly changing media environment, to provide students with greater opportunities to gain communication skills, especially with new digital and visual platforms of articulation. There are even national movements in the United States for greater cultivation of media and visual “literacy”, which have prompted initiatives at dozens of liberal arts campuses to expand opportunities in the media arts. Still, administrators seem to feel greater freedom to make sudden and unilateral cuts and changes to communication and media programs than they would when dealing with many other disciplines. In the early 2000s, new courses and programs in communication and media studies popped up on many campuses. But with increasing economic pressures, the last to arrive were often the first to go.
Second, this means that academic positions in communication and media studies lack the permanence and reliability of positions in many other fields. The greater flexibility that many college and university administrators have sought by increasing the number of casual academic hires has already been playing out disproportionately in areas of communication and media studies. Whether adding a journalism course in the English department, a film studies course to art history, a popular culture class to sociology (or American studies), an African cinema class to African studies or a political communication course to political science, chances are greater that the course will be taught by a temporary or adjunct faculty member and that it may be trimmed in the first wave of retrenchment.
By Michael Griffin, Macalester College, 22/06/2012