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.
In both large universities and small colleges, the naturally close relationships that communication studies enjoys with related departments in the social sciences and humanities is intellectually enriching, but it can also prevent communication and media studies from establishing an autonomous institutional presence. Too many administrators seem to view such interdisciplinary overlapping as redundancy rather than a synergistic benefit. While communication studies is viewed as having much academic and practical value from outside institutions of higher education—particularly, in areas of business, politics, and among media organizations themselves—and while there is a substantial popular consensus on the importance of communication skills and the essential role of the media in social and political life, the view from within the university is more heavily shaded by the competition for scarce resources among established and often insular disciplines. Much lip service is paid to the value of interdisciplinary work in the academy, and the kind of inter-disciplinarity that routinely characterizes communication and media studies is seen as a nice plus, but when push comes to shove, it is not a compelling priority. In research universities, the success with which particular departments or programs bring in external funding and grant money is a far greater factor affecting a program’s perceived centrality and prestige, and, unfortunately, communication and media studies are not areas for which many large-scale funding sources exist. In research universities, this immediately puts communication and media studies departments at an internal disadvantage compared to better funded disciplines in the sciences and social sciences. At small colleges, internal, rather than external, funding and allocation processes seem to have the greatest impact on communication and media departments, with the creation and retention of faculty lines being the key for research grants in media studies in the late 1990s revealed a dearth of external funding sources nationwide.
Differing factors at both universities and colleges have contributed to a changing environment for academic labor in communication studies. The ratio of tenure-track to non-tenure-track positions continues to shift downward (2010–2011 AAUP Report). The presence of communication programs at small colleges remains highly variable, and at universities, the large number of program mergers and consolidations has contributed to the shrinkage and irregularity of position openings. Stable, tenure-tracked careers may no longer represent a normative model for academic labor. This is not just a result of the recent economic downturn, although this has drastically reduced the number of position openings in the short term. It is symptomatic of longer term institutional shifts and uncertainty, some of which pertain to academia more generally and some to communication and media studies programs in particular.
Since leaving the University of Minnesota 12 years ago, I have discovered that there is still significant demand for scholars and teachers in media studies at both large universities and at small colleges, as well as many opportunities to contribute to interesting and rapidly evolving programs at very good schools. However, unlike when I began my career, the majority of job postings are no longer for tenure-track positions and many are not full-time. Young scholars today must plan for the possibility of an academic career outside of the tenure system and be ready to accept high levels of mobility with fewer financial rewards. One should also prepare to be very nimble with regard to shifting academic concentrations and emphases—designing new courses, repositioning one’s work in new curricular tracks, and perhaps, starting all over again in a couple of years.
But from my point of view, the most important ramifications of these shifts in academic labor involve their potential to diminish long-term faculty investments in programs, schools, students, and communities. Irregular employment inhibits the kind of long-term involvement in, and loyalty to, an institution that has been a hallmark of the tenure system. Visiting or limited-term faculty are not likely to involve themselves deeply in faculty or college governance, assume active roles in alumni and donor relations, or become the faces of an institution in professional service or community relations. Perhaps even more important, sustained student mentoring suffers; the bonds faculty members forge with students not only encompass the years of a student’s educational career, but frequently continue after graduation and are a key component of an institutional identity linking faculty, students, and alumni.
By Michael Griffin, Macalester College, 23/06/2012