Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A second-rate discipline?

This post has been brewing for some time, and I suppose now's the moment in which to put it out into the world. It's about the discipline of communication--my own discipline--and people's perceptions of it.

I'll start with a few anecdotes:

(1) I recall attending a panel at the National Communication Association annual convention a few years ago, in which the panelists reflected on the discipline's wellbeing. One of them, I remember, commented on how the association's newsletter, Spectra, always included a list of books and articles that communication scholars had published in venues outside the discipline. He attributed the list to the discipline's self-consciousness about itself and, more specifically, to a latent sense in which the "real" work was taking place in disciplines other than our own. (I may be mistaken, but I think Spectra has since discontinued the list.)

(2) I've met with editors at various university and commercial-scholarly presses who've all commented on their ambivalence toward the communication discipline. Generally, they seem to feel as though there's a handful of scholars in the discipline whose work is exciting, but as for the rest of it.... Friends and colleagues who work outside of the communication discipline, or who are in it but don't identify with it, have expressed similar feelings to me.

(3) I wish I had a dollar for the amount of times a student said to me, "I wanted to major in business, but I couldn't get into the business school. That's why I decided to major in communication." (FYI, that's happened less frequently here at IU, where the department calls itself Communication & Culture.)

Enough with the anecdotes. By now you're hopefully getting the drift. There seems to be a pervasive sense in which communication is a second-rate discipline, one that's: discomforted with its being relatively young; perceived by many to be intellectually unstimulating; and imagined by some students to be their fallback to a more challenging--and presumably more rewarding--career in taking over the world.

The odd thing is, many of the most rigorous, imaginative scholars I know work in communication departments--and that's not only because I mostly know communication scholars. Beyond that, though, it's surprising to me to see how much weight both the idea and practice of communication are given in contemporary society. It seems strange that the communication discipline hasn't become the discipline of our age, or at least one of them. Maybe that's because every discipline seems to "do" communication in one form or another. I'm always struck, for example, when literary scholars publish research about, say, the internet, "communicative production," or immaterial labor (which often includes at least some communicative aspect).

In any case, it's clear that the communication discipline finds itself in an odd place. While its subject-matter unquestionably is important, the discipline doesn't seem to be perceived as equally important. The question remains, why?


Jonathan said...

Honestly, Ted, I don't worry about it. I wouldn't have it any other way. Working in a "second rate" field means we don't have a "great tradition" to hold up or worry about. We can just get on with important questions. Not that everyone does. I don't even think most people in the field realize they have the freedom they do.

As for journals, I'll say that I go out of my way to review for them and to support work that I think is good. As an author, I have had almost uniformly bad experiences submitting to communication journals. And I'm not unique in this respect.

Groo said...

An interesting post. Two quick reactions:

1.) I'm surprised that you find anecdote #3 happening less in often CMCL where you are at a University, if I am not mistaken, has a rather domineering and reputable business school.

2.) As for your insightful comment, "It seems strange that the communication discipline hasn't become the discipline of our age, or at least one of them." I don't know the answer, but there are at least two publications, I think that get us part way to answering this:

Robert Hariman, "Status, Marginality, and Rhetorical Theory" and Dilip P. Gaonkar, "Object and Method."

Then again, maybe my citation of these essays only reinforces your #2.

Ted Striphas said...

Hi J, G,

Thanks for both of your comments. Jonathan: I hear you, and I thank you. Your point about not having a "great tradition" to uphold is quite liberating. More enticing still is the prospect you raise about getting in on the ground floor of an intellectual project that's in the process of building. Now might well be a good time to be engaged in communication study, though I still can't help but wish the discipline already were better respected. It takes so much energy to produce good scholarship, let alone to turn around then and to try to "sell" the stuff to people who've written off you and your colleagues for years.

Groo: thanks for the citations, which I'll be sure to read in due course. As for the business school thing: I'm not sure what to say, really. In my experience, fewer students in CMCL seem to be expressly interested in business than at my previous institution. Interestingly, though, my dept. does have a course on business and professional communication, so perhaps that siphons off some students whose interest in communication exists only insofar as it might help them to succees one day in business.

Jonathan said...


I'm curious, though, what kinds of concrete effects you've felt by virtue of people outside the field considering Communication Studies to be "second rate"? Maybe this is too public for a forum for that. But as I run back through the not-all-that-long list of times people have insulted my field or gotten it wrong, none of them seem terribly important to me. Will be happy to elaborate if needed.


Ted Striphas said...

Hi Jonathan,

Thanks for the follow-up. I suppose a couple of things come to mind, apropos of your comment/query.

First, I'm continually struck by how little external funding's available for humanities-oriented communication scholars in the United States. (Of course, that does relieve us of the burden/expectation of being held to an external funding standard come tenure time.) If we want funding from, say, a foundation, in most cases we have to pitch what we do as something else.

I suppose what motivated my post initially, though, is the comment I hear often enough from friends in communication who've gone to publish books: "We don't publish communication," say the presses. I always find that response to be strange, especially since, in at least some cases, the very same publishers who say they don't do communication publish books by, say, sociologists who for all intents and purposes do communication.

Personally, I can't say I've been affected very strongly by what I take to be at least some people's perceptions of the communication discipline. I do worry, however, about being affiliated with a field that, on the whole, doesn't seem to get the respect I think it deserves.

jonathan said...

It's true that a lot of the good cultural studies presses don't go to communication studies conferences, but most of them publish books by people in communication departments, so it works out okay.

The funding issue is more complicated. I think it varies by humantiies field. Art Historians and Historians have lots of funding because people want them to use their collections. But do lit people? Classicists? Musicologists? Philosophers?

But yes, you're right that it's a double edged sword. Up here in the utopia of funding, people will look at you funny if you're not on the hamster wheel of grant-getting and money-spending. Don't get me wrong, I like the grant money, but the system makes the money the end rather than the means to research, and so corruption of the research enterprise ensues. . . .