Praxis: Communication in Communities of Practice

Communication scholars bring their discipline to life with communities of practice across the nation and around the world. These interactions span a multitude of contexts, from the corporate realm, to public policy-making, to movements for social justice. NCA is pleased to highlight just a few of the countless, diverse, and illustrative examples of rigorous, engaged Communication scholarship. Communication is ubiquitous, so our communities of practice are far more varied than those of professional schools and many other disciplines, and our colleagues around the country actively embrace this breadth of opportunity.

H. Dan O'Hair

by H. Dan O’Hair

The College of Communication and Information at the University of Kentucky has a long tradition of reaching beyond the confines of its campus borders to engage with communities and organizations. When I was recruited as dean of the college, I knew almost nothing about Kentucky (except the Derby) but was quite familiar with the college’s stellar reputation for applied communication research: The college led (and continues to lead) the nation in external funding among Communication colleges and departments, almost all of which focuses on applying Communication theory to solve important practical problems. You could say that engaged research is in our DNA.

Nearly 30 years ago, Department of Communication Professor Lewis Donohew pioneered the field of Health Communication by using behavioral science research and technology to develop drug-prevention messages that targeted thrill-seekers. Together with Phil Palmgreen, the research duo established models of sensation-seeking (SenTar) and communication Activation Theory of Information Exposure that have been used in countless field experiments throughout the United States and abroad. Their research has been funded for more than two decades by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and extends to areas such as drug abuse, gambling, reckless driving, and other topics involving risk-taking. In 2007, the Society for Prevention Research, an organization of scientists largely funded by NIH, presented its prevention science award to the UK Communication team: “A research group that has produced a significant body of research applying scientific methods to test prevention intervention or policies.” The team was credited with changing the way prevention programs are run, and their legacy of applied research continues today.

Nancy Harrington is also known for her engaging work with communities. Inappropriate use of antibiotics is recognized as an important public health problem in the United States and abroad. Dr. Harrington and colleagues worked to adapt a physician-patient communication program to train parents and pediatricians to communicate more effectively about prescribing antibiotics for sick children. The study found that parents who received training were more likely to give and verify information and express concerns than parents who did not receive training. Furthermore, pediatricians spent more time creating partnerships with parents, encouraging questions from parents, and addressing treatment options with parents after training than before.

Elisia Cohen and a team of researchers with the Rural Cancer Prevention Center (RCPC) conduct community-engaged research in Appalachian Kentucky, relying on a combination of federal funds (including CDC Prevention Research Center funding) and private contracts. For over a decade, her research has engaged public health agencies, private clinical practices, local media, and community non-profits to utilize effective communication strategies to close knowledge-attitude-practice gaps in the area of cervical, breast, and colorectal cancer screening. Her team's recent research (featured in the Journal of Communication) innovation, a clinic-based DVD educational program to increase demand for and adherence to the HPV vaccine series, is now being developed for a nation-wide dissemination and implementation initiative through Kentucky's Practice-Based Research Network.

Tim Sellnow has been working directly with such agencies as the United States Geological Survey and the National Academies of Science in an advisory role as they develop a warning system entitled, the Commercial Mobil Alert System. This system will use cell phones to alert the public of impending danger and is scheduled to launch nation-wide within the next two years. His applied work in crisis communication has drawn the attention of several organizations with varying needs. He recently has served as an expert for the Transportation Security Administration, American Meat Institute, CDC, International Food Information Council, and the World Health Organization.

Shari Veil joined our faculty in 2010 and initiated the college’s Division of Risk Sciences. Among the divisions many endeavors was a year-long research project with the Lexington Fire Department to assess internal and external communication needs and challenges in the midst of organizational change. The findings suggested specific changes in media, social media, and internal communication policies and practices. Not only did the project provide data for a doctoral dissertation, it also motivated the fire department to actually adopt the researchers’ recommendations. In fact, the Chief found such value in the study that he invited Dr. Veil and the doctoral student to present their findings in a four-hour training seminar at the State Fire School and Homeland Security Conference this past summer. They have since been invited back to conduct a full-day workshop at the State Fire School.

Chike Anyaegbunam and Donald Helme are co-directors of the Dissemination and Implementation Sciences Consortium (DISC), an initiative dedicated to the engagement of communities in research projects aimed at solving human development problems. Since its inception, the Consortium has collaborated in various innovative funded projects worth several millions of dollars with many trans-disciplinary teams made up of faculty from medicine, economics, political science, geography, agriculture, and nuclear engineering. DISC has worked with projects in such locations as Native American tribal lands, Appalachia, Zambia, American Samoa, and India. College faculty in the Consortium have worked in projects funded by various U.S. corporate foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Pfizer Foundation; United Nations agencies, including UNICEF and FAO; U.S. Government agencies, including United States Agency for International Development (USAID), The U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Department of Energy (DOE), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH); the World Bank; and other multilateral agencies.

However, this drive to impact the community through Communication scholarship does not stop with our faculty: For the last several years, under the faculty leadership of Derek Lane, graduate and undergraduate students from the UK College of Communication and Information have worked with the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection and the Division of Waste Management to improve the quality and fidelity of several state-mandated certification training programs. Our students are contributing to drinking water, wastewater, and solid waste programs designed to increase compliance with applicable federal and state regulations throughout Kentucky.

Deborah Chung works closely the Kentucky Press Association (KPA) to examine how community newspaper editors and their audiences are adjusting to new interactive news presentation formats. Much of this research sheds light on richer opportunities to connect with readers and assists community newspapers in facilitating the journalistic conversation with their audiences.

Arriving on UK’s campus several years ago proved to be a seamless transition for me as I immediately connected with the college’s drive to conduct community-engaged research. I brought with me from the University of Oklahoma a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant focused on hurricane warnings. The research involved close partnerships with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Hurricane Center, local emergency managers, and broadcasters in Miami and Houston. The work attracted the attention of Congress, and I presented our findings to members and key staffers from most of the beltway agencies involved in risk management. This was the third time our work has reached the halls of Congress.

Our top-ranked faculty continue to work together in a unique collaborative environment, clustering their applied research interests in emergency and risk communication, health communication, public relations, and instructional and developmental communication contexts. At the University of Kentucky we are committed to trans-disciplinary innovation and it’s my hope that our tradition of community engagement is passed on to our students. By reaching out to the community and organizations our college is proud to maintain the reputation of producing meaningful research.

H. Dan O’Hair, Ph.D., is Interim Senior Vice Provost and Dean & Professor of the College of Communication and Information at the University of Kentucky. He was the 92nd President of the National Communication Association.

Rebecca M. Townsend

by Rebecca M. Townsend

Transportation planning is a challenge in community life, in part because planners need to hear more from residents about their needs. Residents who are young, have low incomes, or are members of minority groups are underrepresented in non-interactive public meetings, often resulting in plans that are inadequate to the needs of the most transit-dependent populations. To address this issue, a Manchester Community College initiative for which I am the Principal Investigator, the Partnership for Inclusive, Cost-Effective Public Participation, seeks to involve Communication students with members of typically underrepresented groups in culturally sensitive, deliberative discussions about transportation needs. Funded by the Federal Transit Administration, this innovative program brings Communication scholarship into communities, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that all voices are considered in the development of transportation policy.

Through the Partnership, Manchester Community College students (many of whom hail from underrepresented groups) facilitate connections between transportation planners and people in the local community who are often described as “hard to reach” by policy makers. The students are taught how to facilitate discussions about transportation planning issues in their own communities. Students meet with community groups in locations where the groups regularly meet and feel safe, such as churches, coffee shops, living rooms, and senior centers. Carefully planned dialogues and discussions with community group members yield a range of meaningful, informed opinions about transportation policy, infrastructure, and service. Student discussion leaders then share participants’ opinions and ideas with civic leaders and transportation planners. Bringing together students and community members creates a bond of trust and security, resulting in higher participation levels and more meaningful public engagement.

Because this work involves “real-world” problems, we have been asked to discuss it with many parties including the Transportation Research Board, the International Association for Public Participation, the Southern New England American Planning Association, the National Science Foundation, the Open Government Partnership, and legislators. A model for civic dialogue and public engagement, the Partnership’s strategies are increasingly adapted and adopted across the country as a viable means for engaging with members of the community from whom planners need to hear, and particularly with those community members whose ideas and experiences often go unheard.

Rebecca M. Townsend, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Communication and Faculty Coordinator of the Institute for Community Engagement and Outreach at Manchester Community College, and a 2012 White House “Champion of Change” for Transportation Innovation.

Patrice M. Buzzanell

by Patrice M. Buzzanell

During my first year as a Purdue faculty member, I was invited to teach and conduct research in the Engineering Projects in Community Service program for which I have now led or co-led four service-learning design teams. These teams have focused on a number of goals including encouraging girls’ voice in engineering design and consideration of the field as a career possibility; engaging middle-school students in nanotechnology; promoting community environmental education and sustainability; and creating and maintaining global partnerships for water-energy-education systems in rural Ghana. In this latest design team effort on Ghana, the challenge is two-fold: How can we engage with others in collaborative teams in virtual and face-to-face environments to design viable solutions for environmental problems, and how can we develop intercultural competencies for sustained interactions and institutional partnerships that are beneficial to all stakeholders. From these initial collaborations, my work has branched out into funded projects for which communication in its many manifestations is key.

Institutional Change Initiatives

Assessments confirm the reach and enduring nature of communication training and interventions in institutional change efforts. Through our part in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) ADVANCE initiative to recruit, retain, and promote women, particularly women of color, in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math), we have fostered a more inclusionary culture at Purdue and beyond. While our approach operates at the micro level, it has resulted in changes to policies and practices across campuses and in funding agencies. For example, we have addressed the question of incorporating funding mechanisms to allow national grant-funded postdocs to take family leaves. The constitutive power of communication and its relevance to the construction of the world as we know it, and as it can come to be, is embraced by my STEM colleagues and has encouraged them to educate others along these lines.

Engineering Ethics

Because teams are fundamental in the knowledge economy, how individuals engage in human-centered design and operate within different ethical team cultures is essential to good outcomes. Funded by an NSF Transforming Undergraduate Education in STEM grant, we are constructing multidisciplinary design team scenarios and measurement scales that will enable us to assess not only how students navigate ethical dilemmas, but also how we might better incorporate communication and ethics training into the design process. This work is particularly relevant because our students who are future engineers and multidisciplinary team members come from all over the world and, therefore, have a variety of cultural perspectives. We pay particular attention to participants’ language and interactions in our interviews and observations, which leads us to more fully consider how ethics and design are intricately interwoven.

These engaged Communication scholarship activities feed directly into local, national, and global educational opportunities and community development.

Patrice M. Buzzanell, Ph.D., is Professor of Communication in the Brian Lamb School of Communication (and Professor of Engineering Education by Courtesy) at Purdue University. She is a past President of the International Communication Association.

Stephen J. Hartnett

by Stephen J. Hartnett

Technological change, market evolutions, globalization, and civic engagement are core elements of a student-centered education for the 21st century. Honoring these realities, the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado at Denver, along with many other Communication departments nationwide, practices multiple forms of engaged learning. Our commitments to community-based civic engagement, globally minded internships and career development, and student-led grassroots organizing indicate how the field of Communication is moving into the future by bridging campus and community, creating spaces where our students excel academically by following their passion for real-world engagement, and merging career goals and grassroots action.

Community-Based Civic Engagement

Through the Prison Justice Project, students in UC Denver’s Department of Communication seek to bring communication skills to people in prisons and jails. Among the various activities in this program is a prison workshop focusing on a variety of skills and exercises, including presentational speaking and the publication of Captured Words/Free Thoughts, a magazine of writings and images created by imprisoned artists. I recently learned that one of the young women I first met inside the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility has been admitted to a four-year college where, based on her experiences in our prison workshop, she will major in Communication.

Globally Minded Internships and Career Development

Through our internship program, our students are putting their communication skills to work in a variety of communities and, ultimately, in relevant jobs. A group of our students recently partnered with the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation, which is working for social justice in post-war Guatemala. Another group of students worked with recent refugees from African civil wars and put their health communication skills into practice by serving as health care advocates, going with the refugees to local hospitals, insurance providers, and social service providers. One of our students recently contacted me from Beijing to announce that his internship with the People’s Daily, one of China’s leading newspapers, had turned into a job.

Student-Led Grassroots Organizing

Our classes encourage students to engage in grassroots organizing using the communication skills they are learning. A student who is a former refugee from the Arab Spring revolutions recently launched a new chapter of Amnesty International as part of a Communication class project. Moreover, he has partnered with our department to host the annual national training conference for Amnesty’s student leaders. Thus, come September, my campus will be filled with globally minded student leaders who are committed to advancing human rights by marshaling best communication practices.

By fostering these community-based civic engagement projects, globally minded internships, and student-led examples of grassroots organizing, the CU Denver Department of Communication puts globalization into practice while emphasizing a commitment to civic engagement and helping our students to create meaningful and satisfying career paths.

Stephen John Hartnett, Ph.D., is Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado-Denver.