Communication Currents

James C. McCroskey’s Lifelong Journey of Discovery and Innovation

April 1, 2015
Instructional Communication

Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote that “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive....”  The lifelong journey of James (“Jim”) C. McCroskey was among the most hopeful of all journeys in his effort to better describe, understand, predict, and change the ways people communicate. Jim started his journey on a path set out by Aristotle, the rhetorical tradition. Jim’s interest in ethos or source credibility led him to thinking about goodwill, interpersonal closeness or immediacy, interpersonal attraction, homophily and the perceived similarity of others, power in the classroom, and apprehensiveness that people experience in communicating with others. Jim moved from a world view based on humanistic understanding to a world view of scientific reasoning and testing. 

Even our best cartographer armed with GPS and a steady hand would be unable to retrace the many steps that Jim took on his 50-year journey, but many interesting twists, turns, and discoveries were made along the way. Through his well-thought-out plan for learning about communication and his boundless energy in working with others, Jim charted new territory and challenged, sometimes changed, some old ways of thinking that were, perhaps, not always leading us in the right direction.

What did Jim find on his path of discovery? He found that while it might be true that “things once learned can be unlearned,” sometimes people inherit biological systems and processes that lead to their manner of communicating. For example, while a person’s apprehension about communicating with others might not be as inborn as their eye color, people’s neurobiological systems, which are inborn, might strongly influence their level of communication apprehension. By some accounts, maybe 80 percent can be attributed to genes from mom and dad. So, will taking a public speaking course make someone more confident in talking with others? In some cases, yes, but for the most part, environmental influences are “negligible.” Jim found that our journey down the path of “social learning” was probably a misstep and the direction of our efforts to understand what causes people to communicate in predictable ways (now called communication traits) can best be guided by better understanding brain activity and the functions of neurobiology.

Jim believed that the difference between knowing and teaching is communicating. While he could not give us an exact turn-by-turn guide to becoming better instructors, his research with others has shown us many signs of good teaching. Credible teachers show goodwill toward their students. In fact, students’ beliefs that a teacher has a caring attitude, that is to say that a teacher expresses goodwill toward them, appear to be even more important to teacher effectiveness than perceived competence and trustworthiness. Such teachers are thought to be more immediate, approachable, emotionally responsive, and assertive than teachers thought of less positively. Students not only perceive such teachers more positively but they learn more than when teachers are perceived less positively. Research also has revealed, however, that efforts toward greater immediacy might be seen as somewhat threatening, so effective teachers must be vigilant to develop a level of approachability that is acceptable to students. 

Teacher image depends on credibility, attractiveness, and perceived similarity, and emanates from within students. It is, arguably, the critical factor in teacher success. Teachers who strive too hard to influence students’ thinking in such matters are likely to fail. As part of the body of research on instructional communication, a series of seven studies collectively performed by Jim and a team of researchers, known as “Power in the Classroom,” drew attention to behavior-alteration techniques (BATs) and messages (BAMs). These studies provide insight regarding appropriate teacher behaviors and messages, and remind us that teachers gain their power from their students (thus, “abuse it, lose it”).

Good science depends on good measurement, and better science depends on better measurement. Jim conceptualized, constructed, built on, and improved measures of communication apprehension in various situations and social settings, student affect, teacher evaluation, source credibility, learning loss (the difference between what was learned versus what might have been learned), interpersonal attraction, and homophily. Good science depends, as well, on good methods. Jim found it difficult to plot his course using some of the time-tested methods, so he traversed new ground by relying on his innovative thinking. For example, to better understand how students judge the quality of their teachers, Jim had students rate teachers from their immediately preceding classes. This method minimized instructor objections to having students in their classes complete rating scales.

Jim’s studies have guided a great deal of interpersonal and instructional communication research. His research also took the path of inquiry into small group communication, organizational communication, cultural and cross-cultural communication, and mediated communication. Jim recognized early in his career that interpersonal communication provides the foundation for much of people’s communication effectiveness. As with any journey, each step of understanding precedes another step. Each broader level of communication activity can be better understood by studying the levels below it.

Throughout his career, Jim followed this hallmark of the reductionist method: understanding is best gained by incremental and, probably, evolutionary methods. His reductionist approach might be illustrated most dramatically by contemplating that his starting point was broad-based Aristotelian rhetoric (focusing on the speaker sending messages to the masses) and that his more recent work focused on activity at the neurobiological level (involving ganglia, axons, dendrites, synapses, and the like). That is what reductionists do; they “reduce” the world to smaller pieces to get a “bigger” understanding. No one did this better than Jim McCroskey.

Jim travelled with many passengers. He helped numerous students earn doctoral, master’s, and undergraduate degrees. Many of these students have risen to the highest of professorial ranks, and their research and publication activity provides a formidablecorpus of knowledge. Jim served as an editor and on the editorial boards of numerous journals. Perhaps most remarkable, however, is that he bridged the gap to other disciplines. His work is highly influential in communication, education, philosophy, psychology, and sociology.

James C. McCroskey’s lifetime journey was inspired by his own mentor, Robert T. Oliver. Jim decided early in his career that he would strive to be the most published author in communication, just as Oliver was at that time. While his research productivity in meeting that goal is truly inspiring, the quality of his writings and his many salient ideas will, for many of us, chart the course of our discipline. Thanks to Jim, we have a better map for part of the communication landscape. Jim’s legacy, however, cautions us to be vigilant in always seeking a more hopeful and parsimonious path in each of our own journeys. As we commemorate his lifelong journey, his pioneering efforts, and his encouragement to always do more, always do better, we offer the rest of Stevenson’s fitting remark (El Dorado, 1881): "Little do ye know your own blessedness; for to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour."

About the author (s)

Lynda L. McCroskey

California State Universsity-Long Beach

Associate Professor

Charles J. Wigley III

Canisius College