Death and Dying Division Feature

April 2, 2024




Rejection is common in academia. Sometimes rejection strengthens an argument; sometimes it encourages a new direction for research; and sometimes, it illuminates a gap in scholarship. 

For Laura Bruns, the Chair of the newly formed Death and Dying Division at NCA, rejection is one reason for the division’s beginning. 


“Colleen [Campbell Pendleton, Vice Chair] and I were collaborating on a panel of scholars who were doing a whole panel on death and dying scholarship,” says Bruns, “Unfortunately, the division we submitted to ... we got feedback that our panel didn’t really belong. It feels like that’s what started a conversation about ‘Where does death and dying scholarship belong at NCA?’” 


The first step they took to identify a belonging place was to start a Facebook group, EOL (End of Life) and Death Scholars, which gathered more than 50 members in a few days. From there came informal conversations – over 200 scholars connecting over research and the same question: “Where does death and dying scholarship fit?” 


“It was clear early on that scholars were doing similar work, it just wasn't talking to each other,” says Bruns. “So that's something that we're hoping to resolve by creating this division, not only connecting people who do this work, but allowing that scholarship to talk to each other ... bringing people with different methods together to collaborate online and in-person.” 


This kind of collaborative atmosphere is important for any division or sub-field of academic research, but Campbell Pendleton points out that it’s especially important for Death and Dying scholarship due to how people often view death and dying as a natural consequence of life, and instead of addressing it through multiple contexts, it becomes a secondary topic beholden to the larger approach of another sub-field.  

In this way, the interdisciplinary and openness to methodologies means that one of the natural goals of the Death and Dying division is to “de-silo” the topic as a whole: 


“We see [the division] like a centralizing space rather than a silo for death and dying research,” says Campbell Pendleton. “We really want it to be like an open space for people to come in and out of, I mean, maybe their work doesn't center in death and dying, primarily, but they're just dabbling in it or they have a piece that might work in death and dying, we welcome all of that kind of research so that anybody can be a scholar of or benefit from death and dying communication research.” 


As membership in the EOL Facebook group grew, the admins realized that members came from fields as diverse as social work, sociology, and English – even a few who aren’t in academia, but spend most of their time in industry. Bruns and Campell Pendleton say that this interdisciplinarity is a goal, a strength, and a weakness of the division. As a goal, they highlight the desire to encourage researchers, educators, and professionals who wouldn’t traditionally identify as communication scholars to join the association and attend the national convention.  

However, this interdisciplinarity also presented itself as a difficulty during the process to get the division ratified. Groups seeking to become an NCA division or section must obtain 200 signatures from NCA members. With the strength of the group’s Facebook page, it wasn’t difficult to get this number, but they had to go above-and-beyond to ensure that they acquired 200 member signatures. 

The next step to forming a division? The proposal. All interest groups must have a representative present their proposal at the Executive Committee meeting, and – if the EC endorses it – then at a larger Legislative Assembly meeting, who votes to ratify the interest group. This November, the LA voted to formally ratify the Death and Dying Division as an NCA Interest Group. 


“I was shocked at how well our proposal was received,” says Bruns. “I think we were prepared for a battle... people told me before I went in: ‘expect there to be a lot of pushback, a lot of battling.’ So when there wasn't that I was very surprised, and I was shocked at how well our proposal was received.” 


Justin Danowski, interim Executive Director, was in the room when Bruns presented and recalls the presentation being incredibly thorough: 


“When former NCA presidents stand up and commend you on a well-thought out presentation,” says Danowski. “ know the foundation for your division is on solid ground.” 


As to what makes a good interest group proposal? Campbell Pendleton suggests clearly defining all the methodologies that make a potential interest group unique: 


"I think it helped us to have a well-rounded proposal because we're so methodologically diverse. We didn't just have a qualitative proposal, even though our qualitative representation is very strong, we highlighted mixed methods and quantitative forms of research as well. I think it would help others to have all the methods they intend to represent represented in the proposal.” 


Especially for this initial year of existence, it’s imperative for all members of the communication field take time to dialogue with death and dying scholars and scholarship to help the nascent division grow. For example, divisions in their first year do not have official panel slots at the national convention, so Bruns says one important way to support its scholarship is to consider co-sponsorship. To do so, submitters can choose the Death and Dying Division from the co-sponsor drop down menu when they submit papers or panels. 

Besides the practical bureaucratic way of supporting the division, Bruns says that  


“We like to host community chats every quarter. Last community chat we had one scholar bring an undergraduate student with them who was just interested in death and dying and wanted to know about graduate programs. Everybody in the community chat on Zoom was throwing program recommendations into the chat for the student. In general, we're a very collegial group. Virtually or in-person; Facebook, Discord, or emailing us if there's just a question or an idea. Just reach out!” 


The journey of the Death and Dying Division at NCA illustrates the power of innovation and collaboration within academia. The division's inception stemmed from the necessity to unite scholars across disciplines, fostering a space where diverse methodologies converge to explore the stigmatized and multifaceted nature of death and dying. As the division gains momentum, their inclusive approach invites scholars from diverse backgrounds to engage in meaningful dialogue and shape the future of this vital field of study. 


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(Left to right: Sharmila Pixie Ferris, PhD; C. Campbell Pendleton, M.A.; Laura Bruns, PhD; Christian Seiter, PhD)


Learn more about the Death and Dying Division by visiting their Facebook, YouTube, or website