From the President - Advancing Change in the Discipline

David T. McMahan
November 9, 2021

In my first presidential column for Spectra, I noted that one of the strengths of the Communication discipline is that the changing nature of what we study requires continued inquiry and innovation. Academic pursuits within the discipline have the potential to be continuously active and dynamic, and the potential for new pathways and development are infinite. That is one characteristic that draws people to the discipline. More than in most other disciplines, what Communication scholars study, what we teach, how we study, and how we teach should be in a state of constant development and transformation.

Researching customary disciplinary topics and areas of study and teaching about those topics and areas of study are not necessarily detrimental. Traditional approaches to conducting research might still be beneficial. Traditional instructional approaches might still be the best way to promote learning. Change is not always necessary. Yet, change often is necessary, especially for a discipline such as ours.  

Unfortunately, we do not always engage in sufficient development and transformation of our research and teaching. Emerging technologies are not studied as readily as they should be by the discipline that should be leading the way. Both traditional exclusionary definitional boundaries of human relationships and expectations of appropriate interaction persist and are insufficiently challenged. Theoretical and methodological approaches reflect the values, experiences, and perspectives of those who have traditionally made up the professorate, a group that lacks sufficient diversity. Likewise, the populations and symbol systems we study have been limited and restricted. 

Beyond our propensity to cover customary topics in our classrooms, our methods of instruction remain stagnant, often failing to respond to changes in our students. New styles of teaching, new styles of assessment, and new understandings of outcomes and goals remain untried and unincorporated, in spite of their pedagogical potential to enhance learning.

In fairness, all academic disciplines are resistant to change. Multiple forces and barriers make academic change a tremendous challenge. However, as I wrote in a previous column, we cannot simply maintain that similar impediments are confronted by other disciplines or that we are not as bad as other disciplines in this regard. The nature of what we study demands change and transformation; we simply must be better than other disciplines. In what follows, I will examine four perceived characteristics that impede academic change and offer some approaches to overcoming them.

Academic change seems difficult. From a scholarship standpoint, two factors make academic change seem especially challenging. First, many of us have been trained in a particular way and understand the discipline in a particular way. Altering our training and understanding requires a great deal of effort. Experiencing and engaging in something new or different also elicits a great deal of stress, something with which academics must contend enough already. Second, scholars seeking to do anything straying too far from an artificially developed and maintained norm or standard often struggle to have their work fairly considered or evaluated. Studying something new or studying something in a different way often means encountering resistance.

From an instructional standpoint, difficulties with academic change can be experienced at curricular and course levels. At the curricular level, eliminating some courses while adding other courses might be perceived as a personal attack by someone whose courses are no longer considered as relevant as others. At the individual course level, eliminating or reducing the time spent on some content while adding or increasing time spent on other content both moves us away from material we are comfortable teaching and requires spending additional time studying the new content and changing course notes, materials, and exams. Likewise, changing our teaching methodology requires time and effort that many of us find difficult to devote.  

Changing the way we perceive change can be beneficial and effective. Rather than focusing on the potential difficulty that may be encountered with academic change, we should focus on the potential reward that may be achieved. There is the potential to change a discipline, to advance an area of study, and to make a meaningful academic and societal impact. There is the potential to improve instruction and better prepare students for success in their careers and personal endeavors. Academic change is difficult, but it also is rewarding.

Academic change seems risky. Engaging in any sort of change comes with a certain degree of risk, the extent of which depends on just how much change is sought and the degree to which that change challenges established norms. Above all, there is the possibility of experiencing personal failure or even embarrassment, something to which most people are naturally averse. From a scholarship standpoint, challenging conventional and traditional approaches to scholarship comes with the possibility of rejection by people who either have a vested interest in combating suggested changes or simply are oblivious to their own scholarly biases. With academic success often dependent upon the number of convention papers presented and the number of publications produced, it may seem safer to invest time and energy in projects that are more aligned with traditional approaches and, thus, are more likely to be accepted for presentation or publication.  

From an instructional standpoint, for many people the possibility of failing students in some way is more devastating than the potential rejection of their scholarship. Including new material that is not as meaningful to students, removing material that could prove valuable to students, trying something new in the classroom that is unsuccessful, or engaging in a major restructuring of format or curriculum ultimately found to be unsuccessful is something most people do not want to chance. We view the well-being of students as vital and do not wish to hinder that in any way. 

Rather than focusing on the potential threat from academic change, it is more beneficial to focus on the opportunities that can be derived.

Once again, a change in perspective can be valuable. Rather than focusing on the potential threat from academic change, it is more beneficial to focus on the opportunities that can be derived. Attempting academic change could result in failure, but the potential success that might be realized is worth that risk.

Academic change seems isolating. Doing something different means doing something most people are not doing, which can lead to feelings of isolation. New ideas and scholarship may not seem to fit into existing association divisions, leading to questions about where to submit work and feelings that one does not belong. In some situations, major changes in research can result in separation from colleagues and mentors, interrupting support networks that often are essential to academic work. The process of teaching preparation and execution generally takes place at the individual level anyway, and engaging in something unique or different might enhance feelings of isolation and separation. Perceptions of isolation might also exacerbate perceptions of the difficulties and risks noted above.

Perhaps the best way to combat feelings of isolation is to seek out like-minded people. Regardless of how unique an idea or approach might be, multiple people may already have thought the same thing, multiple people may already be engaged in similar endeavors, and multiple people may be interested, even if they had not previously considered such change. Support may be there; we need to make the effort to find and establish it. Likewise, instructional change can be encouraged and assisted by like-minded people. Even if they are not willing to engage in that same change, they can serve as sounding boards and cheerleaders for those who do so. It is also important to avoid becoming frustrated when people do not express appreciation for or even denounce work that is being accomplished. Encountering such obstacles is frequently an indication that a person is on to something right. 

Academic change seems slow. Academic life proceeds at a glacial pace. It takes a great deal of time to turn an idea into research and for that research to result in presentations or publications. The potential for unconventional topics and approaches to encounter opposition and rejection can expand that amount of time. Recognizing the impact of change requires even more time. Curricular change happens slowly, and seeing the results in student learning and success from that change takes even longer. Change at the individual course level can be enacted a bit more quickly, but determining success and value and achieving comfort and consistency are not always immediate.   

Expecting academic change to take place immediately sets a person up for disappointment. When engaging in academic change, one cannot expect immediate results. One may not be able to recognize observable results in the moment and may not be able to fully recognize results even with the passing of time. It is simply imperative that a person never give up.  

The changing nature of Communication requires what we study, what we teach, how we study, and how we teach to be in a constant state of development and transformation. However, such development and transformation are hindered by structures and forces that reinforce academic norms and also are hindered by the challenges that are generally associated with academic change. Our discipline is strong, but refusing or resisting change will weaken and diminish its impact. Change must be embraced and established as a significant and necessary part of who we are. On a personal level, we must acknowledge and seek to overcome obstacles to academic change. At the disciplinary level, recognizing and altering disciplinary barriers to change will be necessary if we are to continue to develop. I encourage you to pursue change on both levels. I will be doing likewise. We must always continue moving forward.