From the President - Convergence in the Discipline

David T. McMahan
August 10, 2021

Few other disciplines can match the expansiveness of Communication. Such expansiveness can be regarded as one of the many strengths of the discipline. This particular strength, however, is also one of the discipline’s potential weaknesses, sometimes resulting in the separation of scholars and the subsequent disconnection of scholarship. Communication scholars quite often study one area of the discipline while devoting little attention to other areas. For many disciplines, focusing on a single area of study at the expense of the others may not be particularly detrimental. However, the interconnected nature of Communication necessitates that attention be paid to many areas of the discipline. The interaction between many of our areas is so significant and the symbolic systems composing them so enmeshed that legitimately distinguishing them as separate entities becomes impossible except through artificially constructed boundaries. This separation promotes the intellectual fragmentation and isolation of both scholarship and scholars.  

As noted in my previous columns, the discipline of Communication is strong, but we must remain mindful of its opportunities and challenges. One challenge that also presents opportunities is encouraging convergence in our areas of study. A call for such convergence is far from arguing for a unified field of study. The need for and value of specialization remain. Rather, such a call urges appreciation of the interconnectedness of what we study and urges recognition of the potential hindrances that can result from too much separation and of the potential benefits that can be derived from establishing and reinforcing connections among our areas of study.  

Advanced in part through the historical development of the discipline, separation is perpetuated by the fragmentation of Communication scholars in academic institutions, the segmentation of students in many of our programs, divisions in our associations, and limited cross-citation among subsequent separate literatures. Communication scholars are sometimes dispersed throughout institutions in different units, schools, colleges, or departments. Students within a single program often are constrained by a structure that demands a primary focus. Convention attendees frequently attend only those panels and meetings that are directly related to their immediate interests. Bibliometric research illustrates the development of separate literatures and limited cross-citation among these literatures.

In one regard, this might be understood as an innocuous separation of interests, the result of academic environments, different intellectual pursuits among scholars, and the genuine expansiveness of Communication. Moreover, our standing in the academic community is significant, our students are successful, and our research is strong. However, such separation can result in unseen consequences, and establishing connections has the potential to further strengthen our discipline.

The separation of Communication scholars in institutions does little to stimulate dialogue but more pragmatically potentially hinders the ability for Communication scholars to develop a unified front within institutions and potentially places them in direct competition for increasingly scarce funding, faculty lines, and other resources. Specialization is a necessary component of degree programs, especially at the graduate level, but a solitary focus often results in the development of Communication scholars who are unfamiliar with associated areas in their own discipline and perpetuates the false notion of a natural separation. Opportunities for collaboration are missed and separation is further preserved through activity in our associations, as Communication scholars cluster into different areas at conventions and engage in select contact with specific groups between conventions. Ultimately, this separation potentially impedes our research. Given the interconnected nature of Communication, a more complete and accurate understanding is hindered when areas are studied in isolation. Voids in research are possible when topics near perceived boundary lines are viewed as the purview of scholars in other areas. A lack of cross-citation of resultant separate literatures results in missed opportunities to promote and advance our own discipline’s work.  

Associations might promote the convergence of areas of study by increasing the number of interest groups to which a member can belong—a measure recently enacted by the National Communication Association—and by developing special programming, events, and publications that encourage and support the connection of scholars and scholarship in various areas. However, fostering the convergence of areas of study and attending to potential issues arising from separation are most effectively addressed at the individual level. In what follows, I will examine four activities in which we might each engage.

Forge connections with other Communication scholars within your institution. The availability of such connections and what those connections might entail will naturally vary depending on the composition of specific institutions and one’s position or role. Even within single departments, though, establishing connections among colleagues becomes challenging, with members from different areas isolated and occasionally even placed in opposition. Seek out opportunities for discussion and explore avenues for collaboration in teaching, research, university matters, and community engagement. Such collaboration can enhance personal professional endeavors and strengthen disciplinary bonds.

Develop opportunities for student engagement in multiple areas of study in the discipline. As mentioned previously, specialization, especially at the graduate level, is necessary but often comes at the expense of experiencing associated areas of the discipline. Many programs are structured in such a way that taking classes in other areas is difficult or even discouraged. Communication faculty should examine their programs to make sure that students have opportunities to experience courses from multiple areas of the discipline through established tracks of study, encouraging students to take courses in multiple areas, or perhaps establishing colloquia to bring students from different areas together. Despite existing program constraints and any departmental pressures, students should seek opportunities to experience classes in multiple areas so that they broaden their understanding of the discipline and consequently enhance their understanding of their primary area of study. It is possible that students themselves will recognize connections among areas that their professors, who are accustomed to and perhaps accepting of artificial separations, might not recognize or fully appreciate.  

Seek out professional opportunities that will give you the chance to experience other areas of study in the discipline. Reports of scholars viewing and taking part in panels they might not have otherwise attended demonstrated one benefit of recent pandemic-imposed virtual conventions. Time is limited at conventions, of course, and it is important to remain current on recent developments in one’s primary area of study. Nevertheless, we all should strive to schedule attendance at panels that address topics that fall outside our own primary area. Beyond increasing appreciation for the expansiveness of the discipline and the quality of work taking place in the discipline, experiencing new ideas and approaches can inform and reinvigorate our own research and teaching.  

Explore and incorporate scholarship of other areas of study in the discipline. Time is limited not only at conventions but also in all of one’s professional life. Incorporating additional reading into already busy schedules is a luxury many people might see as unviable. Nevertheless, reading work that addresses topics that are outside our primary areas of interest will lead to greater appreciation of the discipline and a better understanding of one’s own area of expertise. It is very possible that work from other areas of the discipline could be incorporated into and bolster one’s own work and teaching. There is sometimes a tendency to look toward work in other disciplines rather than our own. Interdisciplinary research is valuable and necessary, but so too is looking within the discipline and locating work that is perhaps even more applicable and beneficial to our academic endeavors.  

We must always seek ways to strengthen the discipline of Communication and be mindful of potential impediments. Calling for convergence in our areas of study does not mean arguing for a unified field of study, abandoning specialization, or forcing connections that have no true merit or purpose. It does mean appreciating the interconnected nature of Communication, recognizing the issues that may arise from existing disconnections in our areas of study, and recognizing the potential advantages of developing better connections in our areas of study. I encourage you to engage in the activities I have offered and to consider other ways in which convergence in our areas of study might be promoted. Beyond personal efforts, also consider ways in which the National Communication Association might assist in encouraging such convergence. As always, I will continue doing the same.