“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.,“The Death of Evil upon the Seashore” sermon given at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City, May 17, 1956
The task of retaining one’s faith and resolve that change is possible amidst the struggle about which King spoke is as challenging in our own time as it most emphatically was in his. As I write this column in the early days of August 2022, I am struck by intense feelings from recent events that have tested my own values and commitments. Tears of sorrow and anger well up when I think about the senseless losses from gun violence, the erosion of our rights and personal autonomy, and the threats to our democratic system. Buffalo, Uvalde, Highland Park, Ukraine, Roe, January 6, SCOTUS, FL HB 1557: The last few months have been a dizzying blur of places and names that for me alternatively have brought sadness, fear, and rage. I wonder what there is that I can do as an individual citizen of conscience to intervene, find outlets to express my perspective, and contribute to positive change.
While it is not at all a perfect analogy between an individual reaction to political and social events and the role of a professional association like NCA, the desire to act in the face of perceived injustices often is equally strong for both. Yet, what should be the role that our Association plays in responding to events and engaging in public advocacy? Especially as NCA formulates a new strategic plan, addressing this question about the function and responsibility of our professional organization “in the world” is imperative. Finding a definitive and suitable place to stand is difficult, and this challenge is not unique to NCA, of course. Academic disciplines and other professional associations also have persistently struggled with this question.
As the organization of academic societies accelerated in the late 1800s, most adhered to the model of isolationism that dominated national politics to define their role. As Russell S. Feingold and Steven G. Estes observe: “The United States has a history of insularism; likewise, one may view their professional societies in a similar fashion as not relevant to global perspectives.”1 The walls that many academic associations built to ward their scholarly pursuits off from the vagaries of political concerns inevitably collapsed, although some defended this distinction.
For example, writing amidst the political turmoil of the late 1960s, philosopher Sidney Hooks expressed the view that engagements with contemporary events were “made with a reckless disregard, or underestimate, of the dangers to the autonomy, independence, and critical detachment of the scholarly spirit.”2 Three decades later in their introduction to a special issue of Society, Jonathan B. Imber and Irving Louis Horowitz underscored the reasons that academic societies should not express ideological stances: “Professional associations that sponsor occasions for pious denunciations and that pass resolutions on all manner of political subjects have given up any pretense of either informing or affecting opinion.”3 While these academic isolationist arguments persist today, the alternative case for engagement also was expressed vigorously and arguably is only increasing in prominence in our contemporary era of demands for social justice and the protection of individual rights that have come under siege.
Writing amid the wave of anti-apartheid protests sweeping campuses in the 1980s, for example, Alan Spear noted that although professional associations have been “the most cloistered” among academic institutions, they “have never been able to totally avoid political decision.”4 Indeed, as Spear concluded, “The concepts of neutrality and objectivity are impossible to achieve and, more often than not, smoke screens to hide what are really political decisions in support of the status quo. Inaction can have political consequences as far reaching as action.”5 This recognition that an association’s silence can signal its complicity is powerful. Consequently, the insistence that academic associations should be engaged in the articulation of positions on external events has become a prominent stance for many, including within NCA. Still, the parameters for deciding which conversations to enter and what means to use are not easily demarcated.
NCA’s own legacies of isolationism and advocacy are rooted in our founding moment as a discipline and Association. As Kirt Wilson argues, when we consider that “the processes of disciplinarity are similar to that of nation building and global politics,” the tension that has endured from the start in our association between “nationalism” and “cosmopolitanism” is not surprising.6 From his examination of the first five years of essays published in Quarterly Journal of Speech, Wilson demonstrates how the two views regarding academic sovereignty, on the one hand, and cross-disciplinarity and the question of citizenship, on the other, co-existed in NCA as we initially formulated our discipline’s identity and orientation. Ever since, there have been moments of conscience that were not addressed and others that we met head on as NCA navigated the same questions about political engagement that have challenged our sister academic associations.
Historically, NCA has followed two paths for engaging with external events and expressing political stances. First, we have issued a collection of public statements that fall into three categories: public policy, ethical, and academic/professional. These statements typically emerge within NCA’s resolutions process, but also can be considered via the emergency procedures described on our website. Significantly, any member can initiate the consideration of a statement using either process. A perusal of our website indicates that NCA has not issued a public policy statement since 2017. In 2021, the most recent ethical statement we added addressed the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, and in 2022, NCA issued a statement affirming the importance of academic freedom in the classroom. Second, while NCA does not engage in direct lobbying, our Association is a member of three academic organizations that monitor and address the legislative process: the Consortium of Social Science Associations, the National Humanities Alliance, and the American Council of Learned Societies.
Considering the choices that NCA stands poised to make as we finalize our first comprehensive strategic plan in over a decade, we must evaluate this history as we create our future. Is this level of engagement enough? What else should NCA be doing? How we will define our external engagements must be central in our deliberations about the future of our Association.
For me, the way forward is clear. NCA should do much more to position our discipline to address the significant issues that we face and to express why Communication scholarship, pedagogy, and practice are essential to creating change. A strong and inspiring statement in favor of choosing this bold path for public stances comes from a recent essay by Diana Shandy and M. Gabriela Torres, who describe how feminist praxis informed a change in sexual harassment policies in the American Anthropological Association. Shandy and Torres remind us that there are “new ways of leveraging policies in professional associations to establish behavior norms in other communities—such as our home institutions—by acknowledging the power that accountability and normative expectations play in institutional and cultural change.”7 In other words, lest we think that association statements do not matter, and that realigning NCA’s strategic direction is insignificant, it is important to remember that such expressions and changes are powerful public enactments of our principles.
Finally, as we deliberate how NCA will choose to enact our public engagements on political and social issues, I hope that we will consider Kirt Wilson’s concluding call for our discipline to pursue a “critical cosmopolitanism.” As he proposes, “In this mode, border crossing would not reinforce what we already know about ourselves. It would prompt us to engage in a continual process of reimagining our responsibilities to intellectual and public communities beyond our own.”8
As we move forward to develop a new strategic plan to guide NCA’s future, I invite you to join in this significant process of re-imagination. The rewards of these critical examinations will be worth the struggles that such reflexivity demands. We indeed must recognize the permeability of our disciplinary boundaries and embrace this imperative to act in the world as integral to our vision of who we are as an association.
1 Russell S. Feingold and Steven G. Estes, “The Politics, Roles, and Futures of Professional Societies,” QUEST 68, no. 3 (2016):284. 2 Sidney Hook, “The Barbarism of Virtue,” PMLA 84, no. 3 (1969): 470. 3 Jonathan B. Imber and Irving Louis Horowitz, “Ferment in Professional Associations,” Society 36, no. 2 (1999): 6. 4 Alan Spear, “Politics and the Professions,” The Midwestern Archivist 9, no.2 (1984): 78. 5 Spear, “Politics,” 81. 6 Kirt Wilson, “The National and Cosmopolitan Dimensions of Disciplinarity: Reconsidering the Origins of Communication Studies,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 101, no. 1 (2015): 246. 7 Diana Shandy and M. Gabriela Torres, “Rules Matter: How Can Professional Associations Remap Intracommunity Norms Around Sexual Violence?” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 47, no. 1 (2021) 8 Wilson, 255.