From the President - Reflections on the Discipline

David McMahan
February 4, 2021

Writing my first presidential column for Spectra marks the midpoint of my service in the NCA presidential rotation and the beginning of my presidential year. It just so happens that this presidential column is also being written in the midst of one of the most tumultuous periods ever experienced by the academic world, the full repercussions of which may not be realized for years. So, it seems to be an ideal time to reflect on issues in the discipline.

One important caveat is that I am admittedly partial to the discipline of Communication. What we study is beyond significant and fundamental to every aspect of life. It enables us to better understand and to improve personal, professional, creative, and civic worlds. We are able to identify problems and issues in those realms and work to establish solutions. Few other disciplines, if any, can match the centrality of Communication. Given the nature of what we study, the discipline of Communication is also in a constant state of change, requiring continued inquiry and innovation. The potential for new discovery, new exploration, new pathways, and new accomplishment is infinite, and our academic pursuits have the potential to be continuously active and dynamic. Furthermore, we are often able to witness true growth and advancement in our students while they are still in our courses, and we can be confident in facilitating their lifelong learning and continuous development. Such ability and confidence are not always possible in other areas of study. I am beyond grateful to be a member of the discipline of Communication.

The discipline of Communication is strong. I continue to be amazed by the expansiveness of the discipline, the strength of its scholarship, and the quality of its instruction at all levels and types of institutions.

The discipline of Communication is strong. I continue to be amazed by the expansiveness of the discipline, the strength of its scholarship, and the quality of its instruction at all levels and types of institutions. Above all, I remain amazed by the dedication to scholarship, teaching, and disciplinary, community, and public service expressed through the remarkable efforts of the members of the discipline.

The strength and resilience that members of the discipline exhibited this past year was extraordinary. In spite of their abrupt transition to online instruction, health and wellness concerns, relational obligations, and other issues related to the global pandemic, thousands of Communication scholars submitted materials and took part in NCA’s Annual Convention. Few other disciplines were able to hold their major conventions, and even fewer were able to attract numbers of participants similar to previous years’ attendance when doing so.

In addition to their convention participation and continued engagement in scholarship, Communication scholars were also at the forefront of ensuring pedagogical excellence not only for students in our own courses but also for students in other disciplines. Communication scholars have used their expertise to assist instructors in transitioning to online teaching and ensuring continued student engagement, learning, and success. Such assistance has included personally supporting colleagues at home institutions, providing advice and guidance through social networking sites and online activity, and contributing through their service to associations.

Communication scholars also never wavered in their service to the discipline or their communities. Our convention was successful because of the hard work and dedication of countless members of the discipline volunteering their time, expertise, and energies. State and regional association leaders, many of whom were unable to hold their conventions, continued working for the discipline by providing support and additional opportunities for their members. Beyond the discipline, Communication scholars drew on their expertise in health communication, crisis communication, relational communication, organizational communication, activism/social justice, and other areas to inform, guide, and support their communities and public initiatives.

Undergraduate and graduate degree completion, job and salary reports, graduate student placement numbers, publication impact factors, and other such measures all indicate that the discipline of Communication is strong and growing in many areas, especially when compared with other disciplines. We are in a very good place.

These areas for improvement are being offered to ensure that more people are aware of them, to reinforce their continued importance, and to encourage people to consider what they can do personally, institutionally, within the discipline, and within community and public realms to advance the discipline.

At the same time, I want to offer areas where the discipline of Communication could improve and concerns to consider as we continue moving forward. Here, a few additional caveats are in order. First, the areas of improvement and concern provided are not necessarily new, unique to me, or by any means exhaustive. Second, the amount of discussion possible here is limited. Brevity should not be seen as a lack of importance. Third, meaningful work in some of these areas is already taking place through the efforts of dedicated members of the discipline. These areas for improvement are being offered to ensure that more people are aware of them, to reinforce their continued importance, and to encourage people to consider what they can do personally, institutionally, within the discipline, and within community and public realms to advance the discipline.

We should encourage the connection of our scholarship. One of the greatest strengths of the discipline, its expansiveness, is also one of its potential weaknesses when it leads to the separation of scholars and the subsequent disconnection of scholarship. It is appropriate for academics to engage in an area of specialization. In many other disciplines, focusing on a single area of study at the expense of others may not be detrimental. However, the interconnected nature of Communication necessitates that attention be paid to other specialties in order to fully understand one’s own primary area of study. Connecting areas of study will advance our scholarship and teaching and enable us to gain a more complete understanding of Communication.

We should welcome, support, and unite scholars from multiple types of academic institutions—elementary and secondary, community college, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral. Doing so involves recognizing that each type of academic institution is important and that each type of academic institution assists in the development of the discipline of Communication in beneficial ways. Including larger numbers of Communication scholars from more types of institutions will strengthen the discipline by providing even greater opportunities for both pedagogical and professional growth and assistance.

We should promote inclusion, diversity, equity, and access. Doing so entails encouraging and working to ensure the full participation of members from groups that historically have been less involved in the discipline. Doing so also entails studying all communication and not just that of a privileged few. Doing so further entails ensuring that issues of inclusivity, diversity, equity, and access remain at the forefront of all our efforts. We must never cease our focus on these areas and must never let ourselves become complacent. These actions should be taken because they are right and because they are necessary for the continued advancement of our discipline.

We should increase our willingness to transform what and how we study. As mentioned previously, what makes the study of Communication particularly attractive to many people is its potential for constant development and change, assisted—or necessitated—by continuous technological and societal transformation. However, multiple forces and modes of resistance make academic change incredibly slow and difficult to achieve. Scholars seeking to study something new or to study something in a different way—in fact, to do anything that strays too far from an artificially developed and maintained ordinary or standard—often struggle to have their work fairly considered. We cannot simply maintain that other disciplines confront similar impediments or that our discipline is not as bad as others. The nature of what we study demands continuous development and change, and we must be better at accepting and encouraging that necessity.

We should increase community and public engagement. As also mentioned previously, many Communication scholars use their skills and expertise to assist and support their communities and public initiatives around the world. This is another area that sets us apart from other disciplines, with other areas of study not readily transferable to such engagement. Though growing numbers of Communication scholars are publicly engaged, an insufficient number of members in the discipline take part in such endeavors—including myself. Service to our discipline and to our academic institutions is vital, but so, too, is service to our communities and publics. A lack of community and public service, by Communication and other disciplines, may be attributed to the minimal impact of such engagement on tenure, promotion, and annual reviews. As the academic landscape changes, such activities may be viewed as increasingly important. Regardless, and until then, it still behooves us to concentrate more on community and public engagement. The discipline of Communication has a great deal to offer. We cannot continue sharing it only with ourselves.

We should reinforce the discipline within the academy and adapt to academic change. Major changes within the academic world—including emerging modalities of instruction, program restructuring and outright elimination, as well as challenges regarding the purpose and value of higher education—which were evident prior to the pandemic have dramatically escalated. Though the Communication discipline is in a very good place comparatively, all disciplines are in increasingly precarious positions. Having one of the few courses required in most general education programs, Communication has long been recognized as valuable. Likewise, degree requirements in other programs often include or encourage Communication courses. However, we cannot assume that this recognition of our courses’ value will remain or be sufficient to avoid future cuts in requirements and personnel. We must continuously reinforce the value and significance of Communication to our institutions (administratively and cross-disciplinarily). We must reinforce the value of Communication courses and degrees, in terms of the employability of our graduates and how well we fit with increasingly practical institutional directives and purposes. Doing so does not mean abandoning such benefits as the personal growth and discovery that students achieve through our courses and does not mean completely changing the structural basis of our courses. It does mean touting that our graduates are securing employment and that our departments and courses are fulfilling necessary functions for our institutions. We cannot rest on our laurels or hope for a return to a pre-pandemic atmosphere. We must continuously promote the discipline and adapt to ever-changing academic environments.

Ultimately, through the efforts of its incredible members, the discipline of Communication is strong and has the potential to emerge perhaps stronger than it has ever been. The future of the Communication discipline is bright. Yet, we must always be mindful of areas in need of improvement and we must never be complacent. I encourage you to consider the issues offered here and to think about ways in which they might be addressed through your personal efforts and through broader disciplinary efforts. I will continue doing likewise and remain honored to be a member of this discipline with you.