An Unexpected Adventure

August 17, 2022

In upcoming editions of Spectra, we look forward to featuring occasional conversations with NCA’s outgoing Executive Committee members, new editors, and others who are helping to lead and shape the Association and the discipline. To kickoff this first installment, we spoke with David T. McMahan, Ph.D., NCA’s immediate past president. He is also a professor of Communication at Missouri Western State University. For Marjorie Lightman, her conversation with Prof. McMahan “turned out to be an unexpected adventure in learning.”

After reading Professor McMahan’s articles in Spectra and listening to his presidential address on YouTube, I realized the breadth of his experience in the field, along with his authority as a professor who had written one of the field’s leading textbooks. During our interview over Zoom, McMahan offered his views with the sophistication of a world-class scholar in the persona of a down-home Midwestern professor. He discussed ideas that verged toward radical with an “everyman” style of reasonableness. After decades of teaching and writing, his commitment to the discipline was undiminished. He was well worth listening to about a discipline he has long represented.

McMahan is convinced that Communication is poised to become the leading discipline of the 21st century. Drawing freely on postmodern thinkers, he rests his conviction on the discipline’s focus on change, buttressed by inclusivity, for which has additional cites from a pantheon of scholars back to Roman times. He situates change in an expanding universe of ideas, theories, interests, structures, and practices that gives the discipline its characteristic unruly wholeness. He emphasizes the fluidity of the discipline’s boundaries and the variety and richness of scholarship that explores unexamined possibilities.

Turning from the theoretical to the practical, McMahan calls out the undeniable success of college Communication majors. They hold jobs in fields that dominate innovation, shape the marketplace, and influence everything from the soap we choose to the candidates we elect. For McMahan, the presence of Communication graduates in the media and business affirms the values of the university Communication curriculum. Courses in oral and written Communication, organizational theory, personal and social relationships, the media, and rhetoric are prerequisites for making sense of the “real” world and succeeding in it.

Accordingly, for McMahan, teachers bear an extraordinary responsibility. At the same time, he emphasizes the importance of teachers listening to what engages students. Twenty years ago, McMahan notes, he had barely heard of social media. Through student interest, he became aware of its growing presence and importance, and it is now a standard part of the curriculum. He listens to students about gaming, AI, robotics, immersive technologies, and quantum computing. Claiming no expertise in any of these fields, McMahan is nevertheless on the alert, and this alertness often informs his curiosity about papers and articles. As his thinking evolves, McMahan introduces new ideas into the classroom, thereby enriching the curriculum and reinforcing a continuous cycle of change.  

The implications of change in the discourse of the discipline had many variations in our conversation, including outreach and a welcoming inclusivity. If, for instance, change is at the intellectual core of the discipline, then openness to new ways of thinking is a virtue, and accessible and inclusive platforms for discussion and publication are essential. This offers one historical explanation for how and why NCA supports a multiplicity of interest groups, an abundance of papers at the annual meeting, and a dozen journals. For researchers and teachers of Communication spread thinly across the country in the decades after World War II, when the discipline began to blossom, these were the means for intellectual exploration. They were critical nodes for sharing new ideas and engaging with others of like inclination in an otherwise largely indifferent university environment.

McMahan also addresses a third theme of the discipline, in addition to change and inclusivity: acceptance. He recalled an annual meeting, early in his academic career, when he ventured into a session about an unfamiliar subject. Later, in conversation with a colleague, a “light bulb went on” and he saw new connections. Although always more diverse than other…older…disciplines, that colleague would most probably have been another white male, and “Ms.” was a new and, for some, contentious term. Today, feminist scholarship is well integrated, and students are likely to be discussing the subtleties of queer culture or the use of “they” instead of “he.” Insofar as contemporary students will find employment at companies that shape all kinds of Communication, these changes in the classroom also open the potential for a greater acceptance of change and inclusivity in the future marketplace.

Possibly, no discipline is more sensitive to the nuances of change, inclusivity, and acceptance than Communication, McMahan opines. As a discipline proud of its roots in the early 20th century and its blossoming in the decades after World War II, Communication research and scholarship occupy an ever-expanding perimeter of engagement with the world. The proliferation of NCA interest groups and journals, he says, reflect the process whereby Communication scholars are repeatedly challenging the limits of the discipline. Although, as a community of teachers and researchers, the discipline can struggle to fully accept the extensive and varied reach of its own research and scholarship, the resulting intellectual unruliness is of little concern to McMahan. Quite the contrary, it appears to delight him, and his undiminished commitment to Communication speaks to his intellectual excitement of participating in an endless, ongoing experiment.

McMahan is a strong advocate of the principles incorporated into the NCA Credo of Ethical Communication, which identifies truthfulness, accuracy, honesty, and reason as “essential to the integrity of Communication.” Ethical principles have long been used to clarify a discipline’s right and proper arena for professional engagement. In the case of Communication, however, McMahan’s views offer a modern twist. These principles may delimit a scholarly sphere from the messy and ill-defined crosscurrents of contemporary life and constrain the discipline’s intellectual flux within an ethical fence. Rather than limiting the discipline by erecting boundaries beyond which legitimate Communication research will not travel, however. ethical principles provide a roadmap for accepting the widest possible inclusivity and change.  

Our Zoom meeting had already exceeded its allotted time. And it was still too short to answer or even do more than acknowledge many of my questions. However, it was long enough for me to leave the discussion with a heightened respect for the discipline and a sense of why McMahan thought Communication might become the leading discipline of the 21st century. It also left me wanting many more conversations with this thoughtful and engaging Communication scholar.  


Marjorie Lightman, Ph.D. is NCA’s Interim Research Director