Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Communicating our Values; Valuing our Communication

In his essay "Communication Scholars Need to Communicate," Ernest J. Wilson III, dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, evaluates our field according to the standards of coherency, relevance, and rigor - and awards us a C-. Among his observations, one is particularly salient: "Comparing scholarly citations across fields, communication is a net importer of new, generative ideas; it rarely exports them to other fields." Wilson is correct in this assertion; we can do more to articulate the value of our scholarship and productivity. Yet the author's broader claims that we should seek a "commonly accepted core of methods" is less convincing.

The core of the problem lies in Wilson's inability to define communication in a useful way. In one of his five proposed competencies, he claims (paraphrasing here) that communication researchers study how meanings are communicated, augmenting this circular definition with an appeal to functionalism, stating that we own the "distinctions and relations" between "sender, receiver, message, channel and context." We are also, Wilson writes, respectful of multiple audiences, interested in varied domains, and capable of connecting otherwise distinct disciplines. These are reasonable, if unsurprising claims. Yet his definition of communication as a site of analysis and creativity remains (to use his words) a "black box."

His argument falters, not because Wilson fails to open that black box but rather because he seems determined to box us in. He is correct that students, teachers, theorists, and practitioners (and their many hybrids) should be able to explain what we contribute to the world. We should indeed offer specific and meaningful answers to contemporary questions. But our ability to meet that challenge will not be found by hewing to overly functional or overly broad notions of communication. Rather than chasing down some chimeric definition of "communication," we should be prepared to define what we can do from a communication standpoint. Our answers will be unique, just as unique as every problem we encounter.

I should add that as a demonstration of rhetorical skill Wilson's essay does little service to his argument, at least when evaluating his surfeit of hackneyed phrasing ("communication is a two-way street" and "The field suffers from a kind of academic log-rolling behavior which feeds the reification of silos in the field"), and his excessive tendency to trade repetition for proof. Read it for yourself (wading through the author-bona fides and USC-Annenberg boosterism throughout), and you'll see what I mean. As you do, be wary of Wilson's admittedly pithy but ultimately specious conclusion that, "now is the time for communication to act more like economics."

If the current state of the U.S. economy is any measure, our field's problem isn't its failure to count dollars and cents. Our problem is the need to reshape the sense of what counts.

Read the essay: Communication Scholars Need to Communicate

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