The State of the Communication Discipline

The National Communication Association offered its inaugural “State of the Discipline” Address at the 2010 Annual Conference. Dr. David Zarefsky of Northwestern University was chosen to begin this discussion having attended 43 consecutive NCA conferences and served in numerous leadership roles.

National Communication Association

From Zarefsky’s perspective, is communication a discipline? “Yes and no.” We lack widely-known scholarly exemplars (perhaps Aristotle is the closest), a common methodology, and an agreed-upon framework of study. Yet, we all have one central unifying focus: the relationship between messages and people. And Zarefsky notes, “goodness knows, we have the organizational infrastructure of a discipline: governing body, journals, and committees.”

Zarefsky spent time as a visiting professor of English at Harvard. His experience led to several lessons about the communication as a discipline:

  • “There is much more interest in our subject than in our discipline.” Communication pervades society. Yet, people often assume that communication is everyone’s subject.
  • “There is no sense of arrogance or intellectual smugness suggesting that folks at Harvard might find our work on a lower academic pecking order than their own.”
  • “What is old is new again.” The cutting-edge of our discipline is no longer American public address, yet the study of communication in all forms remains compelling. Thus, a discipline’s heritage moves not in a line, but in a circle.

The discipline faces 5 predicaments, according to Zarefsky, that pose questions central to our future:

  1. We have a hard time forecasting and predicting disciplinary trends. We sit on the balance of theory and practice; and, we have experienced expanded sophistication and specialization. But, if asked about the trends, we can’t make justified claims.
  2. We have shown a decided preference for addressing the contemporary. Rhetoric in the 1960s, Organizational communication in the 1980s, Media studies in the 2000s. These moves are valuable, but “traditional” areas of study are equally important toward the establishment of a knowledge base.
  3. We’re not sure how to balance our commitments to both scholarship and pedagogy. The two have become disconnected, to the detriment of our discipline.
  4. We’re unsure how to position ourselves strategically. We could be a “service” discipline providing lessons for other disciplines; a “self-contained” discipline in “splendid isolation”; an interdisciplinary discipline which contributes to multiple conversations.
  5. We need to understand the politics of our discipline. The roots of communication are rooted in politics, citizenship, and participation in public life. Our foundation is in the training of citizens who understand and advocate for their rights and freedoms.

In communication, “our strengths are also our weaknesses.” If we avoid these predicaments, our discipline will find itself positioned in ways that we may not enjoy. Instead, we must act together to move forward a discipline that is, like this speaker, truly compelling.


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