What is communication studies? notes from Columbia roundtable

The communications colloquium that I organize at Columbia hosted a roundtable today, with Michael Schudson (Columbia/UC San Diego), Shannon Mattern (New School), and Helga Tawil-Souri (NYU) talking about different graduate-level courses they have taught to introduce incoming MA and PhD students to the field of communications studies/media studies.

The conversation was wide-ranging and interesting, and obviously partly reflected the institutions the three of them work at. We discussed the distance between the seemingly somewhat ambiguous and indistinct conceptual and theoretical definitions of what exactly the field is supposed to be, and the considerable demand there is for education and research in this area–as reflected by the influx of new students at all levels, and the amount of money that floats to various forms of communications-related research (if not always done in communications departments).

I can’t hope to summarize everything here, but a few observations.

Michael Schudson talked about three different orientations or programs in research in communications, a ‘derived’ that sees communications as determined by something else (economy, politics, organizational logics, what have you), a ‘contextual’ orientation that doesn’t really have an a priori view of the explanatory role of processes of communications, but puts them at the center of analysis nonetheless, and a ‘strong’ program that takes communications as a central and foundational force in human existence. He pointed out that the strong program may still have many adherent in communication studies (various descendants of Marshall McLuhan springs to mind), but that it, in his view, has failed to gain wider currency in the broader intellectual world–and that that is a good thing too. He argued that communications studies doesn’t need a strong program to be viable as a field of inquiry.

Shannon Mattern pointed to the challenge of introducing very different students with various backgrounds and expectations, and often decidedly non-academic interests (in management, in production, in performance) to theories of media and communication. She highlighted how the media program at the new school has tried to move away from an emphasis on ‘key thinkers’ and pre-packaged readers, and towards a thematic approach and an emphasis on theory as practice and live ideas, concretely asking the students to grapple with theories in the fields of media and technology, media and power, plus media and aesthetics. She mentioned that the relatively large size of the media program at the New School helped the department maintain a critical mass where both students and faculty would routinely be asked to step out of their comfort zone and deal with new areas of production, practice, and theory, and mentioned the interesting idea of offering university-wide skills courses in media production akin to writing courses, and for much the same reason–everybody should be equipped to communicate effectively, and that arguably takes more than writing today.

Helga Tawil-Souri spoke about NYU’s transition from the media ecology paradigm inherited from Neil Postman, and towards an uncertain (but no doubt interesting) future. She described how the faculty and comparable programs across the U.S. had been canvassed to map out a master list of core readings that individual courses could then be build from. In contrast to a model of introducing students to the field by introducing them to the faculty at the school they attend (one that Michael mentioned Stanford has used, and that plays a role in the proseminar taught at Columbia too), she explained that at NYU, a conscious decision had been taken to bascially ban work by NYU’s own faculty from the core. The idea being that students would be introduced to their work in other courses.

In the discussion, we talked about the strengths and weaknesses of communication studies as a multi-disciplinary field that arguably imports more than it exports. Todd Gitlin remarked that the lack of export probably has more to do with the protectionism of adjacent fields, and that we therefore shouldn’t worry too much about it–what looks like a weakness to some, a conceptually and empirically heterogenous field, can in fact be precisely the strength of communications research–no one will tell you, ‘that project does not beling in communications!’, no ideas or avenues of inquiery are barred in advance (even if they are of course still always explored at the investigators own risk and cost in terms of time and effort). Julia Sonnevend provided a happy note towards the end by basically validating this idea by pointing out that precisely the fluid and open nature of the field was what had made her decide to opt for communications as the disciplinary and institutional home for her work, over more established and clearly demarcated neighboring disciplines. Cheers to that. And thanks to all for a good dicussion.


One response to “What is communication studies? notes from Columbia roundtable

  1. thanks for this write-up rasmus. fascinating insights.

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