Monday, November 30, 2009

On the future of communication ... and the importance of answering "the big" questions

Here are a few slightly modified and shortened sections from a column I just wrote for the AEJMC newsletter, dealing with the future of communication as a discipline, and the importance of finding answers to the big, "sloppy" questions of our time:
"Communication as a discipline has come to a crossroads. The “mass” in mass communication has morphed into different publics that generate, exchange, and use content in ways that were unimaginable just a decade ago. And these changes in how content is produced and communicated are paralleled by much more far-reaching shifts in how some cohorts in society interpret traditional notions of privacy, objectivity, and source credibility. And so far, our discipline has not done a very good job at offering answers to what have become increasingly pressing questions in various societal debates. How do social media change how we interact with one another? How does information get disseminated in a fragmented multi-channel media environment? And what does the future of (mass) communication look like?

The tricky part, of course, is that many of the answers to these questions transcend the boundaries of our discipline. This is particularly challenging for a young field, such as communication, that continues to struggle with its identity and its desire to compete on an even playing field with much larger disciplines, such as psychology and political science. And if we are not careful, we may follow these disciplines down some dead ends. A good example is the debate surrounding Republican Senator Tom Coburn’s proposal in October 2009 to prohibit the National Science Foundation from “wasting any federal research funding on political science projects.” Coburn, of course, used the label “political science” but targeted social science much more broadly. And his comments rekindled an old debate among political scientists about incremental disciplinary research versus big questions. Cornell’s Peter Katzenstein summarized this intra-disciplinary dilemma best: “Graduate students discussing their field ... often speak in terms of ‘an interesting puzzle,’ a small intellectual conundrum... that tests the ingenuity of the solver, rather than the large, sloppy and unmanageable problems that occur in real life.”

Interestingly, President Obama has prioritized the search for answers to many of these sloppy, unmanageable problems, ... ranging from mandates for a green economy, to climate change, stem cell research and global warming.  All of these issues relate to the increasingly blurring lines between science, politics, society … and, of course, communication. These are the same areas where most societal debates of the next 50 years will take place. And unless we as communication researchers and educators find a way to make both scholarly and public contributions to these conversations, we will increasingly be marginalized as a discipline.

[A]ll of these debates further highlight the need for theory and methodology as a core field of inquiry in our discipline. ... Some of the most significant contributions to societal discourse by communication scholars have been based on (macro)theoretical models, such as the Spiral of Silence or Cultivation Theory, that dominated decades of scholarly research agendas but also influenced how society thinks about communication-related issues, including media and violence, parental TV ratings guides, election polling, and the evolution of social norms.

Communication theory and methodology, ultimately, are also at the center of effective education in the field of communication. Ten years from now, the media landscape will have undergone even more dramatic changes than we saw in the last decade. And as important as skills training may be, many of the medium-specific or industry-specific competencies we can convey to students today will be made obsolete by emerging technologies and changes in our social structure. So the key question becomes: How do we prepare students for jobs that don’t even exist yet?  And the answer is simple. We need to prepare our undergraduate and graduate students for a world that no longer thinks along medium-, content- or discipline-specific boundaries. In fact, many of the big social questions outlined earlier require answers that draw from knowledge in multiple disciplines. The challenge, therefore, is to equip our students with skill sets that include abstract, theoretical thinking, methodological sophistication, and other types of disciplinary expertise that make them competitive in specific areas of employment, but to also give them the transdisciplinary outlook on the world that will allow them to take leadership roles in solving society's big upcoming challenges.


Monday, November 23, 2009

Jobs: Sustainability Sciences at UW-Madison

The Wisconsin Bioen Initiative at UW-Madison is filling a number of positions related to energy and biofuels, with possible foci in communication policy, economics, agronomy, etc.
Degree and area of specialization:

A Ph.D. and a strong proven record of teaching and research as it relates to the sustainability aspects of biofuels, biomaterials, bioenergy, and related fields of energy storage are required. Applicants with experience in cross disciplinary research and non-academic collaboration are strongly encouraged to apply.

Minimum number of years and type of relevant work experience:

Sustained record of professional achievement as indicated by outstanding teaching, sponsored research and publications, and demonstrated leadership activities in the field. A record of scholarship or demonstrated potential for scholarship suitable for tenure at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Principal duties:

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is committed to improving our future through bioenergy and has created the Wisconsin Bioenergy Initiative (WBI) to facilitate that transformation. The WBI is a university-based coalition that capitalizes and expands the talent to create, commercialize and promote bioenergy solutions. In order to advance these goals, UW-Madison is seeking to hire additional faculty in the bioenergy field within established departments.

Areas that we would like to expand include but are not limited to:
  • Individual with expertise in community and regional development with an emphasis on the economic and physical infrastructure needed for bioenergy development, and the analysis of social, cultural, and land use impacts of bioenegy production, distribution, and use
  • Individual with expertise in behavior change, public attitudes, and social marketing, particularly in the energy sector.
  • Individual with expertise in applied ethics and public policy to support the understanding of the social impacts of new energy technologies
  • Individual with expertise in ecological modeling which may include time series analysis, spatial statistics, hierarchical models and Bayesian statistics that can be applied to natural resource management including assessment of bioenergy potentials and impacts
The position requires instruction in undergraduate and graduate coursework in both core disciplinary courses as well as a renewable energy curriculum. Interdisciplinary and interdepartmental research will be expected to both develop a nationally and internationally recognized research program to further the WBI mission. The successful candidate is expected to strengthen and capitalize on strong ties with industry, institutions and government agencies, and to become a nationally and internationally recognized individual. The individual will also contribute to UW-Madison's strong commitment to faculty governance and the Wisconsin Idea through department, university, professional, and public service.

The UW-Madison campus is located in the heart of the city of Madison that offers an unsurpassed vibrant living and learning community.

How to apply:

Applications should include a comprehensive curriculum, application letter, teaching statement, and proposed research and funding plan and should be sent to

The University of Wisconsin is committed to increasing the diversity of the college community and curriculum. Candidates who can contribute to these goals are encouraged to identify their strengths and experiences in these areas.

Appointment type:  Faculty
Full time salary rate: Minimum $70,000 ACADEMIC (9 months), depending on Qualifications
Appointment percent: 100%
Anticipated begin date: AUGUST 24, 2010
Number of positions: 4

To ensure consideration

Application must be received by: JANUARY 30, 2010
For more information, see here and here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The end of the boy scouts? New Pew data on internet use and social networks

Pew just released a new study on Social Isolation and New Technologies.  Among the more interesting punch lines:
"... Americans are not as isolated as has been previously reported. People’s use of the mobile phone and the internet is associated with larger and more diverse discussion networks. And ... internet use in general and use of social networking services such as Facebook in particular are associated with more diverse social networks."
This is good news, given much of the research I have conducted with colleagues at Cornell and Wisconsin that showed positive impacts of having more diverse discussion networks on political knowledge and participation (e.g., here, here, and here).

The downside of the Pew data: Internet use and use of social networking sites also undermined social support in face-to-face settings, such as family support or helping our neighbors. In short: We may be sharing pictures and status updates with a more diverse and geographically dispersed set of friends, but we're not helping the old lady down the hallway bring in her groceries.