General Education and Assessment

PortlandEven if I hadn’t lucked into the last seat on the only flight home ahead of the impending snowmaggedon in DC, I’d have been glad I had the opportunity to attend AAC&U’s networking meeting, General Education and Assessment: Disruptions, Innovations and Opportunities, in Portland, OR, the last weekend in February.

The conference began with a keynote delivered by Randall Bass of Georgetown University and Sybril Bennett of Belmont University. What struck me most during the keynote was Bass’s tactic of predicting what the work world might look like in 2030 and reflecting on what higher education should be doing now to prepare. He envisions that there will be three types of work: work that requires creative problem solving, work that can be done by computers and robots, and low-paid service work. Predicting the future, of course, is rough sailing, but his forecasts ring true to me.

Rather than being alarmed, though, I was hopeful. The Communication discipline and its graduates who are entering the work force are creative problem solvers. From figuring out how to address a hostile audience, to motivating a lackadaisical group member on a small group project, to analyzing and creating messages for a variety of contexts, our graduates are adept at using communication to creatively address problems. Although I’m not certain that Bass’s predictions of the work world will come to pass exactly as he envisions, it makes sense to be thinking about and preparing our graduates for the work world they will encounter not just in the first few years, but through mid-career and beyond.

Of course, we want our graduates to do well when they leave our environs, but we’re not just about turning out workers to serve the needs of the labor market. Many sessions addressed this issue, focusing on civic learning and the importance of having a framework to make informed ethical judgments in varied situations. In particular, sessions that addressed the next version of Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile focused on the importance of both areas in general education curricula.

The main reason I attended the conference involved presenting with NCA member and NCA Advancing the Discipline grant recipient Leslie Reynard of Washburn University.  Our presentation was titled “Calming 21st Century Disruptions in Higher Education: Aligning General Education and Program Goals.”  Leslie discussed the results of her related project, which investigated best practices in Communication capstone courses, and I discussed the many related initiatives NCA supports, from strengthening the basic course, to providing resources, to helping programs better position themselves in their institutions. The program was well-attended by faculty and administrators from many different disciplines.

The meeting was a wonderful opportunity to interact with higher education faculty and administrators from multiple disciplines who in the wake of “initiative fatigue” and dwindling resources, still work hard to serve students well and provide a compelling case for the high-quality outcomes higher education produces.

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The State of Doctoral Education in Communication

If it’s autumn, it’s time to talk about the state of doctoral education in Communication.

Graduate in gownsNew cohorts of graduate students are beginning their programs of study in graduate programs across the country. Prospective graduate students are looking at programs, talking to advisers and mentors, and figuring out what’s the best plan for their future. More and more students are pondering a future in graduate school–even in the arts and humanities, where enrollment in doctoral programs in 2012 increased by 7.7%. Faculty members and administrators are determining hiring plans and assessing the state of individual doctoral programs in their yearly process of self-study and internal assessment. In short, it’s a good time to think about doctoral education in Communication.

NCA examines and provides information about doctoral education in Communication via its Doctoral Education Committee (DEC). These dedicated volunteers work to enhance NCA programming that promotes doctoral education in Communication, including oversight of the annual NCA Doctoral Honors Seminar and the Miller Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award. At the DEC’s urging, NCA has prepared the Doctoral Program Guide that provides information about 76 doctoral programs in Communication. Along with the program information, the Guide also includes NCA’s latest report, “Assessing Doctoral Program Quality in Communication.”

Among the most frequently asked questions we receive at NCA concerns the 2004 NCA Reputational Study that ranked doctoral programs in several research specialties and along three different criteria. We are often asked if we’re going to replicate the study or offer another ranking system for doctoral education. All of these requests prompted serious thought and discussion in the National Office and among the DEC. We also researched the historical and current attempts to rank or rate doctoral programs, particularly in Communication, and the “Assessing Doctoral Program Quality in Communication” report is the result of that research.

DPG ImageInstead of sponsoring or conducting another reputational study, DEC and the NCA staff decided a better approach would be to provide current and relevant information about doctoral education in Communication. Hence, the Doctoral Program Guide. There are many concerns with both of the main methods for ranking/rating doctoral programs–reputational studies and productivity studies. Reputational studies are inherently difficult to conceptualize and execute. Response rates to such studies are often low and the measurement instruments can be complicated and onerous for the respondent. Who is sampled for reputational analyses and what factors contribute to a program’s reputation are persistent issues for reputational studies. Timeliness is also a concern, as program reputations change quickly, faculty members change affiliations, and program offerings vary from time to time.

Productivity studies of research output are also complicated. What research is counted, what databases are used, what citations are measured—these are all issues that such studies must grapple with as they proceed to assess doctoral program quality. On a related note, because Communication is a multi-methodological, pluralistic discipline, its scholars conduct and disseminate their research differently and those differences may well involve publication patterns and frequencies as well as citation practices.

In the end, as we say in the “Assessing Doctoral Program Quality in Communication” report, “Consumers of rankings and ratings of doctoral programs in Communication would be well-advised to consider such limitations and to adapt their expectations about such quality measures accordingly. Whether prospective or current graduate students, faculty members or unit administrators, anyone who attends to assessments of doctoral programs in Communication, or any discipline, should seek out and consult as much information as possible, recognizing that no single assessment or measurement of graduate program quality is definitive and that, in the case of doctoral program quality, more information and more data is better than less.”

Share your wisdom with new communication graduate students!

Water Cooler GossipIt’s back to school time and very soon many budding communication scholars will embark on their graduate studies.  I asked a favorite professor of mine from my Penn State days when I was about to begin my doctoral studies at the University of Oklahoma if he had any advice for me.  Without hesitation he offered this, “Stay away from the water cooler and read.” Wise advice for sure – but certainly not the only advice one might offer new graduate students.

Let’s fire up the comment feature on this blog – please share your most sage advice you’ve heard or offered to beginning graduate students.

Update: The Tenured Radical at The Chronicle of Higher Education recently offered the Ten Commandments for New Graduate Students–more good advice. Here’s a link.

MOOC Mania

MOOC Mania

Online Training, E-learning ConceptPassing fad or educational revolution, MOOCs are on the minds of educators of every stripe. Massive Open Online courses, taught by star professors to thousands of students at once, are supposedly going to revolutionize the higher education world. I’ve not taken a MOOC nor do I imagine I ever will. I just don’t think anything that I want to learn more about at this point could best be taught via a MOOC. For example, although my technological skills are in need of some updating, if I’m not in front of a computer approaching learning something like Excel in a hands on manner, there’s no way I’ll retain anything.

That got me to asking, What if my undergraduate education occurred in the age of MOOC madness? I received my B.A. in Telecommunications from the Department of Speech Communication (now Communication Arts and Sciences) at Penn State in 1985. I chose that program because of the interpersonal interaction with my professors – in a MOOC world, I’m just not sure I’d have majored in Communication, let alone eventually obtain a doctorate in the discipline.

But could any of my undergraduate courses succeed in a MOOC format? I’m thinking about many of my general education courses. Let’s take Introduction to Film as an example. It fulfilled a humanities requirement and was simply a fun course. All 700 of us met once a week for a 50-minute lecture on film history and once a week to sit in the dark in Schwab Auditorium to watch film. I saw Birth of Nation, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Bicycle Thief, all the classics. It was certainly an impersonal course on some level. I took three exams, all multiple guess and upon turning in my paper, I had to show ID to prove that it was actually me taking the test. Could this course be offered in a MOOC format? Of course – as soon as the problem of verifying identity of the student is solved. But will it be the same experience? Doubtful. Nothing can replace seeing Psycho for the first time in that auditorium and hearing half the crowd scream as Norman Bates murders Marion Crane in the shower of her room at the Bates Motel.

One of my science electives was taught by a professor who had an experiment on the Space Shuttle. Being a total space program geek as a child (I never missed an Apollo launch) I was mesmerized. The entire course was organized around the experiment, which helped illustrate countless scientific concepts. There were over 500 students in my class. Could it have been a MOOC? Most definitely, but like viewing Psycho with my classmates, I don’t think the excitement of being there to actually listen and watch the obvious joy the professor exhibited while discussing his experiment could ever come across on video. In a student learning outcomes world though, I have no doubt that the goals of both of these courses could be accomplished in a MOOC format.

Turn to my Communication courses, though, and the story is different. I took Public Speaking from NCA’s current 2nd Vice President, Carole Blair, back in the fall of 1981 while she was working on her doctorate at Penn State. That class hooked me on the discipline and I followed it with courses in rhetorical theory with Gerry Hauser, small group communication with Randy Hirokowa, and politics and film with Tom Benson. Lectures, discussions, interaction and yes, actual face time via office hours (Benson’s office hour lines were historic!) could never be replaced by a MOOC. The critical thinking, communication skills (both written and oral), ability to work in groups and the like, all the things that employers are saying they want (see AAC&U’s recent employer survey) couldn’t be taught in a MOOC.

No one can watch 1000 speeches and give the kind of feedback Carole gave to me in public speaking, which greatly improved my oral communication skills. No one can grade 1000 papers and give the kind of feedback Tom Benson used to give me on my writing. I suspect MOOCs are here to stay in some form but they won’t replace the classroom completely. My hunch though is that MOOCs have the potential to go the way of the elocutionists before too long. The deep learning that one is supposed to engage in at a college or university level simply can’t be accomplished in a MOOC format. Further, I suspect somewhere along the line, reading a book or watching a good history channel documentary will be preferable to star professors lecturing at us via our home computer.

Embracing Wikipedia – without the question mark!

On April 29, I bMary_Grace_Antonylogged about NCA’s Wikipedia project, titling the post Embracing Wikipedia? It’s time for brief update. Professor Mary Grace Antony recently was featured on the Wikimedia Foundation’s blog and it’s clear she has no question mark behind her embrace of NCA’s Wikimedia Initiative. Professor Antony incorporated a wiki project into her New Media and Technology course at Schreiner University. Read more about her Wikiefforts at Wikimedia blog.

What’s a COMM Major Worth?

What do Bill Gates, Ralph Lauren, Henry Ford, and Harry Truman have in common?

The answer might not be obvious at first glance–they are all highly successful individuals who did not earn a college degree. And they are the bane of college and university educators as the examples always used by legislators, students, parents, and anyone else trying to argue for the declining value of a college education.

Dollars fly conceptAs tuition and other college costs rise for students and parents nationwide in all sectors of higher education, and with all the renewed public attention to the pressing issues of rising student debt and the dynamics of America’s student loan system, it makes sense to ask seriously about the value of a college education. And it also makes sense to drill down on that question to really explore which majors or college plans of study are better than others.

For those of us who study and teach in the communication arts and sciences, then, an operative question of the moment is What’s a COMM major worth?

Some answers to this question are found in a new report from the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown’s Public Policy Institute. Entitled Hard Times: College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings, the report draws on data from the American Community Survey and from the Census Bureau to offer a comparative snapshot about unemployment and earning power based on specific college majors. For Communication (identified in the report as Communications & Journalism), the findings are quite interesting.

  • COMM is not among the majors with either the lowest or the highest levels of unemployment. The major with the lowest unemployment rates is Nursing, at 4.8%. while students majoring in Information Systems face the highest level of unemployment at 14.7%.
  • For COMM, the unemployment rates are 7.8% for recent college graduates, 6.0% for experienJob Graduateced college graduates, and 4.2% for graduate degree holders. Recent college graduates in the Humanities and Liberal Arts face a 9.0% unemployment rate while those in Psychology & Social Work are looking at an 8.8% rate, and those in Social Science are facing a 10.3% unemployment rate.
  • COMM majors who are recent college graduates command median earnings of about $33,000. This is higher than Humanities and Liberal Arts majors ($30K) and equal to Law and Public Policy majors ($33K), but lower than Engineering majors ($54K) and Business majors ($39K). Graduate degree holders in COMM have median earnings of $64,000, ahead of majors in the Arts, Education, Recreation, and Psychology & Social Work.
  • Among the COMM sub-fields identified in the report, Mass Media majors face the dimmest prospects, with an employment rate for recent college graduates at 8.9% and median earnings of just $31,000. The report counts Family & Consumer Sciences majors in the COMM group, and these graduates fare best in unemployment rates (6.4%), but less successfully in terms of median earnings ($30K)

PathwaysFor years, NCA and Communication educators have worked to convince students and parents that a COMM major is worth it–that the degree will be beneficial for students both in terms of liberal arts learning and in practical preparation for the challenging job market. Whether it’s via Pathways, the NCA guide to careers in Communication, or the ubiquitous poster in COMM departments nationwide that asks students “What Can You Do with a Communication Degree?,” we’ve spent considerable time and effort as educators convincing students, administrators, legislators, and parents that our degree matters, that it sufficiently prepares young people to pursue successful careers and to build fruitful lives.

Georgetown’s report on college majors and earning potential is good news for COMM educators and COMM majors. It demonstrates, with compelling data, that a COMM major is worth much, and is good preparation for young people who confront a difficult and daunting employment marketplace.

NCA’s First Undergraduate Honors Conference

It probably sounds trite to say that I am more hopeful than ever about the future of our discipline after spending a weekend with 17 rising seniors in communication this past weekend, but it’s true.  NCA hosted its first undergraduate honors conference here in Washington, DC on the campus of American University.  And as the future of our discipline, these students represent a bright path forward.

The weekend bUndergraduate Honors Conference 002egan on Thursday evening with an orientation and dinner followed by an opening talk by speechwriter Lindsay Hayes.  Lindsay, just two days post successfully defending her dissertation, regaled her audience with many stories of her speechwriting career and left with one simple message: success wasn’t about luck, it was about thorough preparation meeting opportunity.

Friday included a tour of the Library of Congress and the Newseum.  Although time was short and participants could not Undergraduate Honors Conference 019conduct any research in the library, many obtained readers cards and pledged to return to devote more time to researching their interests.  The Newseum, more than anything a museum of modern communication, demonstrated the power of mass communication.  From exhibits on award winning political cartoons to the collection of Pulitzer Prize winning photographs, participants encountered journalistic accounts of our nation’s history.

Undergraduate Honors Conference 037Saturday’sUndergraduate Honors Conference 054 activities included traditional scholarly sessions.  Two paper panels produced lively conversation, both from respondents (Professor Mark Mormon and Professor Trevor Parry-Giles) as well as from the participants who engaged their colleagues with questions.  A poster session followed the panels and 7 students visually depicted their work and held many conversations about their projects.  From critical cultural studies of place and space, to rhetorical criticism of political speeches, to quantitative social scientific inquiry on how veterans use communication to adjust to college life, these students represented a broad array of communication scholarship.  The afternoon concluded with group discussions about their plans for their senior thesis or capstone project.

The conference concluded Sunday morning with Dr. Mormon, Dr. Parry-Giles and myself leading discussions about Undergraduate Honors Conference 079selecting the right graduate program and preparing an outstanding graduate school application.  Résumé preparation and interviewing for entry-level positions entered the discussion also.  Most all of the participants planned to continue their education after receiving their B.A. and a few had clear plans to be academics.  We will continue to grow as a discipline with these talented young scholars in the pipeline.

It is hard to convey the excitement of this conference.  As a novice event planner (they never taught contract negotiation with housing services in grad school), I was quite nervous throughout the weekend.  But there were very few snafu’s and by Sunday afternoon as we all enjoyed a lunch out of the dorm at Panera before everyone headed home, it was clear new friendships were forged that will stay with these budding scholars for a long time to come.

Embracing Wikipedia?

Professors hate it, students are warned to steer clear of it, but put to a lie detector test both groups would fail if they claimed to never use Wikipedia.  It’s impossible to avoid and hard to ignore that Wikipedia is a convenient place to START a research process on a topic you know little about.  Use almost any Internet search engine on almost any topic, Wikipedia is the first or among the first hits when conducting a search.

WikiAccording to Wikipedia, the site receives over 470 million unique visitors each month, with over 77,000 contributors working on over 22 million articles.  For a complete picture of how vast the site has become visit their statistics page at  It’s a sure bet that by the time this blog post is live the numbers cited above will have increased .  Among those 22 million articles are many entries on communication topics.  Perusing them can be painful as they are often incomplete, based on outdated citations or just plain wrong.  That’s where NCA’s Wikipedia initiative comes in to play.

NCA in partnership with the Wikimedia Foundation decided that if that many people were obtaining information from Wikipedia about communication related topics and the discipline as a whole, it was best to ensure that the information is as accurate as possible.  NCA launched a wiki project last year at the annual convention in Orlando.  Panelists, led by Wikimedia foundation education program communications manager, LiAnna Davis discussed how they incorporated wiki research projects into their classes.  Assignments served multiple purposes.  First, students had to learn to work with Wikipedia’s editing system.  Second, students had to do traditional archival research on a topic and third, students had to write.

As a discipline, Communication embraces (or critiques) new technologies as they emerge.  I remember that while working on my MA at Penn State, I was “forced” to request my first email account for a seminar in the Rhetoric of Film taught by Tom Benson.  In addition to completing all the reading for each class, I needed to email fellow seminar participants a post reacting to those readings.  It seems impossible to think that it was actually difficult to navigate my first email account considering I now receive hundreds of emails a day.  Learning to edit a Wikipedia page certainly was more complicated for me but my tech skills are all the better for taking the time to learn and I’m sure my student’s tech skills will improve upon completing the Wikipedia assignment I have planned.

Once each year I teach a section of Public Communication at George Washington University.  Next time, I plan on turning a portion of the required written speech criticism assignment into a Wikipedia assignment.   The original critical evaluation of a speech by the students wouldn’t be appropriate to post on Wikipedia, but all the background research such as the biography of the orator being evaluated, when the speech occurred, what exigencies the speech was meant to address and what others said about the speech would all be useful additions to Wikipedia.

I’ll be sure to post how the assignment goes once complete.  For more information and ideas for incorporating a Wikipedia research project into a course visit NCA’s Wikipedia initiative page at  You can also consult the following article for additional information:  Rush (Eger), E. K., & Tracy, S. J. (2010). Wikipedia as Public Scholarship: Communicating Our Impact Online. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 38(3), 309-315.

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