I have a love-hate relationship with syllabi. I am envious of teachers who feel comfortable assigning a single text and “teaching the text.” In some ways I wish I could do this without being bored to death. I have a feeling at least some students would thank me for doing so.
I am charged with providing an overview of communication theory to new graduate students. This should not be too difficult, right? I mean, we’re not talking the cutting edge, here. This should be a course that looks similar to courses at other, similar communication programs.
The thing is, there is no such thing as a common understanding of what the field of communication considers to be its core. Moreover, one cannot assume that most graduate students come in with an understanding of the history of communication research, with that broad survey. Indeed, many of them don’t even have a strong grounding in basic social theory, even when they are coming from universities and programs that have a reputation in this area.
Add to this that we are communication with a dash of “informatics,” and you have a lot of demands.
This year, I agreed with my colleague, Tom Feeley, to split the two core theory courses roughly into social and psychological approaches (not that this is a clean split, of course, but it’s a starting point). So I start to map out some good things to read. Very soon, I’m up to nearly a hundred items that students should definitely read, and I realize I have to start cutting.
Out goes any real discussion of globalization, development, or intercultural communication. Gone are cultural studies, feminist approaches, post-structuralism, and post-modernism. Any cultural or ethnographic approaches are off the map. Hermeneutics, the bane of last years’ students, has been excised. Despite the hope to start talking about a relationship of society to technology, any concept of social construction of science or technology is left aside. No chance to really talk about concepts like the body, space, or design. Institutional and economic treatments are gone, leaving only the core critique from Bagdikian, sort of in a vacuum. And I end up with what to me seems like the bare minimums, yet I know from experience will seem like a serious reading load–especially to students for whom English is a second language.
From this paucity I start to think that maybe a textbook is not such a horrible idea. The point of the class, however, is not so much familiarity with the ideas that have come before (though this is important), but an ability to process, analyze, make sense of, and make use of theory. As such, reading a preprocessed version doesn’t really do much for the student.
And so, the final version of the class is likely to look a lot like the draft syllabus I have now. Here is the overview:
This course aims to provide a set of maps for understanding the social forces and effects related to two recent communication “revolutions”: the mass communication revolution and the information revolution. The focus will remain heavily on social explanations for the phenomena grouped roughly under the term “communication,” and will deal largely with communication that is mediated through communication technologies.
We will not be reading a core canon of communication theory, since no such canon exists. Instead, we will be reading through a variety of work that in some way touches on issues of communication in a social setting. One of the primary tasks of the semester will be to collectively arrive at a story about how communication theory fits together, and how various models and theories map out a field of communication.
Now it’s time to whip the blogging class syllabus into order. If you’ve read this far, you’ll probably be getting an email from me some time in the next couple of weeks asking if you would be willing to guest blog :).