Rhetorically speaking…

This past weekend, the National Communication Association put on a three-day Summer Institute for chairs of communication departments, with the theme, “Raising Your Program Profile.” Maybe forty chairs and a few staff attended. The meeting was held at a hotel here in DC.

It was a privilege to be in the room.

What I heard. At breakfast prior to the start of the Saturday session, one of the participants described himself to me as a professor of rhetoric. Made me realize that although I thought I knew the meaning of the word, I didn’t really. So I asked him. “It’s the science of persuasion,” he said.

The science of persuasion.

That, in a nutshell, contains the dilemma for today’s physical and natural scientists…maybe scientists of all ages. We sit in the laboratory. We go to sea. We collect and analyze data, form hypotheses, test these. So far, so good. We have two powerful tools to alert us when we’re allowing our thought process to drift off the road: data and mathematics.

Then it comes time for us to share our results with someone else. Maybe a fellow scientist. Perhaps a policymaker. A life partner. A neighbor. A journalist. A whole bunch of people, from different cultures and backgrounds, with diverse interests and concerns.

What’s the first thing we do?

We wing it. We fail to acknowledge that persuasion is a science. It may lack equations. But it has rules. Communication scholars have uncovered realities about how our words and actions affect our hearers and viewers. Know and respect these realities, and we’ll do well…or at least, we’ll cause little harm. But ignore these, or be ignorant of them…and we may well create more problems than we’ve solved.

Something like that seems to have happened with the climate change discussion. And the resulting dysfunction has attracted the attention of a small subset of the communication community. So folks like Ed Maibach and Dan Kahan and Jon Krosnick and Tony Leiserowitz and many others have taken notice and begun to work with scientists, policymakers, and the public to characterize and repair the damage. But it’ll take a while. Perhaps more time than we have. And of course climate change is but one arena where this problem comes up. Think stem cell research. Use of animals in clinical trials. Evolution versus creationism. Politics.

I was also reminded yesterday that communication and meteorology have a lot in common. They’re not such much single disciplines as they are colonies of disciplines. [Like those bodies of ours, which host ten times as many cells as we can call our own.] Meteorology requires a knowledge of chemistry and cloud microphysics, fluid dynamics, the laws of radiative transfer, electromagnetic wave propagation, and so on. Rhetoric draws on psychology, sociology, philosophy/logic, and much more.  As such, communication and meteorology occupy unusual space in academia, which favors a disciplinary approach to the world (the “silos” metaphor gets tossed around a lot…although see the LOTRW post of a while back entitled “Stovepipes! The Musical”).

The day also saw department chairs reciting quite a litany of woes (probably not unique to communication)… low journal impact factors, the competition between R1 universities and all the rest, the difficulty in working across departments in universities when the performance metrics and rewards are skewed the other way around.

I heard from two great panelists. One, Monique Mitchell Turner, an associate professor in the Department of Prevention and Community Health, at The George Washington University, who gave a wonderfully crisp and practical range of advice for department chairs struggling to raise their program profiles. The other, Barbara Kline Pope, who gave a great overview of NAS/NRC work in the communication of science, including a summary of a recent Sackler Colloquium on the Science of Science Communication. Here’s a link to the webcast. What a well-crafted and significant event!

And finally – icing on the cake – a keynote talk from a communication scholar now a university leader: Charles A. Bantz, Chancellor of Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis. What a fascinating institution! Run jointly by two other institutions, in an urban setting, itself an amalgam of a number of smaller institutions dating back a few years, rapidly growing. Quite a story.

What I said. Our panel was entitled “Forging Interdisciplinary Partnerships to Raise Your Program’s Profile.” In my remarks, I warned at the outset that I’d probably add little that participants didn’t know already; they were most likely only to find their thinking affirmed in a couple of respects. I then raised the following points. (1) Communication departments had much to offer other disciplines; meteorology is a significant but by no means isolated example. In the 21st century, all of us are pulling for communication researchers to prosper. (2) Raising a communication program profile within a university or a community should not be an end in itself. To forge interdisciplinary partnerships with only that goal in mind would be to fail. Instead, the aim should be to solve a great societal problem or meet an important need; to build partnerships as appropriate to meet that need. They’d happily discover that in so doing, they’d incidentally raised the program profile. (3) To attempt only raise their profile relative to other university departments would only add to a babble of voices. To partner up to raise the profile of their home university as it now exists would also be Quixotic, since universities as currently run don’t appear to be sustainable. Instead they should work with others not to enhance the university of today but to invent the university of the future. (3) Countries are strapped financially, and looking to save bits and scraps of money. Support for research is one target. University departments therefore all should be concerned with the common-good challenge of maintaining a high level of innovation. Communication faculty and departments should contribute their (important) bit. (4) Communication departments and faculty shouldn’t focus solely on communication of their techniques and skills to students, but rather on communication of their values and passion. In that way they won’t have to do the heavy lifting themselves. They’ll have students and alumni doing that job.

“Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile[sic]; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend.” – Francis Bacon

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