Graduate Education in Communication: A Call for a Community of Scholars
David K. Berlo Professor and Chairman Department of Communication
Given your commitments at this time of quarterly examinations, I appreciate your willingness to permit me to share with you my views on the future of communication graduate education at Michigan State University. The faculty have discussed our graduate program, and have approved a proposal which discards the present curriculum, and provides an open-ended invitation to innovate. The faculty have not selected a particular innovation, and their proposal permits a variety of alternatives. The choice of alternatives, of course, is theirs. They should not and will not delegate that authority to you or to me; however, they have invited me to share my views with them and you, and to invite your participation in their decision. I must make clear that my comments tonight do not represent departmental policy, nor do they imply faculty decision. They represent my views, and for them I am responsible. Though I have consulted with individual faculty and students, neither group has approved or even received these comments.
As implied, the discarding of our present curriculum is the ostensive reason for my remarks; however, it is not their sole predication. They are based on such things as the merger of Rhetoric and Public Address with Communication, and with the reflection one tends to experience when the completion of ten years as this department's chairman and one's fortieth birthday are juxtaposed. Also, the revision of a text on human communication requires reexamination of the concept. Finally, the sabbatical granted me for the past three months has permitted me to read more widely, think more deliberatively, and talk more freely with many of you.
Permit me to review the ten years since this department became operational in December of 1958. At the beginning, a budget of $7,000 per year supported the partial services of its one faculty member, and the partial services of Mrs. Sherman, the department's founding secretary. In 1958, the department enrolled six graduate students, one of whom was placed on a departmental assistantship. It had no undergraduate major, no undergraduate students, and no curriculum-graduate or undergraduate. There were no precedents, because there were no other departments of communication in higher education. In fact, there were no more than a dozen scholars who held a doctorate in communication. The department had no historical guidelines, no bureaucratic antecedents; however, it did have an objective. That objective was, and is, the construction of a group of competent communication scientists who would work interdependently to serve society by creating useful knowledge as to the process of human communication.
That objective implied a reduction in emphasis on the situations in which communication occurs, and on the medium through which messages are transmitted...at that time, the two dominant forms of curricular and scholarly organization. The objective also implied the reduction of emphasis on social scientific questions about individual human behaviors. In place of those emphases, it implied a concentration on communication behavior, an emphasis on communication transactions, on research which Harrison has suggested is "bound by a concern with symbolic behavior."
The department's first objective was existence, and most of its activities during the first five years can be explained by that goal. It acquired young faculty with high potential. It created undergraduate service courses, and eventually, an undergraduate major. It engaged in research, and gradually enlarged the number of graduate students which it served. By 1963, its existence was assured, and the department readjusted its emphasis to the attainment of a second goal: the establishment of credibility and influence, the stabilization of its existence, and the development of its competence. That goal has dominated its aspirations for the past five years, and that goal has now been accomplished.
In 1969, the faculty of this department are respected throughout the university, the profession, and, in several cases, throughout the world. It is still a young faculty, with a median age under forty; however, through its publications, its consultative activities, and through the nearly one hundred Ph.D.'s which it has facilitated, the department is credible and influential, accepted in the profession, and supported by its University, which itself has undergone a similar growth pattern in the intervening ten years. Today, with support from the people of Michigan of $400,000 per year, and grants by outside sources of approximately $200,000 per year, the department operates a strong and active undergraduate curriculum with two hundred and fifty majors. It offers courses to service the University which provide an exposure to communication education for three thousand Michigan State undergraduates each year. With twenty-five funded faculty positions, it has granted nearly one hundred doctorate degrees, and another one hundred master's degrees. Currently, it has one hundred and forty graduate students in residence. Its graduates have begun to rise to positions of influence in the profession throughout the world. It receives more applications for admission than it can accept from highly qualified graduate students. Its programs are judged to be of quality. Its financial base is secure. Its faculty, students, and graduates are respected.
I have not charted this review as a demonstration of love and pride, although I do have a deep and abiding love for and pride in this University, my colleagues, and this department. Rather, I have summarized these ten years to place in context the deep and growing concern which has developed in me during the past several months. That concern is simply stated. In the process of acquiring credibility and influence, and in establishing a program of demonstrable rigor, I fear that we may have been seduced by the artificiality of our corporate activity, that we may not have organized ourselves in ways that contribute maximally to the individual growth and development of each of us, and, that we may have lost sight of our original purpose: the creation of an interdependent group of scholars, dedicated to the study of man's symbolic behavior, and the socially significant problems that man faces in using communication transactions as a tool in linking man, one to another.
In selecting faculty and graduate students, emphasis has been placed on heterogeneity of interests and backgrounds, intellectual ability, and a willingness to testify to an interest in communication research; however, no sanctions have been imposed and little guidance has been provided as to the focus of that research. As a result, in the attempt of each of us to "do his thing," we have tended to discard doing our thing - accomplishing our original objective. Though we attempted to construct a different approach to communication education, we have adopted many of the practices, values, and structure of the very systems we rejected in our coming together. In the process, I am embarrassed to note that we have conformed pedagogically to traditional and long out-moded methods of giving or receiving what Margaret Mead calls "an education."
The recent development of a new undergraduate curriculum has intensified my concerns with the graduate program. Exciting things have happened in the past year within the undergraduate program. Through the efforts of our undergraduate majors, and, in particular, our undergraduate advisory committee, the faculty have produced a meaningful and developmental undergraduate curriculum. The increased interaction between faculty and undergraduate students, their joint commitment to excellence, and the willingness of our undergraduates to become involved and to contribute to the department have been deeply satisfying to me, although I have been embarrassed more times than the undergraduates realize at the fact that they had to remind me of values I had unintentionally forgotten: a commitment to intimate intellectual relationships between faculty and students, a concern with the implications of the information revolution for the curriculum, and a dedication to the use of communication knowledge and technology to improve the quality of human life.
On completion of the work of our various course committees this spring, this department will have a first-rate curriculum at the undergraduate level, and a style of operation that will facilitate quality undergraduate education. It is a "hard-line" curriculum, committed to a focus on the communication process; rejecting traditional foci such as mass vs. interpersonal, or domestic vs. international; and emphasizing the emergence of independent scholarship by the undergraduate student. Can we defend doing less than that with our graduate program? I think not, but I think we have done less. I am satisfied that the activities of the department have contributed to the individual growth of its students. Such growth is fundamental, and must be preserved as a major objective in any new program; however, I am not convinced that that growth has been sufficiently disciplined to permit the freedom of the individual to work creatively. And, I'm certain that our style has not been adequate to reach our original independent objective. It is in those senses that I am dissatisfied.
Let me share with you my three basic dissatisfactions. First, I am concerned over the small amount of independent activity that is directed toward focused scholarship about communication transactions. There is little perceived commonality among members of the department, inadequate predictability in what one knows, in what interests him, or even in what he is doing. There is a great deal of conversation in the department, but relatively little significant interaction other than in cliques. In the past decade, the department has produced a large amount of rigorously obtained research data; however, I do not see movement toward a more unified understanding of various communication processes. In fact, I see less concerted interdependent attack on communication questions than I did ten years ago, typified by the increasing frequency of comments about "doing one's thing," not recognizing that such a position is antithetical to the concept of substitutability of effort that is necessary to scientific inquiry. Failure to achieve significant theoretic breakthroughs over ten years is not particularly disturbing. What disturbs me is the conviction that we haven't tried.
Second, I am concerned at the restrictions the department has placed on the range of competencies it attempts to facilitate in our students. We have tried to help students become competent research scientists...and, with the faculty's help, our graduates can be judged as competent research scientists; however, few if any of our graduates spend all of their time doing research. What do they do? Well, most of them teach. It seems self-evident to men that the department should allocate significant energy to the development of our students as better teachers, both through improved technique and through intensifying in our students the commitment to their students that is essential to good teaching. To me, teaching is a rewarding profession...and, I am disturbed that so many of our graduates, on their return visits to the campus, use as an indication of their success in education the fact that their "teaching load" is continually being reduced. Given the existing extrinsic rewards in education, this index is understandable; yet, I regret the fact that many young people, even while preparing for entrance into the teaching profession, spend energy in trying to anticipate ways in which they can reduce the amount of that teaching as much and as soon as possible. Are we doing enough to help our students learn to relate the results of research to the operational problems of society, usually referred to as "consulting?" I think not. How are we helping them to develop criteria for the selection and promotion of colleagues, for publication, for other functions they will be asked to perform on graduation? There are many activities that are central to the intellectual career of the Ph.D. in communication, but not to the program in which he is trained.
Finally, I am deeply concerned with the waste and artificiality under which the present system operates. The waste can be indexed by the absence of sharing of information and ideas. It can be attributed to the lack of commonality and predictability in the system, to the artificiality of our structure and the absence of a disciplined focus on fundamental research questions. As for sharing, in my opinion each of us has the obligation to contribute to the education of the rest of us. As we read, digest, distill, interpret, synthesize, and create, the outputs of those activities should be made available to all of us so that we can reduce the necessity for each to read, interpret, and think as if he were operating in isolation. Such sharing has as prerequisites commonality of knowledge and interests, high self-esteem, a disciplined commitment to group development as well as individual development, and a social structure that facilitates rather than inhibits group effort.
Another index of waste is the rather large amount of energy that seems to be spent in trying to determine "how to play the system," the over-developed rumor mill, and the inordinate amount of time spent on affective communication for social support. Again, low predictability inevitably leads to these kinds of behaviors. Also, few faculty and fewer students have ever belonged to a task-oriented group which had group as well as individual tasks, and the need for interdependency of effort to meet criteria of productivity. Such work experience teaches one, by imposing concepts of productivity, cost-effectiveness and cost-efficiency. It teaches one how to relate to colleagues, how to supervise and how to be subordinate in the accomplishment of a task. We need to develop procedures that will increase our ability to work, one with another, with effectiveness and efficiency.
Much of this waste can be attributed to the ambiguity of the intellectual objectives of the system; however, at least an equal amount can be attributed to the artificiality of the system called graduate education. The fundamental unit of organization of most graduate programs is the curriculum. As a result, graduate education is organized around courses and seminars, credits and grades, hurdles to be overcome, and the separation of "going to school" from "working on an assistantship." Nothing could be further removed from the kinds of work environments in which graduates will operate after graduation. Research on transfer of learning clearly implies that a training environment that simulates the work environment as much as possible will maximize transfer. Dewey charted our course when he said that education should be seen as life, not as preparation for life; however, Socrates described more of our typical activities, when, in the Phaedrus, he predicted that "students will be the hearers of many things, and will have learned nothing."
Let us recognize that graduate education is elite education. It should not be organized around a curricular structure that has as its two major justifications the imposition of external discipline and the efficient movement of large amounts of information to large groups of heterogeneous consumers. Such a structure is efficient for serving transients, but not for the professional preparation of one's own replacements.
Rather, graduate education should be based on a work-oriented structure, one that is socially relevant, one that simulates the work environments for productive scholarship. It should not be based on the ritualistic structure of guidance committees and formal programs, grading that attempts precision within five-tenths of a point, and a non-organic sequence of courses, examinations, term papers, seminars, Russian roulette comprehensive examinations, culminating in "the thesis." Under such a structure, most of one's duties are inevitably perceived as hurdles against which one demonstrates stamina and cunningness in "getting around the system."
Yet, critics of such a structure often seem to be suggesting no structure as a replacement. They use such terms as maximal flexibility, individually-tailored programs, permission for each to "do his thing," as he sees it. Such an alternative is intellectually repugnant to me, and is based on what I believe to be a misunderstanding as to the foundations of scholarship. Such an alternative does not contribute to the intellectual growth of the group; however, more importantly, I do not believe that it contributes adequately to the growth of the individual scholar either. Creativity and discipline are not adversaries; rather, disciplined behavior is a prerequisite for creative thought. Freedom and structure are not antithetical; rather, a predictable structure is necessary to free the mind for productive expenditure. Certainly, in science, inherently a group activity, structure and discipline, commonality and predictability, common effort on problem-solution are essential. Exterience has made evident that the replacement of curricular structure with no structure simply leads to the substitution of mediocrity for rigidity.
The preparation of communication scientists requires structure; however, that structure should be organized around the work which scholars will perform, not around curriculum. The replacement of curricular structure by work structure requires a personal and group discipline that may be beyond our capabilities. I think not, but the task is not easy. Our present structure is highly comforting, provides clear evidence of progress toward the goal of "getting the Ph.D.", and is quite supportive of those who criticize it most vociferously. If we cannot articulate a new structure, we cannot afford to depart from that which is.
It is such a work-oriented structure that I would like to sketch tonight, not in detail because I know not the details, not in completeness because the completed idea would require the concerted effort of all of us. If, after reflection and discussion, the idea seems worth pursuing, I would propose that we reduce our on-going energy expenditures as much as possible for the next several months and allocate maximal energy to this task.
My hope is that we can achieve a kind of work-oriented structure that will implement the oft-supported but seldom observed state known as a "community of scholars." In particular, I would like to see this department become a community of communication scholars: a group which is committed to the development of an interdependent, task-focused, sharing-oriented, socially relevant structure which will maintain its present emphasis on individual growth and development, but concentrate much more heavily on the growth of others, the development of unified bodies of knowledge, and the broadening of the dimensions in which personal growth occurs.
Perhaps it would be profitable to examine these criteria, one at a time. First, interdependent. I intend no unusual meaning for the term, simply a value that the commonality of our entry behaviors, activities, and objectives should be increased so as to make us more of a group and less of a collectivity.
Second, task-focused. As I see it, this is the basis for greater interdependency. The resources of this department cannot be dissipated in an infinite number of tasks. The assignment before us, and one in which you should definitely want to be involved for the inclusion of your personal interests, is the determination of those relatively small number of basic communication research questions which we want to establish as the major tasks before the department. Given that decision, which should not be imposed arbitrarily from the top, but cannot be arrived at by a simple democratic vote, the energies of the department should be allocated to these objectives, and we must give priority to those tasks. Flexibility and individuality in the approach to questions should be maximized, but the number of questions should be minimized. The creation of an intellectual management-system that can implement this notion of focus on tasks is one of the most serious challenges underlying this proposal.
Third, sharing-oriented. At present, much of the department's activities are consistent with those of a contriently interdependent group; one in which knowledge is power and, therefore, should be hoarded rather than shared; one in which sharing is seen as more threatening than rewarding in terms of one's goal of "getting through the system." We must find ways to re-orient our goals and styles of work so that rewards are given for sharing, not hoarding. Also, without intent, much of the present bureaucratic structure inhibits the sharing of information. When one of us reviews the literature, others do not profit. When one of us synthesizes a set of studies, others must replicate that synthesis. When one of us surveys the environment to detect what there is of quality or trivia, others are not informed by that surveillance. Papers, reports, research proposals, critiques, etc., are not shared for common growth. We need to establish procedures as well as the motivation to become more interdependent in terms of sharing what we learn, one with another. We need to ask "what have I done for you lately" just as often as we ask "what have you done for me lately."
Fourth, socially relevant. The units of organization of the graduate department should simulate those of the society in which our graduates will operate. Instead of organizing around curricular options, particularly options for which few of us hold real value, we need to organize around functions: teaching-advising, environment surveillance, research creation and conduct, publications, tenure and evaluation, consulting and social service, We need to establish a structure that will have maximal transfer to post-degree experiences.
Fifth, and finally, individual growth and development. At present, the emphasis on individual growth is one of the strongest aspects of this program. Such emphasis must be maintained. Though we collectively come to a decision on the biases underlying that growth, extreme care must be taken to insure that the goals of the group do not dominate the objectives of its individual members. Also, the dimensions of personal growth need to be expanded.
Given those criteria, I have some preliminary suggestions as to practices that need to be altered, and task-functions that need to be introduced. First, it seems to me that the notion of "credits" should be recognized for what it is, a unit of economic exchange rather than a unit of intellectual activity. I propose that we move to a fixed credit requirement for the doctoral degree that, in effect, says that each student will pay to the University a fixed amount of money during his tenure in the doctoral program. Correspondingly, I propose that, as much as possible, a fixed length of stay as a student should be established. On admittance to the program, we should be able to tell each student that, given satisfactory performance of the set of tasks that has been established, payment of a predetermined amount of money, and residence in the department for a fixed period of time, the doctoral degree will be awarded. Such a policy would remove much of the present inhibitions of working on exciting tasks: such questions as (a) will I get credit for it, and (b) will it hasten or delay the awarding of the degree?
Correspondingly, too, it seems to me that the grading system for doctoral students should be limited to two grades: stay or leave. Some adjustment to the needs of the total University system are necessary; therefore, some kind of grading is required. However, all the University requires is a periodic report (once every ten weeks) as to whether the student is adequate. It seems to me that such a report is all of the "formal grading" that we should provide. I propose the establishment of, in effect, a tenure committees that reviews each student's work every ten weeks. If the work is judged satisfactory, one grade would be given. If not, another. Other forms of evaluations should be used to make the distinctions now attempted by such statements as 4.5, 1.5, etc.; e.g., if a student's paper is published; if, when he offers to present a lecture, people come to listen; if he is placed in charge of a task-group. Those are socially relevant evaluations, and those are the ones we should be encouraging.Finally, we need to eliminate the distinction between "going to school" and "working on the assistantship." I propose that we consider every doctoral student a full-time member of the staff, that we find the resources necessary to employ him for twelve months rather than nine, and that we integrate the kinds of activities now subsumed under being a student with those of being an assistant. Under this proposal, all doctoral students would be treated in one sense as full-time students, in another as full-time employees. This would be true of those on fellowship as well as those on assistantship, or even that rare student of independent means. Part-time students would not be accepted into the program.
Those are some of the present practices that need to be changed or discarded. I'm sure that further discussion among us will provide us with insight as to better ways of changing them, as well as others which need change.
So much for what could be abandoned. The question remains, what would take its place? It is pleasant but Utopian to talk about groupness, community, individual initiative...without social structure. As in any task-oriented group definition of major tasks needed, criteria for productivity in those tasks are needed, a set of procedures for evaluating adequacy and progress is needed. This decision, too, is one in which all of us must participate if the kind of idea presented here is to come to fruition. I have some tentative suggestions.
First, entry behaviors. At present, incoming students to this department come from a heterogeneous set of backgrounds. This is desirable, and should be preserved; however, commonality needs to be introduced as the first order of business in the doctoral program. On arrival, each student should be given what the department considers to be the necessary pieces of information about communication, and his first task must be to master that information. To accomplish this, our entering students should be kept small in number, probably no more than fifteen to twenty. They should be isolated on their arrival, and should receive intensive assistance in the mastery of fundamental information, organized into meaningful clusters, and they should be guided by those of us who are most competent in a particular area. The ordinary courses that we offer to outsiders do not seem to be a meaningful vehicle for this task, in that those courses are organized around what we know. We know only what exists, and we have defined what exists as different from what should be; therefore, a different organization should be established for the original training of our majors.
On arriving at our threshold of commonality, the entering student should be placed in the task-oriented program. How long that should take is open to debate and trial. Placement should be based on two criteria: has he mastered the information that we consider to be central and salient, and has he performed in ways that convince him and us that a Ph.D. in communication at Michigan State is the right objective for him.
Second, task-oriented behaviors. After admission to the on-going program, and after consultation with the student, he should be assigned to a number of work groups within the department. From time to time, with further consultation, he should be reassigned.
These groups will be charged with such tasks as:
- Surveying the research environment, abstracting and annotating research so that all of us can decide what sub-set of literature is worthy of further attention.
- Synthesizing research, and preparing papers which summarize existing research from the point of view of needed research, and from the point of view of consultative help to society.
- Designing and conducting research. Within our general policy objectives, we need an information system that will help us group ourselves into task-forces to attack various research problems. Unlike the present restriction on seminars, namely that they be ten weeks in duration-no more and no less-students and faculty would organize themselves around a specific research question for whatever time that question requires. On completion of the task, we would expect a report from the group on the success it had in attacking the issue.
- Serving in a consultative role to some individual or group in society who has a communication problem: the University itself, school boards, formal organizations, either in industry or government, media, change agencies, urban communities, etc.
- Teaching and improving the curriculum. Tasks would include development of more effective teaching methods, the search for different models of instruction for different educational objectives, the criteria for altering graduate and undergraduate curricula, actual classroom teaching, the advising of undergraduates, and participating in co-curricular activities.
I have intended these tasks as illustrative of the nature of the organization proposed, not as definitive or exhaustive foci for organization. To investigate the possible value of such a proposal, I need and ask the following from each of you. During the next ten days, before the beginning of the spring term, I ask you to provide a written response to the Department with respect to the following questions:
- What are the writings that are central to communication, or quality, and of sufficient salience that they should be required of all entering students as part of their original training for commonality. From your responses to this question, we should be able to begin the assembly of that body of knowledge which we will know in common.
- What criteria should we use in allocating the resources of the department to major communication research questions; what do you consider to be fundamental research questions which should be given priority in such an allocation?
- Given our knowledge of how communication can be used to insure both productivity and continued innovativeness and self-renewal within a system, what suggestions do you have for procedures which we can establish which will guarantee that all members of this scholarly community will be taken into account in the continuing reassessment of our objectives, and in ascertaining our success in attaining those objectives? How can we preserve freshness of thought while we are also striving for solution of pre-determined problem objectives?
In attempting to respond to these three questions, some may suggest that they imply agreement on "what is communication," and that we know not how to answer that basic question. Frankly, I personally am weary of such discussion, and have concluded that it tends more to obscure than to clarify our objectives. When one is encapsulated in a Communication Department, one may wonder what "communication" refers to, and, of course, when one interprets the question to mean "what are the limits of communication," it is impossible to agree on an answer. But when one concentrates on its central focus rather than its perimeter, there should be little cause for disagreement. I can assure you that the society knows what it means by communication, that the society has significant communication problems, that, for the most part, the society knows how to identify a problem as a communication problem, that it seeks solutions to those problems, and that society's continued existence depends in no insignificant degree on the ability of communication scholars to investigate problems and purpose solutions.
Some of us may select communication problems of obvious and immediate social importance. Others may elect an emphasis on questions whose social contributions may be long delayed in time. In my opinion, none has the right to spend society's resources to work on problems that inherently cannot benefit society, nor has one the right to argue that society's needs at some point in time are not relevant to the communication scientist's behavior. For those who decide to become communication scientists, such a professional way of life should be intrinsically satisfying; however, the social justifiability of communication research must be the improvement of the quality of human life.
In this department, there is as much talent and more resources than one will find in any other organization in the world that is devoted to communication inquiry. It is my hope that this talent, and those resources, will be employed to accomplish what they were intended to accomplish ten years ago: create an interdependent group of scholars dedicated to research on man's symbolic behavior and the communication transactions that link man, one to another.Share via these networks: