"A Diamond in the Rough"

2010 Presidential Address
80th Annual Convention of the
Southern States Communication Association
Memphis, TN
April 7, 2010

Patricia Amason

University of Arkansas 
As I considered the opportunity to run for SSCA Vice President elect, I stared outside of my 24 inch wide office window and gazed at the construction of the new building designated to house the graduate school for the Sam Walton College of Business on my university’s campus. It now is home to state-of the-art facilities offering students the opportunity to learn in labs dedicated to stock trading, logistics planning, global marketing and retail excellence. Next to this building is the new JB Hunt technology center with its own host of state-of-the-art facilities. Both of these buildings were funded by donated dollars earned by grass-roots businesses grown in the state of Arkansas that bloomed into the international and national corporate giants of business they are today.
When I took a critical eye of my own campus domain, I couldn’t help but notice the contrast. In the various construction phases of building these new temples to business and technology my own building literally shifted on the clay and rock hill on which it is built as the bedrock for these structures was not substantial enough for the eventual weight the hill was asked to support. Large cracks appeared in office walls and bricks cladding the outside separated from the concrete block walls inside. Books fell from shelves and office inhabitants could view the day’s weather outside without the need for looking out of their windows or logging into weather.com. My building houses the traditional humanities programs of English, Drama, Journalism, and my home—Communication and is named for a former English professor—not a giant of industry. Such is life on my campus. The contrast of the palaces for worshipping big business and making the almighty dollar and advanced technology outside my window to the literally crumbling foundation of the building housing humanities programs is a metaphor depicting my program’s inherent value to the decision makers of my institution. The pain from the inequities associated with these distorted values is shared among my colleagues nation-wide and many of you. I will address today this problem in greater detail and present a strategy for coping with this problem.
In my own department we are currently at risk of losing our place at the table we call the “core curriculum.” It’s funny how the “core” is defined. It is the Arkansas Department of Higher Education that sets the “state core”—a minimum number of courses ranging across the humanities, social and natural sciences that all state-funded institutions must require of their students. Each university and college in the state then interprets the “state core” in its own fashion by placing additional courses within its requirements according to the levels of importance seen of the various courses.
Presently, however, the Department of Communication is in the fight of our lives. Administrative powers-that-be have mandated that the College’s core is too large and must be reduced in order to facilitate higher graduation rates. It is the belief that students are hindered from graduating due to excessive hours in core requirements. Ironically, the core of my college recently won national acclaim as being among the top-ranked liberal arts based core curricula.
In the face of the new core, we are on the proposed chopping block. Why is a required communication course being removed? The argument is that a communication course is an unnecessary and redundant burden on students. Communication skills, while extremely important, are being taught elsewhere in our core. This view was confirmed to my faculty colleagues by the highly prominent endowed professor charged with chairing the committee on curriculum reform who declared that “Communication does not need to be taught in a separate class. It is a part of all classes.” You see, from his perspective, “Communication is not a discipline—it is simply an area of study.” At least that’s what he told us when he visited our faculty meeting. This comment implies that we are not worthy of a designated course in the core as it takes no specific disciplinary training to teach a communication curriculum.
This comment brought to my mind the ideas presented by my colleague and our former SSCA President, Tom Frentz. In 1995, Tom described these types of sentiments as “the shadow of communication” leaving the perception of those who do not understand our discipline, that “as a field of study we have no content, no subject matter, neither a knowledge base nor a theoretical foundation, that does not already exist in other fields within the social sciences and humanities.”
Such sentiments indict the value of what we contribute and are indicative of what is more highly valued across higher education as evidenced by the growth of higher profile programs in business and technology, both academically and in bricks and mortar. These values literally are crumpling the liberal arts foundation on which my university was built, yet also are jeopardizing the foundation on which our discipline was built. In regard to my university home, building jacks were brought in and the walls of my building eventually were patched and bricks restored. Visually, the building in which Communication is housed appears improved, but the foundation remains questioned from the weight of the new structures sharing the same hill. It is simply a matter of time before my building shifts again and more cracks emerge. And we still are fighting our cause for our rightful place at the “core” table. It is not my intention to merely paint a picture of gloom and doom, but to share with you common experiences and to present to you how we as communication scholars can help shore up the shift in our academic structure to put a new and shinier face on the academy and our lifestyles. This can be accomplished by promoting a community of scholars focused on achieving the external recognition we so badly need to support the validity of our discipline.
Community. It’s an interesting word. The word “community” is derived from Latin words translated as “with gifts.” Thus, it implies that persons share visions and build relationships based on those visions with their actions directed towards outcomes ultimately enhancing a society or culture. The sharing of individual gifts leads to a sense of camaraderie through reciprocity and altruism—a charitable act, if you will, as the collaborative efforts among the community members and the common outcomes meant for the collective whole are what gives one purpose. Ironically, the root word for “community” is the same as for “communication.” Dr. M. Scott Peck founded The Foundation for Community Encouragement and leads the charge on the notion of community building and argues that a deeper and more authentic level of communication can be reached when persons are able to step beyond any differences, identify their common purposes, and work together to fulfill those purposes. As the humanities largely are being underserved, we as a community of scholars need to build on our strengths to address the common problems we face.
The mission of The Foundation for Community Encouragement is to bring a sense of empowerment to persons who need the very essence of community in their lives as a means of bringing wholeness to an existence of fragmentation. To accomplish this mission, the Foundation seeks to teach individuals and members of organizations to “communicate with authenticity, deal with difficult issues, bridge differences with integrity, and relate with love and respect.” We as a discipline have spent far too much time focusing on our fragmentation and less time on creating a safe place for authenticity.
Intradisciplinary bickering only leads to the kinds of outcomes we’ve seen the likes of in congress creating partisanship leading to lack of trust and the demise of our own nation’s economy and infrastructure. This negative and self-serving national climate has resulted in a downturn in the standards of living we all once enjoyed. Academic departments divided over philosophical and contextual views, stereotyping, and references to colleagues milking resources, or literally being at the “trough” all due to academic jealously and arrogance cannot withstand the difficulties we face in our institutions. My goal here is not to chastise, but to identify our fragmentation and show how we can put aside that fragmentation in order to build community for our greater good.
Therefore, we need to make a commitment to working together to identify and solve common problems. In this time in which we have been asked to tighten our belts more notches and literally do more with less, teach more students with fewer faculty and classrooms, do more research with no resources, accept pay freezes, retrenchment, and furloughs, and manage to pay the bills with shrinking departmental budgets, we have to put aside our differences and search for commonality in what we’re trying to accomplish. This transition may be bumpy.
Peck argues that for a true community to exist, we must pass through a series of transitions—pseudocommunity, chaos, emptiness, and community. First, we may tip-toe around areas in which we may open doors to conflict—what Peck describes as "pseudocommunity.” Many academic departments are in this stage as their members avoid controversy or their members are absorbed in their own concerns and pay little notice of department-wide challenges. We then have to confront our differences leading to a state of "chaos," as conflict ultimately must be managed for it to lead to productive outcomes. Then we experience "emptiness," where we reflect on those differences and eventually come to reconciliation of what we can’t change, and finally evolving to true “community” where we see our commonalities and develop a strong sense of trust in order to create strategies for obtaining what it is we wish to accomplish—in other words, what we can change—for the greater good.
Making our way through the transitions will not easy and it will require introspection—which is difficult for many—and sacrifice. But, it will be necessary as we have to pull together, or in other words, we as a community of scholars must work collaboratively—as a community—to stop the bleeding of our very professional existence by leaving behind our highly valued autonomy, senses of entitlement and academic superiority. We have to stop bickering among ourselves for what is “truth”—post positivism or interpretation. Quantitative or qualitative. Mass Communication, Rhetoric, Cultural Studies, Interpersonal, Organizational or whatever. We have to focus our attention on how we can gain respect from administration and recognition that resources no longer can be drained from our wells and channeled directly into sexier pockets of our campuses. We have to show that indeed our courses have validity. We do deserve a place at the table. But, this only can be accomplished when we join our hands and go to work.
Building scholarly communities among those of us who study so much in common such as: relationships, networks, systems, messages, arguments, effects, problem-solving processes, and culture should be easy. We do have something in common—regardless of which of the many contexts we study. We focus on adaptation and understanding. Why can’t we see that we have common goals and build from there? Instead, we spend so much unproductive time creating divisions among ourselves with turf competitions resulting in “us vs them” mentalities furthering the “haves vs the have nots” culture we’re trying to reverse.
As an alternative, we may take different approaches to reaching common goals. Tom referred to this process as “confronting the demon.” One year after Tom’s eye-opening address, another of my colleagues Lynne Webb, SSCA’s president in 1996, challenged us to engage in “proactive collegiality” within our discipline, in our programs, departments, and among our students and colleagues. Ironically, that was the last time we met here in Memphis, in this beautiful hotel. These past presidents’ calls were made a decade and a half ago but they still resonate—perhaps more so now than ever before during these times of fiscal restraints and as some departments are in the fights of their lives.
How do we build communities within our own institutions in order to address these problems? I propose a solution on two levels: the departmental level as well as university-wide.
Within our departmental homes we need to take young scholars under our fold—mentor them and aid them through the tenure process. Protect them from overwhelming teaching loads and undertaking too many course preparations. At my institution I taught 10 different graduate and undergraduate courses prior to receiving tenure. That was insane!
Take some of the teaching burdens from junior colleagues and refrain from dumping the less desirable courses onto them. It’s easy to say, “I have seniority and I just won’t teach that class. You teach it.” That does not build community. Invite young scholars to write with you and read and edit their work. Find creative ways to marry your research passions with those of a colleague that may not be obvious. Find ways to invigorate colleagues that have lost their research passions.
Collaboration is not limited to research. Invite intradisciplinary dialogue. We need to adopt a more collaborative stance collegially within our own shops in regards to what we are offering to our students. We can cross the lines by teaching courses bridging diverse viewpoints and methodologies. Look for common goals and missions for what is desired by our students. Update courses and curricula. We can best meet our students’ needs by working together rather than in opposition. Focusing on departmental missions and goals forces us to step beyond looking out for our own personal interests or those of a particular area in which we teach and write.
We also can build bridges across the disciplinary lines within our academic homes. My department chair has been highly successful creating networks among colleagues across the disciplines within our college and among persons from other colleges. Within these networks are links to vital resources which have enhanced our access to state-of-the-art technology used in teaching and research. These network links also are crucial for creating allies we need politically. Many of my faculty colleagues have developed key relationships across campus by engaging in interdisciplinary research and serving on crucial decision-making committees and gaining the recognition of the highest-level administrators.
In The Different Drummer: Community-making and Peace Peck, asserts, "Community is something more than the sum of the parts, its individual members. What is this 'something more?' Even to begin to answer that, we enter a realm that is not so much abstract as almost mystical.... The analogy of a gem comes to mind. The seeds of community reside in humanity -- a social species -- just as a gem originally resides in the earth. But it is not yet a gem, only a potential one.... Geologists refer to a gem in the rough simply as a stone. A group becomes a community in somewhat the same way that a stone becomes a gem -- through a process of cutting and polishing. Once cut and polished, it is something beautiful. But to describe its beauty, the best we can do is to describe its facets. Community, like a gem, is multifaceted, each facet a mere aspect of a whole that defies description."
We as a discipline are a gem in the rough. We need shaping and polishing to bring out our luster. In our disciplinary and cross-disciplinary communities, we each are the facets. Combined together, we create the gem’s sparkle. When we crowd the facets with the dirt and mire of petty bickering, turf protection, and too much autonomy, the gem no longer shines. We are a gem—the most precious gem, we are a diamond. What will you do to shape and polish our diamond to bring out its full beauty and brilliance for all to admire—and to covet?