Is the informal teaching model the future of broad mass communication graduate programs?


[I am the teaching standards chair of the Communication Theory & Methodology division of AEJMC, and will be posting my newsletter columns here throughout the year.]

In the PhD program where I teach, we’re currently conducting a self-study as part of a broader program review. This program serves a broad array of scholarly interests, and includes faculty who teach and study journalism, advertising, broadcast media, film, photography, and myriad other areas relating to mass communication and media. Our students are similarly broad in their interests and backgrounds, some entering the program with clear research agendas in mind and others using their first year as a feeling-out period in which to learn what they most want to learn about.

During the course of our review, the entire faculty, as well as the committee that’s managing the review, has engaged in discussions that often invoke perceived needs, wants, or attitudes of our students. Much of this perception has developed through individual professors’ contact with individual students, and as researchers, we soon realized we were basing a large part of our effort on that most dreaded source of information: anecdata. As a result, we organized a focus group of PhD students, run by the student representative to our graduate committee. While some of the concerns raised pertain to specifics of our program, many of them relate to how graduate education in mass communication works generally.

One set of student concerns that likely applies to most doctoral programs is a desire among students for courses providing more depth in specific theoretical areas, and courses that ground methodological instruction in the context of mass communication. Coming out of the familiar, first-year, introductory theory classes — “Foundations of Theory,” “Theoretical Traditions,” “Issues in Theory” — the students’ consistent concern was in finding courses that brought them deep focus on the particular theories and topics that interested them, even beyond extant courses such as Political Communication or Social Media. This was true of senior students as well as first-year students who were still looking forward to where the rest of their program would take them. A related concern came up in terms of methods courses. Although both basic and advanced statistics are offered to the entire campus by our educational psychology department (as is the case at many universities), and other advanced methods courses can be found in sociology and psychology departments, a strong desire was expressed for advanced methods courses grounded in the communications context — communications ethnography, or experiments with media stimuli, for example.

As the committee reviewed the focus group notes, there was a quick consensus that the ability to offer these courses would be great. Who wouldn’t want to offer that kind of material, and from our perspective as educators, who wouldn’t want the opportunity to teach such focused courses with highly interested and motivated students? But the discussion took a dark turn when someone said the “f”-word: “fill,” as in, “Would these courses fill?” In most cases they probably wouldn’t, even if there were professors available to be pulled out of other courses to teach them. More specialized courses are, by definition, niche endeavors, and given university-mandated enrollment requirements, they’re much harder to fill on a regular basis. Occasional special topics courses were mooted as the best alternative to specialized courses in the catalog, but one other possibility squarely hit the other major concern raised in the focus group.

Students wanted more opportunities to work with faculty on research, across the breadth of our program. Some already work as RAs, or are part of informal research groups; others weren’t sure how to get involved with professors with whom they hadn’t taken courses. Could collaborative independent studies be an answer to both issues? This is one idea that is being considered. Another is a faculty research symposium at the beginning of fall semester, which would mirror the student symposium we hold near the end of spring semester. Taken together, these efforts would introduce faculty areas of research specialty and expertise, as well as present a structure in which to follow up with collaborative work. It also makes for a new twist on the classic model of mass communication PhD programs, allowing for a greater range of theoretical and methodological approaches to become part of a student’s education, but also requiring more flexibility and informal teaching on the part of faculty. The challenges of the informal model are clear, but the opportunities are clear as well. As our field continues to evolve — and in particular, as the ways our programs are funded continue to evolve — making those opportunities work should be a top priority for graduate faculty.

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