After this week it seems clear that it’s time for a reboot of the National Communication Association.
I’ve been attending the National Communication Association conference and looking at the journals from it since 2002 when I started graduate studies in rhetoric. Since then, I’ve found the NCA convention to be incredibly valuable. I find it a great time to share ideas, learn, and talk casually with others about issues we face as teachers and professors, as members of academic and university structures, and so on.
NCA is structured to look at itself, to look back. Consider all the Distinguished Scholars and others who signed onto a letter that fallaciously posited diversity as a trade-off with excellence in scholarship. There are of course people like Martin Medhurst who probably believe this is more likely the case than not. There are others who believe that diversity is good if it is “checked” by standards of excellence, merit, etc. But there are others who believed they were signing onto a document that asserted their autonomy within an organization to decide who gets honors and accolades of that organization.
There is a counter-letter, one that points out the flaws of the response of Medhurst and the Distinguished Scholars. The letter that has been signed now by hundreds of members, and perhaps thousands by the time you read this is found here if you want to sign it. It addresses in a serious and meaningful way the issues this controversy brings up. But it doesn’t address the fundamental problem with NCA - that it is about itself more than it is about helping people advance the practice and study of communication. It is about the preservation of the excellence of NCA, and NCA as an organization that is good. It should not be structured like this. Having these elite clubs doesn’t do much to promote an association that should be looking forward, heading off issues, and providing resources to those who need it to advance inquiry.
The aim of NCA should be simple: An association of communication researchers, professionals, and teachers who work together to share ideas, problems, challenges, research, and questions about communication. This communal work should be shared with the public when it can help everyone.
That’s really it. There’s no need for “Distinguished Scholars” or anything that celebrates life-long work toward the organization. As that’s what the work of the Distinguished Scholars is - stuff that gives NCA a reason for being. Praise, awards, and exclusive clubs are not a part of what the association should be about. But having such a group ensures that excellence will never advance, only replicate what came before. The group becomes smaller and more irrelevant over time as the members who would innovate and improve matters leave for organizations that welcome change and opportunity.
NCA sat around for 12 years hoping that diversity would enter the Distinguished Scholars. It never did. The reason is because NCA has structured itself to replicate itself. This is why incremental change won’t improve anything. Although the letter, ideas, and appeals coming from the membership are great. NCA did not try to solve the problem of representation in the Distinguished Scholars by restructuring it or eliminating new members in favor of a differently structured group. It tried to solve it as an organizational problem, as an organization leaning on itself to correct itself.
NCA clearly needs a reboot. It’s saddled with a bunch of nonsense that only gets in the way of the importance of getting teachers, professionals, and scholars together to identify shared issues and interesting ideas. NCA seems to be a place that is designed to give prestige and power to people who already have it. What’s the point of that?
We can get ahead of the Kuhnian critique here, and stop worrying about where we’ve been and what people have done to promote NCA and its journals and such. We can organize NCA to be an association, not an organization, about advancing conversations and encounters that advance communication.
Here are a few ideas.
Titles are for Future Action not a Reward
Any title such as Distinguished Scholar or Teacher should be given to people who show promise, are poised for big moves, and who want to disrupt, innovate, and lead communication (NOT NCA) into needed and new areas and issues. What good is such a title or honor when you are at the end or peak of your career? The association should exist to support those who are members and help them get things out of their research, practice, and teaching in order to improve it. Why reward people who already have it made? Why reward people who are already at the top? That only serves NCA, it doesn’t serve the discipline of communication.
Where are the Distinguished Teachers? Distinguished Practitioners?
There’s no organization like distinguished scholar for teacher or practitioner in NCA. That says a lot. The distinguished scholars’ service to communication is always within NCA’s parameters. This is not the function of an association. This is the function of an organization interested in itself. Change the orientation by expanding what the association honors and respects. These titles will further the hard work already done by members. Nomination should be for potential based on past action, not a wealth of success as it would be in NCA today. Whenever the organization creates titles the conversation should be about how and in what ways these titles advance the practice, teaching, and study of communication. Titles from a national organization can be powerful tools to help those who are doing great work become even greater.
Fund all graduate student attendance to the national convention
There’s nothing quite like the face to face. Eliminate all the self-serving and goofy events. We have a sponsor for the Arnold lecture. Why do we not have a sponsor for graduate student funding? That would be something easy to arrange considering how much money Taylor and Francis and other publishers make off of NCA members in so many ways. NCA never funds new and young people to be a part of it because that doesn’t help preserve the organization. The NCA structure is about repeating the same, replicating the power structure that is. New people with new ideas are disruptive - best to have them pay in so they consider themselves invested and are less likely to criticize. I believe that the association should be about blind spots. What are we missing in the teaching, research, and practice of communication? It’s always new eyes and new perspectives that innovate sets of knowledge. It’s not the older people; they are invested in how things have been done before. We need to invest, quite directly, in new ways to see and do communication.
Engage and interact with publics at the convention site
It would be great to have time, resources, and space dedicated toward articulating and addressing communication issues in the city where the convention is taking place. I don’t mean a symbolic display of the theme of the conference, but something more on the terms of the communities there. NCA could establish relationships with organizations there in that city and see which ones would like time with communication experts (scholarship, practice, and teaching are three different forms of expertise) for the addressing, articulating, and exploration of the issues they face and that we could maybe help with. I don’t mean to say that local communities can’t deal with their own problems, but what a resource for the convention, for our experts, for the local groups, and for the city. It seems strange to not at least let various groups know we’ll be there and they can turn up and participate if they’d like in some brainstorming, spitballing, conversation, or whatever the people in the room would like to do. The advantage of building in an interactive public relation where they are not addressing us and we are not addressing them is that we find a gap in the convention where we are not able to speak to ourselves in that way NCA accidentally encourages. It’s less about NCA and more about the association and what it can and should do with and for others. It probably won’t solve anything, but it gets groups thinking in a different perspective about the work they do, and another perspective is always something useful to have. For NCA, it grounds us back on what should always be the focus: communication.
It’s pretty compelling evidence that NCA has lost sight of advancing thought when a bunch of established, smart, and recognized scholars suddenly backpedal on a letter they signed that was very clear. They are backpedaling because they were invested in NCA as an organization - power, authority, and structure - rather than communication as a site of inquiry. The structure of reward and recognition always gets in the way of what warrants recognition: People asking great questions and keeping them alive for as long as they can lead us to revelation. Diversity is always in the service of inquiry. But it’s not ever in the service of keeping a reward system for past events static and pure. Restructure NCA or we’ll just be revisiting this issue again in a few years.