Sunday, November 15, 2009

NCA 09: Putting the "Munitions" in Communication Studies

I just pulled into my place after about three days in Chicago for the 2009 convention of the National Communication Association (NCA). For those not familiar with how academic conferences work, the main attraction is panel presentations by scholars in the field, a great opportunity to present your ideas, catch ideas from others, and dialogue about them. There are also other elements including a trade show of new books and a job fair where schools looking for new faculty are available to talk with those seeking work. NCA is a huge organization, representing an incredibly diverse group of scholars, some of whom have essentially no theoretical or methodological common ground. As such the convention seems unable to satisfy all of the people all of the time (in general, the organization is pretty riven with controversy). But this year’s convention was a really good experience for me, even though (because?) I wasn’t presenting any work of my own, and despite an extremely controversial decision about early registration that cut hundreds of panelists and isn’t worth going into detail about here.

Two high-profile panels turned out to be winners, one featuring Robert McChesney, a well-known critic of media consolidation, and the other Lauren Berlant, essentially a feminist philosopher of identity. What I admired about both scholars . . .
(as well as McChesney’s partner on the panel, whose name I’m embarrassed to say I forget) was their willingness to both extemporize quite a bit and to answer questions as if they were really thinking about the answers, and willing to be wrong. So much of academia is wrapped up in the politics of fear that there’s relatively few opportunities to see this in action – people don’t want to be heard saying “the wrong thing,” not just in the sense of political correctness, but theoretical exactitude. The willingness to perform risk contributes not just to the potential for innovation, but, to be blunt, entertainment. I would contrast Berlant’s own freewheeling and engaging style with Janice Radway, whose paper was interesting but delivered in the inevitable deadpan drone that is the result of reading word-for-word.

Theoretical rigor was also the subject of the other highlight of the conference for me, which was a chance meeting and long conversation with several students from the University of Minnesota. (It was also an illustration of the truism that the value of a conference like NCA is often found outside of the conference rooms, where more people are freed of the performance anxiety that freezes their opinions and speculations in their throats). Despite being by bent a theoryhead myself, I’m not a fan of ‘theory papers,’ or of the endless discourse about theory that takes up a lot of academic mindspace and is, as far as I can tell, mostly about defining terms. A few of my new friends thought much the same way, emphasizing for instance the importance of placing an object at the center of the work. But in the midst of this one of them boldly pointed out that he wrote a bit of ‘pure theory,’ and the reassuring response, I think, got to the heart of the matter: “Oh, but Joseph , you do it well.”

The endpoint of our discussion, as I’ve seen frequently in similar discussions, was that we didn’t so much oppose high theory as such – like I said, I actually love reading the stuff. What we really seemed to be talking about was the high correlation between high theory and bad, bad scholarship. Name-dropping and the deployment of jargon is, it seems, a shockingly effective tactic for not saying much and still managing to not just get published in academic journals, but have a successful career. Further, a little theoretical dancing often feels like a necessary gesture, a pressure felt even by scholars with little interest in such gestures, which inevitably means their efforts to insert them weakens the work. The subsidized structure of contemporary academic publishing seems quite wasteful – that is, a lot of what gets published is not widely read, much less scrutinized, meaning that there’s not much public stewardship of the quality of writing, especially in a field like Communication, which is expanding. Of course, it may be that ‘waste’ is a necessary condition for the really productive stuff that does arise out of the ecology of the academic writing world.

These issues are complex and there are no easy answers, but it’s great to get involved in the sorts of discussions that can foment real change down the road – or at least to find allies, beyond the confines of your own department, who might travel that road with you. On a similar note, I also met up with a group of communication scholars interested in advancing the study of economics within the discipline. If you have an interest in the topic, contact me here.


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