Publics and Policy : Challenges to interdisciplinary Communication Studies

This Public Lecture was delivered by Prof. Francois Heinderyckx in the inaugural session of the second Media Governance international conference on Contours of Media Governance: Teaching, Disciplinarity, Methodology organized by Centre for Culture, Media & Governance on 25-27 February 2013 in Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Prof. Heinderyckx (Professor, Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) is the President-elect of International Communication Association and may be reached at francois.heinderyckx@ulb.ac.be. 

Mr. Vice Chancellor, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen!

I will start with a very traditional but nonetheless important disclaimer. Although I would like to think that many colleagues share my views, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that the views I am about to express are mine and don’t necessarily reflect those of the International Communication Association or of my university.

Prof. Francois Heinderyckx reads out his lecture in Edward Said Hall, Jamia

Prof. Francois Heinderyckx reads out his lecture in Edward Said Hall, Jamia

The academic world, our world, is under tremendous and unprecedented pressure across the world. Being under pressure is not necessarily a problem as such. Pressure can stimulate creativity, structural improvements and gain in efficiency,  pressure can be the institutional equivalent of positive stress that drive us to give best of ourselves, but it can also be a source of counterproductive even destructive pressure. Pressure can choke us. The problem lies not only in the magnitude of that pressure, it also lies in the multidimensional nature of that pressure and to a large extent the contradictory nature of that pressure. This is what I intend to elaborate upon tonight. The contradictions within those pressures stems from the fact that academic institutions in the traditional model combine three core missions. I am not sure if it is entirely universal but it is a very dominant model of the academic institutions. We have to teach, we have to do research and we have to serve our community or do public service. The very nature of these three fundamental missions has gradually moved under the influence of a changing complex that led to changing expectations from society. We face new expectations from students and their parents; we face new expectations from the labor market and we face new expectations from the public authorities. Let’s examine some [of] these changing expectations.

CHANGING EXPECTATIONS FROM THE ACADEMIA

Students and the labor market expect higher education to provide the curricula that are tailor-made so as to deliver graduates with the skills and the knowledge that are needed in the job market. The labour market also expects that the academia will provide the knowledge, expertise, the innovations and the data to help the businesses to strive and to help the public institutions to be more efficient including in regulating and policy making. Students and their parents increasingly across the world expect equal access to higher education for all just like they expect the schools and universities will do what it takes of them to succeed. In short, entire education for all and no one left behind. Each of these expectations is perfectly legitimate; it’s actually a sign of progress, social progress worldwide, but the combination of the new expectation in a complex where academic institutions are still expected by society at large to guide and provide bearings as to what is safe, what is socially acceptable, what is moral, to mention but the few. The academic community finds itself facing conflicting injunctions. The same scholars, you, me, are on all those forms simultaneously. It’s not that it’s some of us is dealing with research, some of us dealing with the service society and others with teaching, in most cases we do it all simultaneously and this leads us in some cases to a rare form what I will call academic schizophrenia. And I will come back to that a little later.

AUDITING THE ACADEMIA

In most countries academic institutions are also swept by the new public management forcing a rapid transition towards the culture of efficiency and auditing that clashes with the traditional academic culture based on academic freedom, evaluation by our peers and slow pace knowledge building. The audit culture has, with the best of intentions, imposed a change in taste, not that scholars are a slow or too slow but we now have to establish and to give material evidence at short intervals that we are productive, that we are worth investment, that we deliver quality output, that we are present in a significant way in the academic public sphere. We have to do that not just at the end of our career or sometime in the mid of our career, in many cases we have to do that on the yearly basis, if not more often.

Vice Chancellor Shri Najeeb Jung, IAS listen to Prof. Francois Heinderyckx  in Edward Said Hall, Jamia Millia Islamia

Hon’ble Vice Chancellor Shri Najeeb Jung, IAS listens to Prof. Francois Heinderyckx in Edward Said Hall, Jamia Millia Islamia

To make the evaluation process of the quality of our work a number of presumably objective indicators and measurements were developed that at least in our field, entirely speaking of social sciences and humanities, is completely inappropriate, completely inadequate and even inefficient to a large extent. To give an example, the measurements relies almost exclusively on publications in academic journals and some of these indicators rely on how much you are quoted from your recent publications. This confirms natural sciences where the knowledge evolves so fast that things that are published more than five years ago have become largely irrelevant, so no one is really interested while in social sciences you and I are still quoting the works from nineteen fifties or nineteen sixties because it is still relevant. And in the system of short term memory again which might apply, might be sufficient or adequate for some sciences is completely inappropriate in our case, so not only that it does focus on short term, it also focuses on what exclusively is published in academic journals. This in turn encourages scholars to reorganize their works, not so much to be more efficient.

Supposedly this audit culture is to make us more efficient that what it is to get us. People employ strategies to do better with those indicators, and to do better with those indicators you might be led into doing something, such as what we call the salami strategy where you do some interesting work; ten fifteen years ago you might have done that work and get other people involved, take your time to get it, to get a theory out of it and make a book out of it. A book in this culture has no value while in our discipline it is one of the most worthy things which [one] would do, publish a good book. So people, instead of publishing a good book or before they publish a good book, they would slice their research into thin slices to make as many journal articles as they can because that is going to have an impact on their measurement of qualities. So this change in culture then improves the quality of research and forces us to change the strategies of dissemination in a way which actually is I would argue counterproductive. This is all also forcing us into what we call fast lane of science. You have to be quick, you have to do things often and a lot of the science doesn’t do well with this fast lane.

THE SLOW SCIENCE MANIFESTO

In fact there actually started just recently a number of voices that are now arguing against the damage this new culture does to the actual quality of research. And because we are now denouncing, some people are denouncing what they call fast science as they denounce fast food, there is actually a number of movements now to try to structure and argue against this fast academic culture. I will give you just one example which I think is an interesting one. This is the slow science manifesto which was written in Germany in 2010; I know some of you referred that, it’s very easy to find, it is  http://slow-science.org/ to get the manifesto. It is a short document. I am going to read you the brief quote from the manifesto the slow science. It reads,” science needs time to think, science needs time to read and time to fail. Science does not always know what it might be at right now, sciences deduct unsteadily and jerky moves and unpredictable leads forward. At the same time however it creeps about on the very slow time scale and for which there must be room and to which justice must be done”. “Slow science for free much only the science conceded for hundreds of years, today we argue it deserves revival and needs protection, society should give scientist the time they need but more importantly scientist must take their time”.

I think this is a very valid point; this is not something just for social science. This was written from a writer of range of discipline, all agreeing that science takes time. You can’t pressure people to publish every three months to get their next promotion because that’s not the way science works. It’s the way may be in private companies producing new models for the next generation of computers or cars, maybe that’s how it works. You have to have new models every three or six months. That’s how apple works for example. That’s not how science works. Now let’s examine the situation more specifically in the area of media and communication science which obviously is the one I know best.

INTERDISCIPLINARITY : A NECESSITY OF COMMUNICATION STUDIES

In media and communication science things are even more complicated, on top of these changes are the structural changes I just described. The situation is further complicated by two factors I think in our discipline: the first factor has to do with interdisciplinarity. There is going to be more about interdisciplinarity in this conference. Let me just give you a few ideas about that.

Academic life, when you do communication research, is complicated by the fact that research in media and communication is often necessarily interdisciplinary. It’s not that we think it’s funny or cute, it’s just a necessity; you cannot study some of our objects without relying on several disciplines. We are working at what I would call a disciplinary crossroad, an academic hut where sociology rubs shoulder with psychology, history, linguistics law, political science, economics, philosophy, informatics and so many other disciplines. All that is to be mobilized, to study a number of very important subjects/objects in communication science. So interdisciplinarity is so fundamentally associated with communication research that some argue that communication is not a discipline, not even a discipline in the making and it should never become a discipline because the secret of its vibrancy and creativity stands from its capacity to combine different disciplines. So if you make it one discipline you will homogenize it in a way that will actually impoverish its creativity and its vibrancy.

MIGRANTS & NATIVES OF AN ACADEMIC HUT

In an essay in 2007 I have introduced the distinction among communication scholars :  the communication native and the communication migrants. The difference is that the “communication native” has studied in a communication curriculum, and, for some, has earned a PhD in communication and then keep on studying communication while the communication migrants have studied in any discipline initially, political science, computer science, psychology, you name it. And because they work on objects which fall within the ambit of communication they see themselves as communication scholars. So they studied a specific discipline and they work on objects related to communication so they see themselves as communication scholars.

Scholars listen to Prof. Francois Heinderyckx as he reads out his lecture in Edward Said Hall, Jamia Millia Islamia

Scholars listen to Prof. Francois Heinderyckx as he reads out his lecture in Edward Said Hall, Jamia Millia Islamia

How do you identify someone as communication migrants? Simply it’s a matter of self affiliation. If they, for example are members of IMCR or ICA well obviously they see themselves as communication scholars. So look at what these people have studied you will be surprised that at least quarter of people who have studied everything but communication science, at least initially. They publish in communication journals, they attend communication conferences. They are to me communication migrants and they have to be distinguished from communication natives, who some of them, from the start, studied communication science and stayed there. Again it is very unique, very rich. I think it is one of the key to vibrancy of the communication sciences that makes us communication natives and communication migrants. The interdisciplinary nature of the communication scholarship is also very disabled in the wide range of sources used by communication scholars.

A couple of years ago we did a survey among all the members of ICA, IMCR and Acrea and one of questions we asked in survey: can you list the three journals you use most for your research, the three journals you used most for your teaching and the three journals you find most prestigious in your field? Some of you might remember this survey a couple of years ago. What we found was that there is a hard core of twenty journals which have been cited by lots of respondents then there is this second group of about hundred and twenty journals which were mentioned by a lot of respondents and then there is huge long tail of several hundreds of the journals whom some scholars said are among some of the most important journals they used. These hundreds of journals are incredibly wide range of disciplines showing how people who don’t find themselves as communication scholars use as their main source journals in other disciplines. This again I think is one of the keys to creativity in communication sciences. No one wants to kill that obviously.

Now within this interdisciplinarity is also a source of problem. I will mention just one, and that is that within our universities, within our funding agencies, even within publishers, we tend to be everywhere but as you know when you are everywhere you can also be nowhere significantly. We may be central in many cases but we may also be scattered, we may be pioneers by the way we do things, we can also be seen as off the score in many cases. I am sure in many countries you have same experience of. For example if the funding agency has a project you will call communication science and where does that fit; is it social science, is it political science, is it psychology? Well, it’s a bit of everything; ok that’s great, interdisciplinarity is hot now, except that it doesn’t belong to anywhere and therefore it doesn’t get funded.

RAPID CHANGES AND ITS CHALLENGES TO THE FIELD

The second factor which makes all these more complicated in a complicated context has to do with the radical changes affecting the very object that we study. Of course not all the communication objects are affected by that but if you think within the context of the advances of the information science and all the evolution of the information communication technologies, what is available, how it is appropriated by the public and all that is changing so fast, much faster than we are used to, much faster than the traditional rhythm of communication research or research in general. This leads to a number of changes which we should bear in mind while trying to understand how our situation is changing.

Scholars listen to Prof. Francois Heinderyckx as he reads out his lecture in Edward Said Hall, Jamia Millia Islamia

Scholars listen to Prof. Francois Heinderyckx as he reads out his lecture in Edward Said Hall, Jamia Millia Islamia

Many scholars active in the area of media and communication have to face both, the changing institutional culture which I mentioned earlier and the transformation of their objects and the challenges of their method. We are swept along by the new academic management culture while already being rocked by the swift evolution of the communication practices and communication science. This has consequences. Let me list a few.

  • Public authorities, the industry, civil society, they are all in need of guidance.
  • What is going on with the internet?
  • Should we protect our children?
  • How do we deal with the intellectual property?
  • How do we deal with these new technological challenges?
  • How do we deal with broadband internet?

A lot of questions come up. All the social activists turn to academia for answers. Help us. You are wise. You do methods, you have literature. Tell us what’s going on. Tell us what is going to happen in next few years. That is very exciting for us, very challenging and adding a lot of pressure on the way we organize our life.

Media affects media regulations, intellectual property, media literacy, information overload, piracy, transparency, e help, e business, e democracy, e everything. These are just a few of the burning associated issues that fall in the scope of media and communication science and therefore add to the pressure that we are under but also add to the legitimacy and social importance of our work. Yet it also stretches these conflicting injunctions that I mentioned earlier, the academic schizophrenia that I mentioned earlier.

Let me come back to that, and I will come back to that with few statistic examples to make it more concrete. Let’s consider to start, lobbying and influence.

LOBBYING AND INFLUENCE

My department recently launched a new minor in political communication within our master in communication. Its scope is explicitly focusing on lobbying. After Aurania we are establishing the world capital of lobbying. You may not know this. Brussels is the world capital of lobbying; there are more lobbyists in Brussels than in Washington DC. So we have to be curious about this, right? Lobbying and influence making is very tricky domains of power in an academic institution. As of today lobbying is still looked at with lot of suspicion in Europe and I am sure in other parts of the world; in fact in the U.S which is always given as a place where lobbying is well accepted, it is a well established practice. There is now a lot of more suspicion than there were just a couple of years ago, after a few difficult moment in the history of lobbying and policymaking. Lobbying is still associated with manipulations, covert operations, serving the interest of the powerful elite at the expense of the general interest and lobbyists are still seen as the dark knights of policymaking.

And the question was asked when we started promoting that program: what will you offer your students? Are you going to train them to become skilled lobbyists, perfect manipulators or are you going to organize influenced studies trying to be bank lobbying  to deconstruct the process and to understand what’s happening in lobbying today? Answer to this question should obviously be both, simply because dedication of model in universities is built upon this nice combination of teaching and research feeding each other. So we should do the critical research and at the same time teach the skills. And yet having to combine both aims can easily lead to rather uncomfortable cognitive opposition. The university offers access to knowledge and experiences which could be put to use in influencing public opinion [and] policy makers. Combined the latest knowledge in psychology, social psychology, rhetoric, legal engineering and everything else and you might end up with a perfect text book of public opinion and policy making manipulation. You could end up with the perfect line up that could teach our students to be the ultimate manipulators.

THE ACADEMIC SCHIZOPHRENIA

And I have no doubts they would find the job even before they graduate. Because our actions are guided by we like to call higher moral principles, we would obviously never contemplate doing anything like that. At the same time, and this is where the schizophrenia comes in, the labour market in Brussels and other capital is craving for skilled employees with a background that will help them be operational and efficient in the business of lobbying and influence making. There is a real niche and the real demand in the market. The contacts we are developing with the profession will help us transform the curriculum over the years, to take note of the feedback we receive from the industry and increase the chances that our graduates find the job when they leave our university. But meanwhile we are scholars, we do research, we are to remain on our guards. We are the gatekeepers of the certain approach to anything we contemplate and we teach. We have to keep a critical eye on our objects of study and to maintain a certain level of investigative research. This obviously might lead us to disapprove or even to denounce some processes, some actions or even some actors in the business of lobbying. And in doing that are we completely unconstrained, while we are trying to build the bonds of trust with the industry? Can we credibly prepare students to blend in the uses of an industry when we teach and address those same uses critically while we do research? Can we train the dark knights and incarnate the white knights at the same time?

More contradictions arise when we consider our responsibility towards society and the public authorities again. We are to do to our best to provide students with an education that will lead them to quality jobs. We are to offer labour markets with skilled workers that they need but we are also the watchdog of social practices. And as such we are to identify documents, deconstruct phenomena that we think to be significant and in some cases to argue against them.

Scholars listen to Prof. Francois Heinderyckx as he reads out his lecture in Edward Said Hall, Jamia Millia Islamia

Scholars listen to Prof. Francois Heinderyckx as he reads out his lecture in Edward Said Hall, Jamia Millia Islamia

The same kind of tension can be seen among our colleagues specializing in media communication law and regulations and are some in this room, you can talk to them over the course of this conference. While they teach students about in and out of the subjects, they are likely to be involved in some official council or assembly as academic experts or they might also be consultants for the industry or at least be involved in some contractual research. Some professors are also active and often renowned lawyers who might even defend the industry against the law suits or against the states. Moral ethical principles guide those colleagues in managing these different roles forcing them in opposite corners of the same issues. In some cases it becomes acrobatic to avoid conflicts of interests. In many cases opponents can easily flag the lack of independence of experts if they ever were engaged in projects involving stake holders which [becomes] inevitable for an expert of significant reputation. And I will finish with the last example that of schools of journalism.

JOURNALISM BETWEEN DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE

In many countries best and sometimes the only schools of journalism are run within universities. They provide the perfect example of how the many expectations of society can lead to contradictions and discomfort. Schools of journalism spare no efforts, believe me, to invest in equipment, higher staff to rig the curriculum so that students are trained to the latest trendy techniques and technologies so that they will swiftly blend in news room when they undertake the internship and hopefully when they find the job after graduation. This is perfectly legitimate; we are perfectly inaugural in doing that. It meets expectations of the students and the parents, it meets expectations of the labour market and the public authority. Meanwhile the same scholars spending the days, speaking about the latest trends to match the evaluation of the news media and please their recruiting agents. When they come home at night and finally find little spare time to do the research, they will most likely move into a sassy observer investigating and coming up with findings and thoughts very critical toward the same news media. It is like Dr. Jekyll teaching journalism students during the day and the hideous Mr. Hyde criticizing the trends and practices of contemporary journalism and news media at night. Or maybe it is the other way round, maybe Dr. Jekyll at night doing the critical research morphing into the hideous Mr. Hyde training journalists, I am not sure. We are training hunters and organizing wildlife preservations at the same time. We are training fast food restaurants employees and writing health food treaties and sophisticated cook books at same time.

Journalism schools are asked by media organizations to organize refresher courses for their staff to better prepare them for the next shift for the next evolution of the trade. Whether or not we approve of the very evolution it is us doing the training, how schizophrenic does that get? With the tabloid relation of the press should we train paparazzi for long range telephoto and camouflage techniques? Of course I am grossly exaggerating here to make my points but never the less the tension is there, and conflicting injunctions are real, and our academic schizophrenia is at an advanced stage and we slavishly follow the trends of the trade, and yet we are keepers of values and models that might be threatened by these same trends. You know these cases in academic institutions because they employ scholars active in all three levels; teaching, research and service to the community, are best equipped to impregnate the curriculum with bearing values and principles, moral and otherwise that will coat the professional skills of their students with an ethical and humanistic varnish. We have no choice but to come to terms with our academic schizophrenia because it is fundamental duty to ourselves, to our students and to the society.

Thank you very much.

This entry was published on March 28, 2013 at 2:47 pm and is filed under Communication Studies, Media Markets, Media Policy. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “Publics and Policy : Challenges to interdisciplinary Communication Studies

  1. Pingback: The impressions of a tourist who became a migrant in the academic hut | The Indian Medialogue

  2. Pingback: The media in Belgium : Ecology and global influences | The Indian Medialogue

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: