join the conversation

join the conversation

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Communication Studies Rise to Relevance

by Jason Schmitt
At a college near you, at this very moment, a student is switching their major to Communication Studies. As an academic discipline, Communication Studies is posting strong growth in relation to undergraduate majors, undergraduate degrees awarded, student popularity, and number of institutions offering the degree according to a newly released American Academy of Arts & Sciences Humanities Indicatorassessment. From this Humanities Indicator data it appears Communication Studies may be outperforming its humanity based peers on several measures. Perhaps equally important is that the discipline seems well positioned to maintain strong future growth potential.
"In terms of numbers, Communication Studies stood out regarding the amount of students majoring in the field. It was quite striking when we were crunching the numbers--how different it seemed in the sheer volume of students. It was much higher than the other disciplines and was certainly the largest of the disciplines we looked at," says Robert Townsend, Director of the Washington Office of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, who led the Humanities Indicators assessment.

In many ways Communication Studies is the right offering at the right time. The discipline is extremely well positioned as the digital economy, social networking and the move toward media creation rises to prominence. Concepts that may have been more abstract for students fifteen years ago such as relationship networks, group communication, and media theory are becoming vitally relevant knowledge that a wide ranging student body want to obtain. In addition, the broad nature and breadth of coursework in the discipline seems to be another attribute of academic attraction.
"I think as students become a little more careerist they search for a degree that is flexible and adaptable and I think communication provides for both of those," says Betsy Bach, Communication Studies Professor at University of Montana. This seems to be true since current enrollment statistics detail 135,190 juniors and seniors around the country choosing to pursue Communication Studies. But does this trend toward a rise in Communication Studies degrees affect other disciplines?

"It used to be that if you wanted to be a journalist you would go and take a journalism class and get an MA in Journalism. I don't think that is as likely to happen now, I think there is a stronger sense that students with Journalism degrees might be more poorly trained in the end than a Communication Degree or a Communication Degree with a Minor in Economics which prepares you to nicely operate as a journalist," says Trevor Parry-Giles, Director of Academic and Professional Affairs at the National Communication Association (NCA) and Professor at University of Maryland.
"Students across the board are realizing how important our classes are. We might pick a student up from business who realizes 'I will probably still be in business' but they want to come through the door differently," says Dawn Braithwaite, Professor and Chair of Communication Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Ethan Scott, a Senior at Oakland University in Rochester Hills, Michigan switched his major from Pre-Dental to Communication Studies. Scott says, "I have had a lot of opportunities, and I get contacted all the time from job prospects and they say: I see you are a Communication Studies Major, I see all the different experiences you have and we would like to have you in for an interview or send us your full resume. I really do think a lot of it is the Communication Studies major--it allows me to project the best version of myself, knowing what people are looking for and knowing how people communicate effectively."
Although growth and popularity may equate to success for the discipline--not all involved feel Communication Studies is utilizing its unique placement to provide a rigorous and reaching academic profile. Robert McChesney, Professor of Communication at University of Illinois, believes that the relationship between the new digital economy and Communication Studies needs to push the discipline further toward more cutting-edge assessment of key social and political factors. McChesney says, "Ten years ago the digital revolution provided an opportunity to increase the profile and research in the field to be much stronger. The discipline could leapfrog from the margins of lightly regarded marginal research that very few people paid any attention to, to a value that might command a more broad interest. I was hopeful that our [Communication Studies] departments would seize the initiative and take advantage of this to elevate the profile, quality and importance of the research. I think there has been some movement in that direction, by a handful of schools, but for the most part I think many programs have stayed in bureaucratic mode which is do what you have done before, don't make waves, draw your paycheck, go to sleep at night, and prepare for retirement."
Braithwaite contrasts McChesney and says, "While we are all anxious to see certain areas of research grow, it is challenging for any one scholar to be able to take stock of the breadth of an already broad discipline and claim we are on the margins without accounting for the work, not only in communication technology, but also in digital rhetoric and social media, interpersonal and intergroup communication, health communication, and organizational communication to name a few. I believe the critical mass of scholars and scholarship is building and we will continue to see the growth of books and peer-reviewed research coming as many of these scholars are now at the stage of tenure and promotion."
"The raw number of job postings in Communication Studies remains robust and has rebounded nicely since the recession and at the same time the survey of earned doctorates from NSF suggests we are not over-producing Ph.D.'s. There are not more Ph.D.'s than jobs available," says Parry-Giles, which he indicates is a way to test the health of a given discipline. Parry-Giles also finds the recent reports and quantifiable data will work well for Communication Studies program directors when they go into their Dean or Provost offices, requesting new faculty hires, with verifiable evidence that nationally the discipline is strong.
It is clear that Communication Studies has more students and fewer faculty positions than many of its humanities peers, many of whom are experiencing significant decline. As universities and colleges retool to best meet the future and create the most informed and relevant future citizens, it seems that Communication Studies is destined to be high on the evolving educational roster.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the position held by Robert Townsend at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Are Background Checks for Emergency Volunteers Necessary?

It ought to go without saying that a volunteer firefighter isn’t going to perpetrate a sex crime or rob a house when he’s supposed to be dousing the flames. Apparently it isn’t that obvious.

Last year New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law requiring background checks to ensure volunteer firefighters weren’t carrying sex offense convictions. It’s up to individual fire companies to decide whether a prospective volunteer is fit to serve, in spite of a past sex offense, but everyone gets screened.

In Rush County, Ind., volunteers for Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) must submit to an even broader check, one that encompasses all past criminal history.

At first blush it might seem counterintuitive to run background checks on volunteers. These people have stepped up to help; they certainly appear to be of goodwill.

Yet advocates of background checks cite a number of reasons why a CERT or other response organization should dig into the history of potential volunteers. The emergency management community seems to be heeding these calls: Around the nation, volunteers at a range of levels are having their histories poked and prodded before they’re allowed to join the team.

The phrase heard most often in regard to background checks is “vulnerable populations.” When people are in crisis they may succumb more easily to predators, a premise that applies especially to children, the old and the infirm. When responders and rescuers come into contact with these populations, the argument goes, emergency managers need to be sure that these Samaritans can shoulder the task responsibly.

“The upside to a background check is that you have confidence in the people you are working with, you can feel comfortable sending them out in the community under your own banner,” said Bruce Fitzgerald, director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency. “If a CERT is associated with the emergency management office, you want to have that confidence in the people you are putting out there.”

In Rush County, Emergency Management Agency Director Charles Kemker suggests that background checks may help an agency to fortify its legal defense. If a volunteer’s bad actions should ever land on its doorstep in the form of some legal liability, “who is going to be held accountable for them?” he said. A background check may show the agency had done its due diligence to ensure the public good, perhaps absolving the agency of some culpability.

Background checks could also help to ensure public trust. When people see a first responder with a CERT credential, they likely presume this person is “safe,” someone they can rely on in a crisis. For example, children are taught to look for the person in uniform. An inspection of a volunteer’s past can help ensure that trust is well founded.
These arguments have proven compelling in public life, not just among emergency response organizations. In Howard County, Md., even the Recreation and Parks Department runs investigations on everyone from coaches and instructors to sports advisory board members. Adoption at this level suggests a high degree of confidence in the background check as a meaningful safeguard.

But it won’t be a perfect precaution. For example, many bad actors don’t have criminal records. In fact, some in the emergency community see a range of reasons to oppose the background check.

The process costs money. The funds don’t usually come out of the CERT budget, but someone has to pay for these background checks, whether it be the local police department or some other entity. Checks take time too, potentially slowing the intake process at a moment when volunteers are needed.

In addition, the prospect of a background check could scare away potential volunteers. Some might not want their personal history examined or may fear the details in the report will become public knowledge.

“With several hundred volunteers, to date, we have not performed background checks,” said Demetrius Kastros, a Monterey, Calif., CERT instructor. “Background checks are usually conducted by the law enforcement agency of a jurisdiction, and they usually have enough constraints on their time without doing background checks on the 35 students in a CERT class.”

In any case, he suggests, the very nature of an emergency likely would limit the kind of harm a potential criminal might perpetrate. “CERT members operate in teams and are not working with overly expensive or sensitive equipment, where there are concerns about loss of materials,” Kastros said.

Interestingly the business of vetting volunteers extends beyond the emergency management community. While CERTs tend to rely on state and local law enforcement to fund background checks, a growing niche industry has sprung up to conduct this work for others in the nonprofit community. Organizations such as First Advantage, AccuSource and True Hire’s subsidiary Background Checks for Volunteers all offer to help the nonprofit community conduct investigations for a fee.

Clearly strong cases exist for and against the use of background checks in emergency response. To see how these arguments play out in practice, it helps to look at a few specific situations.

The 400 active volunteers in the Austin, Texas, CERT represent a broad swath of the local population. Their ages, professions and ethnicities all may vary. But these green-vested responders all have one thing in common: clean criminal records.

To become a CERT volunteer, it’s not enough to attend one of the twice-yearly, eight-session classes, or to join the monthly meetings for continuing education and training. To earn the ID emblazoned with city and CERT logos, volunteers must submit to the background check.

The police department runs the check and picks up the tab for any associated costs. Individuals are matched against the Texas penal code for past violations, and their fingerprints are run against an FBI database. It’s the same level of scrutiny as is applied to any city employee, said Jacob Dirr, a spokesman for the Austin Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

“There is the potential for our volunteers to come into contact with children or vulnerable populations, and we want to ensure that in those instances we are doing our due diligence,” he said.

While some may be concerned that such checks will scare off potential volunteers, Dirr said he has never known that to be the case. Nor has the check impeded what some say is a vital aspect of emergency response: That is, the spontaneous volunteer. Such individuals have been a crucial component in many emergency operations, such as the 2014 Oso mudslide in Washington state, where hundreds of volunteers helped mitigate a landslide that killed more than 40 people.

Austin makes sure CERT’s background checks do not slow any emergency response. To do this it relies on a memorandum of understanding with the American Red Cross, which typically will lead the intake of volunteers during a major disaster. The CERT will put these people to work, even without the usual investigation. “If we are in an instance where we have spontaneous volunteers, nine times out of 10 we are going to be doing that with the American Red Cross, and they have their own very efficient ways of checking people before they are accepted as Red Cross volunteers,” Dirr said.

Not everyone agrees with this way of thinking. Sometimes the organization of a community’s emergency response mechanisms will actually mitigate against the need for a background check.

Among the 3,000 CERT volunteers in Palm Beach County, Fla., not one has even been subjected to investigation. Primarily the job of the public safety department is to collect a $50,000 state grant and then to pass it through to fund training at the local state college, said Vince Bonvento, an assistant county administrator and also director of the Public Safety Department.

Volunteers get trained and certified, but they also get badges stating they are not county employees or even sanctioned volunteers. “If they were volunteers for the county we would be responsible for their actions,” Bonvento explained. That’s not a weight the county wants to bear — not when most volunteers spend their time patrolling retirement communities.

To take responsibility for these helpers, the county would probably want to run background checks, and that raises a range of tough questions. “What are going to be the criteria you are going to use to deny someone a CERT certification? There are various levels of misdemeanor; there are these different levels of checks. All of that would have to be defined,” Bonvento said. “If there is cost involved, do you pass that on to the volunteers? Will it be allowable to take it out of the grant?”

Answers to these and other questions may be forthcoming, as Florida’s inspector general recommended recently that background checks be made mandatory for emergency volunteers. That would suit Bonvento just fine, as long as the state is willing to take on responsibility for the effort. “If it is going to be done it needs to be done by the state of Florida,” he said. “They need to come to the counties, and they need to give us direction.”

Even when checks are run, a dubious score doesn’t mean automatic rejection, at least not in Rush County. Most investigations, for example, will delve into credit history: A person with financial troubles may be more apt to abuse trust. But Kemker doesn’t look at those scores.

“There are a lot of people having financial hard times right now,” he said. “We are not going to exclude someone based on that.”

Even criminal blips may be overlooked. “We have had some that have been questionable, where maybe the people they run with have an extensive history with law enforcement and they are just ‘known associates,’” Kemker said. “We sit with them, we discuss it and we give them a chance.”

The returns on that effort can be mixed. “We have had a couple of them that have been straight with us, who have been willing to make a change and have become better citizens. Then we’ve had others who we find out they are still associating with those people, or they are making racial slurs or sexual innuendos on Facebook.”

So Kemker runs the check, but he relies most heavily on interviews between candidates and present volunteers. “They sometimes tend to get a better description of what the people will be like, bringing out things that would not normally show up on a background check as far as their attitude and their actions.”

In some states, investigations into the criminal histories of emergency volunteers remain something of a mixed bag.

In Maine, where there is no statewide oversight of volunteer programs, counties manage their own CERTs, Fitzgerald said, and it is hit and miss as to which choose to run background checks.

Fitzgerald knows of cases in which a volunteer’s checkered past has caused planners to shift direction or even decline assistance. “I have heard of instances where a background check turned up something that might be concerning, and we have either had to change the role of that volunteer and think about where we might use their skills, or else say thanks but no thanks.”

While counties are free to choose the level of scrutiny they wish to apply, Fitzgerald’s bottom line is pragmatic: Unless there is some compelling reason not to, let’s get those people into the pipeline. “If there is a need in a community and you have a group of people who want to get training, you want to take advantage of that,” he said. “It’s hard enough to find people who are willing to volunteer and do this kind of work.”

Story by Adam Stone

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Ebola: Fear the Fear not the Virus

Ebola: Fear the Fear not the Virus


Recent weeks have seen the proliferation of fear messaging about the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD). The inconsistent messaging that has been targeted at the citizenry of the United Stated and Ohio residents in particular is nothing more than shameful. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the White House, and the media at large have unwittingly or perhaps purposefully created ambiguous messages about EVD that have led to wide spread panic and paralysis. Keeping children home from school out of fear of contracting EVD, servers in restaurants wearing gloves so as not to come in contact with a potential infected person are but a few futile behaviors that develop as a result of such ineffective messaging. Why are we engaging in fear control messages when we should be sending messages designed not only to educate the public but also have them engage in proactive behaviors that serve to mitigate any perceived or real threat? Messages resulting in fear control paralyze publics and have no value as to actually addressing any given threat. Further, fear control messages result in wide-spread hysteria and panic that could threaten public safety. Such irresponsible messaging is not limited to the CDC, White House, and media outlets. If we are to truly take risk and crisis messaging seriously, we need to engage in message creation designed to control danger or danger control messages. Being told by government officials that “they are on it” or “there is nothing to worry about” do little for public safety. These types of messages fuel uncertainty and speculation. Instead, danger control messages advocate not only a realistic degree of susceptibility to the threat but also advocates behaviors that people can engage in to mitigate their susceptibility to the risk. Messages that are designed to educate and advocate are ALWAYS more favorable and effective than messages designed to threaten, perpetuate fear, and do not advocate any proactive behavior on the part of the public. I hope that after the Ebola Virus Disease hype dies down and the media moves on to their next “if it bleeds it leads” story, all of us reflect on how the spread of ineffective fear messages was so much more far reaching than EVD ever was. It is in the realm of health communication, risk communication, and crisis communication where effective messages can be created, disseminated, and assessed. The containment of Ebola Virus Disease is indeed an entity best addressed by healthcare personnel. The messaging about Ebola Virus Disease is indeed and entity best addressed by communication professionals.


Theodore A. Avtgis, Ph.D.

Professor and Chair

Department of Communication Studies

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Dr. Rodriguez Spotlight in UTSA's Sombrillo Magazine

The University of Texas San Antonio (UTSA) alum, our own Dr. Dariela Rodriguez, was interviewed by her alma mater's alumni magazine, Sombrillo, in which she talks about Ashland University and the Master of Arts in Heath & Risk Communication. Click here to read the article.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Dr. Avtgis Presents at ECA

Theodore A. Avtgis, Professor and Chair in the Department of Communication Studies, presented two papers titled "The Impact of Communication Technology on Healthcare Organizations and Patient-Provider Interaction" and "Recent Research Involving Biological Approaches toward Understanding Trait Verbal Aggressiveness 2010-2014" at the annual meeting of the Eastern Communication Association in Providence, RI.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Tending Two Gardens: Cultivating Career and Family

Deleasa Randall-Griffiths, associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies, attended the Central States Communication Association Conference in Minneapolis April 2-5. She presented a paper titled “Tending Two Gardens: Cultivating Career and Family” as part of the panel on “Women and Work: Heightening Women’s Experience of negotiating Multiple identities” sponsored by the Women’s Caucus. She also presented “Home Sweet Academic Home: Witnessing Change over the Decades” as part of the panel “’Home’ on the Academic Range: What Factors Elevate the Chances of an Institutional ‘Fit’?” sponsored by the CSCA First Vice-President. Finally, Dr. Randall-Griffiths presented an activity on self-concept and identity titled “I am….” as part of a Great Ideas for Teaching session sponsored by the G.I.F.T Interest Group.

Monday, September 30, 2013

How Safe is the Medicine in Your House?

Dr. Dan O'Rourke
Associate Professor
Department of Communication Studies 

            Americans are fortunate to have access to some the finest medical professionals and facilities in the world. Combined with government oversight agencies and independent researchers to test medical products for safety, we are afforded a great deal of confidence when we go to the medical cabinets in our homes. A recent story by Pro Publica, a non-profit investigative journalism agency, in cooperation with the National Public Radio program, This American Life, however, warns us that we must be ever vigilant as consumers of over the counter medicines.
            Three years ago in 2010, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported that more than 300 people (321) died from acetaminophen toxicity. Acetaminophen is the active drug found in Tylenol, which is one of the reasons this finding was so startling. In 1982, someone tampered with and poisoned bottles of Tylenol in the Chicago area. (,8599,1878063.html) The makers of the product acted decisively and withdrew millions of bottles of the medicine from the shelves at great cost to the product company. Since that time, Tylenol has benefited from the public perception that it is one of the safest products on the market. Advertising campaigns for the medicine echoed this perception and declared that Tylenol was the pain reliever that “hospitals used most.” It was “recommended by pediatricians” and provided “safe, fast, pain relief.” Ironically, this belief may have contributed to the problem.
            The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been aware of the potential problem of acetaminophen toxicity for some time. In 1977, an expert panel strongly recommended that a warning be placed on the painkiller that excess use could cause “severe liver damage.” Great Britain, Switzerland, and New Zealand have required that it be sold only by pharmacies or regulated the amount that can be purchased. In America, however, public perception of safety has negated these findings. The FDA asserts that this has created a “special risk” for the product as twenty-five percent of Americans routinely take more pills than prescribed. The FDA sets the maximum recommended daily dose at 4 grams, or eight pills; as few as two extra pills has been reported to cause liver failure. From 2001 to 2010, acetaminophen-related deaths amounted to twice the number of all other over-the counter-pain relievers. This is information that must be communicated to the general public. A careful examination of the potentially fatal consequences of what may be considered simple miscommunication between drug manufacturers, health practioners, and innocent patients is at the heart of this issue. Once again, we see a need for greater consumer awareness and the development of health and risk communication in the medical profession.  


                 With thanks to Dr. Pravin Rodrigues for his ideas and input