Communication Studies Rise to Relevance

10/22/2014 01:38 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2014

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 Indicator assessment. 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.