Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Beautiful Memo from the VPAA

Coming to terms with beautiful memos

I wouldn't normally share an intra-office memo, but I feel like this one had so many interesting beautiful and philosophical points, that I had to. I got permission from Dr. Jack Crocker, the VP of Academic Affairs who sent the memo to share it more widely. Here it is:
Dear Colleagues,
I am taking this occasion of “labor day” to thank you for all the good work that you do, to raise positive awareness that we have the opportunity to work, and to give an example of data that show the value of your work.
Fist, thanks to those of you who have labored for many caring years in the cultivation and delivery of education to students at all levels, and to those of you who are just getting started in the profession.  While what you do (or the perceived results of what you do) frequently is criticized and attacked, the essential importance of your work cannot be denied or diminished.  Your labor, conjoined with others across the globe, is an island of hope for the advancement of civilization worldwide.  Yes, there is cynicism, failures, and depressing challenges, and the noble context I mention may be taken as sentimentally exaggerated, or even fraudulent, but envision for a moment a world without higher education. Not pretty.  Even if media saturation says the world is going to hell in a hand basket, it is your labor that offers one of the few chances to reduce the size of the basket.
Without going into details,  if we reflect on our local situation in the context of global pandemics of human suffering and loss of hope I think we become acutely aware that the opportunity to work, to celebrate a “labor day,” is a condition to be thankful for.  Almost all the stresses and problems we have are within the realm of amelioration.  In Paradise Lost Milton sees the expulsion from Eden as a “fortunate fall.”  I would say at WNMU our problems rank as fortunate.
That being said, let me return to the real world of what  you do best, and that is take students at all levels and successfully move them to success.  The following data are a good example of who we are and what our “labor” accomplishes.  Notice the number of students in each of the “at-risk” categories in relation to the total number of awards.  For example, 192 students in the “low income” at-risk category achieved a certificate or degree making up 41% of the awards. First generation students represent 44% of the awards. 
Based on the Fall 13-Spring 14 Degree file just submitted to HED, 450 individuals produced 474 awards as follows: (Thanks to Paul Landrum for the data.)
Risk Factors
Deg Level
Total Awards
Low Income
1st Generation
Readmit Stop outs
All 4 Risk Factors Present
Grad Cert
These numbers reveal that we are an open-access university, enrolling a high number of students with at-risk factors.  More importantly, the results reveal that you not only accept the challenge of working in an open-access institution but also that your commitment and abilities are evidenced by the success of the students.  Some would look at the percentages as low, but in comparison to other institutions our “value-added” ratio is exceptional.  In other words, on the at-risk scale you consistently are successful at helping students persevere despite considerable odds, moving them to success at a much greater distance from entrance to exit.  This is a foundational narrative of who we are and what we do.
So, on this labor day weekend it is a fitting occasion to say thanks and to take pride in your work.
Best regards,
Lots is going on here. It was like a Psalm to me.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Five Core Questions in Program Prioritization

Coming to Terms with Program Prioritization.

I haven't blogged for a while. That's because I am bad. Maybe this will get me back to it.

I found out yesterday that even though we basically only have one class (I've been fighting for more), no minor or major in the catalog (I've been fighting for one), and only one full-time faculty member (me), that Communication is a "program" at my university and therefore subject to Program Prioritization. That is the process by which programs can be cut, grown or ignored. Most "programs" who found out that they were subject to "prioritization" were pretty ticked about it. I wasn't because I don't think that we could be moved to a much lower priority from where we are. It is time to move up or out, in my opinion.

Those programs subject to "prioritization" were required to write answers to five "Core Questions." Here are my answers with portions referring to specific names redacted.

Question 1:
What was the Communication Program created to do in the first place?

                Of course, we could begin this description in ancient Greece on the island of Sicily where a Communication teacher named Corax began the very first of what could be considered “college level teaching.” We could start hundreds of years later with Aristotle’s text On Rhetoric or much later with Cicero’s Rhetorica ad Herrenium which together lay out the basic structures of western studies of Communication and its five canons of Invention, Style, Arrangement, Memory, and Delivery. Perhaps it is best to begin with Augustine and his argument that Communication classes be required for all clergy and the way that morphed into rhetoric (which was and is Communication) being one of the seven basic liberal arts which became the basis for the entire concept of the University. Perhaps it could be discussed that for generations Communication devolved into mere writing devoid of the classical canons of delivery and memory and found its way into English departments, but reemerged powerfully with the Elocutionists of the 19th century. Maybe, an answer would begin with Herbert Wicheln’s 1925 seminal essay "The Literary Criticism of Oratory" which finally separated written rhetoric as taught in those English departments from the full range of rhetoric and Communication more broadly understood, especially speech. All of that would provide a very good understanding of the purpose of a Communication Program, but would take hundreds of pages to do properly. Indeed, many excellent books do just that.
                Instead, it would be good, I think, to begin in 1994 when WNMU officially created their own Communication program. Much of the original purpose of the Communication Program must be ascertained by conjecture since little institutional memory exists on the campus regarding its construction. However, the history of the larger discipline and the university documentation available can provide some indication about why the Communication Program came into existence. According to old catalogs, previous to 1994 WNMU had a “Speech” program and it seems that faculty members were reassigned and many of the classes in that discipline were being renumbered as COMM classes. This reflected a larger trend that was taking place in the discipline. In this same decade, the “National Speech Association” also changed its title to “The National Communication Association.” This was done for a powerful reason. Rhetoric, we were recognizing again, was indeed much larger than the truncated version being taught in English programs and even larger than what could be taught in classes which limited themselves to “Speech.” At this point, the National Communication Association stated as its mission that it would address “all forms, modes, media and consequences of communication through humanistic, social scientific and aesthetic inquiry.”
                Since it was in this era that Western New Mexico University also created its program, it is reasonable to assume that the reason for creating a “Communication” program from the old “Speech” program was much the same at the local level as they were at the national level.  Just teaching writing and public speaking was not enough to function as a University. To be engaged in sound pedagogy and preparing students to communicate in the diverse and technologically dynamic world into which they were moving, a “Speech” program is not enough. Instead a “Communication” program was necessary in which students could learn Communication in “all forms, modes, media and consequences of communication through humanistic, social scientific and aesthetic inquiry,” not just speech. Thus a Communication Program was born.

Question 2:
What is the program doing now?

                A history of staffing difficulties, budget constraints, pressures from the state, accreditation requirements, and a probable lack of vision seem to have deviated the Communication Program at Western New Mexico University from its lofty origins. It has moved more to the background and functions as a service to the larger university. The Communication Program at WNMU now serves two important and necessary functions for the university.
First it allows the students to meet their Area 1 Core Competencies specifically in the areas that require oral and presentation skills. These core competencies are required in the state of New Mexico for all students. This is an absolutely necessary function. Second, it provides a number of competencies in non-print media and oral rhetorical skills required specifically for entry-level Language-Arts teachers to receive their teaching licensure in the state of New Mexico. Given the historic place of WNMU in the training and development of teachers, this is also absolutely necessary.

Question 3:
Should it be doing what it’s doing now?

                Without a doubt, meeting general education and teacher licensure requirements is a necessary and proper role for the Communication Program. However, examining the current role of the program and comparing that with the probable reason for the program’s creation provides an opportunity to consider a fascinating semantic distinction between what is “necessary and proper” and what is “essential.” Things which are “necessary and proper” need to be done, should be done, and if they are not done represent a significant failing. Things which are “essential,” however, are things which are constitutive. They are what provide the “essence” of the program. Without them, the program is empty and meaningless.
                What makes a “Communication Program” a “communication program” is the broad teaching of “all forms, modes, media and consequences of communication through humanistic, social scientific and aesthetic inquiry” as referred to by the National Communication Association. The current faculty member in the Communication (hereafter referred to as “I” or “me”) has published work and presented at conferences in areas such as media ecology, internet law, interpersonal communication, popular culture, communication pedagogy, general semantics, and classical rhetorical theory while at WNMU. This more than qualifies me to provide essential teaching to constitute a true Communication Program. The official teaching of communication, however, has been limited by course requirements and providing necessary and proper teaching of speech.
Certainly, the Communication Program must continue doing what it is doing now, however, it must not only be doing what it is doing now. The Communication Program must provide something more than these necessary functions. It must also provide its essential functions.
I would have to argue that in its current condition the Communication Program at WNMU is doing things that are “necessary and proper” while ignoring things that are “essential.” If the Communication Program is to continue as anything more than a vestigial appendix of a bygone dream this must be addressed.

Question 4:
If not, what should it be doing?

Option 1: the preferred option.

                The Communication Program at WNMU should continue to fulfill its necessary and proper role by providing introductory Public Speaking classes which meet the Area 1 Core Competency requirements for the state of New Mexico and provide the necessary competencies to teachers seeking licensure as Language-Arts teachers. It should also be fulfilling its essential role as defined by the National Communication Association to teach “all forms, modes, media and consequences of communication through humanistic, social scientific and aesthetic inquiry.”

Option 2: a less preferred option.

                The Communication Program at WNMU, being unable due to administrative constraints to fulfill its essential role of teaching “all forms, modes, media and consequences of communication through humanistic, social scientific and aesthetic inquiry” should be dissolved entirely and the COMM prefix should be removed from the WNMU catalog. The Area 1 Core Competency and Language-Arts teaching requirements should be fulfilled through a different department or departments whose essential components can also be met.

Option 3: the worst option.

                The Communication Program at WNMU can continue exactly as it is. It can continue to fulfill its necessary and proper role by providing introductory Public Speaking classes which meet the Area 1 Core Competency requirements for the state of New Mexico and provide the necessary competencies to teachers seeking licensure as Language-Arts teachers. It will continue to “function” as a program without an essence, without doing what a Communication Program exists to do.

Question 5:
How should it do what it should be doing?

Option 1:

                A proposal for a minor has been presented to the VPAA early in the spring semester of 2014 and awaits his approval to go to the Curriculum and Instruction Committee. If approved this would restore the essence of a Communication Program while continuing to provide the necessary and proper services to the students. Another proposals aimed at restoring the essence of a Communication Program, specifically an Associates of Arts in Communication which will provide two year students with a broad range of skills and knowledge in Communication that they can put to work immediately and that would also provide the basis for a number of Baccalaureate disciplines, is also being studied by the departments. This second proposal would require no more additional classes than the proposed minor. The best possible scenario would be for both proposals to be accepted. If neither of these proposals are accepted, option 1 would be difficult to achieve.


                The Communication Program should be dissolved as follows: I should be reassigned with the current title to a different program. The speech class should follow me into that program and renumbered to meet that new placement. That can be done in a couple ways I can see or perhaps in other ways.
While Communication departments separated from English departments in the 1920’s because of the limited focus of the English discipline, it would be inaccurate to say that English still has that limited focus. Perhaps I should be moved programmatically and officially to English where I could continue to teach Public Speaking under an ENGL prefix to meet the necessary state requirements and other appropriate upper level or graduate classes in rhetorical theory or criticism.  I would continue to be “Assistant [or perhaps by that time ‘Associate’] Professor of Speech and Communication” but in the English program.
Another possibility might be to place me in the newly created Cultural Studies program. Cultural Studies has a history similar to Communication Studies and at many major universities they share faculty. My particular background in media and ethnography might make sense there. I would continue to teach Public Speaking under that program’s prefix to meet the necessary state requirements and other appropriate upper level or graduate classes in cultural studies. I would continue to be “Assistant [or perhaps by that time ‘Associate’] Professor of Speech and Communication” but in the Cultural Studies program.
Other possibilities for my placement exist and these are just two possibilities if the Communication Program were to be dissolved.

Option 3:

                We’d just keep doing what we’ve been doing and it will probably be okay, but something deep and profound will be missing.