I spent today looking up Schools of Communications and Journalism all over the United States. I want to know what kinds of courses they offer. I’ve probably searched about 40 different web sites now, with mounting frustration. There’s an enormous variation in the ease of finding information.It takes far too long to find out what you need to know.
In the old days, I’d have gone to a library and thumbed through 40 catalogs and maybe I’d have been better off doing that even today. The organization of those books was virtually standard. After some introductory matter describing the geographical and cultural beauties of the college campus, plus basic facts about the likely expenses of enrolling, they got right down to business, with departments organized alphabetically, and within each department a cheery little blurb, plus the list of faculty members, ranked by status and alphabet. Then you’d get the complete list and description of courses, including (usually) the name of each expected instructor.
No more. Now you go to the web sites, which differ in every possible way. The most peculiar thing is that they hardly ever show the university's address. Several times, I’ve given up a search because I could not determine the town where the university was located. Most recently I gave up on Penn State, which seems to occupy several different campuses, some of which are identified as “University Park, Pennsylvania.” But is that where the school of communications is located? I couldn’t even find the name of the building or any phone numbers.
One trick the page designers seem to enjoy is their capacity to hide things from us. You have to wave your cursor across all the buttons, and sometimes a sub-topic will appear on the screen. Then if it's a category you want to choose, you have to pounce on it quickly, but usually it will have vanished anyway before you can select it.
Then there’s the challenge of connecting faculty members with courses. Very few universities tell you who will teach the course. Most departments do give a list of faculty members but you may have to hunt for five minutes or more to find it. A few schools even tell you something about the research interests of faculty members, but that’s pretty much limited to prestigious universities such as Stanford (see photo). In less stellar departments, the blurb just tells you where each scholar got her degrees and how long he has taught. Occasionally there will be a personal tidbit, such as the fact that he likes camping trips and gooey desserts. The great universities, on the other hand, may tell you a lot about each person’s ongoing research. That’s beautiful, but it may not help you figure out who will teach any particular course next fall, which is what I want to know so I can contact the relevant faculty members to offer them copies of my book, in the hope that they will recommend it to their classes.
Most colleges combine communications with other programs. You might major in “media studies” and combine it with either, say, journalism or “television broadcasting.” In general, these appear to be singularly untheorized. There’s not much speculation about the nature of culture, for example. And there’s hardly ever any discussion of the emotional impact of films or fiction on the viewer. What comes across is a long series of categories that will be covered during particular phases of the course. These are boxes, waiting to be filled with information – not with questions, but with factual answers. There’s plenty of training, but not any evidence that stimulating or controversial questions are going to be addressed.
Yet communications studies seem to be booming – unlike my own poor discipline, sociology, which is a shadow of its former self. Nobody reads sociologists anymore. I had thought it was because we had all become so boring, but that cannot be the explanation. The courses in communications are certainly not very appealing intellectually, when compared to the sociology courses of my youth – or even of my senior years. Maybe it’s because these courses offer the pretense that you’ll get techniques and professional know-how from the communications programs. Some people may prefer that.