I had an experience recently in an interview with a prestige university. My brain froze, my thinking slowed to slush and I couldn’t form a coherent sentence to describe the few ideas that were still slowly bubbling up from the heavy fog that had engulfed my head.
This might describe a common experience when someone experiences stage fright or paralyzed by the stress of wanting to produce under pressure. Speakers feel this way when they are afraid to perform in front of large audiences.
Although, I was extremely excited and honored to be selected as one of five finalists to interview for a position in the communication department, I was still surprised at my melt down. I literally apologized to the interview committee as I was hanging up the phone, completely deflated by my poor performance.
It took a couple days for me to process what had happened.
When the wrong question is asked about a subject that is really important and the answer to the question posed does not align with the magnitude of the subject that should be discussed there is a collision of ideas. The two thoughts do not align. I even said out loud, I’m not sure what you’re asking, when I really meant, “Why are you asking these questions?” I thought, aren’t we identifying what I can contribute to the university communication department? I wanted to explore what value I bring to the field of communication and specifically the research of social media. What I heard was, “What organizations do I belong to and what does my best and worse student look like?” I expected the next question to be, “If I were a tree, what type of tree would I be?”
I found myself in an endless loop that quickly turned into a downward spiral trying to make seemingly irrelevant questions align with a rich and complex subject such as the impact of social media on communication. In fairness to the search committee, they stated that they had a purpose for their questions and when I was asked to speculate why faculty doesn’t get along; I had a pretty good idea what they were looking for. Honestly, I don’t know how to articulate that I am a good collaborator without sounding insincere, so even my response seemed uninformed and naïve. Of course, this particular question was framed, “As a graduate student, what would you imagine could be staff issues.” Maybe my feeling of inadequacy was not completely imagined.
It is important to note that I don’t intend this commentary to accuse the interviewees of doing something wrong or trying to make an argument how I’m the right person for the job. Unfortunately, I think my poor performance shows a lack of experience and wisdom that I’m hoping to develop with such reflection and observations of the industry, and next time I’ll feel more qualified and definitely make a stronger argument for myself and the vision for the field of study.
It wasn’t that the faculty from the communication department, which their full title is, Communication and Creative Arts was asking the wrong questions. I mention the full name because if they followed their program name, it would be an ideal fit for me and probably a different interview with better results. It appears to be the academic field as a whole. To create really cool and broadly inclusive names for departments and then still practice the same tired way of doing business. Similar to newspapers thinking they are a paper platform to deliver news and advertisements, it is equally limiting for communication departments to perceive themselves as speech, journalism and broadcasting schools. I came out of the Arts and Technology school, which started the Emerging Media and Communications department during my graduate work, and besides the fantastic names of the programs, the curriculum still focused on applications and equipment and less about the process of innovating, developing new ideas, and imaging what we can do with the emerging media or maximize the amazing opportunities to communicate.
Even simply talking about possibilities is different than actually doing AND creating something innovative.
I won’t go too far into the idea of Design Thinking, but to say: The school of arts and humanities has struggled with the idea that the liberal arts must be the foundation for any discipline since the beginning of formal education. Now the field of communications, mass communications, multi-media, and social media, will soon understand that the foundation for their discipline is Design Thinking and they will have the same struggle stating the importance to corporate America as the Arts and Humanities departments has promoting their “discipline of thinking” argument to the engineering department.
Back in 2005, Daniel Pink made a bold prediction that the MFA would eventually replace the MBA. Unfortunately, the conversation must begin before the idea can be seriously considered. At this point, it is nothing more than a throwaway line.
My complaint is the communication schools are seeking an expert in the emerging media/communication area and this is impossible since the field is so new that the people who understand the medium are under 30. Friendster wasn’t launched until 2002, Linked-in followed the next year and Facebook wasn’t created until 2006. The industry is ten years old! The mature scholars who espouse experience are primarily citing spectacular numbers and hyperboles of what can be: The wisdom of crowds, crowd sourcing, and the democracy of information, a new education, a new intelligence, visual rhetoric, and the power of social media. The comedian, Steve Martin who has over 2 million followers on Twitter, said it best in a recent interview on NPR radio, the value of twitter from his perspective seems to be tweeting: Nothing more. But, we continue to try and explain the sensation as life changing, society shaping, revolution inspiring, when actually it is simply another form of communication, like the telephone was 120 years ago.
It is what we do with these technologies, how we apply them and developing aptitudes to maximize the tool that must lead our exploration and research.
The interviewer asked, “What do we tell our administration when we say that we want to teach a course on Facebook.” I must admit, this is one of those questions that stopped me in my tracks. First, how are you a communications department and not teaching social media and how could anyone, including the administration not see the impact, influence, and value of social media as potentially one of the greatest social impacts of our time? The question asked by the interviewers is an excellent question and one of the reasons I’m writing this essay as a response; unfortunately, three days later. At this point in the phone conversation, I was already a blundering idiot and maybe the questioner was throwing me a softball, a bone to the dog that was cowering in the corner. I could not take the question seriously and did not formulate the right answer in the moment.
Here’s what I wish I had said:
Dear University Communication department,
That is the question! What do we tell the people who approve curriculum about social media? It’s what we are all exploring and searching as quickly as possible, because whoever answers this question will be the next Marshall McLuhan or Walter Ong of media studies. At this point the answer isn’t as important as the way the question is framed. We are currently extrapolating our data from 15-21 year old children. People who want to be connected their entire waking hours and have 105 “close” friends that they want to share their feelings and new experiences with. They might post, “I went to the mall and saw a really hot guy,” and for them this is a new experience or a revelation that deserves to be published. For people who have been taught that publishing only happens to people with important ideas, this is heresy! My design professor would rant that creativity and Design was being decimated because all these amateurs were able to produce “crap” and post it online. We are using current media to connect with friends, explore our self-indulgent fantasies, and broadcasting inane, uninteresting, mundane details that our mother’s don’t want to read. We’re practicing, exploring, testing and virtually groping for the value beyond connecting with another person or persons or community. But, we have not found it yet and therefore, the question is even asked, to explain to short sited administrators who only view the Facebook page from their teen’s computers, “Why social media?”
Of course marketing and advertising industries are finding ways to commoditize the technologies. They are going to see it first because it is a visual, graphic, creative medium. I’d predict it is the creative aspect that will make the commercial/corporate adoption take longer than it might if it were a technology that provided an industrial or mechanical innovation.
Here are the wrong questions being asked by communication departments:
Don’t ask what organizations do you belong to; ask who do you follow on Twitter?
Asking what social media you use is similar to asking what organizations you belong to. The question is how do you use all the current and emerging media, and what application do you wish you had? That’s the interesting question and where the next innovation lies.
If you want to gauge the effectiveness of a teacher, don’t ask for student evaluations. Ask how they include cell phones, texting and internet access in the classroom and are successful at engaging the students?
Ask how many applications, communication technologies and different platforms do you utilize in any presentation, project, class or program.
If you want to know how a communications instructor grades, ask the creative writing teacher, poetry, art or studio teachers how they grade their students.
I was thrown further into my spiral of confusion, when one of the questioners pointed out that I was using an art appreciation class as an example for a communication class. His insinuation was that the two were different disciplines. Even as I type this sentence, I start to get blurry eyed: Isn’t art a form of communication? Even more so today as our platforms to consume information are becoming more and more digital, visual, animated, hyper text, multi-media. This was an example where I attempted to answer the question posed and couldn’t get past the right answer to the wrong question.
This is the message: Similar to the shift in Design after the Industrial Revolution when one product was produced to satisfy the masses; Communication no longer entails composing a message and broadcasting to large, faceless audiences. We are now talking to our “friends.” Communication involves redefining the term friends, community and expression. It requires capturing the narrative and expressing ideas that resonate with individuals on a mass scale.
Communication entails much more than consumption. It involves stakeholders, who engage in multiple roles, at a variety of levels, in a number of degrees of investment. Communication, utilizing social media involves content creators, editors, commentators, viewers, and promoters. As communication has evolved from an oral medium that was passed from person to person, to a digital message that could be transmitted, to today when we are able to have a digital presence and asynchronous; as well as in the moment experiences with anyone, anywhere a message can be received. The portability of a digital presence, alone is opening new discussion around what it means to be human.
I am an artist, entrepreneur and scholar. I’ve created in all platforms from canvas, to metal, virtual venues, to digital imaging. I’ve published digitally, in print, and online. My life is about exploring forms of expression that are communicated in the best way to convey the intended message or inspire collective actions. The communication department I imagine that I can contribute to must understand the process of forming ideas, articulating concepts, and expressing ideas. But, after only three interviews and graduating from a program where design is considered second class to animation production, I’m worried that I won’t find the new communication perspective that is founded on the age old ideas of creativity and innovation.
Finally, here is my answer to what you tell your administrator when promoting a social media class in the communication department:
Today, at this moment, Facebook, Meetup, Twitter, Wikipedia, Deviant Art, Flickr, Youtube, Ning, GooglePlus, MySpace, Digg, Yahoo, SecondLife, and all the web based, communication platforms that are creating web spaces or applications on mobile devices are too busy innovating. New uses for new technologies are happening as quickly as broadband increases, memory space expands, and hardware becomes more affordable. Nicholas Negropante based his entire world education initiative on the price of a laptop. The technology was available, just not at a price that third world countries would spend to educate their youth. Who is slowing down and figuring out how to maximize these technologies? I’m an old school artist that lives to create and express myself and the one advantage I have over most artists is that I don’t mind what canvas I use. My motivation is deep connections and unique forms of expression that are only possible at this time, with current technologies and the rush of emerging media.
But, the communication doesn’t stop at expression and connections, it also entails collaborations.
When developing a project, I utilize a web site to organize and coordinate the larger vision. The site frames the objective, lists the stakeholders, shows progress and exhibits work throughout the process. This semester, I have integrated fourteen service learning projects into the Art Appreciation curriculum. I had to create a web space separate from the university to provide a fluid, real-time space to manage the student’s work. University web sites are static, animated brochures that promote the brand and display valuable information on an extended timeframe. It is unrealistic to expect the institution web site to be able to react to in-the-moment design.
But, a working site in conjunction, complementing the university site is ideal. Both web sites serve as different types of communication, to the same groups with different needs. A student participating in the service learning project will not use the outside site to sign-up for classes, nor an administrator use the department page to check the real-time progress of the student’s work in the art appreciation class. Both platforms are essential in the process.
For the service learning projects, integrated into my classes, I will use 28 types of communication tools, digital media, creativity application, or communication platforms. My connection with the students will entail support, explanations, critique, encouragement, and managing the group process. I will lecture, facilitate group activities, assign exercises, and engage in debates, dialogs, and discussion. Some will occur one-on-one, other as a group; as well as, classroom led discussions. That is communication! AND the technologies available at this time are creating opportunities that we haven’t come close to fully exploring.
It is an exciting time to be in the field of communication.