New term, new ideas

Well, a brand new term has begun here at the University of Oregon, and just two days in I’m already encountering nifty little nuggets of wisdom and information that I’d never encountered or considered before. (Quick side note that is directly related to this: I’m taking four courses this term–yikes–so my postings here through March may be even more infrequent than usual, but let’s hope that isn’t the case.)

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Vocabulary words for social science scholars

I have now reached the end of my first term as a PhD student in the field of communication, and I would like to take just a moment to provide some inside knowledge for those who might be contemplating a jump into the same river that I’m currently tubing down. In particular, there are quite a few words that social scientists like to use, and I want to make you aware of these words and their meanings well in advance of your arrival in academia (hell, I still find myself mixing up several of these on occasion).

So, without any further ado, here we go.

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The joy of being a post-positivist

One of the things that I really like about the field of communication (specifically as an academic discipline) is that there is no one overarching paradigm1 that guides us all as we do our research and analyses of texts. This term I’ve been taking a course with Dr. Pat Curtin that the SOJC calls “Proseminar 1A,” which is essentially a broad overview of all of these paradigms and the various theories that came out of each of them.

I discovered quite early on that I fall into the post-positivist camp; indeed, I could easily be called a “post-positivist critical realist.”2 This way of thinking about the world resonates strongly with me, as I do sometimes refer to myself as a “science-ist” (my term for someone who is extremely enthusiastic about science but isn’t a professional scientist–and I mean the hard sciences here, not social science), and the research methods that I am interested in are all empirical and typically quantitative.

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Peirce and pragmati(ci)sm

As many folks are well aware, I spent the bulk of the past decade working for big media in New York, specifically for a media source whose ideology I don’t personally subscribe to. As you might imagine, that led to a lot of mistaken assumptions and uncomfortable conversations with folks over the years, and so my general policy nowadays is to try and not broadcast (pardon the pun) my politics unless a specific situation calls for discussion of the issues.

But two things coming together in the next several days made me decide to temporarily rescind that policy in order to write this post.  First, as most Americans are aware, Election Day is on Tuesday, and I, for one, will be glad to see it come and go (I find election coverage to be trying and tedious). But second, I just finished reading a chapter from Philosophical Approaches to Communication by Claude Mangion on Charles Sanders Peirce (actually pronounced like “purse”), who is generally considered to be one of the founding fathers of semiotics, or the study of signs.

While I was familiar with semiotics and Peirce’s writings on that subject from my time at The New School, I was not familiar with his ideas on pragmatism (which he renamed “pragmaticism” because of some disagreements he had with how the original word was being used by scholars of the day).  These ideas were presented in his works The Fixation of Belief, written in 1877, and How to Make Our Ideas Clear, which was published in 1878.  As Mangion puts it, “Pragmaticism forged a link between the understanding of a concept and the consequences of that concept. To understand a concept, or to know what it means, entails that it has some observable effect” (2011, 50). The idea is that pragmaticism is intended to help us sort out the truth (effects support the truth; falsehoods run counter to the observable effects).

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Conference me in

One of the two courses that I’m required to take in my first quarter as a PhD student at the SOJC is entitled Teaching & Professional Life (interestingly enough, it’s being taught by my advisor, Kim Sheehan). The intent of the course is to help us see that, in addition to being a good teacher, a professor is expected to always have something in the “publication pipeline.”

I’m mildly shamed to admit that, save for my Master’s thesis (which I finished in 2008), I’ve not really had much of anything else published–and I’m certainly not counting the “humor” columns that I wrote for my college newspaper. So you can imagine how excited I was to learn that part of the expectation included with being a PhD student is that you are supposed to publish papers, either in journals or at conferences.

There’s just one problem: Since I’ve never done that (writing a thesis is a pretty cut-and-dry, prescribed sort of procedure), I had no idea where to start.

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Contemplating Kuhn

For those of us who were just admitted to the University of Oregon for this term, our classes start tomorrow after a long and tiring week of orientation meetings and activities.  Those of us who are embarking on the (newly renamed) Media Studies PhD program in the School of Journalism and Communication will be meeting together for the first time for a course called Proseminar IA, which is a broad overview of the major theories and schools of thought within the realm of communication and media.

Our first assignment for the class was to read and react to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn. This was my first exposure to Kuhn’s work; for those of you who are unfamiliar with the man, he was a linguistics and philosophy professor at MIT (he died in 1996), and his specialty was science history.  The book, as the back cover puts it, “challeng[es] long-standing linear notions of scientific progress [as he argues] that transformative ideas do not arise from the day-to-day, gradual process of experimentation and data accumulation, but that the revolutions in science… occur outside of ‘normal science,’ as he call[s] it.”

In other words, Kuhn has a big problem with the fact that scientists discard disproven notions as progress marches on; he would prefer more reflection on how we got here.  The end.

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This or that?

At some point, usually after qualifying exams have happened, every doctoral student has to begin writing his or her dissertation, which will ultimately end up as a lovely dust-covered leather-bound book somewhere deep in the stacks of his or her respective university library (this is how one “contributes to human knowledge” officially). But you have to start thinking about what, exactly, it is you’re going to write well before those qualifying exams occur; in our program, for example, you have to develop some sort of focus statement document thing roughly a year into your studies, and that is essentially the time when you decide what it is that you’re going to research and write about. This is the point where your professional hat is more or less hung on the coat tree of your permanent focus, to use a horribly tortured metaphor.

I’ve been thinking about this for a bit because I have two rather divergent fields in mind that both fit under the umbrella of “Communication and Society” (though apparently at some point in the last month that was changed to “Media Studies,” unbeknownst to pretty much all of us), and yet they really don’t relate to each other at all. Thus my dilemma–which do I ultimately pick?

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