The rhetoric of titles of scholarly works in Communication and Media Studies

books-raoul-luoar-2011

Books, by Raoul Luoar on Flickr with Creative Commons license 

Titles of academic works strongly influence how a discipline sees itself and how people position themselves within a discipline.

A title is very short, and must be comprehensible to its target audience, not just descriptive of a work’s intellectual content. Titles implicitly answer the question “Why is this worth reading?” by naming topics and categories that are considered to be of value.

Titles communicate the values not just of the writers, but of the audience they target or invoke. The rhetoric of academic titles in a discipline announces the values of that discipline and how it structures and categorizes its subject matter.

The rhetorical pattern

I have observed that contemporary scholars in Communications and New Media studies, when defining areas of study, often use “medium” as a high-level filter, along with an issue and/or a specific people group of communicators or recipients of communication. This may seem obvious and insignificant to many people, but its implications are worthy of examination.

For example, when asked “What are you studying?” a scholar of communication or new media would likely answer with this recipe:

“I’m studying [communication about issue X] and/or [communication by/for people in Y category] within [medium (or media) Z].

Here’s a small sample of 5 article titles in the Journal of Media and Communication Studies, 2016 May-Sept:

  • Attribution of government responsibility for H1N1 flu pandemic: The role of TV health news sources, self-efficacy messages, and crisis severity
  • Information and communication technology access and use and competency level among second-cycle school teachers in Ghana
  • Framing of climate change issues in Indian television news channels
  • Transcendence through social media
  • Expanding media arena, communication skills and youth participation in newspaper discourse

Notice that medium is identified in all titles.

The 4th factor, the N-factor

In addition, I can identify a fourth factor, the “N” factor: a focus on “new” communication technology and “newsworthy” issues.

  • Titles tend to value phenomena occurring today or within the past decade or two.
  • Rarely are historical studies done — unless they provide insight into forms of communication media and issues still current today.
  • Studies of new media especially those mediated through the Internet are rarely questioned regarding their relevance or value.

Why this rhetoric?

Why are titles often constructed in this manner? One could consider:

  • “Media/Medium” as a primary lens on communication, i.e. McLuhan’s theory that “the medium is the message” places emphasis on the way medium structures and enables communication and human experience.
  • The kinds of studies that are more likely to receive research funding
  • The kinds of studies that build a scholarly CV respected by one’s academic peers

Implications of this rhetoric

The rhetoric of titles shapes how a discipline sees and values communication phenomena, issues, and media.

On the positive side, this rhetoric tends to focus on ways in which the agency and messages of communicators are enabled or constrained by media as well as by cultural ideologies and discourses among certain groups of people.

This is certainly worth studying, yet this rhetoric has certain limitations:

Resources for communication

It deemphasizes other productive resources for communication:

  • intrinsic human agency (creativity, insight and strategic communication choices)
  • intrinsic features of messages themselves (their logic and language and rhythm and imagery and sound)
  • specific occasions of an act of communication, which can change from one day or moment to the next, despite media’s transcendence of time.
  • how physical space and geographic location still influence communication despite media’s transcendence of location

Scale

It tends to value larger-scale studies with large and diverse sets of discourse artifacts, rather than

  • analyses of one communication artifact (one TV show episode, one website)
  • analyses of a body of works by one communicator (a particular journalist or CEO or organization)

Technology

It tends to prioritize the role of technology, and newer technology in communication.

  • Rarely are there studies of the human body as medium of communication: gesture, voice, etc … unless they are mediated through a form of new media.
  • The study of books and literature (poetry, theatre, novels) has been relegated largely to the field of literature despite the fact that we now often consume them through electronic media
  • Communication that occurred before the advent of new media technologies seems relatively unimportant and is rare. This leads into the next limitation:

History

  • It tends to undervalue history, exept as a background to emphasize the present
    • The history of the issues/ideas studied tends to be relegated to a short introductory section or chapter rather than being the main focus

Language

  • Larger categories of media such as “writing” or “speech” are not considered to be specific enough as media types
    • We may often forget that these are media, too
    • These transcend multiple media and across many topics and groups of people, which leads to the next limitation:

Conclusions

Titles are a form of academic discourse. They are like “Tweets”–shorter than an abstract, and have intrinsic power to communicate.

Every field has its favorite themes and ways of seeing. It’s impossible to emphasize everything.

Although I’ve focused on what is apparently omitted or deemphasized, this may be because of other factors. Most studies in communication, like studies in other disciplines, are constrained by their size–a short article, a book chapter, etc.  There’s a push to get more publications out, rather than better and more significant studies. Also, a lot of small studies may be necessary before one is able to make larger statements.

Nevertheless, the emphasis on “medium” was not always true of the field of communication. If you look at studies of communication conducted in the 19th century or earlier, you will certainly studies of their “new media” or “currently influential media” such as fiction, poetry, letters, or conversation. But you will also see other emphases: how language structured human thought and society, the study of messages on religion or morality, the construction of individual ethos and taste.

Titles used today are influenced by a history of past titles in the field, and thus our titles today can have an impact on the future of a discipline and its related disciplines.

Do you have any other thoughts on the ways the rhetoric of titles shapes the disciplines of communication and media studies?

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