Communication Theory Development (COM 500)
University of Washington — Autumn Quater 2016


Christine Harold


Office: CMU 229

Office Hours: Tuesdays, 11-1pm (or by appointment)

Benjamin Mako Hill


Office: CMU 227

Office Hours: None Scheduled. I'm in my office 10am-8pm most days and you're welcome to drop by. I'm also happy to meet by appointment during times that I am available.

Course Description

The purpose of this course is to introduce graduate students to the multiple ways scholars theorize communication. Our hope is that students will learn to draw connections across scholarship produced within the wide variety of different approaches to our field within a setting that honors many different types of theory.

We are scholars within a department that integrates several traditions of communication and media studies. With this course we push students to identify the opportunities and challenges of developing theory across these traditions (which are traditionally taught in separate departments and colleges). Our overarching goal is to have students ask themselves how to take best advantage of their time in a department that integrates interpersonal communication, journalism, rhetoric, mass media, critical cultural studies and the study of communication technologies and society. Our hope is that through this course, students will begin to see how their own questions might (or might not) speak across multiple audiences for communication and media scholarship.

This short course can only introduce a handful of key ideas from each of these distinct traditions and it is not intended as an exhaustive survey. Instead, we introduce the multiple lineages of scholarship and research in media and communication studies, along with the different epistemologies, or theories of knowing, that are used within these different traditions.

Learning Objectives

At the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Differentiate and integrate some of the common epistemological and theoretical frameworks employed by communication scholars and in our graduate curriculum;
  • Articulate the key approaches to communication within our own department and situate UW Communication within the field;
  • Identify and interpret key communication questions in each of the areas within our department as a foundation for one's own scholarship in one or more of these areas;
  • Gain skills for successful graduate study including referencing, resources, general graduate-level reading, writing, and study skills;
  • Develop literacy in reading, understanding, and discussing scholarly literature
  • Produce at a beginners’ level a mapping of key and emerging concerns within the fields that comprise communication and media.

Assignments and Assessment

Assignments and Grading

There will be four types and assignments in the class that will be weighted in the following way:

  • Discussion and participation: 20%
  • Response papers (16 total): 30%
  • Area focus report: 10%
  • Final paper: 40%

Discussion and Participation

Participation is one of the most subjective activities to assess. We will look at the following high-level rubric when assessing participation:

  1. Attendance: Do you punctually attend most all classes? It is reasonable to miss up to two classes a quarter, but absences and tardiness beyond that will result in a lower participation grade. Even if your absence is excused: if you aren't present, you can't participate.
  2. Preparation: Do you read the assignments fully with attention to detail? Do you note relevant ideas, questions, or current events in class and online? For example, you might forward a news story to the class with a question for discussion.
  3. Participation: Do you make at least one excellent contribution (e.g., insight or question) to each class without monopolizing discussion? (see section on participation balance below). Do you give active nonverbal and verbal feedback? Do you refer to other students by name and react to their contributions?
  4. Activity: Do you fully engage in group exercises? Do you follow up on open questions and share your findings with the class?

In a nutshell, you should ask yourself: "Am I consistently making a positive contribution and impression on the instructor and other students?"

Maintaining Participation Balance

This section was written by Mako and taken from this page.

In a nutshell: Be wary of speaking three times before everyone has had a chance and make sure you make at least one good contribution.

In any group there will be those who speak more and those who speak less; this might be because of differences in personality, language fluency, or culture. For instance, some people like to carefully think before they speak and some believe that interaction should be rapid and assertive. We want everyone to participate and we believe it's worthwhile to achieve balance in classroom discussion.

When I was a student, I tended to dominate conversation. My friend Joseph Reagle shared two strategies that I've found helpful:

  1. In classes where I was excited about the topic, I tried to be mindful of how much I spoke when I realized others had interesting things to say but were not as quick to speak. We are often uncomfortable with a little silence, including teachers, and speak to fill the void. However, teaching and facilitation guides recommend that we be open to such spaces: take a couple of breaths, or even say “take two minutes to think about this.” So I began a practice of pacing myself, limiting myself to three really good responses in class, and then make sure others have had time before jumping in — if at all — to contribute.
  2. In classes where I was less motivated, I found that if I coul still usually come up with one good comment or question that nobody else raised. In thi way, I could still make a contribution to class — and lessen my chance of being cold called.

Joseph calls these two techniques the rule of three and one for balanced discussion.

Additionally, you can be a skillful communicator by encouraging balanced discussion. For instance, notice if a person or group is hasn't said much. Without putting anyone on the spot, ask them a question or respond to something they said. (Use people's names!) Or, say you'd like to hear from someone who hasn't spoken yet, or ask the group to pause so as to collect their thoughts.

Response Papers

We will expect you write 16 response papersto the readings over the quarter. We will have 17 meetings to discuss papers so this means you will each have one "pass" that you can use to skip one session which you can use at your discretion.

Response papers should be no more than 500 words (about a page single-spaced). So everyone will have a chance to incorporate them into their readings, response papers should be posted to our course website before the morning (i.e. before 6am) of each Monday and Wednesday that class meetsto that the instructors and students can read responses.

In terms of content, response papers offer you an opportunity to engage the readings by identifying common or conflicting premises, thinking through potential implications, offering political or cultural examples, posing well-supported objections, or outlining theoretical or critical extensions. Please also pose one or two open-ended discussion questions that may serve as jumping off points for our in-class conversation.

Turn in your response paper by posting a new message in the appropriate place in the online discussion forum here:

Of course, since it's a discussion forum, we strongly encourage you to read each others responses before class and, if you'd like, to respond to each others responses in the forum.

Area Focus Report

Outline the key topics and ideas from the reading set for an area of your choosing, then select (in coordination with the rest of the class) one UW Communication faculty member whose research relates to that area with whom you would like to get acquainted. Skim the faculty members’ CVs, then email to ask them which 2-3 publications are most important to understanding their recent/current work in this area. Read those carefully, and draft 2-page (1 sheet double-sided) handout situating the faculty work you have read in relation to one or more key topics/ideas introduced in the required readings for that area. Request a 15-20 minute meeting with each faculty member to interview them, in order to confirm or modify your interpretation of the theoretical orientation and contributions of their work. Revise your handout as needed, and prepare a brief summary of how you have interpreted and situated the faculty member(s) work to present in class alongside you handout; please post your handout before class on CollectIt. You will present in class (~10 minutes) and serve as the primary discussant(s) for that class session.

When you serve as a (co)discussant, your responsibility will be to develop a set of questions or identify points of controversy designed to spark discussion of the reading set for the area. Discussants are not expected to make elaborate presentations; rather, they should develop discussion ideas and play an active role in those discussions.

  • Rhetoric (Leah Cecarelli, Matt McGarrity, Michael Souders)
  • Critical Cultural (LeiLani Nishime, Ralina Joseph)
  • Communication Tech and Society: (Lance Bennett, Katy Pearce, Carmen Gonzalez, Mac Parks)
  • Political Communication: (David Domke, Doug Underwood, Randy Beam, Richard Kielbowicz, Patricia Moy)
  • Global Communication: (Nancy Rivenburgh, Matt Powers, Katy Pearce)
  • Interpersonal/Social Interaction (Valerie Manusov, John Crowley, Mac Parks)

Final Papers

Due Date: Thursday December 15, 2016 at 5:00pm


Sample Papers: (The assignment previously was a little different but this should give you a sense of what we're looking for in terms of engagement with material, length, etc.)

We want you to use your final paper to situate your own approach to scholarship and research interests in terms of the communication theory we have covered in this class. Our advice is to introduce your interests briefly up front and then work to situate yourself in field of communication theory as you understand it. Start broadly and then narrow things down.

You paper should do three things (the text of this list is, verbatim, the first version of this assignment description we shared with you):

  1. Please briefly identify and describe what you see as the major epistemological stances in the broader field of Communication and Speech Communication (citing individual scholars as appropriate).
  2. Discuss how scholars’ epistemological sensibilities shape their research, such as directing their object of study, the questions they ask, and the approach they take to argument and evidence. What strike you as the most salient differences between the various epistemologies, politics, and practices in communication scholarship and what do you see as the stakes of these differences.
  3. Finally, how do you situate your own approach to scholarship within the broader field? What do you see as the limitations, or challenges presented by this approach vis-à-vis others as it relates to your own research question(s)? What do you see as the opportunities afforded by this approach?

A successful final project will not simply tell us what scholars have said. An excellent project will demonstrate a fluency with the material we’ve covered by engaging critically, creatively, and synthetically with the material. Present the field and epistemologies and choose scholars to engage with in ways that will set you up to situate your interests most effectively.

To do so, you might choose to place theorists from very different traditions in conversation with each other. You might discuss limitations, contradictions, gaps, and opportunities for new theoretical contributions. Ultimately, your narration should provide a strong rationale and justification for why you choose to situate your own interests in the way you do.

We understand that this is your first quarter in the PhD program and that this process is part of a process of exploration. We don't expect you to outline a major contribution to communication theory in your final paper. We do urge you all to use this project as an opportunity to use the theoretical material we've covered to provide not just a description of a field and your own approach to scholarship but a rationale and argument for a position (or set of a positions) you are considering. If you do this, your work will not only serve the purposes of assessing your command of the theory we've covered in this class but will be something you can draw from as a rationale or background of a paper or proposal you might write in the future.

Notes About The Schedule

You should expect this schedule to be a dynamic document. Although the core expectations for this class are fixed, you’ll notice that nearly most of the readings in the following sections are blank. The details of readings will be filled in based on how the class goes, our readings, guest speakers that we arrange, etc. As a result, there are three important things to keep in mind:

  • Although details on this syllabus will change, we will try to ensure that we never change readings more than six days before they are due. Over the quarter, the two instructors will meet each Tuesday to finalize all the readings for the following week. This means that if you plan to read more than one week ahead, contact us in advance and will attempt to make arrangements to finalize things earlier.
  • Closely monitor your email and the announcements section on the class Catalyst site. We will summarize our additions and any changes to schedule in an announcement on Catalyst once week by the end of Tuesday.
  • We will ask the class for voluntary anonymous feedback frequently. Please let us know what is working and what can be improved. In the past, we’ve made many adjustments to courses while the quarter progressed based on this feedback.


Part I: Introductions

Week One. Introductions: Seminars and Scholarship

W, 9/28

And, a debate to get things going: the Politics of Writing Theory

Week Two. Histor(ies) of the Field(s)

M, 10/3: Histor(ies) of the Field (Part I)

  • Gehrke and Keith (2014). Introduction: A Brief History of the National Communication Associationin P. Gehrke and W. Keith (Eds.), A Century of Communication Studies: The Unfinished Conversation, Routledge.
  • Gunn and Dance (2014). The Silencing of Speechin the Late Twentieth Century in P. Gehrke and W. Keith (Eds.), A Century of Communication Studies: The Unfinished Conversation, Routledge.
  • Anderson and Middleton (2014). Epistemological Movementsin Communication in P. Gehrke and W. Keith (Eds.), A Century of Communication Studies: The Unfinished Conversation, Routledge.
  • Morris, C. and Palczewski (2014). Sexing Communicationin P. Gehrke and W. Keith (Eds.), A Century of Communication Studies: The Unfinished Conversation, Routledge.

Optional Readings

W, 10/5: Histor(ies) of the Field (Part II)

Optional Readings

  • Carey, J. W. (1989). A Cultural Approach to Communication. In Communication as culture: essays on media and society (pp. 13–36). Boston, Massachusetts: Unwin Hyman.
  • Craig, R. T. (2006). Communication as a practice. In G. J. Shepherd, J. St. John, & T. Striphas (Eds.), Communication as…: Perspectives on theory (pp. 38–47). London, UK: SAGE Publications.

Week Three.

M, 10/10: What is communication?

W, 10/12: What is theory? Social scientific approaches to theory

Week Four.

M, 10/17: What is theory? Humanities approaches to theory

W, 10/19: What is communication theory? Epistemological Foundations

Optional Readings

Optional Readings About Pragmatism

Part II: Epistemological Traditions

Week Five.Epistemological Traditions: Positivism and Interpretivism

M, 10/24: (Post-)Positivism

W, 10/26: Interpretivism

Week Six.Epistemological Traditions: Rhetoric and Critical-cultural

M, 10/31: Rhetoric

W, 11/2: Critical-cultural

Part III: Applications

Week Seven.Technology and Society & Political Communication

M, 11/7: Communication technology and society

Optional Readings

W, 11/9: Political Communication

Optional Reading

  • Kaid, L. L., & Holtz-Bacha, C. (Eds.). (2007). Encyclopedia of Political Communication. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, Inc.
  • Schudson, M. (2001). Politics as Cultural Practice. Political Communication, 18 (4), 421–431.

Week Eight.Global, Interpersonal & Social Interaction

M, 11/14: Global Communication

W, 11/16: Interpersonal/Social Interaction

Part IV: Interventions and Critiques

Week Nine.

M, 11/21: Feminist interventions

W, 11/23: NO CLASS, Happy Thanksgiving!

Week Ten.Interventions, cont.

M, 11/28: Materiality

W, 11/30: Formal & Mathematical Theorizing

Optional Readings

Week Eleven.

A Suggestion From Marcus

M, 12/5: Final Paper Workshops

W, 12/7: Final Paper Workshops

A Note On Community

To state the obvious, a graduate seminar is a venue for group learning. Yet, writer Malcom Gladwell rightly observes how limited our understanding of groups often is[1]:

We divide them into cults and clubs, and dismiss the former for their insularity and the latter for their banality. The cult is the place where, cut off from your peers, you become crazy. The club is the place where, surrounded by your peers, you become boring. Yet if you can combine the best of those two—the right kind of insularity with the right kind of homogeneity—you create an environment both safe enough and stimulating enough to make great thoughts possible.

Creating the kind of group Gladwell describes is a tall order indeed but, we believe, one worth pursuing. We encourage all of us to collaborate on building an environment that is rigorous yet flexible, coherent yet experimental. The quality of this course largely depends on your participation in class discussions. Much of our reading will be challenging, somewhat abstract and, for many of us, outside our “wheelhouse.” So our success will require a thoughtful and critical engagement with each week’s reading. That said, some days our work will likely be along the lines of “what the heck’s being said here?!” That process is very valuable, so try to approach challenging or unfamiliar material as an adventure. In other words, grappling with stuff is good. Grappling with stuff out loud with others can be great. You don’t always have to completely “get it” to participate. You do, however, need to be prepared.

[1]Interestingly, Gladwell’s comment comes from his analysis of the innovative group dynamic among the original “not ready for prime time” players on Saturday Night Live.