Communication Theory Development (COM 500)
University of Washington — Autumn Quater 2017

M/W 1:30-3:20pm, CMU 129 (CCDE)


Ralina L. Joseph


Office: CMU 127 or 129

Office Hours: Mondays, 11:30-1:30pm (or by appointment)

Benjamin Mako Hill


Office: CMU 223 (or 333)

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.

Notes About The Schedule

You should expect this schedule to be a dynamic document.

  • 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 Canvas site. We will summarize our additions and any changes to schedule in an announcement on Canvas 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.

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


Response papers (14 total)


Area focus reports (2 total)


Final paper


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?"

Preparing for Class: Readings

Don’t just do the readings for our class: do the readings with a well-thought out plan. Figure out what approaches, what annotation styles, what notetaking formats, etc., work for you. In addition, you can use this as a guide. Critical readers of the assigned texts should be able to provide the following:

  • a summary of the primary and supplementary points of the author’s argument,
  • a discussion of methodology,
  • a mention of contribution of this work to its field(s),
  • an analysis of strengths and weaknesses (of the style of the writing, the content provided, as well as the argument),
  • and a link of the readings to the week’s and course’s concerns.
  • For additional background, investigate the authors further, by, for example uncovering a short author biography and select bibliography.
  • Critical readers have a conversation with the text.

Maintaining Participation Balance

This section was written by Mako and taken fromthis 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 could still usually come up with one good comment or question that nobody else raised. In this way, I could still make a contribution to class — and lessen my chance of being cold called.

Reagle 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

You will write 14 response papers to the readings over the quarter. We will have 18 meetings to discuss papers. One two of these sessions you will write area focus reports so you won’t need to hand in a response paper on that day. This means you will each have three "passes" that you can use to skip paper-writing sessions which you can use at your discretion. We will, however, still expect for you to read.

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 the afternoon before (i.e. before 5pm) each Sunday and Tuesday that class meets so that the instructors and students can read and construct their own 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. Be sure to provide a quote or two that directly engages a minimum of one of the texts. 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 to Canvas by posting a new message in the appropriate day in the discussion board:

After you post your paper please read all of your classmates’ responses before class and respond to a minimum of one of your classmates’ posts prior to class as well.

Area Focus Report and Discussion Facilitation

Twice during the quarter, you will choose sessions that you want to read about in more depth. We will sign up for sessions on the second day of class.

On the days you choose, you will have two responsibilities:

  1. You will write or expand and improve a Wikipedia article on the topic of your choice. This article should provide an excellent introduction to the concept for a general reader. You should distribute a link to your article by 5pm the day before in the normal discussion forum.
  2. You will present in class briefly (~5-10 minutes) and serve as the primary discussant(s) for that class session. When you serve as a 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.

As part of this, there will be four steps you need to take to complete this:

  1. By October 13, create an account on Wikipedia and join our class’ Wiki Education Foundation course dashboard by clicking the link or using the enrollment token sent in Week 2 announcement.
  2. Before October 25th, please complete the training “Get started on the Wikipedia and complete training” under “Week 1” on the course dashboard.
  3. On the day(s) you present, complete a draft of your article inside your article sandbox. Details are under the “Draft an article” heading in “Week 2” on the dashboard.
  4. Before December 8th, make your articles live on Wikipedia. Details are described under “Move your article LIVE into Wikipedia” under “Week 3” on the course dashboard.

You will not need to write a response paper on the day you do your response paper.

Final Papers

Due Date: Wednesday, December 13, 2017 at 9:00am

Maximum Length: 5000 words of text (~15-20 words double-spaced)

Dropbox: “Final Papers” in Canvas (Please upload PDF!)

Sample Papers: Three papers available in Canvas.[1]

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:

  1. 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?
  2. In providing context for your approach, identify and describe what you see as one or more major epistemological stances in the broader field of Communication and Speech Communication (citing individual scholars as appropriate) that is NOT your approach. Use these stances both to describe your stance and to describe how other stances would view your work?
  3. 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?

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.

Academic Dishonesty

This includes: cheating on assignments, plagiarizing (misrepresenting work by another author as your own, paraphrasing or quoting sources without acknowledging the original author, or using information from the internet without proper citation), and submitting the same or similar paper to meet the requirements of more than one course without instructor approval. Academic dishonesty in any part of this course is grounds for failure and further disciplinary action. The first incident of plagiarism will result in the student’s receiving a zero on the plagiarized assignment. The second incident of plagiarism will result in the student’s receiving a zero in the class.

Disability Resources

It is the University of Washington’s policy to provide support services to students with disabilities that encourage them to become self-sufficient in managing their accommodations, including their ability to participate in course activities and meet course requirements. Students with such needs are encouraged to contact Disability Resources for Students at 448 Schmitz Hall, through their website at, or by calling them at 206-543-8924 (voice) or 206-543-8925 (voice/TTY). If you have specific accommodations that need to be met, please contact us ASAP.

Other Student Support

Any student who has difficulty affording groceries or accessing sufficient food to eat every day, or who lacks a safe and stable place to live, and believes this may affect their performance in the course, is urged to contact the graduate program advisor for support. Furthermore, please notify the professors if you are comfortable in doing so. This will enable us to provide any resources that we may possess (adapted from Sara Goldrick-Rab). Please also note the student food pantry, Any Hungry Husky at the ECC.

A Note On Community

To state the obvious, a graduate seminar is a venue for group learning. Yet, writer Malcolm Gladwell rightly observes how limited our understanding of groups often is[2]:

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.


Part I: Introductions: What is Communication? What is Theory?

Week One

W, 9/27: Introductions: Seminars and Scholarship

Week Two

M, 10/2: A discussion on the politics of writing theory

W, 10/4: Histor(ies) of the Field (Part I)

Week Three

M, 10/9: Histor(ies) of the Field (Part II)

W, 10/11: What is communication?

  • Icebreaker: Communication is a post-discipline spectrogram
  • Peters, J. D. (1999). Speaking into the Air. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press. [Introduction; Chapter 1]
  • Silvio Waisbord’s UW Colloquium in Spring 2017.

Week Four

M, 10/16: What is theory? Humanities approaches to theory

W, 10/18: What is theory? Social scientific approaches to theory

Part II: Communication Theory Epistemological Traditions

Week Five

M, 10/23: What is communication theory? Epistemological Foundations

W, 10/25: (Post-)Positivism

Week Six

M, 10/30: Interpretivism

  • Facilitator: Joe
  • Miller, K. (2004). Interpretive Perspectives on Theory Development. In Communication Theories: Perspectives, Processes, and Contexts (pp. 46–59). Boston, Massachusetts: McGraw-Hill.
  • Denzin, N. K. (2010). Moments, Mixed Methods, and Paradigm Dialogs. Qualitative Inquiry. [Available in UW libraries]
  • [Example (of a type)] Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction ritual: Essays on face-to-face behavior. Anchor Books. [“On Face Work” pg. 5-45]
  • [Example] Colaner, C. W., Halliwell, D., & Guignon, P. (2014). “What Do You Say to Your Mother When Your Mother’s Standing Beside You?” Birth and Adoptive Family Contributions to Adoptive Identity via Relational Identity and Relational–Relational Identity Gaps. Communication Monographs, 81(4), 469–494. [Available in UW libraries]

W, 11/1: Rhetoric

Week Seven

M, 11/6: Critical-cultural

Part III: Applications and Specific Bodies of Communication Theory

W 11/8: Communication Technology & Society and Political Communication

Communication Technology and Society

Political Communication

Week Eight

M, 11/13: Global and Interpersonal Communication and Social Interaction

Global Communication

  • Facilitator: Laura
  • Icebreaker: What identity do you have and how does it change in different contexts?
  • Alleyne, Mark DaCosta. 2009. “International Communication Theories.” In Encyclopedia of Communication Theory, edited by Stephen W. Littlejohn and Karen A. Foss, 537–41. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE.
  • Crofts Wiley, Stephen B. 2004. “Rethinking Nationality in the Context of Globalization.” Communication Theory 14 (1):78–96. [Available through UW libraries]
  • Saint-Jacques, Bernard. 2011. “Intercultural Communication in a Globalized World.” In Intercultural Communication: A Reader, edited by Larry A. Samovar, Richard E. Porter, and Edwin R. McDaniel, 13 edition. Boston, Mass: Cengage Learning.

Interpersonal/Social Interaction

Part IV: Interventions and Critiques

Week Nine

W, 11/15: Feminist interventions

M, 11/20: Communication and Racialized Difference

Facilitator: Meshell

W, 11/22: NO CLASS, Happy Thanksgiving!

Week Ten

M, 11/27: Materiality (visit from Rian Wanstreet)

W, 11/29: Formal & Mathematical Theorizing

Week Eleven

M, 12/4: Theory in Engaged Scholarship

W, 12/6: Final Paper Workshops

No readings. The final session will be devoted entirely to students workshopping their papers.

Optional Readings Appendix

We have included a small selection of the readings you could do for any of the given topics. You will likely want to read (or at least look at) these articles as you are preparing your Wikipedia articles.

Please feel free to dive deeper on any given week in this optional readings appendix. Also, if you happen to come across a great article please suggest it to us! Your future COM 500 students will thank you (as will your cohort members when you’re preparing for your exams).

W, 10/04: Histor(ies) of the Field (Part I)

W, 10/11: What is communication?

  • Peters, J. D. (1994). The gaps of which communication is made. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 11(2), 117–140.
  • 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.
  • There are a number of excellent articles on the topic of “what communication” that were published in a special issue of the Journal of Communication 43(1). In particular, you might benefit from reading the the articles by Rosengren, Beninger, Craig. Several of these pieces were assigned in previous versions of this class.

M, 10/16: What is theory? Humanities approaches to theory

  • Mailloux, S. (1985). Rhetorical Hermeneutics. In Critical Inquiry. 11(4), 620-641.
  • Leff, M. (1997). Hermeneutical Rhetoric. In Rhetoric and Hermeneutics in Our Time, Hyde and Jost, Eds. Cambridge: Yale University Press, 196-214.

W, 10/18: What is theory? Social scientific approaches to theory

  • Abbott, A. (2004). Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences. New York, New York: W. W. Norton. [The rest of the book!]
  • Kagan, J. (2009). The Three Cultures: Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and the Humanities in the 21st Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

M, 10/23: What is communication theory? Epistemological Foundations

  • Anderson, J. A. (1996). Communication Theory: Epistemological Foundations. New York, New York: The Guilford Press. [Chapters 2 & 8, pp. 13-46, 186-199.]
  • Craig, R. T. (2009). Metatheory. In S. W. Littlejohn & K. A. Foss (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE.

Optional Readings About Pragmatism

W, 11/1: Rhetoric

W 11/8: Communication Technology & Society and Political Communication

Communication Technology and Society (visit from Rian Wanstreet)

Political Communication

W, 11/13: Global and Interpersonal

Global Communication

Interpersonal Communication and Social Interaction

W, 11/15: Feminist interventions

M, 11/27: Materiality

  • Brown, J. J. (2015). Ethical Programs: Hospitality and the Rhetorics of Software. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press. [Introduction: The Swarm]

Class norms as discussed in our first sessions (2017/09/27)

  • Use warm-up topics where everybody can share something.
  • “Barn-raising” where instead of everybody trying to share their ideas folks can work together to build something together.
  • With the spirit of “I’ll try my best to bring a good idea to the table but it’s not perfect and we should all acknowledge that.
  • It’s significant that a barnraising starts with a goal or something to do. We should realize that it’s not just about knowing or learning about something but rather.
  • Be willing to come to the room with things you don’t know instead of just things that you do know. Be willing to be vulnerable.
  • Don’t assume that folks know who the people, concepts, ideas, etc., are. If you are going to reference a person or work, at least give a short version to talk about it and introduce it.
  • Be aware of people shutting down (or being shut down) and then come back to that and engage with it. Try to intervene and revive and build up an idea.
  • Be aware that there are four kinds of conversation from Otto Scharmer: cocktail party chatter, debate, generative conversation, flow or collaboration. Keep in mind: I am not my point of view. This is not an attempt to try and win.
  • Be willing to share any connections. Try to pull things back into the main discussion point.
  • Be aware that there are many different learning styles and approaches.
  • Balance the “instructor has knowledge they can share” with “we are all coproducers of knowledge” and find a way to create space for both. Create a space for those of us with more background and experience can share that experience and knowledge.
  • Remember that you might not get it the first time through.
  • Remember that we’re going to get better at doing this as we go.

[1] The authors were very generous to be willing to share their work. Please respect their generosity by not sharing these any further without asking them!

[2] 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.