Two problems with business communication

I have a pair of problems: one theoretical and one empirical.

First, the theoretical problem. I teach business communication at a major American university. But I am not sure that I or any of the people that teach the same subject can give a coherent description of our field. Indeed, in the last month I read five or six major articles published over the last two decades in one of the major journals of our field. They were all wrestling with the question of what exactly business communication is as an academic field.

I think many faculty in other parts of the academy would share Stanley Fish’s assessment about the kind of professional education that I am paid to provide:

[I]f students are taught methods and techniques in the absence of any inquiry into their sources, validity, and philosophical underpinnings — that professional school is not the location of any intellectual activity and is “academic” only in the sense that it is physically housed in a university. (Save the World On Your Own Time, 22)

To Fish, and I think he speaks for a great many across higher education, higher education should be about introducing students to “bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry” and equipping the students to be able to engage in their own further inquiry after finishing the course.

The problem I have is that I have yet to find a body of knowledge (set of theories) or tradition of inquiry (empirical and analytical methods) that animates the field we call business communication. What I’ve read are various appeals to being multi-disciplinary or inter-disciplinary or trans-disciplinary or some other set of words that mean we do not have an shared sense of central questions and concerns or catalog of acceptable methods of inquiry. Each person constructs the field after his or her own fashion.

As a result, I find myself wondering if that really and truly is a problem or merely is a sign that what I am doing at the university is a different thing that most of my PhD bearing colleagues are doing. Should I be trying to find a discipline in the midst of the clutter and chaos or accepting that what I’m doing has a different foundation and source of value than what Fish calls academic work.

So much for the theoretical problem.

Here is the empirical problem. It is quite difficult to get first-hand access to the settings and contexts in which business communication occurs. It is difficult to put students in touch with “primary” research because businesses are not by tradition open to outsiders coming in and collecting samples and observing behavior. There is an access to the field problem that spills over into a teaching problem as we are often reduced to hypothetical cases and situations, which can lead to folk knowledge and rules of thumb cropping up that have no connection to the actual world.

These are two major problems I see. Part of my goal in starting this blog is to write about these issues and others. If you know places where similar conversations are happening, I’d like to know about them.

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