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Reaching Out From The Academic Grove

Tom Jacobson's picture

I am pleased to be able to return to blogging in this space after a rather extended stint in the land of higher education administration, and am welcoming a re-immersion in matters related to using communication to help facilitate development efforts.  One such matter on my mind following the administrative assignment is the relative lack of contact between academics that study development and practitioners who actually do development work. 

The gap is widely noted anecdotally, and a recent study confirms the anecdotes. The Center for Global Communication Studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication recently reported a study, conducted for BBC Media Action, on the reach and impact of Media Action’s work globally. One of their findings is that the world of practitioners underutilizes help that is available from academia: “…practitioners are less likely than other development stakeholders to consult academic research on the media…,” and “the policy community involved in funding media programs makes only moderate use of available research and evidence.” Of course, it goes both ways. Promotion up the academic ladder tends to reward theoretical inquiry regardless of real world impact.  And, thus, much research tends to be more useful theoretically than practically. Furthermore, for reasons there isn’t time to review here, the considerable number of communication research graduate programs that include development studies has atrophied in recent decades.

Nevertheless, there are academics working on real world development communication problems, and much of what they do could be useful to practitioners, policymakers, agency officers, and others.  The question is how can this gap be lessened?  How can the work of academics, practitioners and policymakers be brought together and more effectively connected?

I can think of a number of ways.  One of these is by facilitating contact among development communication programs and organizations doing fieldwork. Most academic work lately is done by individuals spread across the globe.  But there are some programs that have relevant training programs, producing students who understand not only media and communication processes but also the development sector.  In the U.S., the Ohio University has a masters program in development communication that is linked to a Ph.D degree. In Scandinavia, Sweden’s University of Malmo has a similar pairing of masters and PhD opportunities.  And, short programs are occasionally available where actual degree programs are not. The CommGAP program has recently been offering summer institutes in association with the Annenberg School for Communication at USC.

Contacts between academic programs such as these and development agencies and organizations can link graduates with employers who need employees possessing appropriate skill sets and sensibilities.  Contacts can also provide opportunities for faculty members to keep in touch with advances in the field, which can, in turn, help tune their research toward practical utility and also help them design courses that are more useful to potential employers.  Arrangements can be reached where development organizations pressed for time can benefit from graduate student research skills in analyzing and reporting always underutilized data.

I will take this opportunity to do a shameless plug and mention that my own institution, Temple University in Philadelphia, is launching a new one-year masters program, a Master of Science in Globalization and Development Communication. It is designed specifically to provide training in communication practices and research skills that are attuned to the demands of the development sector.

The word academia derives from the site of a former olive grove outside Athens, Greece, where the philosopher Plato established a school that could serve as a retreat from the rigors of town life, a place where reflection and free-ranging discussion could flourish. Academia today enjoys no such separation in general, and more effort is required to facilitate exchanges on development communication that would benefit both school and town.  Ways to reach across the gap between academia and other organizations extend beyond partnerships with formal programs. I hope to address some of these in more detail in future posts. 

Photo courtesy of Tom Jacobson

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