Readying Researchers

Renowned mass communication scholars have called Murphy Hall home since its doors opened in 1939. For more than 70 years, faculty members have proposed seminal mass communication theories, directed nationally recognized research facilities and edited some of our field's most cited academic journals. As instructors, they have advised graduate students who have gone on to teach and conduct research at top-tier universities. The School's legacy of producing quality researchers continues today.

"We're trying to build up a culture here where research is seen as an essential part of SJMC's mission," said assistant professor Seth Lewis.

At SJMC, doctoral and master's students are encouraged to develop their own research philosophies -- a rarity in a field where young scholars often follow their advisors' research agendas. SJMC has shown that student autonomy and diversity in research are top priorities.

"We look at the mass communication field in this department from a broader perspective," said Jisu Huh, associate professor and director of graduate studies. "You are trained to see the big picture and understand how your research is connected to other related subfields within mass communication and how it contributes."

Faculty view young scholars not only as students of mass communication, but as partners in an ongoing dialogue about research philosophy. "We really think of our graduate students as young colleagues," Huh said.

"The objective is to give students the sense that they're perfectly able to come up with their own ideas and run with them," said associate professor Marco Yzer.

Classroom Preparation
The School's 2013 graduate student cohort is the first to learn in redesigned master's and doctoral curricula. Under Huh's guidance, the updated graduate programs emphasize intensive social science training by integrating multiple methodological and theoretical techniques. This approach helps prepare young scholars for a competitive academic market that increasingly demands competency in diverse research areas.

Previous generations of SJMC graduate students have chosen to focus on either quantitative, statistics-based research or qualitative, humanistic research and learned about mass communication theory in topical seminars related to those fields. The new curricula require each incoming scholar to enroll in a survey course on theories of mass communication as well as courses on quantitative and qualitative methods.

It's a broader, more foundational approach to scholarship than SJMC has taken before -- and with good reason. "Students cannot be well-rounded scholars without well-rounded methodological training," Huh said.

The augmented degree requirements reflect the School's dedication to its graduate student body. Many graduate programs in journalism and mass communication employ graduate students as research assistants for ongoing faculty projects. A research assistant's job may include organizing data or facilitating lab experiments, but the bulk of idea generation occurs before the student is involved with the research process.

This type of guided learning can assist young scholars in bolstering their publishing records, but it can also leave them ill-prepared to generate independent research hypotheses. At SJMC, there is considerably less hand-holding. "We teach how to marry theory with method so grad students can actually build their own research programs," said Huh.

The School hopes its new curricula will help emerging scholars formulate research questions around their broader research interests, which could span boundaries between research traditions.

Collaboration is Key
In 2013, a number of research groups organized or reorganized to provide graduate students with opportunities to produce original scholarship. Among them are two Communication Research Groups (CoRe Groups for short), as well as collaborative projects spearheaded by Lewis and assistant professor Brendan Watson.

"The overall objective is to bring faculty and students together to talk about research ideas, share in terms of research activities we're working on and get feedback on ideas that we're considering," said Jennifer Ball, assistant professor and co-director of the Advertising and Public Relations CoRe Group.

The research groups make a point to put student work in the limelight. Faculty members play a fundamental role in teaching theory and methods during graduate seminars, but they expect students to get their hands dirty with data outside of the classroom. "This is where the learning really happens," said Rebekah Nagler, assistant professor and co-director of the Health Communication CoRe Group. Yzer, Nagler's co-director, agrees. "[Faculty] don't need to be too present," he said. "We need to support students and step in to provide advice. But the idea is that it's not just a seminar with a different context."

Faculty leaders hope the SJMC community will think of the research groups as scholarly workshops in which colleagues help each other brainstorm and finesse ideas. An unwritten rule of academic workshops is that no one member's input has inherent clout. "I don't try to assert my opinion or my feedback as having any more value than the students," Ball said.

Students of all levels of curricula are invited to participate. Doctoral candidates help less-seasoned students fine-tune their research. "It is beneficial for all involved because we are able to leverage the diverse range of ideas, knowledge and skills from everyone in the group into one project," said master's student Susan LoRusso. "For those of us who are newer in the program, it is really an opportunity to learn from those with more experience."

The Advertising and Public Relations CoRe Group met twice in fall 2013 to establish research goals and pitch research projects. Ball, co-director assistant professor Hyejoon Rim and the five active CoRe student members will spend early 2014 reviewing research proposals. They hope to develop these proposals into conference presentations for the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference -- a "must attend" event for future scholars -- held in Montreal in August 2014.

The Health Communication CoRe Group met throughout fall semester to discuss research goals. Five student members are currently analyzing data about media and health behaviors provided by the Annenberg National Health Communication Survey. In December, students submitted abstracts based on the dataset to the Kentucky Conference on Health Communication.

Watson, Lewis and doctoral students Sarah Cavanah and Rodrigo Zamith presented their paper, "Are Demographics Adequate Controls for Cell Phone-Only Coverage Bias in Mass Communication Research?" at the Midwest Association for Public Opinion Research conference in Chicago this past November. Watson currently oversees three master's students on a project about political advertising and Internet searches during the 2008 presidential election.

Student reception of the collaborative research environment has been overwhelmingly positive. "I'm essentially a sort of parasite," Cavanah said. "I just hope whatever knowledge I suck out of the group I can put back into the wider world of research later on."

Master's student Jordan Dolbin said faculty and fellow students help her understand her role in the research process. "As a first-year master's student with zero research experience, it is nice to experience how a research project progresses from start to finish," she said.

Faculty hope students continue to spread the word about how research groups improve their work. "That's by far the most important aspect of these groups: They create a culture of research," said Yzer.

Faculty/Graduate Research Spotlights:

Student Seeks Out Faculty Research Partner
Before Rodrigo Zamith began his doctoral studies, he knew which researchers he wanted to work with. On the top of his list was assistant professor Seth Lewis. Zamith studied Lewis's faculty biography, personal websites and research publications. By the time he entered Murphy Hall in fall 2011, he was confident his research interests would complement Lewis's work on journalism, technology and content analysis of big data sets. "I do remember Rodrigo approaching me very early in his first semester," Lewis said.

Seth Lewis and Rodrigo ZamithSince then, the two have partnered on a number of projects. Zamith has thrice served as Lewis's research assistant for a grant-funded project that investigated the culture surrounding the international grassroots journalism organization Hacks/Hackers. "We tried to understand how this group, which is at the cutting edge of the intersection between journalists and technologists, thinks about journalism," Zamith said. The two are still analyzing data they gathered over three semesters.

Lewis and Zamith have collaborated on five other research projects ranging in scope from analyses of online news innovation contests to a case study on sources used in reporting on the Arab Spring and a methodological recommendation for computational content analysis. All have been published in journals or presented at conferences.

So how does this high-production duo keep churning out papers? Zamith credits Lewis for being a conceptual thinker who works well under pressure, and Lewis values Zamith's prowess with statistical modeling and large data sets. "The best kind of research relationships are synergistic in that the whole is better than the parts," Lewis said. "[Zamith's] thinking forces me to be sharper, and I hope that's true the other way."

"One of the best aspects of my working relationship with Seth is that he went from treating me as a research assistant to a research partner," Zamith said. "And that's not a semantic difference."

Partnership Breeds Interactive Classroom Experience and Conference
Many SJMC collaborations take the form of research partnerships that produce papers for journals and conferences. Others, like that between assistant professor Giovanna Dell'Orto and doctoral student Anna Popkova, are more creative endeavors. Together, this team developed a graduate seminar, research conference and book based on a single parent project called "Reporting at Southern Borders."

Giovanna Dell'Orto and Anna PopkovaWork began in 2010 when Dell'Orto received a grant from the Center for German and European Studies to form a graduate-level class with a colleague from the Georgia Institute of Technology. The course's focus was to investigate how journalists report on immigration issues.

At the time, Popkova was Dell'Orto's research assistant. Her duty was to help pick class readings and learning materials, but there was one particular challenge: All materials had to be chosen to accommodate students who Skyped in from a partner classroom at Georgia Tech.

"Course development RAs are not common," Dell'Orto said. "But to me they're really important. After all, the goal is not only the subject matter, but hopefully you can also learn things that you can use when you're a faculty member." Developing an online learning experience offered just that. "It's really rare that you'd have that experience as a graduate student," Popkova said.

The job didn't end with syllabus planning. Dell'Orto and Popkova also organized a three-day conference in April 2012 that brought together scholars, human rights practitioners and journalists from the U.S. and Europe to talk about journalism and immigration. Each conference participant was invited to submit a scholarly article about journalism and immigration issues, which -- alongside scholarship produced by students in the Reporting at Southern Borders graduate seminar -- were collected in a book-length anthology.

Because Popkova enrolled in the course she helped design, her study "Liking Stories: Readers' Comments on Online Immigration Articles for The New York Times and The Guardian," also appears in Dell'Orto's book, "Reporting at the Southern Borders: Journalism and Public Debates on Immigration in the U.S. and the E.U.," published by Routledge in October 2013.

Two Research Specialties Come Together to Create New Research
She's already landed a job as an attorney at one of the Twin Cities' leading legal teams, but that doesn't prevent joint M.A. and J.D. dual-degree student Cassie Batchelder from pursuing scholarly endeavors.

Amy Sanders and Cassie BatchelderShe and her adviser, associate professor Amy Kristin Sanders, are penning a paper about Twitter accounts and trademark protection for a special issue of Communication Law and Policy. Their research examines whether Twitter profiles that parody professional accounts violate certain aspects of the First Amendment. "The law has not evolved in that area yet. Cassie and I are willing to dive in and argue what the law should be," Sanders said.

Although legal research is typically conducted by a single author, Sanders believes firmly in collaboration between veteran and novice scholars and makes a point to coauthor at least one journal article with each of her advisees. "Partnerships help build confidence. It eases young scholars into what it means to be a researcher," she said.

Batchelder initially approached Sanders about her idea this fall, but was unsure whether it was relevant. "You don't always know if you have a legitimate idea or if it's not worth pursuing," Batchelder said. "So I was so excited that Dr. Sanders was excited about this project."

Neither student nor teacher had the topical expertise to develop this project on her own. Batchelder's interests lie in commercial speech and strategic communication while Sanders focuses on First Amendment theory. Their specialties intersect in this research. "The complementary perspectives are what it's all about!" Sanders said.

It doesn't hurt that Sanders has an established publishing record. "I know I can rely on her, and that's what makes me excited about working with her," Batchelder said.

Adviser Becomes Mentor
Throughout his decades-long tenure, professor Daniel Wackman has served on his fair share of thesis and dissertation committees. His advisees, such as University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Dhavan Shah, have gone on to be prolific mass communication researchers. Wackman's track record lets him make quick calls about whether research projects are worthwhile.

Dan Wackman and Jiyoung HanSo when then-master's student Jiyoung Han approached Wackman with a thesis proposal in fall 2010, he gave her his gut response: "This is really interesting. It's not gonna work!" he said. But Han had faith in her idea to examine the effects of partisan news coverage on support for President Obama's jobs bill, and Wackman had faith in Han's intellect. Despite other faculty members' warnings, she pursued her project with his wary support.

In the ensuing months, Wackman asked Han to run a series of pilot tests to support her hypotheses. He made her defend every step of her research design. "You can't fall back on bad methods, and that's where I really pushed her," Wackman said. "It was really hard and exhausting," Han said.

Wackman's tough love approach pressed Han to produce quality arguments. In spring 2011, she defended her thesis with glowing reviews from her committee members. "That affirmed everything that I told her," Wackman said. "This has driven her farther, and now she's a real strong Ph.D. candidate."

"During that semester he challenged me a lot, but occasionally he told me 'You've grown a lot.' That makes me feel like I've really achieved something," Han said.

She presented her thesis research at the International Communication Association conference in London in June 2013. She and Wackman are currently editing it for publication.

-Chelsea Reynolds

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by showard published on December 26, 2013 1:15 PM.

Heewon Im Wins 2014 Casey Dissertation Award was the previous entry in this blog.

School's Out For Summer is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.