by Mahalia DeRose

New interim chair of the Communication Arts Department, Professor Scott Weiss, sat down with SFC Today to discuss his plans.

While his office is filled with charm and character and Prof. Weiss brims with personality, his observations on the direction of the department could not be more serious.

Here are excerpts from some of his answers …

Q: What is the role of the Communication Arts Department?

A: I think … it should be a place where students really learn about the importance of information and communication in a democratic society.

That’s what I ideally see it as, meaning that students are there essentially to understand what responsible communication is, the importance of a free flow of information … to be educated consumers and practitioners of communication in our society, which is a mass communication society …

Meaning that most of the information that we receive, the news we receive, is mass produced, meaning that there are interests behind it. We need to understand where messages are coming from …

Communications is a huge umbrella — it covers a lot of things. There are human communications, there are media studies really …

Human communication, and we do a little of that — our introductory course is on rhetoric, currently called oral communication — it’s really a public speaking class  … we offer courses in interpersonal communication as well. We offer a course in group communication …

What we’ve been moving toward I think, just at least in the courses that I see being offered … there are a lot of new courses in say journalism and communication and the law …

It’s important for students to understand what mass communications is …

That I think is the most important thing that we do … expose them to different aspects of mass media to give them some idea of how to understand information …

We try to give students a rigorous education, we try to push them beyond what they feel comfortable doing, in terms of exams … at least that’s what we do in our best courses.

Push people further than they would like to be pushed. This is (a) very traditional education type thing that pays off later.

Q: What are you hoping to achieve in your new role?

A: We’re trying to tighten, we’re trying to revise our department, bring it up to date, look at course sequencing, do a lot of in housekeeping. Sort of ‘how do we make this a department that’s gonna go forward in the 21st century?

What do our students need now?  What does a young person need now, you know in a communication education?  There are a lot of courses on the books that haven’t been offered, there are several courses that we would like to offer.

There seem to be changes in the field, changes in the field of study that need to be updated, we have lot of things on books that might have been appropriate for another time and we’re trying to update that now,

I feel like my role is to do that, that’s what I feel that I am there to do, is to re-work, re-arrange, revise, and do all of these types of things to tighten up our offerings to bring the department into 2018, 2019 and that.

We haven’t offered a lot of journalism classes in the past; we would like to do more of that …

Why? Because I feel news is probably the most important thing that we do. I feel that. I feel news is the most consequential thing that we introduce our students to … within terms of what they’re gonna do in society.

Q: What does the role of the department chair involve?

A: We’re part time, we still teach … it’s not a full time administrative role here, it’s not like Dean.

Dean is Dean all day long … we change hats all day long … technically, it’s supposed to represent a quarter of your time I guess. We get one course release in order to do this …

Before I was chair, you’d come in teach your classes, do your work,  you go home … you’d see students, and you know that’s it. If you’re chair suddenly there’s a quarter of your time, well what should be a quarter of your time — it’s more than that — you have to be there for this, you have to take care of that …

Q: How will your approach be different from previous chairpersons? 

A: I’m interested in the structure of the communications major … what constitute our foundational courses, what are our intermediate courses? what are advance courses, even though we have four different areas, I’m interested in what do all those areas have in common,

I mean how could Comm majors have more in common, if that makes sense. I’m looking at the big picture kind of the thing, and I leave the little picture to everybody who’s working in the department, and people who might have more expertise in their area than I do.

I think I’ll be a little bit more hands on than my predecessor but not oppressively.

Q: For a Communication Arts graduate, is a portfolio of work as important as a GPA?

A: I can give you different answers … it depends on what kind of job you are going for …  let’s say you happen to know somebody who’s running  some sort of media outlet and they see that you can do a fantastic web design — they’re gonna hire you for that, obviously.

I mean it’s a hands on type of job, and they need that right away …

If you’re going out into say other areas, let’s say that you’re going for an introductory business job, or something like that … they want to know what you did in college … did you have a rigorous program?

They want to see that the courses were tough and that you made it through. That you could handle all of the obstacles that students go through …

Q: What type of graduate is the department trying to produce?

A: Confidence … can go into Manhattan, can go into those big sky scrapers, can go into the job interview and say to themselves ‘I belong here and if I don’t do this job, I’m gonna get the next one, and if I don’t get that one, I’m gonna get the one after that.’

That’s what we want.

I’ve had great students … do all the work, everything’s done neat and perfect … and the person’s missing one thing still. They don’t feel like they belong in that fancy office somewhere in Manhattan … they have everything but self confidence. We’d like them to have a little more of that … you belong out there … you belong there as much as anybody else, maybe more so.

Q: What would you do to possibly advance that?

A: You have to make people responsible for themselves. I think that you have to treat them like adults …

Q: Are there things you want to change in your curriculum, or the way things are taught as well?

A: Nothing radical … there’s something I teach I’d like to change but I’d never tell another faculty how to teach, how to run their classroom … I wouldn’t do that because we have something called academic freedom … That’s why you go into higher education because you don’t want somebody telling you how to teach, you want to be the one … how do I cover this content, I get to chose which text books we go to, I get to decide how its explained … that’s the difference between high school and higher ed … high school, it’s all run by the state and city.

And I respect academic freedom; I think it’s a big part of .. what allows talent to show in some ways.

Q: In the age of fake news, is it hard to teach media literacy?

A: Yes … (laughs) absolutely … I think that’s the most important thing that we do …

Talking about news, talking about the importance of news, the importance of following the news, the importance of being up on it …

So few students read a newspaper — which, by the way is nothing new — I remember in college I didn’t read a newspaper everyday or anything like that, but now especially to really understand what goes into the news, all of these different news sources.

It use to be that you could respect most newspapers to be giving you an accurate coverage, or somehow a studied point of view.

Now students have all this information coming at them from who knows where, all of these different websites … how do you know which ones are credible, and which ones aren’t?

So yeah it’s very very hard teaching media literacy in an age of fake news.

But it’s important to teach media literacy. It’s important to understand the business …

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