The Curse of the Polymath Strikes Again

“We want our graduates to be like you. But to get them there, they can’t be taught by you.”

Yes, that’s a real statement from a real faculty member.

While I’ve rarely paid the bills as a full-time member of the media, I have, at various times, been a graphic designer, freelance editorialist, sports columnist, radio DJ, public relations coordinator, game publisher, podcast host, video producer (and my own videographer), website editor, ad designer, book publisher, game designer, event emcee, concert promoter (and roadie!),travel writer, web designer, social media coordinator, advertising salesman, game reviewer, singer/songwriter/guitarist/bassist, technical writer, and event planner. In fact, the only current form of media around today in which I haven’t worked is television, but I’ve done other video work along the way.

So when you’re looking to churn out well-rounded graduates of a Communication program, why wouldn’t you be at least marginally interested in someone who has worked across such a broad spectrum of media?

The academic view of this is that for purposes of accreditation, as well as self-promotion, narrow-band specialists are what attract attention. It’s not sexy or cool to have faculty members whose areas of expertise cross such a wide range of knowledge areas. Instead, what they want their students to do is to run a gauntlet of experts, each focusing on their own micro-targeted range fans, in order to provide a deep dive into each subject area as the student moves through the program. And that’s an understandable approach, with some mile-high caveats.

First, your students get exposed to some tremendous depth of knowledge with these specialist faculty members. That’s good right? Well, yes, but… it comes at the likely price of a lack of generalizability. Where does your body of knowledge fit into the wider realm of Communication studies? How does your narrow expertise in Public Relations or Graphic Design support, enable, assist, or incorporate all those other domains of communication that are outside your area of expertise? There are some faculty members that are excellent at providing this perspective to their students. In 15+ years in higher education, either as a student or faculty member, I can count those folks on one hand.

Second, the dedication those faculty members bring to their focus areas is quite impressive. They eat, sleep, breathe, live those domains, fully immersed in their studies. And they can be quite narrowly-targeted, too: communication patterns of rape survivors in emergency medical settings; radicalization of disaffected youth through internet-mediated communication; organizational communication paradigms in hetero-normative legacy systems; hyper-sexualist portrayals in video games and deterrent effects on female players; racial stereotyping in mass media coverage of news about children.* Note that these are not individual research papers, but rather entire bodies of research by specific people into specific areas.
Here’s the problem: when do you live? I get it, you’re devoted to your craft, and we should admire that devotion with the same level we admire the basketball player who stays after practice to take another 300 shots each day, even after he’s an All-Star, and the guitarist who is up all night practicing the set list so that on any given night, even if he’s not at his best, muscle-memory takes over and the show goes on. But damn, don’t you ever leave the office? Don’t you ever get out of the library and away from the mountains of journals and just breathe? Do you want your students to get such a tightly-focused fire-hose blast of knowledge that they never realize that water also makes the grass grow and fills swimming pools?

Finally, a field like Communication moves so fast that it can be daunting to keep a handle on all of the developments across the spectrum of the field. Unless a particularly Earth-shattering change happens within your area of expertise, you might be wholly unaware of it, or of it’s possible connection to your corner of the field. Social media blindsided a variety of communication scholars who hadn’t yet figured out that pervasive digital access (“a cell phone in every hand”) was going to hugely upend the usage patterns of an entire generation who will be addicted to the adrenaline rush of being the “first to know” and as a consequence, they missed the boat very early on in examining not just how Millenials and 21st-ers were communicating through always-on digital media, but why. Bringing in perspectives from across the entire academic domain of Communication might just result in wider cross-pollination of emerging trends and theories.

On a non-academic front, there’s also the practical concern of actually staffing your classes with suitable instructors at the front of the room. What happens when your graphic design expert takes a sabbatical for a semester? Or your PR specialist is out for a semester on FMLA leave after having a baby? No one begrudges those faculty members the option to exercise either of those, but the end result is still that you need someone at the front of the room that knows what s/he is talking about. Having that polymath in the faculty gives you the ability to swap out instructors without losing a beat. Are you losing something from having a polymath step into the graphic design instructor role temporarily vacated by your expert? Probably. But are you losing as much as if you forced the PR person to do it? Probably not.

And that’s the key here.

When you need flexibility in your team, it helps to have flexible people. You can try to force square Political Communication pegs into round Intro to News Writing holes, or you can roll out your ball of polymathical clay and let it take the shape of whatever hole you have.

The last point I’ll bring up is this: if you really want your graduates to be like me, would it hurt so much for them to have me around and see me in action to have me present as a role-model for them to emulate? Or am I just destined to be some mythical fringe figure on the adjunct edges of the program, glimpsed on in fleeting after-hours moments in a very limited set of classes?

* I only made up one of those — can you guess which one?

I’ve covered the challenges of the polymath a whole lot: here, here, here, here, and here. If you enjoyed this, please hit that magic clap button down there on the left, so other folks get a chance to see it, too. And please feel free to share your feedback — it’s great to read your reactions. Thanks!

Dad, husband, game commando, veteran, Army brat, writer, teacher

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