October 10, 2003

Communicating in New Directions

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The Department of Communication took a step toward a more prominent and research-oriented future with the appointment of Prof. Joe Walther as its new chair.

“He’s really enthusiastic,” said Prof. Jeff Hancock, communication.

Surprisingly, Walther was only a part of Cornell’s communication department for a year before he become chair. However, prior to his arrival here in August 2002, he was a professor in a number of universities over the course of a decade.

Walther has also gained a reputation as an active researcher. Last year alone, he published five journal articles and four chapters in edited books. Those numbers bring his career total up to 27 articles and nine book chapters on topics ranging from nonverbal cues to small group communication online.

Recently, he also started his own peer-reviewed journal on the Internet, the Journal of Online Behavior. Unlike many traditional journals, however, each article is published to the website as it finished instead of being printed as an issue.

Walther’s variety of experiences might partly explain why he was chosen as department chair.

“[My] training and research are much broader; I’m not just a specialist,” he said, explaining one of the reasons why he thinks the department supported hiring him in the first place.

Dean Susan Henry and senior associate dean William Fry of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are responsible for selecting the chairs of the departments within the college.

Prof. Bruce Lewenstein, communication, explained that the duage solicit ideas for qualities and possible candidates for chair before making the final decision.

“I want to see how far we can go in terms of the insight and impact of research,” Walther said.

As the department chair, Walther has taken on a large number of time-consuming responsibilities. He is in charge of department finances, including grants and other funded research. Department chairs also appoint committees to oversee specific tasks and can delegate some work to them.

“I’m a manager by day, scholar by night,” Walther said, referring to the evening seminar he teaches on advanced research methods to honors students.

Part of his managerial duties include making sure the department has a feasible and useful offering of classes each semester. Currently, he is also looking carefully at the structure of the communication graduate program.

“I want to find ways to offer graduate seminars in a meaningful rotation,” Walther said, giving an example. In one semester, there were a several undergraduate classes and one graduate class all covering similar material but with only a few students in each. It made more sense, he said, to offer one class to underclass students and one to upperclass and graduate students.

Encouraging discussion between professors to better organize class offerings is one example of what Walther sees as his primary role as chair — facilitating cooperation.

“I encourage people’s already developed tendencies to look for connections,” he said.

Cooperation between individual members of the department underlies Walther’s greater vision of converging disciplines. Different specialists will have to work together because of increasing overlap between their subject areas, he said.

“My mantra [is] research about convergence,” Walther said of his view of the department’s future. “I look forward to an epidemic of research.”

Walther cited the communication habits of current students as a good example of what is happening.

“You get your news from CNN.com, then you chat about it with your friends using Instant Messenger, and often the news is about a science or environmental topic,” he said, explaining that this example corresponds to Cornell’s communication specialties of mass media, computer-mediated communication and science writing.

His goal of making Cornell a hot spot for communication research includes increasing undergraduate participation in research. He also wants to improve the integration of the graduate program.

Tracy Loh grad feels confident that he will achieve these goals.

“He’ll make sure we graduate knowing what we’re talking about,” she said.

However, it won’t be easy for Walther to achieve all he wants for the department, particularly because he is new to the University.

“[Walther] jumped right in,” said Danielle Dean, an administrative assistant in the communication department who works closely with Walther.

The general consensus in the department seems to be that Walther is doing well and learning on the fly.

“I am grateful my colleagues gave me a chance,” Walther said.

He said that he still has a lot to learn, also acknowledging that his coordinating activities could conflict with the individualism that is a characteristic of the Cornell faculty.

“We have an implicit understanding,” he said of his colleagues and himself. “They are patient with me and I admit when I’m wrong.”

Taking on all the additional duties of department chair also conflicts with time for research and teaching. Walther has already cut back the number of classes he teaches and has shifted more of the work on his research to the people helping him with those projects.

That hasn’t discouraged him from giving his all to his responsibilities.

“He’s made it clear he plans to be an activist chair,” said Lewenstein.

“It’s good to have a department chair that’s so actively involved,” added Michael Stefanone grad.

Walther received much of his formal education at the University of Arizona, where he earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree there in speech communication. He stayed on to do graduate work and earned a doctorate in communication from Arizona’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences in 1990 while minoring in management information systems.

Afterward, he immediately rejoined academia as an assistant professor of communication at the University of Oklahoma. Since then, he has continuously held professorial status at several universities, including a semester as a visiting professor in the psychology department at the University of Manchester in England.

And here at Cornell, Walther is glad he has the opportunity to be chair.

“I’m using skills and knowledge I didn’t use before,” he said, adding that the position has also helped him expand the scope of his research.

For example, one of his current projects combines computer-mediated communication and science communication strengths. Online groups will be set up for people involved in New York agriculture, allowing producers, Cornell Cooperative Extension agents and others in the industry with the goal of helping them to better communicate about their common interests.

“It was almost a no-brainer” to accept the offer of chair, Walther said.

He sees the communication department at Cornell as unique, especially because of its good relationship with the college and with its students.

As for being chosen as department chair, he said, “It’s a privilege.”

Archived article by Sarah Colby