“I’m missing the impact of our scholarship.”

Personal: Married, two daughters

Born: 1939 in Kansas City, Missouri

1961 B.A. in Communication, University of Detroit
1962 M.A. University of Michigan
1965 Ph.D. University of Iowa

Career: 1965 Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh 1972 Professor in the College of Communication, Ohio University 1979 Professor of Communication at University of Utah 1968 Director of the Broadcast Research Center 1979 ICA Fellow 1983 ICA President

Jim Anderson, April 3, 2011.
Salt Lake City, UT.

Michael Meyen Interviews Jim Anderson

Can you tell me something about your parents and about your first professional dreams?

Both sides of my family homesteaded in Salina, Kansas. Our family has a long history in farming. My father was probably the first of either side of the family to go on to college. He was, for a short time, at Creighton University, but had to leave to go to work. After some time in business, he completed a career- based MBA from the University of Chicago. My mother had a two-year teaching certificate from Marymount College in Salina. She worked in a one-room schoolhouse: all eight grades in one room.

Did religion play any role in your childhood?

On my mother’s side, they were Roman Catholic, and on my father’s side, Methodists. I grew up well- connected in the Roman Catholic Church. The University of Detroit is a Jesuit school. At least it was one [Jesuit] back then.

What kind of business did your father run?

He started out as a bank accountant and was successful at that, but then came the Depression. He went down to Amarillo, Texas, sold refrigerators, and came back to be the general controller for General Telephone. He also worked for Arthur Andersen. His last job was at the Ford Motor Company, from which he retired. His moves led us all around the country. My story starts in Detroit, Michigan, where I went to high school and entered college.

Do you still remember why you chose to study communication?

Detroit was one of the few schools that had a communication degree at that time. What led me into this area was educational television. I got in quite early at a local station. I worked there as a technical director and as a cameraman. You did everything. I was even on-air for a while.

Why did you abandon your beginning career as a TV star?

By then, I had been working almost eight years in television. I really couldn’t see myself being 60 years old and still there. It was a career that ended fairly quickly.

Can you tell me something about your main academic teachers?

The first professor that made an impression upon me was Alphonse F. Kuhn, SJ at Detroit, a historian— and disliked by nearly everyone. He didn’t praise you if you didn’t do good work. He probably showed me what it could be like if you were really serious about your work. In the next semester, I opted out to the other guy who taught history, and whose name I can’t remember. He was sloppy in his work. The difference between those two men was so obvious that the impression lasts till today.

How would you compare the student Jim Anderson with your students today?

I was not a particularly good student. High school was easy, even though it was a private school. When I got to college, it took me a while to learn the techniques of mastering what you had to do. After the first two years, it was pretty straightforward. If I could figure out a way to beat the system, [then] I would beat the system. That’s the way it was until I came in the PhD program.

What happened to you there?

At Iowa, I was in the presence of Sam Becker, Donald C. Bryant, Douglas Ehninger, and A. Craig Baird, who taught past his 85th birthday. Those folks were real scholars. They showed me the way to do this business. It was also the Vietnam period. You had to make some choices, and the draft imposed those choices. I decided to get good enough grades to get into a graduate program and to succeed in that program. Vietnam was all throughout those first years of my career. When I was finishing my PhD and had my first daughter, Lyndon B. Johnson announced that he was not going to draft fathers. Then, I was a faculty marshal at Ohio University when all the troubles broke out at Kent Stateand we had the riots in Athens.

(After four Kent State students were killed by the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970, a huge student strike hit U.S. universities and intensified the public discussion about the Vietnam War.)

In between, you were in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

That was a normal school that just had turned into a university a few years before I got there. It was the perfect location for me, because although it was basically about training teachers; it was a school with potential. There were about five of us who were serious researchers. The school had an IBM 1620 which was used for the administration. The researchers could have access to that machine from 9 o’clock at night until 8 o’clock the next morning. We worked with Hollerith cards and a typewriter output. If you did something like a factor analysis, it would take at least six hours just to type out the thing.

Why did you leave Oshkosh?

The folks at Ohio University invited me to run the Broadcast Research Center down there. That center had an FCC concession to analyze the finances of broadcast stations. So I was following my father’s footsteps. That concession went away, and we started looking at applications of the media for instructional purposes.

When did you know that you wanted to become a scientist, maybe a communications scientist?

I never made that decision. There were just interesting questions, and I pursued them as best I could. I’ve been in this business almost 50 years now. You can’t do the same thing for 50 years. I reinvent myself every 10 years or so. I came in at Utah as a mass communications scholar. Then I switched over to methodology and epistemology. Now I’m in organizational communication and probably right on that intersection of moving to something else: into community engaged research. On the one side, my organizational approach is heavily quantitative and methodology-oriented, and on the other side, I’m almost entirely into this engagement business, which is pretty much touchy-feely out there in the streets.

On your website, you claim to work for “the pursuit of social justice.Can a professor fix the world?

It’s a matter of fact that most academics are not willing to take the risks that are required to move our scholarship into some place where it makes a real difference. There are very few exceptions in our field.

I met Phil Tompkins, who works with a homeless shelter in Denver.

Phil has been a guide for me. I have been able to think deeply about homelessness, but at the same time, the emotional cost of doing that work takes me out of it. Ultimately, I have to walk away and to take break. I certainly don’t want to denigrate anybody else’s work, but it’s a fact that we write about post- colonialism, oppression, or gender for a very small readership. Most of the work disappears.

How would you rate the academic position of OrgComm scholars within our discipline?

They are on the top, where else [laughing]? Organizational communication and new media are up there because both of them are valuable across the discipline. Both have a clear avenue toward grants, either from private foundations or from government organizations. [Of OrgComm’s success . . .] We live all of our lives in organizations, and corporate interests will keep that interest alive. Rhetoric or cultural studies are probably sliding on the downside, but they will reinvent themselves with a new set of issues.

Did you ever consider applying for a position outside Utah?

I turned down a few offers. I’ve taught for short periods of time at a lot of places, but Utah has some real benefits. There are world-class scholars in practically any field that I would have an interest in just in my own department. Right now, we are strong in cultural studies, journalism, organizational communication, and in new media. We will have some outstanding people in health who are joining us. If I have a question, all I have to do is to walk down the hall.

How did you feel when you were asked to run for ICA President?

Honored, but also excited. I was still on leave from Ohio University, but Utah got right behind it and said that they would provide whatever was necessary to make it successful. So it seemed like a good thing to give it a try.

Do you remember your presidential agenda?

When I came in, ICA was a much different institution. We were struggling with financial problems, we had a dues structure which did not work, and we had small conventions. During my period, we were able to put ICA on firm financial footing. My convention in Dallas was the largest up to that date. We started a process there. I don’t want overemphasize anything I did, but if you look at it now, you can see the change.

How did you feel when you became an ICA Fellow?

I was in the first group. This is a funny story because I don’t like awards. On the ICA Board, I voted against the formation of the fellows, and once it was formed, I wanted to be one of them. The people who have been elected with me and after me are outstanding.

Why do you not like awards?

It’s us congratulating us. Who cares? If we can’t get awards from outside, then it’s just a party for us.

Do you like the role of a university manager?

I like making it possible for other people to do their work. This is something I can do well.

Who is Jim Anderson: a researcher, a teacher, the chairman of scientific associations, or the decision maker at Utah? What is the most important part of your academic life?

I’ve tried to follow Sam Becker’s approach. I’ve taken a very eclectic route, changing my focus on a number of occasions. I served six years as a department chair and was president of the Academic Senate. That took a whole year plus two more on the Executive Committee, but all of that informs my scholarship. I had the opportunity to see how organizations put themselves together, and to be in a position where the decisions that I might make would have consequences. It’s a complete package. At the same time, I belong to the Rocky Mountain Mule Association and to the Back Country Horsemen. I’m going out and being with people who are not academics in any sense of the term. They don't know us, because we don’t often connect our language, our practices, or our methods to real-world issues.

What is your definition of communication? What is the subject all about?

I start with a complexity of training that allows us to do good work and a breadth of analytical formats so that we are not ideologically bound into a particular approach. After that, pretty much anything is fair game, but we need to consider significant problemsproblems which are more than simply advancing ourselves. Most of our journals have an impact factor below 1.0. The New England Journal of Medicine has a factor of about 35. Our best one is about 2.5. That should be an embarrassment to us. As a matter of fact, we need to step up the game. We are still using the same measurement methods which were developed in the 1930s, such as paper-and-pencil measurements and Likert scales. That is unacceptable. There has been no systematic evidence that connects those kinds of scales to actual behavior.

So we have got plenty of work to do.

The concern I have in the U.S. is that we may not have enough time to do it. At least for the moment, we are moving higher education into an entrepreneurial framework. The opportunity to have leisure to think things through is rapidly disappearing. I’m quite pessimistic. I see a private model with a public franchise. It’s going to be the worst of both worlds. I don’t expect a tremendous amount of support from taxpayers’ money. When tuition goes up to the tipping point, it’s going to close out certain groups of people. That would take us back into the elite discussion.

Some of my interviewees told me about the preconception that communication is about the training of students first, and only secondly about research. How is the situation here at Utah?

We are probably too far in the other direction. We are much more into the scholarship of communication than we are with its practical applications. There has to be both. Our scholarship has had no impact on things like Fox, or on how people deal with that sort of continuing misinformation that appears. It should. In some way or another, we should be able to give people the skills to analyze the ideology on the right, as well as the ideology on the left.

What about the respect from old-established subjects like psychology?

They don’t need us, and they are struggling with their own problems. At Utah, I see an interesting development. The big foundations like NSF are requiring a public communication aspect to the grant itself. That’s what brings communication people in. They get hired on as consultants, but somebody else will be the principal investigator. We are called in not for our scholarship, but for our practical skills. If you are not in organizational communication, it’s very difficult to find funding. At Ohio University, after the FCC commission expired, my funding basically came from education.

Could you please draw a landscape of communication worldwide? Where are skyscrapers, where construction sites, and where, maybe, fire trenches?

Most of the Pacific Rim is on its way to becoming a skyscraper. Singapore or Korea are very successful. Australia is probably leading in cultural studies. I’m kind of disconnected from European scholarship, but I don’t see Eastern Europe doing much of anything. Great Britain has some wonderful people in media, film, and in critical audience studies.

What about the U.S.?

The U.S. is a mixed bag. We have some strong areas in organizational communication and are beginning to develop new media, but we are highly fractionalized as well. We are cutting the field up into smaller and smaller pieces and have little critical mass in all those islands of activities. I brought this up at the president’s meeting in Singapore last year. I toured around all of the meeting rooms, and generally speaking, there were as many presenters (if not more) as people in the audience. We haven’t been willing to discuss what the purpose of a conference is and how we can become a viable force within the field of scholarship. We are more willing to accept our own success in whatever small pond that we are playing in than we are to make the sacrifices that are necessary for us as a discipline.

What would you do if you were in charge right now?

First of all, I would need a lot of money [laughing]. That has always been a problem. Then, I would take a group of critical scholars and see if we could work out a strategy which would allow us to move our scholarship and our discipline into the value-added kind of work that I think we need to do. I talk about significant positions in government or in higher education where we make a difference.

Where do you see the field in 2030?

I don’t see anything on the horizon that will solve the problem of how to come together. So I think we’ll be an association by name only. We’ll have a variety of smaller associations. The larger divisions will ultimately decide to break out. Organizational communication would be a perfect example. If the people who are running the association are smart, they are going to move towards a federal model. In the U.S., the future of the discipline really depends on what happens in higher education. As long as we continue to attract students, we will be successful within whatever university structure, but the other people are not stupid. They will figure out ways in order to compete. As a matter of fact, the departments within the universities will compete for the same tuition dollars.

In your paper for the Future’s Committee of Utah you wrote: “Traditional areas within the department may not be supportable” (Anderson, 2011).

Rhetoric or critical studies may be examples. They don’t really bring money from the outside. The more graduate students you have, the more somebody else has to teach undergraduates. The more undergraduates you have, the more graduate students you can support. At Utah, public relations is supporting graduate work in cultural studies. We’ll see a lot of those tensions developing as we move more and more into an entrepreneurial model.

Are there any scientists who you would call a role model?

Dwight Conquergood. He was just outstanding. Another good example is how Stephen Littlejohn has taken his career. I admire the marriage of pedagogy and scholarship in his books. I think of people who have gone away from strict scholarship into community engagement, such as Barnett Pearce or Larry Frey. That’s where I’m directing my efforts now. But mostly, I’m missing the impact of our work.

Looking back on 50 years in communication, is there anything you are especially proud of?

That I survived, I guess. I should have done better, but that’s who I am. My documents are the moments where a former student or someone in the community says: “Jim, you made a difference in my life.”

Then again: Is there anything that you would do differently today?

We get only one life. No regrets.

What will remain when Jim Anderson is gone? What should remain if you could influence it?

I have a body of work. That body will be there. I’ve brought a critical eye to the field to look at the stories we tell ourselves: the stories that we have to believe in order to do the work that we do. At the same time, they are stories. The idea that we have a special access to truth is probably a story that we tell ourselves too often.


Anderson, J. (2011). Considering the challenges. Paper for Future’s Committee at the University of Utah.

Copyright © 2012 (Michael Meyen, michael.meyen@ifkw.lmu.de). Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives (by-nc-nd). Available at http://ijoc.org.