Interconnectivity and Interdisciplinarity at Ryerson

Jean S. Mason,
Janice Fung,
Wendy Freeman, 

The first year of any academic program is an incredible challenge. After nearly five years of proposing and planning, Ryerson University’s Master of Professional Communication (MPC) welcomed its first cohort of twenty-three students in fall 2010. Three intensive semesters later, those same twenty-three marched proudly across the stage to receive their graduate degrees while the equally proud School of Professional Communication faculty looked on (and then rushed back to their duties with a second cohort of twenty-four).

The MPC is a one-year, three-semester, fulltime program that includes seven courses, an internship and an “MRPPP”—a major research paper, presentation and poster. Part of Ryerson’s Edward S. Rogers, Sr. Graduate School for Advanced Communication, the MPC joins other Masters programs including Documentary Media, Journalism, Media Production, Photographic Preservation, Fashion, and Communication and Culture (the latter a joint MA/PhD program with York University). The MPC is housed in the Rogers Communications Centre—a 140,000 square foot structure featuring state-of-the-art computing laboratories, media production facilities, networked media and print facilities and high-tech classrooms.

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t only the students who learned during the first year. Reflecting on that initial experience as we entered our second year in Fall 2011, we’ve been able to iron out some wrinkles, develop some value-added elements and eliminate some unnecessary complications. As we look back, however, we can also commend ourselves on some very careful planning that resulted in an overall smooth and successful program launch. In particular, we all agree that the conceptualization and execution of the program’s four required courses as an interdisciplinary curricular module was an integral element in moving students through such a demanding program in such a short time. The image designed by Dr. Janice Fung represents the interdisciplinarity and interconnectivity inherent in that model (for a larger image, click here):

poster for MPC courses shown as interlocking jigsaw piecesOf the seven courses MPC students must complete, four are required and three are electives. Three of the required courses and one elective are taken in the fall semester, while one required course plus two electives and the internship are completed in the winter term. The spring/summer semester is devoted to completing the major research paper and preparing the research poster and presentation (MRPPP). Let’s look at a more detailed description of exactly what takes place.

The required courses in the fall and the faculty responsible for developing and teaching them are as follows:

  • Professional Communication: History, Theory, Practice (Dr. Jean Mason, who is also the Graduate Program Director of the MPC)
  • Advanced Editing and Document Design (Dr. Janice Fung)
  • The Virtual Organization (Dr. Wendy Freeman)

And in the winter:

  • Research Methods (Dr. Catherine Schryer, who is also Chair of the School of Professional Communication)

These four core courses each contain interconnected elements common to one or more of the other core courses. Specifically, the three fall courses share a joint Community of Scholars (COS) blog in which students critically inquire about what they are learning and make interdisciplinary connections among the three courses. Students have used this opportunity to explore how the visual, technological and theoretical concepts they are examining come together as they pursue their individual interests. For example, one student in this year’s cohort wrote a blog post tracing the relationship she identified between the concept of organizational co-optation of citizen journalism and the adoption of street styles by major fashion labels. In this blog post the student connects a reading for the Virtual Organization course about CNN’s use of private citizens’ content with a reading that same week in Advanced Editing and Document Design on personal branding.  In another post, the same student wrote in detail about Social Presence Theory as she prepared her research paper for Professional Communication: History, Theory and Practice. By writing consistently throughout the semester about her courses, the student was able to follow the trail of her learning across time and topic. The blog is assessed collaboratively by the three instructors and counts for 10% in each of the three courses. If you’d like to take a look at the COS blog, click here, but don’t forget to return for the rest of the story….

In addition to the COS blog that spans the three required fall courses, two of those same core courses, the professional communication theory and the document design courses, share a major assignment known as the “Mapping ProCom Poster and Paper Project.” In this assignment, students write an analytical research paper that develops an argument around a selected theoretical area. Students engage with a remarkable and diverse range of topics exploring concepts such as certainty reduction theory, visual rhetoric, genre theory, symbolic interactionism, presentation theory, autopoiesis, social cognitive theory, social information processing theory, to name a few. The research for that paper provides students with content for the poster for which they learn visual communication principles and application in the document design course. Visual solutions that inform the audience of the theory and connections between theorists and foundational or succeeding theories also range from metaphorical representations to iconic or symbolic solutions, typographical compositions to image-driven layouts. The process to develop the paper and poster is recursive, and students not only need to balance research and writing, but also to use the skills they develop in visual language (both theoretical and applied) to create a resolved and informative visual product. The Mapping ProCom poster is assessed collaboratively by the two instructors and counts for 20% in each of those two courses. To view a virtual exhibition of this year’s (and few of last year’s) Mapping ProCom posters, click here, but again please remember to return for our final thoughts….

The collaborative assessment of the blog and the poster assignments has several obvious benefits. It draws on the shared expertise of all three course instructors, it breaks down intellectual silos among courses, it creates an enhanced sense of community among MPC faculty and students, and it provides a balance between theory and applied knowledge in the overall evaluation of student work. Students are fairly assessed and commensurably rewarded for their efforts for cross-course projects. In a program as intensive and time sensitive as the MPC, allowing a reasonable portion of marks to count across two or more courses helps to balance student workload and streamline the process.

The final piece of the puzzle falls into place in the winter semester when all students take the Research Methods course. Their acquired expertise with communication theory allows them to prepare their MRPPP proposals under the direct guidance of the course instructor and with input from students’ individual MRPPP supervisors. Moreover, a book of case readings is common to both the methods and the theory course, giving students a head start on their second-semester reading and building bridges between theory, practice and method. Students may collect data for their MRPPP during the internship, and the Research Methods class guides students through the research ethics approval process. Students finish the Research Methods course (and the winter semester) having virtually finished their major research paper proposals and gotten their research for this final project underway.

During the spring/summer semester students complete the major research paper and poster and prepare their presentations. The critical mindset acquired in writing their analytical course papers and the many oral presentations in their courses prepare students for the paper and presentation components of the MRPPP. The skills they acquire in the document design course enable them to produce the accompanying research poster. The MRP research poster is intended to be a visual representation of the MRP research question(s) and the research results. The objective of the poster is that a viewer should be able to look at it and grasp the essence of the MRP at a glance.

Students in this professional master’s program are discouraged from creating the kind of research posters one sometimes sees at academic conferences—posters that are targeted solely to an academic audience and that are often so overloaded with information in general and text in particular that they have the opposite effect from communicating the essence of the research clearly and quickly. Students are encouraged to produce posters that engage a broader audience and prompt further discussion or, perhaps, a request to read the entire paper. The challenge is to present enough information on the poster that the purpose of the research and the main findings are evident in a graphically proficient and aesthetically pleasing design, while not overwhelming the viewer.  MPC student Robert Delaney’s poster complements his MRP research on “In/Commensurability in Chimerica: An Analysis of China’s Rhetorical Strategies in Diplomatic Conflicts with the United States” and illustrates the objective of the MRP research poster (to see a larger image, click here):

MRP research poster "In/Commensurability in CHIMERICA"The culmination of the MPC program is the MPC Research Day held in early fall during orientation week for the next MPC cohort. This scheduling allows the incoming students to attend the Research Day when the outgoing students present their major research to faculty, peers and industry partners and to enjoy the research poster exhibition. Our first MPC Research Day was a huge success and was followed by an evening reception for all participants—an ideal occasion for everyone to mix and mingle while celebrating the achievements of the graduates (soon-to-be alumni) and welcoming the new class. Our incoming students told us how much they appreciated gaining a sense of program expectations by viewing the graduates’ work and how motivated they were to witness them cross the finish line!

This article has focused principally on the four core courses of the MPC; however, undoubtedly, students also value their three electives chosen from among Advanced Speaking and Presentation Technology; Audiences and the Public; Communication and Legal Issues; Communication and Technology; Crisis Communication; Media Languages; Proposal Writing, Grant Seeking and Fundraising; Strategic Media Relations; Cross-Cultural Communication; and Visual Rhetoric in Public Contexts. We’re also experimenting this year with trading a limited number of spaces with Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Management MBA program to broaden our (and their) electives. Finding ways to sustain and expand options and programs in an economically viable way is a constant challenge that can ultimately lead to some creative value-added alternatives. But that’s for another article….

A one-year professional Master’s degree such as the MPC offers distinct advantages in a fast-paced, financially constrained world; however, the accelerated pace also requires an exceptional degree of organization and coordination if students (and faculty) are to move smoothly through their journey and arrive at their destination on schedule. Conceptualizing and developing our four compulsory courses as a foundational unit tightly integrated with the Internship and the MRPPP is the engine that drives the train. The interdisciplinarity and interconnectivity of the MPC’s core requirements—supported by new media—expedite the process and, perhaps most importantly, model the professional communication practices central to the MPC program.

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