Graham Centre staff (left to right) Jeanie Wills, Jennifer MacLennan, Debora Rolfes, Rebekah Bennetch, and Burton Urquhart.
Photo by Silas Polkinghorne
March 9, 2007
By Silas Polkinghorne
The new Ron & Jane Graham Centre for the Study of Communication in the College of Engineering is set to become a national leader in communication teaching and research, according to Academic Director Jennifer MacLennan.
The centre, made possible by a donation from Ron and Jane Graham, will stand out because there are still relatively few places to formally study communication in Canada, MacLennan said, and because its programs and research are based on rhetoric – the study of persuasion and influence through public communication.
“I don’t believe there’s anything quite like it in any college in any university in the country,” MacLennan said.
“My intention, and Ron and Jane Graham’s intention, and the college’s intention, is that it will be a leader in the study of communication in the country,” she added. “We want it to become the place that people will come to study communication.”
The centre, which received formal approval from University Council Feb. 22, now employs MacLennan as well as assistant professor Jeanie Wills, lecturer Debora Rolfes, who also coordinates the required course, and two instructors, Burton Urquhart and Rebekah Bennetch.
MacLennan, a rhetorician and professor of Engineering who has held the D.K. Seaman Chair in Professional and Technical Communication for nearly nine years, aims to develop good communication judgement among students rather than focusing on templates for reports and memos. With that in mind, she overhauled the required communication course for undergraduate engineers, and is developing a new undergraduate Engineering Communication Option.
There are also plans for a Master of Professional Communication degree, targeting practicing engineers and other professionals who want to improve their skills. The program will likely be a 10-course degree with intensive classes offered in a format that will be readily accessible to professionals, and should begin in the fall of 2008, MacLennan said.
In addition, the existing graduate program in rhetoric, with students now enrolled through Interdisciplinary or Special Case Studies, will eventually find a formal home in the Graham Centre. Three students have already completed Master’s degrees with MacLennan as their supervisor, and four more are now enrolled in grad programs.
MacLennan also hopes to make the Graham Centre a hub for research in the field of communication. The centre will look at running a regular conference, perhaps biannually, and at launching its own journal.
As the author of several textbook on rhetorical communication, MacLennan hopes that through her published work, the “Graham Centre approach” will be carried elsewhere in Canada.
The Centre will focus its efforts on Engineering but will look “beyond (its) needs to other professional colleges and other colleges at the University.”
Rhetoric is an ancient discipline with its roots in public speech of law courts and politics in Greece. Now, public communication takes many forms, so rhetoric deals with them all. “In some sense, rhetoric is the study of motivation – why people do what they do,” MacLennan said. “It’s a theory of audience, and a theory of human psychology, in a way.”
The communication class for undergrad engineers teaches students to look for the motivation behind professional communication, such as the questions asked in a job interview and the psychology of the audience reading a resume.
The applications of rhetoric in a professional college like Engineering don’t end there, however. “Anybody who has to talk to people in order to get ideas implemented – as engineers do – needs rhetoric, needs to be able to understand what the audience is looking for and what the audience is interested in and where the audience is going in order to forge a connection with what is being promoted.”
The study of rhetoric, a “very vibrant and lively discipline” and a strong presence on U.S. campuses, is slowly becoming more prominent in Canada, MacLennan said.