Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Trevor Parry-Giles. Trevor is the Executive Director of the National Communication Association (NCA) and a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland. He has served as editor of Communication Quarterly and is a Distinguished Research Fellow and a Distinguished Teaching Fellow of the Eastern Communication Association. Parry-Giles’ research and teaching focus on the historical and contemporary relationships between rhetoric, politics, law, and popular culture.
In 1918, the still-new National Association of Academic Teachers of Public Speaking (now the National Communication Association) faced a very real problem — should it hold its annual convention when the nation was at war? For the first (and only) time in its history, the association’s leaders cancelled its annual meeting, saying to the membership that everyone’s first purpose in 1918 was to prevail in the Great War.
The NCA convention bounced back in 1919, and the annual convention that winter in Chicago saw attendance growth of nearly 20%. NCA has held its annual convention every year since. Three weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, members gathered for the 1941 convention in Detroit and thousands gathered two months after September 11, 2001 in Atlanta for NCA’s 87th annual convention. Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I return to this history for lessons in resilience and for guides to the future of learned societies emerging from these challenging times.
Crafting a New Normalcy
Communication scholar Patrice Buzzanell articulates five processes that are useful as organizations seek to achieve adaptive-transformative resilience. The first of these is crafting a new normalcy; for the learned society, a new normalcy results from the moderated adjustments to mission and operations that productively emanate from the exigent context. The fear and uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic is sweeping through all facets of the higher education sector; learned societies are not immune.
Our immediate task is to harness that fear as we progress to a new normalcy. Learned societies may, for example, make normal the generation and curation of advice on online teaching and learning as such advice emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic. Recognizing that the pre-pandemic university classroom is now an altogether different place, a new normal service for members may be webinars and podcasts about online instruction, regularly publishing materials and research about online teaching/learning, etc.
Importantly, as we craft the new normalcy for today’s learned societies, we can’t jettison all that has worked so well for decades. A new normalcy must find that balanced point where we retain programs and initiatives that have worked, reform those that need change, and reject those that aren’t working for this new time.
For the new normalcy to be truly adaptive and transformative, learned societies must be flexible even as we conserve. The learned society must be self-reflective in its determination of the new normal — making long-term, programmatic decisions in the midst of a medium or short-term crisis is arguably not the wisest plan of action. Crafting a new normalcy must be deliberate, careful, and prudent.
Affirming Important Identities
Learned societies are, fundamentally, mission-driven institutions. In this respect, we differ from trade associations or for-profit corporations. Affirming this important identity and the important identities of our various members and staffs is the second process of organizational resilience. Difficult times, like the COVID-19 pandemic, make this a challenging task. Responding to crises, reacting to ongoing, ever-pessimistic (and often highly speculative) news — all of this militates against care and thoughtfulness, especially as we stick to our inner sense of identity and purpose.
The COVID-19 pandemic has the added dimension of putting into play an array of identity threats. Not only must learned societies reinforce their own mission focus, but they must also support their members as they confront significant challenges to their identities as scholars and teachers. Labs are closed, classrooms are shuttered, and we’ve all become masters of Zoom seminars and meetings. Academic identities were already under siege before COVID-19, especially in the humanities and humanistic social sciences; learned societies owe it to their members to affirm and enhance the academic enterprise, to support the scholarly identity in the face of budgetary, political, and social pressures, especially as those pressures are amplified by pandemic politics.
Using and Maintaining Communication Networks
Like everyone else over the last few weeks, I’ve been inundated with countless emails, fliers, letters, television ads, all working very hard to convince me that this company or that organization is on my side while we confront COVID-19. It’s hard to believe that a Communication scholar would ever say this, but there is definitely a danger of over-communicating in a crisis. Indeed, as Buzzanell’s work suggests, the third process of resilience for a learned society facing the COVID-19 pandemic involves avoiding over-communication and instead using and maintaining salient communication networks strategically.
With over-communication comes over-emoting. A learned society’s communications, particularly in a crisis situation, should always reflect the association’s strategic plan and should avoid the heightened emotions of the moment.
Crisis communication should come from a place of calm, steady consideration and must emphasize the credibility of the learned society; our members deserve this care in our communications as they entrust us with their membership dollars. What’s more, these resilience processes work symbiotically — careful communications with members and other publics work to construct a new normal as they also affirm membership and scholarly identity, all in the service of the learned society’s mission.
Putting Alternative Logics to Work
A fourth process involved in building a resilient learned society is the delicate task of putting alternative logics to work in our operations and activities. Nowhere is this more challenging than with the learned societies’ annual meetings and conventions.
The COVID-19 pandemic, along with its accompanying “social distancing” measures and other social, political, and economic dislocations, has given rise to numerous calls for learned societies and other groups to (re)assess the value and merit of an annual convention. Now is a good time, some believe, to determine if learned societies should even continue to host annual meetings.
I might suggest that, against all conventional wisdom, this is precisely the worst time to consider, existentially and fundamentally, the value of an annual convention. Conditions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the responses to the pandemic by local, state, and national political leaders have resulted in a highly charged, emotionally complicated context. A more prudent approach might be to use the pandemic and its consequences to assess operational readiness and associational flexibility and to put alternative logics to work.
Exploring options for replacement virtual or hybrid conferences, rethinking fee structures and sponsorship opportunities, adjusting the amount and nature of submissions are all examples of putting alternative logics to work and assuring the resilience of our learned societies and our annual conferences.
Foregrounding Productive Action
Resilience requires strategy and patience — a resilient learned society seeks to transcend the anxiety and fear of the moment even as it deftly adapts to new, changing circumstances. Accompanying that deftness and that adaptability is an eye for the optimistic and productive. The final process of resilience calls on the learned society to foreground productive action while backgrounding the negative and the counterproductive.
Learned society members are confronting a panoply of pessimism during this pandemic, from budget threats and hiring freezes on their home campuses to illness and disease in their homes, from forced online teaching to increases in mental health concerns among students and colleagues. Learned societies that reify and repeat that trauma and drama are not helping—our members are looking to us for productive action, for concrete ways that we can alleviate just a little of the anxiety shrouding their professional lives.
In short, resilient learned societies will understand how their operations and programs do (or do not) achieve the mission of the association and how operationally ready and flexible they are to make changes and/or accommodations in response to emergencies and contingencies. To do so from an alarmist or fatalistic perspective does a disservice to the learned society, its mission, and its members; a more resilient and somewhat more optimistic outlook comes from no less a leader than the ever-resilient Queen Elizabeth II: “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.”