A Professor Reviews Taylor Swift: Album #4 (“Red”)

Well, with the surprise announcement that her eighth album (“Folklore”) is dropping tomorrow, it seems like as good a time as any to drop my reviews for “Red”!

Overall, “Red” is a great album with great tracks, but I think sometimes fans focus on the standouts and forget some of the forgettable tracks. It is a great album, but it’s also an uneven album, resting in the long shadows of #TS3 (“Speak Now”) and #TS5 (“1989”) on either side. And yet, buried within rests the greatest song ever recorded by Taylor Swift.

“Red” (released 2012)
“Dancing ’round the kitchen in the refrigerator light…

“State of Grace” (8/10): In this effective album opener with a great rolling beat, we’re far from the epic pageantry of the end of #TS3, instead crashing into a world of busy streets, traffic lights, pain, and shades of wrong.

“Red” (8/10): I like the song as a whole and “driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street” classic middle-era Swift imagery, but for the first time in a couple of albums her vocal tone flirts with whininess.

“Treacherous” (9.5/10): The song’s worldview is deeply at odds with my own beliefs about interpersonal relationships (no–we aren’t “just skin and bone trained to get along”; yes–it is a choice to “get swept away” into the arms of a lover), but that aside, the haunting chorus (which occurs late enough in the song that you could mistake it for a bridge) really elevates the power of this track.

“I Knew You Were Trouble” (8/10): This song brings a harder edge musically than anything prior, signaling the country-Taylor era has reached deep twilight and the full transition to pop-Taylor is nigh.

“All Too Well” (10/10): Unfortunately, I won’t give this one higher than a 10. But for this song, and this song only, I will break my one-sentence-per-song rule. So many Taylor Swift fans consider this to be her best song. They’re right.

“All Too Well” is a sonic and lyrical masterpiece. First, the sound–from the soft intro and the gentle chord that concludes it, to the subtle lack of resolution in the ending, and everything in between, every instrument and note works purposefully yet carefully to create emotion. And oh does the emotion build, and I love how it catches the listener by surprise. Suddenly you’re no longer in the sweet passion of young love, but instead caught in a maelstrom of betrayal. And in that maelstrom Taylor drops maybe her most powerful lines ever: “Then you call me up again just to break me like a promise! So casually cruel in the name of being honest; I’m a crumpled up piece of paper lyin’ here, because I remember it all too well…”

That lyric is great, but I fear we ignore so much other great wordplay and imagery here. That little town street; getting lost upstate; autumn leaves; the embarrassing childhood photo album on the counter; the scarf in the drawer; and one of my favorites, dancing ’round the kitchen in the refrigerator light… the lyrics deliver punch after punch right in the feels.

I so much enjoy every 10/10 Taylor song, but hearing this one is like moving up to another level, like entering another dimension. It’s the perfect fusion of country Taylor and pop Taylor. Not every song can or should be this, but here in this song, Taylor produced her greatest work so far–and the thing was never even released as a single!! Perhaps someday she’ll top this, but for now, it is the absolute pinnacle and showcase of Taylor Swift’s art. Speak Now may be the better album on balance, but Red has the best song of them all.

“22” (8/10): “Happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time” is such a perfect way to describe being 22, but Sydney diminished this song for me when she pointed out that Taylor often slurs the word “22” so badly that it sounds like “swimsuit.”

“I Almost Do” (5/10): One of the most unremarkable and forgettable songs in about two albums.

“We Are Never Getting Back Together” (7.5/10): I thought I liked this one more than I do, but after listening again, I think it’s almost a prototypical example of a Taylor song that I like OK enough but wouldn’t seek out when I’m looking for a song to play.

“Stay Stay Stay” (7/10): Taylor goes all in for playful and cute with this one, and it generally works.

“The Last Time” (9/10): I might be in a minority by giving this one a high score, but I like Swift and Lightbody’s voices together and the strong bridge kicks it up a notch.

“Holy Ground” (6/10): It’s the poster child for an OKish song that’s nobody’s favorite song.

“Sad Beautiful Tragic” (2/10): This lengthy, anemic, and exhaustingly repetitive song makes even “Last Kiss” look energetic.

“The Lucky One” (6.5/10): A poignant morality tale of the dangers of Hollywood, with themes she would revisit more personally and powerfully three albums later in “The Archer.”

“Everything Has Changed” (8.5/10): Another strong duet between Taylor and a male singer (this time Ed Sheeran), but I think “The Last Time” has just a bit more gravity to it.

“Starlight” (7.5/10): A thematically and musically upbeat song, and it’ll be awhile in the discography until Swift sounds this optimistic about romance again.

“Begin Again” (7/10): In contrast to the sweepingly epic songs that conclude #TS2 and #TS3, Taylor goes for reflectively thoughtful in the conclusion to #TS4; it mostly works, although it’s a track I might admire a bit more than I enjoy.

#TS4 mean = 7.34 (standard deviation = 1.90)

A Professor Reviews Taylor Swift: Album #3 (“Speak Now”)

So now we come to #TS3. And let me warn you upfront: This is my favorite of the albums… maybe, just maybe, my favorite album of all time. So, the scores are going to be pretty high, and yet… my favorite Taylor song is not on this album; that’s still to come.

“Speak Now” (released 2010)
“I had the time of my life fighting dragons with you…

“Mine” (8.5/10): By #TS3 Swift had established her reputation as a storyteller, and this album’s opening song signals that she’s going to play to that strength.

“Sparks Fly” (9.5/10): With Taylor in the pouring rain, it’s like “Fearless” (the song) version 2.0, and it kicks off maybe the best streak of songs on any Taylor Swift album.

“Back to December” (10/10): Some of Taylor’s critics (e.g., my wife…) charge her with narcissism, and yeah, they’re probably right; but in this perfectly-composed song (and occasionally elsewhere), she demonstrates her capacity for self-reflection, regret, and even apology.

“Speak Now” (9/10): The title track of the album seems relatively forgotten these days, and that’s a shame, because it’s a great example of Taylor Swift storytelling (and the giggle in one of the final renditions of the chorus is a great touch).

“Dear John” (9.5/10): It’s quite a feat that Taylor sustains such powerful emotion over the course of a song that runs over six and a half minutes, and she does it with formidable confidence.

“Mean” (10/10): This super-fun song foreshadows track #6 on a future album, when indeed she is living in a big ol’ city and shaking off the hate, hate, haters…

“The Story of Us” (9.5/10): I think this is one of the more underappreciated Swift singles, and although I can see how some might not like the “next chapter” transition in the middle of the song, for me it works and fits with the “love is a story” theme that stretches across her early albums.

“Never Grow Up” (8/10): I intended to rate this one lower, but then I listened to it, and was struck by the simplicity of Taylor with only a guitar for instrumentation; if Speak Now were a concert, this would be the song midway through where the singer sits down on a stool with a spotlight on her and chats with the audience for awhile.

“Enchanted” (10/10): Strong, passionate, sweeping, epic–it’s what I enjoy hearing from Taylor Swift, and on an album full of incredible songs, it’s a standout.

“Better Than Revenge” (9/10): I confess this song is a bit of a guilty pleasure since I don’t think it’s a great idea to revel in revenge 🙂, but my appreciation of it is held back by how Taylor overplays her hand–impugning the sexual character of her targets was a step too far.

“Innocent” (8.5/10): A bit of a sleeper on the album, Taylor’s olive branch to Kanye is sweet–too bad that didn’t last (even if it did spawn one or two good songs later).

“Haunted” (9.5/10): Remember back in “Sparks Fly” how Taylor wanted something that would haunt her when her lover wasn’t around?–well, now he’s gone, and that’s exactly how she feels.

“Last Kiss” (4/10): The only real clunker on the album, this 6+-minute song might have been decent if it had been about half as long; in other words, Taylor doesn’t pull off another “Dear John” with this one.

“Long Live” (10/10): The closing track of #TS3 succeeds where the closing track of #TS2 failed, offering an expansive, epic song that sums up the theme of the album, sticks the landing, and yields one of the best Taylor Swift songs of all time.

#TS3 mean = 8.93 (sd = 1.55)

Further report on TCU compensation

During the 2019-20 academic year, TCU’s Faculty Senate endorsed a report finding that TCU’s full-time faculty compensation lags behind other nationally-ranked private universities.

The AAUP recently released new data on faculty compensation, so a subsequent analysis examined that data to see if that was still the case. This analysis also considered data from IRS Form 990 filings to get a fuller picture of compensation across the comparison schools.

The Board of Trustees’ decision to permanently reduce employee compensation (by reducing the retirement contribution rate by over 30%) also motivated the report. An Open Letter expresses faculty/staff concern about this decision, and as of this writing that Open Letter has been signed by almost 40% of full-time TCU faculty.

The full report (which serves as an addition to the 2019-20 Senate report) is available here. TCU 360 has also published an article that summarizes and visualizes some of the data presented in the report.

The report offers the following summary: “The reduction in the retirement contribution further diminishes TCU’s lackluster compensation packages in comparison to other nationally-ranked private universities. In contrast, recent history indicates that TCU has spent lavishly on the compensation of executive and athletic officers, at levels exceeding almost all other comparison schools.”

A Professor Reviews Taylor Swift: Album #2 (“Fearless”)

Tay’s first album was strong, but #TS2 is a big step up in quality, memorability, and epic sweep. Here, she establishes the foundation for everything she’s done since, although in some ways she’s still finding her feet as an artist.

“Fearless” (released 2008)
“We were both young when I first saw you.
I close my eyes, and the flashback starts...”

“Fearless” (7.5/10): #TS2 leaps out of the gate with a dance in a rainstorm in a best dress, effectively setting the theme and tone of the album.

“Fifteen” (7/10): A bittersweet reminiscence of youth and its transience–a theme Taylor picks up again, and sometimes better than she does here.

“Love Story” (10/10): It remains Taylor’s most iconic song even today, and deservedly so–it’s the moment when she vaults from pretty good to outright amazing, and seldom looks back.

“Hey Stephen” (6/10): A decent change-of-pace song that sits in between some better songs, but the “shine, shine, shine!” in the bridge is a bit cheesy for my taste (and I say that as someone who likes “ME!” …).

“White Horse” (8.5/10): The emotional punch at the end really elevates this ballad.

“You Belong With Me” (9.5/10): A Swift classic that generated an outstanding and cute video, and then her VMA award… with Kanye grabbing the mike and starting their feud, eventually leading to more drama drama down the album road.

“Breathe” (9/10): A bit of a forgotten treasure; allowing the orchestral strings to carry the emotion of the song (rather than a steel guitar, as she might’ve done if this were on #TS1) foreshadows her shift to pop.

“Tell Me Why” (4/10): And after several steps forward, she takes a step backward with a song that’s reminiscent of the forgettables on #TS1.

“You’re Not Sorry” (3.5/10): My low rating here may say more about me than Taylor or the song, as this is the kind of folksy, slow country song that I don’t care for.

“The Way I Loved You” (6.5/10): I find the lyrics in the stanzas to be a bit labored, but hey, water imagery at 2 AM is vintage Swift.

“Forever & Always” (8.5/10): The emotion is intense as Taylor recounts her feelings about Joe Jonas’ famous 27-second breakup call, although I could wish for a bit more inspiration from the bridge.

“The Best Day” (7.5/10): As a father of daughters, this sweet song hits me in the gut; your mileage may vary.

“Change” (4.5/10): When it looks like you’re straining to be epic, you’re not actually being epic; and so although #TS2 is an excellent album, it doesn’t stick the landing the way all of the upcoming albums do.

#TS2 mean: 7.08 (standard deviation = 2.10)

A Professor Reviews Taylor Swift: Album #1 (“Taylor Swift”)

Yeah, I’m a 41-year-old male, and I listen to way too much Taylor Swift. And I’m also a social science professor, so that means I like to analyze things in the social world.

So, over the course of the past year, it only makes sense that I took some spare time to (a) rate all of TSwift’s songs on a 1 to 10 scale (for us quantitative types) and (b) to give due respect to qualitative forms of analysis, I also wrote a one-sentence review of each song.

(Can I put this on my annual report for the university? Probably not… *sigh*… although it would’ve been fun to include this in the packet when I went up for tenure… I’m sure that would’ve sealed the deal… good thing it turned out OK anyway…)

Now it’s time to share those reviews with the world, and no, I’m not putting them through peer review; just posting them on my blog! We start with #TS1 (“Taylor Swift”), probably my least favorite of her albums, but the one that started it all.

Analysis notes: 1-4 = not very good; 5-6 = decent; 7-8 = good; 9-10 = great; 10s are reserved for true Taylor masterpieces. I did think about things like musical and lyrical quality, but ultimately the numbers represent how much I enjoy the song. So if you disagree, more power to you, and feel free to let me know why you think I’m wrong! Of course, we’ll also be looking at means and standard deviations for each album (how could we not???).

“Taylor Swift” (released 2006)
“Don’t know what’s down this road, I’m just walking,
Trying to see through the rain coming down.”

“Tim McGraw” (6/10): An acceptable ballad that establishes a floor for better ballads later on.

“Picture to Burn” (8/10): This song has great energy and the banjo injects a good dose of fun.

“Teardrops on My Guitar” (7/10): A classic Taylor song and a strong example of her country artistry, although I wish it built to a better climax.

“A Place in This World” (9/10): An underrated gem that always reminds me of its role in the 2010 Ramona and Beezus movie.

“Cold as You” (3/10): Yes, I know it’s the first of the much-lauded “Track 5” songs, but still, I find this one rather grating and I would skip it if it came on Pandora.

“The Outside” (5/10): A pleasant enough song that’s listenable, but also not particularly memorable.

“Tied Together with a Smile” (5/10): I never think about this one but when I listen to it, it’s OK enough.

“Stay Beautiful” (5.5/10): The lyrics on this one are uncharacteristically indistinct, particularly in comparison to later Taylor (something about a guy named Cory, and a radio? I dunno…), but overall it’s a forgettable song that’s maybe a bit more fun than the other forgettable songs on this album.

“Should’ve Said No” (7.5/10): A worthy hit single that aurally and lyrically echoes “Picture to Burn,” but for my money, I think “Picture” is the slightly stronger song.

“Mary’s Song (Oh My My My)” (8/10): In #TS1 she hadn’t quite mastered the art of being epic, but in this forgotten treasure, she’s getting there.

“Our Song” (8.5/10): The song that ended the original version of the album is sweet, fun, and catchy, and I confess I enjoy songs that are self-referential (the song concludes with Taylor sitting down to write the song).

“I’m Only Me When I’m With You” (6/10): The beat, fast pace, and steel guitar make it a bit more memorable and energetic than much of #TS1’s other songs.

“Invisible” (3.5/10): I confess that young Taylor can sound whiny to my ear, at times, and she does here; the song is also so dull that halfway through I found my mind wandering.

“A Perfectly Good Heart” (5.5/10): It’s a decently OK song but not much more than that.

“Teardrops on My Guitar (pop version)” (7/10): Oh look, it’s a slightly different version of a song I’ve already heard on this album; but what “pop version” of a song still has steel guitar in the background?

Album mean = 6.30 (standard deviation = 1.77)

COVID Learning Options for the Fall: Just a Few, Simple, Possible Scenarios

After reading and hearing about possibilities for the fall semester, both in the higher ed and K-12 worlds, I think I finally have a grasp on the scenarios I and my students might face in the coming months. As I understand it, in order to be competent and caring instructors, all we need to do is develop syllabi for each of the following possible futures:

  1. Everyone is back on campus, likely wearing masks, but otherwise things are “back to normal,” with face-to-face classes.
  2. Similar to #1, but there is still a cap on large gatherings, so big courses may need special adjustments.
  3. Health guidance doesn’t allow students to return to campus, so everything is online again, as it was in Spring 2020.
  4. All classes are broadcast online, so that some students are in class on campus, but other students can watch online if they choose not to come to campus.
  5. There’s a COVID outbreak in the late fall, so we start a week early and end at Thanksgiving.
  6. There’s a COVID outbreak in the early fall, so we start late and end just before the New Year’s Day ball drops in Times Square.
  7. There’s a COVID outbreak in the middle of the fall, so we push back the fall semester into the spring, and the spring semester into the summer.
  8. We decrease residency on campus by bringing smaller numbers of students to campus in waves, while others learn at a distance.
  9. Same as #8, but an advanced machine learning algorithm uses contact tracing data to determine which students and faculty are most at risk and moves them back and forth between online and face-to-face sections across the course of the semester; pretty cool.
  10. Same as #9, but the machine learning algorithm achieves true artificial intelligence and tries to take over the world; learning must continue while trying to avoid its killer deathbots [not cool].
  11. Bring only first-year students on campus; everyone else learns from a distance.
  12. Bring only the seniors to campus so they can enjoy their final year; hope scientists invent a vaccine for senioritis, too.
  13. Online instruction for the first half of the semester, but around Fall Break a skateboarding teenager travels back in time and stops the COVID outbreak from ever happening in the first place (and, after a scare, ensures his parents still fall in love); instruction continues face-to-face after that.
  14. Same as #13, but the teenager carelessly leaves a sports almanac in the past, enabling an unscrupulous bully to attain vast financial power through gambling; ensure equity of instructional access despite severe economic disparities among students.
  15. A COVID outbreak occurs in the tech industry and the Internet shuts down; stock up on paper, papyrus, stamps, envelopes, and maybe homing pigeons so distance learning can continue.
  16. Naturally enforce social distancing by having all classes meet between 3 and 6 am; only the most dedicated students (and faculty) will show up.
  17. Daycares and K-12 remain shut down but higher ed can open; prepare face-to-face lectures so they are equally engaging for toddlers, teenagers, traditional-aged college students, and non-traditional learners.
  18. Same as #17, but higher ed remains online only too; let the kids use their Tik Tok prowess to spice up the Zoom lectures with group dances to music “from the 70s to now!”
  19. Same as #9 and #18, but the artificial intelligence takes over Zoom; conduct course lectures in a new language the instructor invents so the AI can’t decipher it and gain new knowledge.
  20. Consolidate some learning in large online lectures, but then have students meet one-on-one with faculty, like an honors tutorial; to compensate for their extreme fatigue, the university will install permanent caffeine IV drips in faculty members’ arms.
  21. Hold classes in virtual reality; is Second Life still around? Or can we adapt Minecraft or Fortnite for that?
  22. Same as #21, but include a fun optional sidequest where students can use their nerd knowledge to discover the location of three keys and three gates that lead to an Easter egg hidden deep in the virtual world.
  23. COVID triggers a total meltdown of the world sociopolitical order, leading to poverty, anarchy, riots, famine, and worldwide nuclear war. As humanity enters a Dark Age that might last for millennia, be sure students know how to contact the professor, how to use the course management software, and how they can demonstrate measurable achievement of learning outcomes, even if both instructors and students are hiding deep in underground bunkers.
  24. Same as #23, but an authoritarian regime arises and starts forcing young adults into arena battles to the death. Consider how students who are reaped for the games can nevertheless experience equal access to high-quality active learning experiences that meet accreditation standards.
  25. “HighAdapt” option that blends any of #1-#24; if the university had to switch fluidly between any of these options with little advance notice, what would we do? How would we enact flexibility while still achieving course learning outcomes? Of course, the important thing is to have a plan that covers all possible scenarios; we need to assume responsibility for student learning, because why would we ask them to be responsible for it? That would go against everything that college should be about.

Finally, I also note that this extra planning requires just a bit more work from faculty, and so those without tenure may have to put research and creative activity on hold for awhile. That’s OK; because if faculty can’t get to their scholarship, the university is more than happy to push back the tenure clock by a year or two. In exchange for the professor’s extra teaching labor, certainly the university can delay the opportunity for financial reward, professional growth, and career stability; that’s really the only fair thing to do.

TCU Faculty Compensation Analysis Across Nationally-Ranked Private Universities

I currently serve as the chair of the Faculty Relations Committee, which is a subcommittee of the TCU Faculty Senate. I also serve as a member of the University Compensation Advisory Committee (UCAC). Earlier this year, TCU’s Chancellor visited UCAC  and indicated that TCU’s current employee benefits package is “too rich to be sustainable,” and charged us with developing a benefits package for future employees that is both fiscally sustainable and competitive.

In response to this charge, I and the Faculty Relations Committee prepared this report, which examines TCU’s faculty compensation levels (both salary and benefits) across private universities nationally ranked by US News and World Report. If you want a one-page summary of the report, you can find that on the first page.

On November 7, 2019, the TCU Faculty Senate endorsed this report by vote with the following statement: “The TCU Faculty Senate endorses the Faculty Relations Committee’s Compensation Analysis Report as evidence that (a) TCU’s benefits are not too rich and that (b) to be competitive, compensation levels should not be reduced for current or future faculty.”

I offer this here because many have expressed interest in the report. I hope that we can all work together to be good stewards of TCU’s resources and to make TCU the best place it can be.

TCU Faculty Relations Committee Compensation Analysis Report

Call for Special Issue of Communication Monographs: “Theorizing Social Media”

Guest Editor: Dr. Andrew M. Ledbetter
Texas Christian University

Communication Monographs invites submissions for a special issue on theorizing social media. As a term, “social media” encompasses a broad range of technologies, but for the purposes of this special issue, we use Ellison and boyd’s (2013) definition of social network sites as a starting point: “a networked communication platform in which participants 1) have uniquely identifiable profiles that consist of user-supplied content, content provided by other users, and/or system-level data; 2) can publicly articulate connections that can be viewed and traversed by others; and 3) can consume, produce, and/or interact with streams of user-generated content provided by their connections on the site” (p. 158). Although social media encompasses a range of technologies beyond social network sites proper, the purpose of this special issue is to consider and theorize those technologies that constitute “social media” apps and websites in popular discourse. As social media enjoys widespread use yet receives significant public concern, the time is ripe for communication scholars to develop and refine theoretical approaches to social media.

Submitted manuscripts should accomplish at least one of three aims. First, submissions may develop new theoretical approaches to social media (or continue to advance nascent theoretical approaches). Second, submissions may refine existing theories of online communication in light of the nature of social media. Third, submissions may use social media to extend or alter theories developed in non-technological/offline contexts. All submissions should use empirical data to pursue one or more of these theoretical goals. So long as the work contributes meaningfully to the theorizing of social media, we welcome submissions across diverse contextual areas and methodological approaches in the communication discipline, including but not limited to interpersonal and relational communication, organizational and group communication, health communication, family communication, communication and technology, mass communication, political communication, language and social interaction, intercultural communication, cultural studies, and rhetorical field studies.

Submissions may begin on January 1, 2020 and should be submitted online at Communication Monograph’s Manuscript Central site http://www.mc.manuscriptcentral.com/rcmm. New users should first create an account. Once a user is logged onto the site, submissions should be made via the Author Center. Authors should take special care to format their documents in MS-word in a PC-compatible version. Questions about the special issue should be directed to the guest editor at a.ledbetter@tcu.edu. All other questions related to the journal, its editorial policies, or the submission process can be directed to the editor at cm@tcu.edu or at p.schrodt@tcu.edu

Deadline for submission: May 1, 2020

Ellison, N. B. & boyd, d. (2013). Sociality through social network sites. In W. H. Dutton’s (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies (pp. 151-172). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

PDF version of the call: Theorizing Social Media

A Wish for Ideological Diversity and Community Dialogue

(I originally wrote this as a post for CRTNET (my discipline’s e-mail listserv), but then reconsidered. CRTNET is a bit like kicking down your neighbors’ doors and leaving your message on their kitchen tables, and then waiting a day to see if any of your neighbors kick down your door to reply in kind. I’ve previously criticized CRTNET as less than helpful for discussing difficult issues, and indeed my discipline currently seems in an unwanted repetitive pattern in that forum. So, I decided instead to post this on my blog because, following my metaphor, I hope that’s more like inviting the reader over to my house so she or he can read what I wrote, or decline the invitation if they so prefer. To those who are here, welcome; although we may disagree on little or much, I hope you hear my heart that I value your humanity and want to understand your perspective too, and I hope you will extend that same attitude toward me.)

As our discipline engages in an overdue discussion regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion, I hope we do not lose sight of the value of ideological (or viewpoint) diversity.

In a recent Spectra, NCA’s leadership graciously gave me the opportunity to discuss viewpoint diversity in the communication discipline. In that piece, I cited empirical studies indicating that progressives/liberals greatly outnumber those of other ideological stances (in academia overall and our discipline specifically), and that active ideological bias may serve as a partial explanation for that. I also reported stories from those who have experienced ideological bias in our field that made them feel silenced, shamed, and unwelcome. I have experienced this at times in my career too. In some cases, such bias has led people to leave NCA, the discipline, or academia as a whole. 

Although perhaps unintentional, I am concerned that some aspects of the current discourse might be exacerbating this problem–first by omitting viewpoint diversity from the discussion, and second, in some cases, by communication choices (e.g., ad hominem attacks and intimidation) that discourage others’ expression of ideological diversity. In contrast, the principle of academic freedom suggests that, when in doubt, we should fall on the side of viewpoint inclusion. This principle is enshrined in NCA’s Credo for Free and Responsible Communication in a Democratic Society, which NCA’s Legislative Assembly reaffirmed in 2017:

  • “WE SUPPORT the proposition that a free society can absorb with equanimity speech which exceeds the boundaries of generally accepted beliefs and mores; that much good and little harm can ensue if we err on the side of freedom, whereas much harm and little good may follow if we err on the side of suppression.”

I understand the argument that calls for civility (which this Credo and NCA’s Ethical Credo certainly are) can serve to silence dissenting views. That is an unfortunate possibility that I know some have experienced. However, I do not believe that tells the whole story about civility (or, as we have termed it at TCU, “community dialogue”). When we approach each other with hope, humility, respect, and trust, those norms of community dialogue often enable voice and understanding. I believe that’s an aim worth striving for together.

I do not say any of this to exclude or diminish forms of diversity beyond ideological; advocates of ideological diversity in the marketplace of ideas must enable other forms of diversity in that marketplace as well. As our discipline moves forward, I hope we can continue to strive for effective ways to communicate across lines of difference of all kinds, including by ideology and viewpoint.

Yes, Ideological Bias in Academia is Real, and Communication Scholars Must Help Solve the Problem

The National Communication Association invited me to write an essay for the association magazine (Spectra) on ideological bias within academia and the communication discipline. Unfortunately, Spectra is not accessible to those without an NCA login; but fortunately, the agreement I signed with NCA permits me to post it here.

I am deeply grateful to those who took time to contribute their stories, to read the essay and offer feedback, and encourage me along the way. Let me especially mention my appreciation for George Yancey of University of North Texas, who is mentioned at some length here, who graciously took the time to offer his thoughts on the article.

I hope this piece motivates all of us to create ideologically welcoming communities, to understand each other better, and to find ways to work together across lines of ideological difference.

I am grateful that NCA invited me to write this essay on “what some have called the chilling effect of ‘liberal’ academia on freedom of expression among conservative professors and students.” As a social scientist, I think of this as two related empirical questions: What is the political tilt of academia? And, does that political tilt silence conservative voices? Fortunately, scholars have gathered data on these questions, and so I will briefly review a few findings. Then, I will share the lived experience of some of our colleagues and suggest how we might promote ideological diversity in our discipline.

Research Evidence

To the first question: Evidence indicates political skew in academia toward the left. Over a decade ago, Gross and Simmons’s study on the American professoriate found that 44 percent identified as liberal, 47 percent as moderate, and only 9 percent as conservative, with moderates leaning center-left rather than center-right. Particularly relevant to our discipline, the greatest imbalance emerged in the social sciences (58 percent liberal, 5 percent conservative) and the humanities (52 percent liberal, 4 percent conservative). Their monograph, although published only online, has received more than 100 citations since 2007. More recent peer-reviewed research on party affiliation suggests that the imbalance has widened. In a 2016 article published in Econ Journal Watch, Mitchell Langbert and his co-authors found that registered faculty Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 11.5 to 1 overall, and in Communication/Journalism, by 20 to 1. In many departments, members of minor liberal parties (such as the Green Party) are more common than Republicans. Academia leans to the left, and the Communication discipline is no exception.

And so, to the second question: What is the effect of this ideological tilt? The literature has focused on two competing hypotheses for why the imbalance exists: that conservatives self-select out of academia, or that conservatives experience bias that deters them. As sociologist George Yancey has contended, these explanations are not mutually exclusive. Both likely occur, yet the available evidence indicates that political bias against conservatives is no trivial concern. I only have space to summarize a few key findings here, but interested readers would benefit from exploring Heterodox Academy, which advocates for ideological diversity in university life.

  • In a study published in 2012 in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Inbar and Lammers asked psychological scholars about their perception of academia’s political climate. Liberals reported the least hostile climate (1.9 on a seven-point scale), moderates significantly more (3.7), and conservatives the most hostile (4.7). The more a scholar moves away from a liberal identity, the more ideological heat she or he perceives.
  • That study also found that some liberal professors admitted willingness to engage in bias that would harm the career of conservative academics: “Hostility toward and willingness to discriminate against conservatives is widespread. One in six respondents said that she or he would be somewhat (or more) inclined to discriminate against conservatives in inviting them for symposia or reviewing their work. One in four would discriminate in reviewing their grant applications. More than one in three would discriminate against them when making hiring decisions.”
  • Jussim, writing in the same journal in response to Inbar and Lammers, acknowledged the privilege he enjoys as a liberal academic, including: “If I apply for a job, I can be confident my political views are more likely to be an asset than liability”; “I can avoid spending time with colleagues who mistrust me because of my politics”; “I will feel welcomed and ‘normal’ in the usual walks of my academic life.”
  • Yancey, Reimer, and O’Connell, writing in 2015 in Sociology of Religion, found that academia can be particularly hostile to religious conservatives. Yancey testified to his own experience in an article published in The Stream: “Indeed when I read academic literature about my faith it is like I am reading about some alien I cannot recognize. Its description of conservative Christians is often some bizarre caricature of the worst of my faith.”
  • Yancey’s empirical work has further documented bias that conservatives (religious and otherwise) face in academia, particularly in the processes of hiring, promotion, and tenure. Like Inbar and Lammers, he conducted direct surveys of academics, finding that about half would be less likely to hire a conservative Protestant, about 40 percent someone who is part of the NRA, and about a third someone who is a Republican. In contrast, being a member of a liberal group such as the ACLU is seen as an asset.

I am not claiming that these are perfect studies (no study is), or that all progressive scholars hold bias against conservatives (clearly not). Nor am I claiming that anti-conservative bias explains 100 percent of the variance in the political affiliation of scholars in our discipline or elsewhere. That would be absurd. Yet, given the evidence, I am persuaded that it would be even more absurd to claim an effect size of 0 percent. As Yancey put it in a Patheos article, some progressive scholars tend to “focus on self-selection with a slight nod to the possibility of bias. This is exactly opposite from what our empirical evidence has told us.”

Also, the reality of anti-conservative bias does not discount the very real threats to academic freedom experienced by my progressive colleagues. Even as we disagree on ideology and public policy, we should stand together against all threats to ideological diversity, from whatever part of the political continuum they arise.

I encourage those interested to check out these and other sources. I especially encourage my liberal colleagues to do this because, as Yancey noted when I spoke with him recently in a public forum, some progressive scholars disregard claims of ideological bias, despite their abiding concern for other forms of discrimination.

Lived Experience

I am unaware of any study of political bias that focuses exclusively on our discipline. So, to document such bias and vivify the claims above, I invited members of our discipline to share their experiences anonymously. With their permission, here are a few stories I heard:

  • “During my first job interview for a tenure-track position, I sat through an uncomfortable meal where a senior faculty member, assuming I was liberal, openly mocked economic beliefs that I hold. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I just kind of smiled and nodded.”
  • “I haven’t been to NCA in years. As a conservative woman, there is no space for me there.”
  • “When I was in graduate school, the Department Chair got up and started talking about how stupid Republicans are. I remember being shocked that the Chair was using a position of power to degrade others.”
  • “During a campus visit at a potential graduate school, I wore a cross necklace. A faculty member pointed it out and said, ‘Cross necklace? You aren’t welcome here.’ This interaction almost deterred me from pursuing any sort of graduate education.”
  • “I wrote an article on conservative artistic performances that the Editor responded to with high praise, followed by a request for a few revisions. After I made the requested revisions, the Editor rejected it. He told me that he wanted to publish the article, but that the conservative content of the performances had so offended the other members of his editorial staff that he ‘dared not run it’ lest he have to deal with a ‘full blown revolution.’”
  • “Political bias is one reason I left academia soon after receiving my doctorate.”
  • “When I write papers that suggest liberal bias in the media, they get rejected, and so I now write about other things. In a world where promotion is determined by publication/presentation rate, I have no desire to spend more time writing articles that will never see daylight.”
  • “As a graduate student, I remember being told at a conference that I couldn’t be a critical/cultural scholar because I had a Christian worldview.”
  • “Before I had tenure, a senior professor who knew my political leanings jokingly referred to me as ‘a Nazi.’ This occurred in front of students.”

I know we would be concerned (and rightly so) if we were to hear such lived experiences from other groups. Those concerns should be no less when the stories pertain to ideological diversity.

Promoting Ideological Diversity in the Discipline

So then, what should we do to foster ideological diversity in the Communication discipline? I’ve heard a variety of ideas from conservatives and concerned progressives. Here are a few actionable suggestions that, to me at least, seem to flow from the available evidence.

  1. As a small but important first step, admit the reality. If a conservative scholar shares an experience of bias with you, they’re probably taking a brave step. Don’t minimize that. They’re showing you a remarkable degree of trust. Also don’t assume that all conservatives are alike; like liberals, we’re a diverse bunch. So listen. Even if you can’t affirm their beliefs, affirm their humanity and academic freedom. More generally, our field would benefit from the kind of discussion about political bias that Jonathan Haidt has spearheaded in Social Psychology.
  1. Affirm ideological diversity when you have the opportunity to do so. I find the statement that Heterodox Academy asks its members to sign to be a helpful one that resonates with NCA’s Credo for Free and Responsible Communication in a Democratic Society: “I believe that university life requires that people with diverse viewpoints and perspectives encounter each other in an environment where they feel free to speak up and challenge each other. I am concerned that many academic fields and universities currently lack sufficient viewpoint diversity—particularly political diversity. I will support viewpoint diversity in my academic field, my university, my department, and my classroom.” Scholars who agree may want to join — it’s easy, free, and a gateway to good conversation among scholars with diverse disciplinary and political orientations.
  1. Refrain from assumptions of political homogeneity in the discipline. This is perhaps nowhere so true in our discipline as partisan political statements passed in the form of NCA resolutions. Let us be candid: These have no discernible impact on public policy. As a Texan myself, I can assure you that the 2017 convention has come and gone and has made no difference in Texas politics. But some events there may speak volumes to conservatives in our field, particularly those who lack the academic privilege that comes with publication success and tenure. As one graduate student voiced after an e-mail from the NCA leadership ahead of the Dallas convention, “Can we maintain membership at NCA in light of this statement?” I look forward to a world where our students never have to ask that question, no matter their political stripe.
  1. Use online fora judiciously. For all their benefits, we know that online spaces can tempt us to engage in communication that dehumanizes others. Whatever strengths it may have, I am not convinced that the Communication listserv CRTNET has served as a healthy venue for political discussion. Perhaps more substantive online conversation could be facilitated by communication technologies newer than 1980s-style e-mail listservs.
  1. Purposefully build warm relationships with those whose beliefs differ from your own. To be utterly clear and emphatic: Over the course of my career, my relationships with progressive colleagues and friends have been overwhelmingly positive rather than negative. When we talk politics, the conversations may be animated, but most of the time they occur in a spirit of mutual respect. Often, we aren’t talking about politics at all, but about our personal lives or mutual professional interests regarding Communication research, theory, and pedagogy. And, indeed, such research tells us that intergroup contact reduces bias.

I believe NCA has the social capital and goodwill among its membership to address ideological bias. Some of my conservative colleagues do not share that optimism, but a panel at the 2017 convention gave me hope. Organized by then First Vice President Ronald L. Jackson II, co-sponsored by the Public Dialogue and Deliberation Division, and chaired by Laura Black (Ohio University) and Leah Sprain (University of Colorado, Boulder), the panel addressed public dialogue and polarization within NCA and featured scholars from diverse political orientations. People spoke candidly, but respectfully, and I think we all gained insight from the discussion. I see no reason why that spirit of goodwill amid disagreement cannot extend to the entire association, our departments, and the discipline.

Our discipline possesses a wealth of scholarship about effective communication across lines of difference. We can apply this knowledge to foster ideological diversity within our discipline—and then, if we are so inclined, we can turn and use that knowledge to help other disciplines solve this trans-disciplinary problem.

(This article is reprinted from an article that originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Spectra magazine, a publication of the National Communication Association. All rights reserved.)