Philosophy of Communication


COMM 500 Philosophy of Communication (new title)

        Autumn 2011, Wednesdays 2 – 4:30 p.m. CRN 10572

        BSB 1169, University of Illinois, Chicago

Kevin G. Barnhurst, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Communication

        Office BSB 1148A. Hours Tues. 2–3 p.m., Wed. 11 a.m.–noon or by appointment

        (312) 413-3231 E-mail <kgbcomm(a)>


Examines the philosophical assumptions, concepts, explanations, and principles underlying communication theory and its history. One goal for the seminar is to learn how to ask interesting questions, the ground beneath discerning research. Conventional wisdom can trap questions and stifle creative thinking. The seminar will try to find plausible alternative ways to ask questions related to communication using do-it-yourself (heuristic) strategies.

All fields of scholarship start from fundamental assumptions about what exists (the problem of being, or ontology), how to find out about it (the problem of knowing, or epistemology), and what to make of it (the problem of value, or axiology). Another goal is to discover your own assumptions and fit them into the frameworks or paradigms in communication.

Any topic has a body of knowledge in what social researchers call the literature, centered on evidence that backs concepts and helps generate explanations (and may follow principles). The communication literature builds theory, and so a third goal is to develop the skills needed to discover the state of knowledge about a concept and explain it succinctly.

Awareness of the fundamental assumptions and body of supporting evidence leads to a fourth goal, to assess theory by its breadth, fit, generative force, validity, simplicity, and openness. A final (and vital) goal is to write clearly and express your ideas effectively.


The success of the seminar depends on you. To participate fully in discussions, be sure to do the assigned readings before each session and come prepared to offer an economical response to them. Over time your appraisals should become richer, making your own thinking clearer. Feel free to collaborate by sharing thoughts and getting feedback. You can meet at a pub or on the class page of the department wiki:

Readings come from two textbooks and library electronic reserves plus writing resources:

Abbott, Andrew. (2004). Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences. New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-97814-8 Paper, $27.53 new, $12.94 used.

Becker, Howard S. (2007). Writing for Social Scientists. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-04132-2 Paper, $12 new, e-book $9.99.

E-reserves at (paradigms)

Plus a writing handbook (such as an old copy of the Prentice-Hall Handbook for Writers) and stylebook (such as Strunk & White, Lasch’s Plain Style, or McCloskey’s Economical Writing).


Formal assignments include an in-class reading of one or more of your critical assessments of seminar readings, two short essays, and two project proposals, plus feedback on two essays and proposals, all by different partners.

        Critical assessments. Write a 1–2-page response to an assigned reading each week. It must enliven, object to, and or expand on the reading, not merely describe it. Most important: make a point about the reading, your own point, and defend it. The seminar will read closely and discuss one member’s essay each week.

        Topical essay. The first assignment is simply to write something interesting (3–5 pages). Think of it as a trial run for ideas growing from your thinking in the class. Write economically and say something original. Make each sentence count and move things forward. The term essay comes from the French essayer, to try. Consider the essay at attempt, taking a stab at a new idea.

        Concept exposition. The second short essay is explains a communication concept that matters to you. You may break down the concept into its parts (analysis) and/or put them back together in new ways (synthesis), while referring to how scholars have used an idea you find interesting. The key is to bring the concept to life and make it memorable.

        Project proposals. Each project proposal tackles a communication problem or question that excites your curiosity. The two can be disparate or related. Well-executed proposals could lay the foundation for a research paper, thesis, or dissertation chapter. Write about three pages including the following headings (length in paragraphs is in parentheses):

Š        Introduce the problem (1). Write a brief (perhaps anecdotal) prologue to a) capture interest, b) indicate the issue or state the problem, c) state in a few words what is known about it, d) refer to how you would study it and e) how the study would build theory, and f) assert why it matters.

Š        Sketch the state of knowledge (3–5). Write a short general description of the relevant theories and research, indicating where (in which disciplines and journals) it exists, how it is organized there, and which key articles or books you plan to consult in more detail. Take a position on the topic and the theories related to your problem throughout, showing what concepts need development and what evidence needs finding out.

Š        Propose a study and method (1). Indicate how you will approach your question theoretically, what specific research techniques you would use to find answers, and how you would analyze the evidence you gather. Make sure the strategies you choose fit the issue or question at hand and are consonant with your theoretical approaches.

Š        Answer the So What? question (1). Write a concluding statement of the significance or importance of the issue in terms that others (a friend, mom, or dad?) can understand.

Š        List your sources (1–2). Compile a reference list of all books and articles you found pertinent to two aspects of the proposal: the topic of your proposed research and the theories related to it. Use the UIC electronic resources ( refshelf/cit.shtml) for citation styles and computer software to compile the reference list.

        Report and critique. In the final class sessions, report on your projects and critique two others by seminar members. Choose partners who share your interests, and then exchange copies of your proposals in advance. Present a oral assessment of your partner’s work.


Course grades follow this formula:

Participation (preparation, collaboration, attendance, and in-class discussion), 24 percent; Short assignments, 34 percent (assessments, 10 percent; essays, 12 percent each);
Project proposals, 30 percent (15 percent each); Critiques, 12 percent (3 percent each).


Students with disabilities who require accommodations for access or participation in this course must inform the instructor and register with the Office of Disability Services: (312) 413-2183 or –0123 (TTY).

If you must miss class for a religious holiday or observance, please provide a written notice by the 10th day of the semester and then notify me 5 days ahead of the date to allow for arrangements that will not disadvantage you in the course.

If you have an illness or emergency that affects your work in the seminar, please meet with me during office hours or by appointment to discuss an appropriate action. Any adjustments in deadlines and assignments will require documentation.

Late assignments will be accepted for one week after the original date due, dropping one full grade. For work more than one week late, feedback is available, but no credit.

Read Guidelines Regarding Academic Integrity ( You must do your own original work. Do not turn in anything the same or substantially the same as work of another person or as work you completed for another course. Cite the ideas of others thoroughly and consistently:

        1. Citing in the text the author(s) and year for any ideas drawn from others, including all direct, indirect, and paraphrased statements, as well as their concepts or thinking,

        2. Using quotation marks around any words of a phrase (2 words) or more in length drawn from any other author or source, whether in print, online, or from personal correspondence or interaction,

        3. Providing page numbers for all direct (word-for-word) quotations, and

        4. Giving the full bibliographic citation for each source in a list of references.

Students who plagiarize the work of others, including material from the internet, or engage in any academic dishonesty will receive a failing grade for the course. Department policy requires reporting all suspected cases to the Office of Student Judicial Affairs for review.


All topics and readings are tentative. Readings appear by topic in the course bibliography. Before each class, examine all of the day’s readings and participate in collaboration for each reading. If for any reason you’re unable to read or prepare before class, let me know (by email or in person) and then come to class and participate as much as you can. All assignments are due at the beginning of class.

Aug. 24. Week 1. Introductions.

Part I. Foundations

Aug. 31. Week 2. How to ask interesting questions.

        Due each week: Critical assessment.

Sept. 7. Week 3. No class meeting.

        Due: Topical essay draft to partner for assessment.

Sept. 14. Week 4. Approaches to the world.

Sept. 21. Week 5. Approaches to the discipline.

        Due: Topical essay.

Part II. Theories

Sept. 28. Week 6. The self.

        Due: Concept exposition draft to partner for assessment.

Oct. 5. Week 7. The message.

Oct. 12. Week 8. The conversation and the relationship.

        Due: Concept exposition.

Oct. 19. Week 9. The group and the organization.

        Due: Project Proposal I draft to partner for assessment.

Oct. 26. Week 10. The media.

Nov. 2. Week 11. Culture and society.

        Due: Project Proposal I.

Part III. Products

Nov. 9. Week 12. Effective writing.

Nov. 16. Week 13. No class meeting.

        Due: Project Proposal II draft to partner for assessment.

Nov. 23. Week 14. Project reports and critiques.

Nov. 30. Week 15. Project reports and critiques.

        Due: Project Proposal II.

Dec. 7. Week 16. No class meeting.

        No work accepted after 2 p.m.