Building a Discipline and Building a University

Historic black and white image of UICC employee working at keypunch terminal.

UICC worker. Image courtesy of UIC Archives

In February 1965—when UICC, the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois, opened to its first 8,500 students—registration for classes was conducted in a huge hall where undergraduates consulted course-listing posters and filled out paper forms; the UICC computer was an IBM 1620-Model I with 20,000 digits of core storage and the ability to read 250 punch cards per minute; research relied on a card catalogue, microfilm and the librarian; photographs could only be made on film; and individuals communicated by telephone, in person or via letters carried by the U.S. Postal Service.

Victor Harnack.

Victor Harnack. Photo by Doug Harnack

The study of communication¬≠—or, in the lexicon of the day, “speech”—was similarly light years away from the academic field of communication circa 2012. Then a part of UIC’s Speech and Theatre Department, the goals of speech education focused on improving listening and receiving skills, targeting messages, and honing the arts of argumentation and persuasion. Speech was classed, along with theatre, as a humanities discipline.

“When, in the fall of 1964, I joined the university as head of the Department of Speech and Theatre,” Victor Harnack reported, “my principal aim was to reshape the focus of studying ‘speech communication’ so that it could move beyond the art of how-to-talk-effectively stage and develop into a social science discipline that examined the nature of the act of communication. The first step was to create a series of courses that met the LAS social science general education requirement. To my knowledge, UIC was the first university to have such an option.

“’Intercultural Communication,’ when it poked a nose into the public address field, was still focused on the instrumental nature of speech training. That is, intercultural communication aimed to teach students ‘how to talk effectively’ with people from different cultures. Cultural issues, however, had long been examined by linguists. Thus, bringing anthropological and sociological perspectives into the study of communication became central to our efforts to study communication beyond the utilitarian perspective.”

Victor Harnack stands next to a portrait of Grace Holt.

Harnack with a portrait of Grace Holt. Courtesy of UIC News

One of Harnack’s methods for bringing the “speech” field up to par with established disciplines in the social sciences was faculty recruitment. Bringing Grace Sims Holt to UIC was a key move. “Grace was an African American linguist who created the first courses in American universities that examined black speech as an object of serious study. Her work enabled us to move from the ‘how to talk with blacks’ perspective and to study the manner in which the culture of African Americans helped shape their language and their communication behavior,” said Harnack. Holt went on to develop the Black Studies Program and served as Director of the Department of African American Studies from 1974 until 1986. She retired from UIC in 1990 and died in 1991.

Harnack was also deeply involved in the early struggles to define the meaning and mission of an urban land-grant university and to build UIC into a world-class research and teaching institution. He served on the faculty senate—as member, officer and on various committees—during his entire tenure at UIC. He was on the planning committee for the Performing Arts Center, now home to UIC’s Theatre Program. He also served as the only male member of the first Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Women, as well as co-chair of the sub-committee on sexual harassment.

Harnack led his LAS department for 16 of the years between 1964 and 1992, when the theatre program moved into the College of Architecture and the Arts as part of the newly-constituted Department of Performing Arts. Harnack served as founding chair of that department until 1994 and retired from UIC in 1995. Over the past 15-plus years he has enjoyed his avocations of theatre and music, serving as president of the Bloomington Indiana Early Music Festival, writing theatre criticism and teaching a course in theatre criticism for Indiana University. Harnack and his wife Martha, who died in 2010, were also very involved in programs and advocacy on behalf of homeless and poverty-stricken people.

...my principal aim was to reshape the focus of studying ‘speech communication’ so that it could move beyond the art of how-to-talk-effectively stage and develop into a social science discipline that examined the nature of the act of communication.

His vision for comprehensive and interdisciplinary communication scholarship and education evolved into today’s Department of Communication, where undergraduate education broadly explores culture, society, politics, history and the arts through the lens of communication at the interpersonal, intercultural and institutional levels. Graduate education emphasizes technology and the rise of interactive digital communications, along with political communication, media and intercultural studies.

“Major problems or issues can scarcely ever be addressed by a single discipline,” commented Harnack. “I take as a given the need for interdisciplinary interaction. My experience of swimming with the sharks in academia taught me one very useful way to distinguish between strong, well-grounded disciplines and weak, insecure ones. Strong disciplines participated readily with others, while weak disciplines—fearful of being swallowed up by another—tended to crawl into a disciplinary cave. I think the current Department of Communication is strong.”

Each spring, graduate students from the department participate in the Annual University of Illinois Communication Collaboration Conference with their colleagues from Urbana and Springfield for a day-long research conference. At the 2011 gathering at UIC, nearly two dozen scholarly inquiries dealing with the themes of “New Media: Time, Space and Violence,” “Representation, Culture and Power,” “Policy, Leadership, and the Other,” “Cultural Identity and the Self,” and “Technics of Sex, Gender, and Race” were presented.

“The arc of change in communications—and the study of communications from the social revolution of the 1960s to the social media revolution of today—has been driven by technological innovations and guided by the cultural shaping of the implementation of those changes,” said Harnack. “The impact of radio in the 1930s and television during the 50s and 60s has been studied in many disciplines. Today, theorists such as Zizi Papacharissi and Steve Jones are examining the new culture created by the current digital and social media revolutions.”

Harnack has made a commitment to supporting the growth of his department in the areas of research and engaged scholarship. In honor of his late wife Martha, he established the Martha and Victor Harnack Endowment for the Department of Communication. His gift will be used to support a lectureship series, supplement graduate fellowships, provide honoraria for visiting faculty, and contribute to the purchase of equipment and technology that will further teaching and research.

“Universities have much more to do than to train young people how to make a buck in the marketplace. Universities should be communities of scholars whose obligation it is to create knowledge and share it with the larger community,” said Harnack. “Faculty members must be more than transmitters of information and students must not only ‘get’ stuff from the university, they must also participate in the generation and communication of knowledge.”

Zizi Papacharissi

Zizi Papacharissi. Photo by Kathryn Marchetti

The Martha and Victor Harnack Lecture Series will launch in the spring, according to Communication Head Zizi Papacharissi, who points to the department’s Mobile Media Lab as the kind of facility innovation she hopes to build upon with the Harnack endowment.

“In terms of research work, we will be continuing to look at the digital-literacy and digital-access gaps, but also the ways in which digital media have the potential to enable visibility for formerly marginalized groups and how these globalizing technologies can effect significant social and political change, as seen, for example, in the series of Arab Spring uprisings, or, more recently, with the Occupy movement, she said. “Victor’s generosity will also significantly increase our ability to support graduate students who are doing important investigations in several areas including digital cultures, diversity and representation in the media. The support will also help us host talks from leading figures in these areas, which will further inspire and inform our faculty and students’ efforts.”

“To sum it all up,” said Harnack, “I am a lucky person. I did what I wanted to do and they paid me for it. Since I put three quarters of a professional lifetime into the University of Illinois at Chicago, I want to extend my influence with the only means now left to me—some money. I hope others will do something similar.”

To support the work of the Department of Communication through the Martha and Victor Harnack Endowment please direct your gift to fund number 770802.