Passing the Torch: Reflecting on the Past, Present and Future of the MPC

By: Caitlin Boros

[For Interview with John and Wendy] C2C credit Josephine Lim MPC2016

After nearly five years as Program Director for the MPC, Dr. Wendy Freeman is passing the torch to Dr. John Shiga, who will assume the post with the 2017 class. I had the pleasure of speaking with both about the success of the MPC to date and how they see the future of the program unfolding.

Wendy, you’ve been Program Director for the MPC for 4.5 years. How has the program evolved in that time?

Great question. I became Program Director in the second year of the program after Dr. Jean Mason, who led the development of the program and served as the first Director. The features of the MPC that are essential and distinguish the program (including the internship and the length) were there from the start.

The program has continued to develop as a result of our active and engaged students. We’ve increased our links with programs outside ProCom to provide access to electives that are of interest to MPC students such as knowledge translation and brand management. The range of internship opportunities has also expanded as a direct result of the MPC students’ broad interests and ambitions. We continue to see more students showing an interest in getting involved with extracurricular activities that are scholarly, such as conference presentations and publications, and industry-oriented such as the Gold Quill through IABC. Workshops have also become an important way that we provide skills development outside the coursework.

With alumni numbering over 100 MPC graduates, you’ve certainly witnessed the growth and success of many students. What have been some of your favourite (or most memorable) moments?

I’m always impressed by the kinds of work that MPC alumni are involved with. I think determination and professionalism are defining characteristics of MPC students. I always look forward to the MPC Info Night presentation when I can share the growing list of the types of places MPC alumni work and the kinds of work they do. Our alumni have no difficulty finding meaningful work and this reminds me that the degree is worthwhile. Another favourite moment is MRP Research Day. I see the tremendous progress that students make from orientation to the their MRP presentations and that is always rewarding. And of course, Cave to Cloud in October 2015. The celebration of 5 years of the MPC was an example of the dedication and creativity of MPC students and alumni who organized the event.

[For Interview with John and Wendy] CCK_Communication-and-healthcare_Credit-Clifton Li for the School of Professional Communication

What do you envision for the future of the MPC program?

In two years, the MPC is up for a regular program review. That will provide us with an opportunity to reflect on the strengths of the current program and propose new ways to make the program stronger. We have been exploring the feasibility of a doctorate, either in Professional Communication or an interdisciplinary program across FCAD. I don’t know if that will change the MPC, but it might make it more appealing to an even broader range of students. Next year our first class of BA students will graduate. As the undergraduate program has matured, we are finding ways that our undergraduate and graduate programs can work together. Look out PCAA—they’re coming!

This season, we’re looking at how cultural differences are shaping the field of professional communication. How do you think cultural diversity will shape the the MPC program moving forward?

A diverse student cohort is important at the graduate level.  There is increasing diversity within the MPC classes. I think in our recruitment of incoming students we make an effort to demonstrate diversity so that prospective students with different experiences and backgrounds can see themselves studying at Ryerson.

You’re now handing things on to Dr. Shiga. Do you have any words of wisdom to share as he steps into this important role?

Dr. Shiga was the acting Program Director when I was on sabbatical last year and he did a terrific job, so I know the program is in good hands. I guess I would say that it’s important to listen to the students. Take advantage of the opportunities you have to meet with them in the fall and winter to find out how things are going with each of them. Help them to remember that a one-year graduate degree is going to be demanding, November and March are difficult months, but May brings relief from the pressure of coursework. Also, and probably most important, MPC students (and alumni) are awesome. They make the program great.

Dr. Shiga, what are some of the positive changes you’ve witnessed in your time with the program and how do you plan to continue building on these as you assume the role of Program Director moving forward?

The expansion of the MPC internship is one of the most exciting changes that I’ve seen since joining ProCom. As Internship Coordinator this year, I had a chance to see how many organizations from different areas of the communications industry seek out MPC students. It’s also great to see more MPC internships in expanding areas of the communications industry—health communications and university communications were two key areas this year. The internship is a key feature of the program and helps to attract new students, so of course we want to make sure we continue growing and supporting it. With support from Catherine Schryer, we were able to create a new staff position called Internship Liaison last year to expand the School’s network of internship sponsors, and MPC alumna Danielle Taylor has done a fabulous job strengthening the MPC internship and helping to build the undergraduate internship.

It’s also exciting that the course offerings for MPC students may expand over the next few years. Wendy has worked very hard to increase the number of electives that are open to MPC students, and thanks to her, students have had the opportunity to take communication-related courses offered by other departments such as the School of Nutrition and TRSM. Over the next few years, we’ll continue to explore ways to expand the range of electives for MPC students. One exciting possibility that we’re looking into is the idea of cross-listing a fourth year ProCom BA course with an MPC course. Another possibility is to develop new FCAD-wide electives or make the existing FCAD graduate courses more accessible to our students through, for example, online or hybrid delivery.

[For Interview with John and Wendy] Strategic Communication Workshop credit Josephine Lim MPC2016

With a significant (and growing!) community of MPC alumni, what do you see as the program’s core strengths? How do you see the program evolving in the coming years?

We are fortunate to have such a strong alumni community. I’ve worked over the past two years with PCAA and know that the program benefits in many ways from the time that alumni put into things like the newsletter, events and the day-to-day operations of the association. One of the big changes this year is that the PCAA is becoming an official, university-recognized association and MPC alumni spent a great deal of time revising the constitution and developing a new governance structure. The timing of these changes is good; thanks to the hard work of alumni, the PCAA will be ready for a major transition almost exactly one year from now when we welcome our first group of ProCom BA alumni.

The key strength of the MPC program, in my view, is the bridging of theory and practice. Since joining Ryerson in 2012, I’ve been struck by the commitment of both students and faculty to this idea of informing practice with theory and of enriching theory with practice and experience. I’ve seen how the notion of bridging theory and practice informs curriculum, course development and many other aspects of the program. As Internship Coordinator this year, I had the opportunity to read weekly journals that MPC students submit about their internship experiences, and found that many students really do think about their internships through the lens of “bridging theory and practice” – they find so many interesting connections, parallels and contrasts between their internships and what they’ve learned in other courses, and students frequently make theoretically-informed observations about communications practice as they are experiencing it in their internships.

Another key change in recent years and I think this really helps to show how “bridging theory and practice” can mean so many different things for our program is the development of the Centre for Communicating Knowledge (CCK), which is a production unit within ProCom specializing in knowledge mobilization services and research. The CCK has been very successful in attracting clients within and beyond Ryerson and developing innovative strategies for communicating research to diverse audiences and conducting research on the theory and practice of knowledge mobilization. The success of the CCK is in no small part due to the involvement of MPC students and alumni in the organization, from Jacky Au Duong, the Project Coordinator, to the many MPC students who have worked on CCK projects.

As I mentioned to Wendy, this season we’re looking at how cultural differences are shaping the field of professional communication. How do you think cultural diversity will shape the future of the MPC?

Cultural diversity has been an important part of the MPC program through courses like Topics in Cross-Cultural Communication (which I’m hoping to re-develop over the summer as a hybrid online/face-to-face course that will be offered to more students across FCAD). One of the things I think we can do in academia to improve understanding of cultural differences is to expand what we mean by “culture” to include communication styles and practices. In the field of cross-cultural communication studies, some really important questions remain about differences in organizational and professional cultures, and the manner in which those differences sometimes constrain the production and circulation of knowledge in society.

Each year, we also have a number of students who use the MRP as an opportunity to explore issues around cultural differences, cultural representation in various media, and efforts to build and refashion cultural identity. MPC faculty are also involved in cutting-edge research on cultural differences and how those differences are articulated in specific contexts. I am thinking for example of Joanne DiNova’s work with Lila Pine (RTA) on the differences between English and Indigenous language in which they use innovative visualization techniques to analyze those differences in spoken language. This year, I started working with the CCK, Oona St-Amant (Nursing) and Gerd Hauck (Theatre) on a project focused on global volunteer health work; cultural diversity is both a theme of our research (we’re interested in how volunteer health workers experience and make sense of cultural differences in Tanzania) as well as a challenge (since we are aiming to use theatre as a way of communicating our research to audiences within and beyond the university).

At the university level, there is an ongoing effort to ensure that the value of cultural diversity is recognized at all levels and activities on campus from teaching and learning to research to community engagement. I think one of the challenges is to learn from the past and understand how cultural differences have been used historically to justify the domination and exploitation of certain social groups. I think this kind of “critical history” is essential to developing a more equitable and inclusive society today.

In terms of the future of the MPC, I would like to see the MRP become more flexible to enable students to explore communication issues with a more diverse toolkit. The traditional research paper format works very well for exploring certain topics. But a hybrid research-creation option might work better for certain topics, among them, research on cultural differences and intercultural relations, particularly if those projects aim to be self-reflexive, encourage empathy, communicate with audiences beyond academe, or explore the researcher’s own experience of being a member of a group that has historically been marked as a cultural “other.” Encouraging students to consider developing a creative component of their MRP would help to ensure the program is as open as possible to diverse perspectives and ways of knowing the world.

What is your “mantra” as you assume this new post?

I’m not sure what my mantra will be quite yet but I do take Wendy’s words of wisdom very seriously and believe she’s right about the importance of listening to students. That is something I learned early on when Wendy was helping me prepare to take over the GPD role temporarily while she was on sabbatical last year. Listening takes courage (maybe that is my mantra—have the courage to listen to each other!), particularly when the person you are listening to has a view that is different from your own. But, as Wendy says, MPC students are awesome; they are smart, energetic and insightful and I think it’s important to take their suggestions about how the program might evolve in the coming years very seriously. One of the many insights Wendy has shared with me is that each MPC student takes a different path through the program (via electives, internship, MRP, etc.), and students sometimes need a bit of help sorting out which path works best for them. Meeting with students individually in the Fall and Winter is key to helping students customize the program according to their needs and interests and I look forward to those discussions next year.