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From BAPC to MAPC: Reflections on the Work of an SCC Program Head

June 19, 2014
Dr. Virginia McKendry

I have been serving as the program head for RRU’s BA in Professional Communication (BAPC) since 2010, when I joined the School of Communication and Culture faculty. It was my first formal administrative role in a university, a distinctly different kind of work than teaching or doing research, and my nearly one year of a college business administration program back in the age of the eight-track was not going to help me.

Since then, I have stretched and changed, personally and professionally, along with the program I was tasked with overseeing. With my recent move over to the program head role for the MA in Professional Communication (MAPC), I want to take the opportunity to share some of my recent reflections on what it means to provide academic oversight of a university program, as well as the differences between the two programs, and the qualities they share.

First and foremost, I have come to see program administration as a communicative role that, if done with intention and curiosity, can effectively orchestrate a complex team effort that involves faculty, staff, students, alumni and external partners and supporters of our university. When I first arrived at RRU, many people contributed to getting me to a place of comfort with the BAPC program role. I relied, and continue to rely, heavily on the advice of our patient (and hilarious!) program administrative team. They have been crucial to any success I can claim, because the program head role requires attention to numerous managerial tasks, timelines, and reporting protocols for which there can be no exhaustive training manual—and for which few social science or humanities researchers are trained, self included.

I also needed to understand the learning experience in the program, so I looked to student evaluations for documented and to students who kindly connected with me throughout their program to share insights and ideas for evolving the program. Frequent individual and group meetings and email conversations with our devoted instructors allowed me to know what it means to prepare course content and facilitate learning across the breadth of subject areas that comprise our discipline. These conversations are part of process of the continuing adaptation of our systems, but they are so much more, because they communicate the values and feelings that are so crucial to the unique nature of RRU programs.

At all times, the program is supported and enhanced by caring people who work across a range of RRU service units external to the SCC. Program heads collaborate frequently with staff from Centre for Technology and Education in Teaching, Student Services, Reception, the Registrar’s Office, Enrolment, Marketing and Recruitment, Community Relations, the Writing Centre, the International Study Centre and the Library. On an ongoing basis, our Advisory Councils offer intelligence on what employers are calling for in communication graduates, and our school’s Director, Dean and VP Academic assist with understanding what academic oversight of curriculum entails and how it is connected to other concerns of financial stability, technological trends, and political winds.

Clearly it takes a village—nay, a city—to raise a program head and keep a program humming at optimal pitch. The BAPC contributed so much to my own professional development and my ability to see education as a complex adaptive system that is always in flux, and thus my ability to see how our program and my role relate to that system. Over time, I could confidently articulate the relationship between all 20 of the BAPC courses, the distinct nature of BAPC on-campus and online program cultures, and the insight that, overall, we are educating professionals who are able to go into their communication career with the ability to “think, manage, and do”. I began to understand how the BAPC related to and differentiated itself from other RRU programs and faculties, and how it fit into the municipal, provincial, national and international education ecology. I learned when to intervene and when not to intervene, by learning the value of waiting for the real nature of a problem to reveal itself. I learned that my job was not to fix things but to create the conditions for people to arrive at their own solutions by listening and learning, articulating our shared values and strengths, and communicating the story of the BAPC in a clear and compelling fashion.

Thankfully, I can now bring all that I have learned to my oversight of the MAPC program while continuing to rely on the wit, wisdom and support of all of the people and units named above. After all, it’s a very different kind of program, despite covering similar territory in terms of theory and subject matter, because our undergraduate and graduate students want and need different things from their education.

Our undergraduates, generally speaking, are seeking the basic knowledge and skills that can move them into entry or mid-level communication roles, or they have made it to where they are without a degree but now see they need the credential in order to advance further in their career. At this level of education, our goal is to develop their ability to express themselves professionally across a range of media, their awareness of the range of communication and cultural theory, their ability to conduct basic audience research and report on what they find, their comfort level with practical ways to use theory in real-world contexts, and their familiarity with the strategic communication planning thought process. In the current economy, it’s not enough to know how to produce a press release or write and implement a communication plan. By teaching them how to learn through a peer-based experiential learning model, we can be confident that our BAPC grads will be able to innovate, create their own career path, bring some experience to their first professional roles, and/or choose to continue their education in a master’s program.

On the other hand, our graduate students generally come to us with long professional experience in communication-related fields. They are seeking the intellectual development that will allow them a greater knowledge base, one that will situate them as thought leaders in their field and empower them to conduct research in their work role. Others simply come to us because they are at that time in their life where they need a new challenge, and our programs appeal to them because they don’t have to step out of their work and family responsibilities for two years. For many, their degree will open up their opportunities for advancement and promotion, and their research will contribute to their own organizations and the profession, or inspire them to move into doctoral level research.

Regardless of the program, the past four years in the program head position have given me a unique purview of the entire system that allows RRU to provide transformational learning opportunities to people who are looking for a different kind of post-secondary education. When our school director greets our new cohort on the first day of residency, she often warns them (with a twinkle in her eye!) that the learning experience can be so life changing that our graduates are moved to make a radical break from their past and move into an entirely new line of work. Witnessing these kinds of personal transformations in both our graduate and undergraduate cohorts is what makes the program head role such soul-satisfying work.

My purpose here has been to shed a bit of light into the ‘backstage’ work of the program head and to underline the intricacies of what we do, and why we do it. Regardless of the program, it’s all about listening for the notes that allow for ongoing orchestration and improvisation of a symphony of diverse players around a common theme and culture. As the new MAPC program head, my goal is to be a tuned-in communicator who supports all players, including myself, in playing the same sweet song—the song of life-changing education—with a stunning and inspiring range of variations on that theme.