About Joshua Hanan, Ph.D.: Joshua Hanan is the Former Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Denver’s Department of Communication Studies. As Director, Dr. Hanan oversaw curriculum development for the University of Denver’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program, and also managed graduate student advising, recruitment, and admissions. As an Associate Professor, Dr. Hanan also teaches graduate seminars in rhetorical and critical theory, rhetorical history, materialist rhetoric, and the rhetoric of biopolitics, neoliberalism, and performativity. He conducts research in public communication and how it intersects with the biopolitical role of institutions, economic systems, and technology.
Dr. Hanan has published numerous articles in journals such as Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Cultural Economy, Communication & Critical/Cultural Studies, and Environmental Communication. He earned his bachelor of arts from Humboldt State University, his master of arts from San Diego State University, and his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin.
Note: Dr. Bernadette Marie Calafell is the current Director of Graduate Studies for the Department of Communication Studies, students who have questions about the graduate program should reach out to her for more information.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of the University of Denver’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program, and how it is structured? What are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program?
[Dr. Joshua Hanan] The Master of Arts in Communication Studies is an excellent program for students who are interested in pursuing a Ph.D. We have a lot of students who want to eventually go for a PhD, as well as students who want to receive a terminal MA and get a job working in activism, social justice, inclusive excellence, facilitation of nonprofits, and other related areas.
We try to emphasize both the academic and the professional, and help students cultivate the necessary knowledge and skills for both pathways in our classes. We are definitely a research university, so in all of our graduate classes, students learn professional development, how to publish in the discipline, how to teach, and how to explore and engage with critical thinking. We are a highly criticism-oriented department, and another prominent theme across all of our concentrations is inclusive excellence and diversity. Cultivating diversity and social awareness and activism are cornerstones of our department.
We have three main areas of specialization:
Rhetoric and Communication Ethics is communication focused at the largest scale of human culture and human society. It explores how publics are constructed through language, discourse and material practices, and it is also about being an ethical communicator and taking seriously what it means to be accountable for the language that we’re born into and constantly participating in. This specialization also focuses on recognizing how power-laden and complex the language that we use is. Students in this concentration research all sorts of different topics from presidential communication to social movement communication to public discourse around athletes like Colin Kaepernick. Other examples include advertising and how human sexuality is being constructed through public discourses.
Communication and Culture is all about understanding the cultural aspects of communication, including how communication is situated in different cultural contexts and how it reproduces certain normative cultural assumptions. We also focus on communicating across cultures and try to encourage students to recognize that communication isn’t always about overcoming and resolving differences; oftentimes it is about recognizing deep-rooted, systemic material differences that can’t easily be washed away through inclusive forms of discourse that claim to embrace everybody. In this track we focus a lot on race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, and ableism, and how those structures and processes influence the way we communicate and create certain barriers, especially for bodies that don’t fit within those normative categories. There is also an interest in affect as a way of communicating across different cultures and communication that occurs at a physical, biological, largely unconscious level.
Interpersonal and Family Communication is focused on the smallest scale of communication, such as the communication dynamics that emerge in families and close personal relationships, and how those dynamics are negotiated. As with our other areas, there is a focus on the normativity of interpersonal communication and how those types of communication often exclude different bodies from being able to express themselves in the way that they would like to express themselves. A lot of our scholars in interpersonal and family communication do community engagement work. For example, one of our interpersonal family scholars, Professor Erin Willer, started a community project called the Scraps of Heart project, which is all about improving communication around difficult topics such as infertility and child loss. Her work advocates for art and other forms of public communication as a way of allowing people to express these experiences. And she’s also working on the ground with people in the community who have experienced baby loss and infertility to help them find a vehicle to communicate their voices and perspectives.
Something unique about our department is that our faculty have areas of expertise that cut across multiple disciplines, and are not siloed in one area. For example, my area is rhetoric in communication ethics but I also do work on performance studies and autoethnography, and I recently published a piece on the rhetoric of attention deficit disorder that draws on my own experiences being diagnosed with the condition as a child and adult.
We also have people like Professor Beth Suter, who is in the Family and Interpersonal track, and who is also a critical family communications scholar who focuses on the study of non-normative and queer family identities. She does research around topics such as families that adopt children from other countries and how LGBTQI families negotiate their identities interpersonally. As this example illustrates, faculty do not have just one area of interest, but rather several areas of research expertise.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students of the University of Denver’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program can choose between a thesis and a comprehensive examination. Could you elaborate on these two options, and what each entails?
[Dr. Joshua Hanan] The comprehensive exams are more for people who want to earn their MA to get a job in the field, or to advance their careers. The thesis track is more for people that want to have the thesis as a work product that they can showcase when they’re applying to PhD programs.
For the comprehensive exam option, students take 52 credit hours. They take a little bit more coursework than if they pursued the thesis track. The comprehensive exams themselves are done over a three-day period. Students work with their advisor on designing three questions around key issues that came up in the graduate seminars that they took. They subsequently run those questions by their three-person committee, and then write out all their responses in three days, which the committee reviews and grades.
Typically the questions originate from the classes that students took with the faculty members they have selected for their committee. For example, I teach a class on alternative rhetorical histories, so if I am on a committee for a student, that student might have an exam question that asks, “What does it mean to approach rhetorical history from an alternative perspective, and what are the limitations to approaching rhetoric from within the rhetorical tradition? On the other hand, what are the limitations to an alternative historical approach?” This is an example of a comprehensive exam question that might originate from one of my seminars.
Once students complete their questions, they submit it to the entire committee, who gives them feedback. The comprehensive exams are highly interactive, in that students work with their advisor(s) to design the questions, and upon completing them, they undergo an evaluation that feels more like a conversation.
For the thesis option, students take 36 credit hours and then their thesis is typically comprised of 7 credits. The thesis is typically somewhere between 70 to 100 pages long. Students work with an advisor on developing a thesis topic, and complete a thesis proposal defense before their committee. The committee consists of three faculty members, one of them being their advisor. And then they write their thesis, typically during their last quarter or last two quarters in the program.
Students write theses on a variety of topics. A lot of it depends on the track that they identify with—whether it’s interpersonal and family, communication and culture, or rhetoric in communication ethics. My own advisees have written theses on diverse topics–I’ve had one student who wrote a master’s thesis on the topic of Muhammad Yunus’ empowerment programs through community debt, analyzing how it operated as a contemporary expression of neoliberalism and power and offered a way of thinking about agency for people in developing countries who are struggling to get by. This research project also examined how Yunus’ program constrains the way we think about social problems and limits alternative possibilities for aiding formerly colonized and oppressed regions of the world. We have a lot of people do master’s theses on topics such as contemporary social movements, contemporary political discourse, and other topics that cut across one of our three tracks.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in the University of Denver’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program? Independent of faculty instruction and support, what career development resources and academic services are available to students, and how can they make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems?
[Dr. Joshua Hanan] One of the things we pride ourselves on as a department is that we work very closely with our graduate students. We’re a much smaller MA and PhD program than most. From the very beginning of their enrollment, students get paired up with an advisor whom they meet on a regular basis. Many master’s students have published with faculty by working on a research project. One of my advisees, Kaleb Brooks, for example, was a co-author on an essay that I published in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, which is the top journal in rhetoric. And I believe every single faculty member in our graduate program has published with MA and PhD students.
At the beginning of their enrollment, students are typically paired up with an advisor that has cross-over with the student’s expressed research interests. Some students mention specifically that they want to work with a particular faculty member in their cover letter. These advisors support students for the first year, and then at the end of their first year students can decide if they want to continue working with this advisor or switch if, for instance, their academic interests evolved into a different area that another faculty member can better support. We are very flexible, and want students to go with the advisor who is the best fit for them and who will give them the most opportunities for whatever they want to pursue.
Students usually choose their advisors based upon the faculty with whom they’ve built strong relationships. Typically because we’re a small department, students in the grad program have taken courses with most of the faculty by the time they’re done with their first year. At that point, they are in a position to reflect upon the faculty that were most impactful for them and complemented their research the most. So students will typically pick three faculty members who had a strong impact on them, and who they feel are doing work similar to their own scholarship.
In the classroom, we have small graduate seminars that vary from eight to 15 people, and in a lot of our seminars we emphasize professional development—so we’ll talk about publishing in the discipline, and how to negotiate work/life balance. We also offer numerous department colloquiums. Additionally, students receive department support and university support to attend and present at conferences. Most of our students are able to get reimbursed to attend one conference per year. Part of the reimbursement comes through the university at large and part of the reimbursement comes from the department. Our students also receive top paper awards and are on high-profile panels with other leading scholars in their discipline. We have a very strong presence at conferences.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For students interested in the University of Denver’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies, what advice do you have for submitting a competitive application?
[Dr. Joshua Hanan] The biggest factor we look for in applicants is a clear and focused desire to be in our program, and an understanding of what the faculty in our program can offer them. If students want to be competitive, the best thing they can do is tailor their application to different faculty members in the department that they think they would work well with. We particularly appreciate applicants who create connections across areas; even though we have three main tracks within our department, we’re really a very cross-disciplinary and transdisciplinary department. As such, we particularly like students who cut across different areas such as rhetoric and culture or culture and interpersonal and family. For example, we’ve had students in the past who have approached interpersonal family communication from a rhetorical angle.
We really like to see students who can benefit from and thrive in the environment that we provide, and who see connections in our department that maybe we don’t even see at the time, and who can cultivate these connections with us. That is the best way to be most competitive: to show that you are an excellent fit with the faculty here.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes the University of Denver’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?
[Dr. Joshua Hanan] One of the most distinctive elements of our program is its community focus. We recently won an award for being the most community-engaged department at the University of Denver. Faculty such as Professor Erin Willer and Professor Kate Willink and Professor Beth Suter do very public-oriented work, and all of our faculty complete scholarship that connects to the everyday world and contributes to different communities.
I would also say that our students get a lot more quality mentorship in our department than they do at the bigger research universities, because of the size of our program and the emphasis we place on individualized advising. Our faculty are very accessible and down to earth, and frequently get awards for being the best mentors to graduate students and working really closely with them. If you come to our program, you are going to develop some really tight relationships with some top-rate faculty members who are doing cutting-edge work.
I would say another thing that we do is work at the cutting edge of the discipline. Most of the people in our department are very well published. We’re doing current, interdisciplinary, and socially relevant research. I do work in autoethnography even though I’m trained as a rhetoric scholar, and Professor Bernadette Calafell is at the intersection of rhetoric and culture. So our students get a really great interdisciplinary grounding in communication with a strong critical edge when coming to our program.
The University of Denver is a great research university, with a lot of excellent resources on campus, including a world-class library and great research and recreational facilities. Denver is a thriving city so there are a lot of community engagement opportunities, lots of activism in the city that many of our graduate students and faculty participate in, lots of nonprofit and community organizations that various people work with in our department.
Thank you, Dr. Hanan, for your excellent insight into the University of Denver’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program!