About Matthew Spangler, Ph.D.: Matthew Spangler is the Graduate Program Coordinator for the Master of Arts in Communication Studies program at San Jose State University, where he also teaches courses as a Professor of Performance Studies in the Department of Communication Studies. As Coordinator, Dr. Spangler oversees recruitment and admissions, advises students, and supports faculty and curriculum development. As a scholar of performance, Dr. Spangler conducts research in intercultural performance, immigration studies, documentary theatre, playwriting, and cultural globalization. He has published his research in journals such as The James Joyce Quarterly, The New Hibernia Review, Text and Performance Quarterly, and Theatre Journal. Dr. Spangler is also an award-winning playwright, and his plays have been produced on London’s West End (and UK tour), off-Broadway, and at theatres such as the Arizona Theatre Company, Cleveland Playhouse, Actors Theatre of Louisville, San Diego Repertory Theatre, and Theatre Calgary.
Dr. Spangler received his Bachelor of Science in Performance Studies from Northwestern University, and his Master of Philosophy in Theatre from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. He earned his Ph.D. in Performance Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of San Jose State University’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. Spangler] The Master of Arts in Communication Studies is a 35-credit program that gives students advanced training in and knowledge of intercultural communication, organizational communication, rhetoric, performance studies, media studies, and interpersonal communication. Our curriculum provides students with an in-depth understanding of rhetorical theory and communication’s role in conflict resolution, the formation and evolution of culture, and the arts and performance. Students learn how to view communication as a social process, as well as how to read, write, and present themselves well in formal and informal settings. These skills translate well into careers in the corporate sphere, running a business, engaging in human rights advocacy work, or even entering the performance arts as a playwright, a director, or a film maker. One of the core strengths of our program is its flexibility and the wide variety of courses that give students the ability to tailor their program according to their interests. Students take three core courses:
- Graduate Study in Communication: This course provides a foundational overview of the history of communication research and rhetorical criticism (including recent developments in the field), as well as an introduction to the key methodologies for forming research inquiries, designing studies, and critiquing results.
- Introduction to Communication Research Methods: In this course, students learn the essential quantitative and qualitative research methodologies, as well as social scientific, critical, and humanist approaches to rhetorical research and criticism.
- Advanced Writing Workshop: This course provides students with the preparation for their independent work on their culminating experience with lectures and assignments that focus on advanced research writing and editing.
After their core courses, students are free to take 24 credits worth of electives in areas such as crisis communication, communication and social influence, communication criticism, small group communication, performance studies, rhetoric, and communication pedagogy. Finally, students take a two-credit course that helps them prepare for their comprehensive examination. Some examples of the elective courses we offer include:
- Seminar in Crisis Communication: The different types of crisis situations and how public communication before, during, and after crises helps to mitigate risk and damage. The rhetoric of crisis narratives, and how to maintain an organization’s image and manage media relationships in the midst of a crisis. The essential ethical considerations of crisis communication. Students engage in an independent research project on crisis communication.
- Seminar in Performance and Culture: How cultural identity is constructed, communicated, contested, and changed through performative acts, including oral narratives, dance, film, literature, and everyday talk, gestures, and behavior. Students focus on performance as a site where culture is not only expressed, but also developed and transformed.
- Seminar in Organizational Communication: In this course, students examine how information flows within large organizations. Communication networks, internal and external-facing communication relations, and the design and evolution of communication systems are explored and discussed. Students learn how to gather and analyze data regarding how a communication system operates and performs.
- Performing Presentational Aesthetics: A required course for students who wish to develop a performance as their final MA project, this course allows students to explore the theories and methods of presentational aesthetics, encompassing the writing, adaptation, direction, and performance of literary works, social activism content, and ethnographic interviews.
As illustrated above, many of our electives are small seminars where students discuss course concepts closely with their instructors and peers, as well as present their analysis of certain key texts. Our students who have received Graduate Teaching Associate positions also take a Teaching Practicum course during their first semester as a TA.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In order to graduate, students of San Jose State University’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies must take a comprehensive exam. Could you elaborate on the structure of the exam, how the questions are determined, and how students can optimally prepare for the test?
[Dr. Spangler] The comprehensive examination is a written exam that has three parts to it. The first focuses on communication theory, the second on communication research methods, and the third is tailored to the student depending on his or her individual academic path in the program. The first two questions are the same for all students, and are based off of what our faculty have determined are fundamental readings and concepts in the field of communication with regard to theories and methods. We expect our students to graduate with a unified sense of the core communication theories and methods. For the third question, each student’s individual advisor, in most cases, asks the student that third specialized question. Students and their advisors discuss the topic of the last question, and in those conversations students can seek their advisor’s advice on how to prepare.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students of San Jose State University’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies can choose between a master’s thesis, a project, and additional coursework. Could you elaborate on these three options, and what they entail?
[Dr. Spangler] The thesis is a sustained piece of academic writing, and it follows a formal way of doing academic research. A thesis typically consists of an abstract, an introduction, a review of existing literature, a methods section, a results section, and a discussions/conclusions section. The thesis is a great option for students who want to go on for a PhD because the thesis gives the student the practice of doing an independent research project, which is training for their dissertation (which is a much larger project). While the format of the thesis is formally structured, students have a lot of flexibility in terms of their topic of study and their specific research question. They receive guidance from their advisor and two other faculty members who serve as their committee.
The project has a wide variety of possibilities, in terms of structure, content, and objective. For example, a student could do a live performance piece, or write their own play. It could be a one-person show where the student stages it, or a group piece where some students serve as directors and others as actors. Students could create a website that engages a communication theory or method in some way. Students could even host a series of focus groups to try and resolve some kind of conflict occurring in the greater community, after which they would write about and analyze that experience. The project can take many different forms, which can be very exciting for students. It is a good option for a student who doesn’t necessarily want to go to a PhD program, but who wants to engage in a creative, analytical, or social project on or off campus that does not fit into the more formal structure of a thesis. The project also gives students the benefit of giving them something concrete that they can include in their portfolio.
The additional coursework option is also good for students who want to take a wider variety of courses, and who perhaps are not seeking to apply to a PhD program.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in San Jose State University’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 while in the program?
[Dr. Spangler] We have a fairly small department, with about 15 faculty members, all of whom serve as potential advisors for and informal mentors to our graduate students. The mentorship process here often forms organically, in that students come into the program with particular interests, or develop certain interests during their time in the program. And they naturally gravitate towards the faculty whose expertise aligns the most with their subjects of interest. Students, for example, might work with me if they are interested in immigration studies or creative performance because these are two of my primary research areas. We have other faculty members who are experts in organizational communication, interpersonal communication, new media, rhetoric, and intercultural communication, for example.
In terms of departmental support and mentorship, we have a limited amount of funding available to send students to conferences every year. Every year we have been able to send at least a few students to a conference. And in recent years, we have broadened our funding requirements to allow students to go and do things based on their own research areas and interests. For example, we sent two students to New York in January, because they were working on a live performance piece, and the method they were using in their own performance work was the same as the one used in a performance on Broadway in New York. So we sent them to New York for a week to see this play so they could see that method in person.
I keep referencing these performance examples because that is a primary area of focus for me, and I work with students who are interested in these areas. However, if a student had another interest and had a clear research-based motivation for the travel, they could talk to us about getting funding, too. As a department, we are very supportive of students regarding their research and helping them access the resources they need. Every year students present at conferences, and for the students who take the initiative to do this, it is really valuable because they meet many scholars in their field and become part of a network of other people doing similar work.
In terms of career preparation, we have a career office on campus that can help students find jobs and prepare for the application process—like resume and cover letter, workshopping, interview prep, etc. And for students who want to go into teaching careers post-graduation, we have a very highly regarded graduate teaching program. Students who take our teaching practicum and teach undergraduate courses learn crucial skills in curriculum development and delivery at the college level, which makes them competitive for community college roles in the area and elsewhere. Many of our students ultimately go into teaching some aspect of communication studies. Others go on for a PhD, while a third category of students go into industry. San Jose State is in the center of Silicon Valley, and there are many Silicon Valley companies around here that hire students–Google, Apple, and LinkedIn, as some examples. Other students go into advocacy work for disadvantaged communities, teaching at community service centers, or serving as public relations or marketing specialists for non-profits. There are students of ours who have opened their own businesses, too. Ultimately, our students find their way into a wide variety of careers, which I think is a testament to the depth and breadth of the subject matter we provide in our courses.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For students interested in San Jose State University’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program, what advice do you have for submitting a competitive application?
[Dr. Spangler] Our program is focused on intercultural and interpersonal communication, performance studies, rhetorical criticism, organizational communication, and media studies. We expect students to be interested in one or more of these areas of communication, as that is what we specialize in, both in terms of our curriculum and our faculty’s research expertise. The applicant’s personal statement is very important to us, as that is where we look to see what the applicant’s goals are and whether our program can really serve those goals. It is helpful when students explain to us the kinds of courses they want to take or the research and/or creative work they’d like to engage in while in the program, as well as their larger career goals and how we fit into that picture.
Our application is fairly straightforward: we do not require the GRE, but we do require a personal statement, two letters of recommendation, a writing sample, and a transcript. For letters of recommendation, we generally prefer students to have at least one from a former professor, though if a student has been out in the workforce for 15 years and cannot find a faculty member who can write their letter of recommendation, two professional references are fine.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes San Jose State University’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?
[Dr. Spangler] I would say the flexibility of our curriculum, the variety of our classes, and the depth and breadth of our faculty’s expertise are definitely things that make our program particularly strong. Students can apply the majority of their program’s credits to classes that are of interest to them, and we have faculty members who have research expertise in different areas of intercultural communication, performance, rhetoric, and more.
Our faculty have a strong history of advising students, helping to nurture their interests and guiding them as they navigate their career both within the program and beyond. Related to that is our outstanding Graduate Teaching Assistant program, which gives participating students 6 units of tuition waived every semester, as well as a stipend of about $3,000 every semester. Basically, our TAs get paid to learn how to be excellent teachers, how to design a syllabus, grade papers and exams, incorporate student feedback into courses, etc. By the end of their tenure as TAs, our students are well prepared for a college-level teaching position and, moreover, they have saved a great deal of money in their graduate school education.
I think another aspect of the program that makes it unique and a great choice for students is its location. We are in the heart of Silicon Valley, and there are a wealth of jobs here. Tech companies are increasingly looking for people who are arts-focused, creative, and eloquent—studies have shown that these qualities and skills are really valuable in the tech industry now. And when students come to this area, they can also enjoy the great diversity that is inherent to the region.
Thank you, Dr. Spangler, for your excellent insight into San Jose State University’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program!