About Renee Robinson, Ph.D. Renee Robinson is a Professor of Communication and the Program Director for Seton Hall University’s Master of Arts in Communication program, which is housed in SHU’s College of Communication and the Arts. As Director, she oversees all administrative aspects of the M.A. in Communication, including student advising and mentorship, course development and curricular design/redesign, and extracurricular programming and resources for students of the program. Furthermore, as an experienced curriculum developer, she frequently discusses and develops new course offerings for students in collaboration with her faculty team. Recently, she partnered with Dr. Ruth Tsuria to create a new portfolio course that focuses on students’ individualized professional development. In addition, Dr. Robinson consults with industry experts to ensure that the program’s curriculum continually serves students’ needs and changes in the communication industry.
As Professor of Communication, Dr. Robinson researches and teaches courses on instructional and organizational communication. She has published several books on topics in these fields, including Digital Training@Work: Engaging and Educating Employees Online and Digital Thinking and Mobile Teaching: Communicating, Collaborating, and Constructing in an Access Age (with Dr. Julie Reinhart). Robinson recently finished editing a text on Gen Z in the communication classroom with Lexington an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield (2021).
Prior to her position at Seton Hall University, Dr. Robinson worked extensively in faculty development and curriculum design at Saint Xavier University in Chicago. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Communication and her Master’s in Educational Administration from the University of Houston-Victoria, before earning her Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Memphis.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of Seton Hall University’s Master of Arts in Communication program, including its advanced content areas in Public Relations, Digital Communications and Communication Technologies, and Communication in Organizations? What topics are covered in the core curriculum, and how does each advanced content area help prepare students with the most relevant skills for their desired career path?
[Dr. Renee Robinson] The best way to approach this question is to give you an overview of the spirit of the program and what our philosophy is collectively as a faculty team. The program itself, in terms of credit hours, looks a lot like other MA programs in communication, in that it is 36 credit hours and culminates in a capstone project. What makes our program unique, however, is the way in which we have approached these 36 hours, which in our program are divided into three categories. The first category is a nine-hour shared set of courses that every student completes no matter what area of study they are going into. Those nine hours are the foundational components of our curriculum, with the first two courses being Communication Research and Communication Research Methods, while the third is our new Communication Portfolio course, which I discussed in-depth in an interview here.
From there, students take courses in one of our advanced content areas, Digital Communication and Communication Technologies, Communication in Organizations, or Public Relations. These three areas are distinct, and each requires 12 credit hours. The Digital Communication and Communication Technologies area of study focuses extensively on immersive and emerging communication technologies for organizations and media; there is a specific emphasis on the ways in which humans interact with computers and online media, and the effects of these interactions.
Our Public Relations area of study is also actually a graduate certificate program that can be completed separately from our Master’s in Communication program. The 12 credit hours that comprise this area of study prepare students to design, assess, and analyze different organizations’ public relations approach, which involves understanding these organizations’ tenets/beliefs and how to convey them to stakeholders, conducting public relations research, and writing effectively for various external audiences, taking into account global perspectives and the perspectives of different communities.
The Communication in Organizations track focuses on supervisor-subordinate communication, leadership communication, and workplace interactions. Students read and discuss advanced studies of how individuals in a work setting communicate and interact with each other. Students also investigate how employees interact with each other on lateral platforms vs. hierarchically–in other words, they think about how these lines of communication are different and how that influences human-to-human interaction.
Finally, students have 9 credit hours of electives; they can take courses in one or more of the areas of study that is not their focus, or any other communication elective. For example, we have a lot of students who come into the program to study public relations, and they realize that they also need or want to study digital communication and communication technologies because so much of PR is now occurring on digital platforms. We also see something similar with our students who come in for the Communication in Organizations focus–they want to study digital communication and/or PR because they see how these areas relate to each other, and therefore these electives enable students to round out their skillset and knowledge-base while pursuing career or educational aspirations and interests.
Our program’s curriculum allows students to get expert, in-depth education in a communication area that interests them the most, but to then take complementary courses that tailor that new knowledge to their specific interests or goals.
Another part of the program is the shared capstone experience. Every student in the program completes either a thesis or a major project. Both capstone choices are grounded in research and methods, and the skills and knowledge students gain through the foundational courses they took earlier in Communication Research and Communication Research Methods. Everything that students do in the program will have a connection to communication research, theory, and their relationship to professional practice. A central tenet of our program is that we do not believe students should have to choose between research and being a practitioner of the field–research and practice enhance and even rely upon each other.
The final aspect of the program, the Communication Portfolio course, particularly connects to the spirit of the program. Dr. Ruth Tsuria and I worked closely together to develop the portfolio course. She and I were the first two faculty members in the MA in Communication program, and we collaborated to build the program from the ground up. Now we have two other colleagues who are working with us to monitor/assess programming and to use data to determine how we can continue to shape the program to align with the communication industry’s evolutions.
The overall philosophy of the program is built on the concept of change. We believe that curriculum is living, so we built this program with the idea that areas of study will necessarily be phased out and/or altered, with the result being a fluid and dynamic (and therefore highly effective) program. The curriculum is made of building blocks, so that if we ever needed to change or update a foundational section as we saw the societal or environmental need, we would have the capacity to do so, and quickly. We did not want to have the curricular issues that other programs face when they do not change their coursework for several years–that was a tenet we did not want to subscribe to.
Both Dr. Tsuria and I have done a lot of research on digital communication platforms and what it means to be a competent communicator who is technologically literate and who has the skills to communicate effectively with others in our changing 21st century world, with its shifting expectations. Today there is a greater need than ever for us to listen to one another and to understand alternative viewpoints. And to that end we also try to revisit the curriculum every semester, to evaluate how the courses are helping our students and what we can do to improve them. In fact, we are currently working on adding two new areas of study to the program to cover some new and emerging fields in visual and other forms of communication involving media.
I’m really proud of my colleagues in this program, and the work that we do in the graduate program–we regularly have syllabus creation workshops and shared assignment workshops, and at meetings we discuss what’s happening in our courses and ask ourselves/each other, “What are we seeing? Where are we falling short on assignment development? What could we do better? What faculty development do we need?” We have very candid conversations amongst the four of us about our needs, and how we think our students are doing. What can we do better to serve them?
We’re also in each other’s classrooms all of the time, co-teaching important course content, which is a unique feature of our program. One of the things I wanted to have in our program here at SHU was the opportunity for non-judgmental transparency amongst our faculty group, and to create an environment where we could share our experiences in the classroom and use that information to become better. In fact, our capstone course is taught by all four faculty members, through workshops held throughout the course of the year in which students are working on their thesis/project.
Our co-teaching creates a really great academic environment for our students, one that is collegial rather than political or competitive. I believe we have done something pretty remarkable for our program in this day and age, in that we have tried our best to lead change rather than having change be imposed upon us. We are not afraid to remove a course or even entire graduate program from our inventory and work from the ground up to create something new and more relevant for our students.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please elaborate on the Master’s Project that students of Seton Hall University’s Master of Arts in Communication program must complete? What steps must students take in order to complete this project? Do they have the support of an advisor and committee? In addition, could you elaborate on the program’s new Portfolio Course and how it is distinct from the Master’s Project?
[Dr. Renee Robinson] The biggest differences between the thesis/project course and the portfolio are the requirements, as well as the length of time to completion. The thesis or project is completed over a one-year period, and students take two courses–one each semester–that are devoted to their work on their thesis or project.
The thesis falls in line with a traditional five-chapter research document that concerns a research question, the methods used to investigate this question, and the insights students arrived at upon completing their original research study. The thesis is ideal for students who want to pursue further graduate school, or who want to have a research artifact in their portfolio that is relevant to their future career goals. The project, on the other hand, is a good opportunity for students who want to pick a more professionally-based project, if you will–often students will have a particular project in mind that they want to feature in their portfolio, and they develop project parameters around that goal in collaboration with their faculty mentor(s). In many instances, it is work-related or industry-specific.
The portfolio, in contrast, is a one-semester, highly individualized project wherein students determine what their goals are post-graduation and develop a collection of artifacts that reflect their qualifications to pursue that goal. The portfolio course is linked intimately to students’ particular goals. For example, for students who know they want to earn their Ph.D., they will begin pulling together all of the artifacts they need to put forth a strong application to a Ph.D. program, such as their thesis, other writing samples and research work, conference presentations, etc. These students will also consult with the full-time faculty in our program who can mentor them through the application process, and who can also introduce them to conference attendance opportunities and give them interview practice.
We also have students who aren’t interested in pursuing further advanced education, but rather want to land a particular job in a particular sector of the media and communication industry. We are about 14 miles outside of New York City proper, and a 30-minute train ride into midtown Manhattan. A lot of our students work in the city, as freelancers, artists, writers, social media people, etc., and they want to step into their next role. What we as faculty do is help them decide what they want to do.
They come to us with one or more position descriptions, the job they think they want, and what we do is work with them, mentoring them one-on-one, helping them to identify all of the artifacts they might want to pull together from their academic work as well as their job or internship work. We help students craft their resumes and cover letters as a part of their portfolio project, and we help secure them better footing so that they are more competitive and can speak eloquently about their work in a professional setting.
So the key difference between the capstone and the portfolio is that while one focuses on a deliverable–either original research or a professional project–which enables students to investigate or explore an area of communication in-depth, with a mind towards adding it to their portfolio, the portfolio course is like an intensive professional development bootcamp where we help students gather all of the content that effectively illustrates their journey and qualifications, and also help them sharpen their skills in all the areas that are important for them to transition into the job market (or into their next phase of academia) with confidence. Also, going back to the fact that our program is always changing, one thing we are looking into adding to the portfolio course is some type of internship experience.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship–and by extension the collegiality amongst faculty that you mentioned earlier–play in Seton Hall University’s Master of Arts in Communication program, and how can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems? Additionally, what career development resources and academic services are available to students of this program?
[Dr. Renee Robinson] I will speak first on what happens amongst the faculty, and then I will explain how that plays out with our mentorship of students because they really are two sides of the same coin. In our four-person faculty team for this program, we mentor each other all of the time. During my years as a faculty developer, I had exposure to what good faculty-to-faculty mentorship looks, as well as what not-so-good mentorship looks like. I’ve taken the best of what I’ve learned, and applied it to supporting the faculty team for this program. One of the things I’ve learned is that if I want faculty to be as good as they can possibly be in the classroom, we need to encourage them to give feedback to us, so that the lines of communication between faculty and their supervisors are equivalently transparent, and collegial in nature.
In other words, while some institutions have very established hierarchies between different faculty levels, we try to diminish or decrease the gap between faculty ranks and the differences in faculty areas, where both newer and more senior faculty can come into each other’s classrooms and give each other feedback on what is working and how a particular course component could or should play out. We might have a rigorous debate about assignments or particular admissions criteria, but we always come back to the fact that we are co-creating something special that is of meaning to students.
As for how this connects to students, we give students a ton of different mentoring opportunities, while also constantly asking them for feedback. We ask them, “What did you think about this assignment? What worked well? How was your process for dealing with that assignment?” We do the same thing for the courses in general, in the form of detailed end-of-semester evaluations. As a matter of fact, it’s quite common for our students to provide feedback a number of times through the course of a semester, both written and orally. So students know that we value their input just as much as they value ours.
In terms of concrete examples of mentoring within our program, the capstone course and the portfolio course both involve a lot of one-on-one work with a faculty member, and each faculty member is part of a larger faculty team that is tracking students’ progress and ways that we can make the experience better for each of them throughout their tenure in the program. Not only do students meet frequently with their thesis or project advisor, but they also have additional meetings with the entire faculty team.
This goes back to another one of our central tenets, which is to be student-centric at our core. If you think about it, students pay a great deal to attend our program–they don’t just pay financially, but they also pay emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. Going to graduate school is not for the light-hearted. So, we feel strongly about being available and accessible to students by way of mentorship outside of classes. We spend a lot of time figuring out how to do that for each of our students. And if we cannot help a student in a particular area, we partner them with a colleague who is willing to help that student.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice do you have for prospective students in terms of submitting a competitive application for Seton Hall University’s Master of Arts in Communication program?
[Dr. Renee Robinson] Both our educator and student populations in this program are diverse ethnically, racially, professionally, academically, spiritually, and in terms of age. They are from different parts of the globe. We have students whose strengths were demonstrated in their professional work, and others who come from a strong academic background. We look for a variety of students, with the common thread being the drive to take the wealth of information that is at our disposal in the digital age and make a meaningful, positive impact with it.
In terms of the application requirements, students go through a fairly standard application process that includes submission of a statement of intent, letters of recommendation, a resume or CV, and GRE scores. When making admissions decisions, we have a committee that comes together and analyzes what students say, what their strengths are according to their writing samples and other submission materials, etc.
What really makes an application stand out, in my opinion, is a statement of intent that explains genuinely and convincingly what the prospective student wants to do with this degree. We look for a candidate who can write a statement that recognizes that when you have a graduate degree, there is an added layer of responsibility. Why communication? What are you passionate about in communication? And why Seton Hall University’s program? The ideal candidate can also speak a little bit to the program and what drew them here.
And as with everything about our program, it is a two-way street. We offer students information about our program and welcome students to reach out to us with their questions. We also host a series of webinars designed to get to know potential students, and to also give them an opportunity to learn about the program and interact with faculty.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes Seton Hall University’s Master of Arts in Communication program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? What are some standout aspects of the program that we haven’t covered yet, and which students should know about?
[Dr. Renee Robinson] Our program is taught and run only by full-time faculty who are dedicated to offering mentorship and unique learning experiences to our students, and to helping students connect with the myriad resources on our campus that can help them realize their professional goals. Another key aspect of our program that makes it unique is, as I mentioned earlier, the concept of the living curriculum. The program is living, and constantly changing. The faculty and student experiences are living in that they evolve to meet the needs and interests of each of our student cohorts, and our faculty learn and grow with their students as well. While the processes that govern student life on campus is standardized by way of paperwork, etc., what is not standardized is each student’s experience, in the sense that they get to choose their own way, and we as faculty members help them in every way that is within our power.
The students are the drivers of what they want to achieve, and because of that, a lot of the challenges I see other programs grapple with–in terms of easily changing and growing–are not there. We started out as being student-centric, and built this quality into the very structure of our curriculum so that we can evolve with the times, and according to student feedback. That is one of the things that I am most proud of about our program.
Other aspects of the program that we haven’t covered yet that make it distinctive–we are small and yet diverse, and our program has a hometown, family-like feel to it. At the same time, we are 14 miles from New York City, and students have access to the incredible wealth of industry connections and resources that our location can offer. Students can study communication or get great work experience in our backyard, and yet come “home” to an academic space that is safe, and which celebrates diversity and difference. A space that is designed to let them tinker with projects, discuss and evaluate their goals, hone their professional identity, and build their professional confidence, with the support of individualized faculty guidance.
I tell my students all the time that we are all constantly figuring out what we want to do in life and how we want to approach it, whether we are 25 or 52. I’m 54, and on a given day I’m still asking myself, “How do I want to go about that? What do I want to be? Do I want an encore career?” And that is what life is supposed to be: unfolding. You assess new information, and you use that new information to decide your new path.
There are things you’ll hold onto that make you who you are. But the sign of an educated person is knowing how to discriminate and when to discriminate among choices, and knowing when you have to change. Understanding what you know, and celebrating that, while also knowing what you don’t know, and seeking the knowledge you require to get to a place where you can make something meaningful out of what you know. We strive to give our students the ability and skillset to make sound decisions about their careers, while also empowering them to make meaningful contributions of personal and professional nature, using communication.
Thank you, Dr. Renee Robinson, for your wonderful insight into Seton Hall University’s Master of Arts in Communication program, and the unique ways in which it supports students’ goals!