About Porter Shreve: Porter Shreve is the Director of Administration for the Master of Arts in Professional Communication program at the University of San Francisco, where he also teaches courses in digital storytelling, special topics in writing, advanced research, and creative writing. Professor Shreve co-founded the MA in Professional Communication with his colleague David Ryan and a steering committee of professors in the Communication Studies and Rhetoric and Language Departments. As Director of Administration, his responsibilities include advising and scheduling students, directing admissions, assisting with curriculum development, supporting faculty, directing the internship program, and managing the administrative aspects of the program.
Prior to his position at the University of San Francisco, Professor Shreve was the Director of the MFA in Creative Writing at Purdue University, where he served as a Professor of English and taught courses in fiction, creative non-fiction, and journalism. He was also a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and at the University of Oregon. Mr. Shreve earned his MFA from the University of Michigan, and worked in journalism prior to entering academia. He has also published numerous novels, including The Obituary Writer, Drives Like a Dream, When the White House Was Ours, and The End of the Book with Louisiana State University Press and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He is also co-editor of several anthologies and textbooks with Pearson.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of the University of San Francisco’s (USF) Master of Arts in Professional Communication, and how it is structured? What topics are covered in the core curriculum, and what key concepts do students learn in the strategic communication, technical communication and health communication concentrations?
[Porter Shreve] For a little background on the program, David Ryan and I collaborated on the development of the Master of Arts in Professional Communication. David is the Academic Director and Faculty Chair for both the MA in Professional Communication and the Certificate in Professional Communication, while I serve as the Director of Administration for the MA program.
Around the fall of 2013, I wrote a proposal for a master’s in communication program, which I took to one of our Deans in the College of Arts and Sciences. To my surprise, she asked, “Have you met David Ryan? Because you each came to me with a proposal for similar programs.” And I said, “I guess I should meet him,” so we met, and we looked at each other’s proposals, which were different in certain ways but had a quite a few intersections. We found quite quickly that we were simpatico and could work well together, so over the course of a couple of years we created a program that combined storytelling, communication leadership, academic research, and professional engagement. We also did a lot of research of the San Francisco market and what people’s interests were in the Bay Area, and David felt that our program could sustain three concentrations: strategic, technical and health communication.
So after developing the curriculum and fine-tuning it with the help of the steering and curriculum committees, we launched the program in fall 2016, exceeding our projections with a first cohort of 28 students. Now in our third year, we have 65 students, with interest in and applications to our program continuing to grow year by year. We are fortunate to be able to keep our class sizes capped at 15, with small sizes for research-based and capstone classes. We are housed in a beautiful building in the heart of downtown San Francisco, and that location has proven to be instrumental because it immerses students in the heart of Bay Area industry. We offer concentrations in Strategic Communication, Technical Communication and Health Communication, though students can also pursue a generalist course of study that allows them a bit more flexibility with electives.
The core courses of our 30 unit degree are Foundations of Communication, Research Methods in Communication, and Ethics in Communication. In Foundations of Communication, students learn the central theories of human communication, the history of how we communicate in both personal and public/professional contexts, and recent developments in the field. In the Ethics in Communication course, students learn about the important ethical implications of different types of communication, from interpersonal to organizational and mass communication. They also explore through case studies and their own personal experiences how they would grapple with various ethical dilemmas in communication. We are a mission-based university, and so ethics is an essential part of what we teach and emphasize in the program. Even outside of the core course, ethics is built into all of our courses such that students understand the moral underpinnings of every message they consume, read, craft and deliver. In Research Methods, students work with the core research methodologies that they will later use in their own independent research projects. In this class, students write analytical papers using a variety of texts, and learn how to design and implement studies that utilize qualitative, quantitative, and mixed-methods data.
After the core classes, students take classes specific to their concentration, including courses such as Health Communication Policy, Health Risk Communication, Crisis Communication, Communication and Leadership, Digital Communication, and Emergent Media, as well as electives such as Cross-Cultural Business Communication, UX Design and Usability Research, and Communication and the Law.
The final course that students take in the program is the Capstone Project, which is a one-semester intensive class culminating in a written or visual text, usually a scholarly paper. During the class, students work independently and in consultation with their Capstone director on their chosen project, and meet in class regularly to check in with the professor and discuss their projects.
[MastersinCommunications.com] USF’s Master of Arts in Professional Communication offers both campus-based and online coursework, as well as classes that are held in the afternoon and evenings. Could we have more details on how this program integrates online instruction into its curriculum?
[Porter Shreve] We usually offer one fully online class per semester, as well as about 25 percent hybrid courses where students meet on-site for one week, then online the following week. We use Canvas and Zoom to facilitate online instruction. Zoom enables instructors to share their screens with students, which helps with collaborative projects and discussions. We limit the number of online hybrid classes we offer in order to maintain a cohort model where students enter at one time and progress through the classes as a cohesive community. We had to figure out how to serve students who may have full-time jobs, and thus far our mostly evening schedule (6-9 pm classes that meet once per week) seems to work out well for everyone. Community is a key component of our program — it creates camaraderie and good will, it often leads to internships and jobs, and it allows us to engage and tap into the USF alumni network, which is quite strong in the Bay Area.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please elaborate on the Capstone Project requirement for USF’s Master of Arts in Professional Communication? What are the required components of this project, and what steps must students take in order to complete it?
[Porter Shreve] The Capstone Project requirement is students’ opportunity to apply the knowledge, skills, and methods they learn in their classes to investigating and/or resolving a theoretical or practical issue in the field of communication. Students work independently on their projects but receive significant support from faculty. During their independent work, students benefit from one-on-one tutorial sessions and support from the professor who teaches the capstone class, and they also choose a second reader to provide additional feedback throughout the process.
From the beginning of their time in the program, we ask students to think about potential topics for their capstone project so that they can place the theories and methods they learn in their classes within the context of the larger project they wish to do. Preparing for Capstone is built into other core courses, like Foundations and Ethics and especially Research Methods, and faculty regularly advise students over the course of their march toward the capstone requirement.
Students can explore a wide range of topics. Projects often take on ethical issues in communication technology or ethics in business and health. Since we are located in San Francisco near the heart of Silicon Valley, tech development and its reshaping of human communication are very much on our students’ minds. While many of our students write papers for their capstone, we do not discourage multimedia projects or projects that have direct relevance to a student’s current job or internship. I had one student who completed a video-based capstone about women muralists in San Francisco’s Mission District and their struggles with gender discrimination, and I’ve been talking with another whose capstone could take the form, in part, of a podcast. We had one student who worked at a successful artificial intelligence startup, and he decided to tie his capstone to projects he had undertaken in the AI field. While students can bring the applied into their capstone projects, their work typically utilizes academic research methodologies such as quantitative and qualitative data gathering and analysis.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in USF’s Master of Arts in Professional Communication program? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems while in the program?
[Porter Shreve] We prioritize small class sizes of about 12-15 for normal classes, and eight for the capstone course, to ensure that students maximize opportunities for individualized mentorship with our professors. We build office hours into every class so that faculty are consistently available to students for meetings outside of the classroom. The College also has research funds that our students can apply for, and we steer students towards those opportunities and support them in applying for them. As the Director for Administration of the program, I have also found ways for students to apply the skills they have learned to extracurricular pursuits that also enhance their portfolios and build the student community within the program. For example, I launched the Media Group, which is a place where our students can write articles, shoot videos, record our “Good Tech, Bad Tech” podcast, and create other engaging content for our blog and social media channels. All of our content is related to topics we talk about in the classroom and in the fields of strategic, technical and health communication.
If there is an issue in the news that has to do with crisis communication or health communication, whether it’s a public affairs or a patient education issue, it’s likely we’re talking about it in our classroom and it might be of interest to the public. Our students will write an article and weigh in on the issue/event, how it has been handled from a media and communications standpoint, and the cultural shifts that might be occurring alongside or as a result of the event.
The Media Group gives students excellent practice in writing on deadline, audience engagement, and responding to the news cycle. It also allows students to craft some terrific material for their portfolio, and it’s a good way for us to communicate through our social media channels who we are and what we’re about. We have hired our own students to be content managers and editors who run the Media Group, and they create two or three pieces of original content every week. We also curate news stories on our social media channels. Many of our students find themselves in jobs that touch in some way upon social media marketing, and social media’s role in business growth, journalism, coalition building, and more is only accelerating by the day. We’ve seen that students who have worked in social media for the Media Group or in another form during their enrollment have only benefited from the experience and are often rewarded with top flight internships at marketing and communication agencies and companies in the Bay Area.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Independent of faculty instruction and support, what career development resources and academic services are available to students of USF’s Master of Arts in Professional Communication program?
[Porter Shreve] For career development, we bring speakers every other week into classes and for extracurricular presentations that provide students valuable context for their professional interests and goals. The University of San Francisco also has a robust Career Services Center on the main campus and a graduate career services counselor who takes regular meetings on our downtown campus.
If our students need career or internship support services, they can make appointments with Career Services and consult with a guidance counselor. Career Services receives curated, often exclusive job listings for the San Francisco and surrounding areas in particular, and sends these opportunities out regularly to our students. We have an excellent university alumni network that is receptive to helping current students and graduates alike. Our Alumni Relations office also runs a career mentorship program that our students can take advantage of each fall. USF is a very well-known brand in the San Francisco Bay Area, and has a good international reputation as a Jesuit University. Though we have alumni nationwide, I would say that our alumni network is by far strongest in the San Francisco Bay Area, as many of our graduates stay close by after graduation and get jobs in communication and technology. San Francisco as a location is as advertised: probably the most beautiful city and region in the United States – it’s a very difficult place to ever leave, which is why USF alums tend to stay local.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice do you have for prospective students in terms of submitting a competitive application for USF’s program?
[Porter Shreve] Most of our applicants have a degree either in communication or a communication-related field such as business or the humanities. That said, we have also admitted students whose undergraduate degrees were in engineering or computer science. We do look for evidence of strong performance in liberal arts courses that make us confident students could handle the rigors of graduate coursework.
I would advise students to take the personal statement seriously, and to spend a good deal of time on it. It is an opportunity to showcase your personality. Speak about your goals, but speak about your goals in your voice. Show us your genuine writing voice, and think of the personal statement as an extension of yourself—your personality, your goals, and your particular talents.
We require two letters of recommendation, and I recommend (though this isn’t required) that one be an academic reference. We do not require the GRE, and for international students we do not have a TOEFL cutoff score, though a score below 100 generally indicates that the program will be challenging for that applicant.
I would also highly recommend (and this is relevant to any program) that students get in touch with the program director. If it is clear on the website whom you can contact for more information about the program, contact that person, and have a conversation. That connection, your personal expression of interest, and the valuable information you could gain from us can help you put your best foot forward on the application. So give us a call, set up a videoconference, and ask your questions so you can get to know the program beyond what is spelled out on the website. Furthermore, as we are very active on social media, I would encourage potential applicants to look at our social media channels (reachable from our home page), because they give an inside glimpse into what’s going on in our classrooms.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes USF’s Master of Arts in Professional Communication unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? How does the program prepare students for careers in communication research and instruction, as well as roles in industry?
[Porter Shreve] We pride ourselves on balancing academic rigor with practical application. It is a balance that we are continually thinking about, working with our students on, and talking about in faculty meetings, and I think it’s a hard balance to pull off well. Most of our students are looking to advance professionally, and they are looking for more applied coursework. But we believe that a strong critical foundation in rhetoric and communication is something students need to be even stronger in the field.
Another aspect of our program that I believe is unique is how we really work with our students to tailor the degree to their individual interests. This can be a huge administrative challenge, but it is really important to us that if a student says, “This is what I want my outcome to be,” that within the restrictions of the program’s learning outcomes, we will make that happen for them.
We are a cohort-model program, but we also allow students flexibility in terms of how they progress through the program. For example, a student might think she wants to concentrate in Strategic Communication, but then takes a class in UX, and loves it. She wants to change her concentration, and maybe get a job or internship in UX that summer; we will work with her in order to help her channel her efforts in this new direction. We’ve resisted rigidity in our curriculum; even though we have the core and three formal concentrations, and there are requirements to meet the concentrations, we also find ways to adapt to best serve our students.
This also extends to curriculum. If we note a demand developing for certain classes within the field of communication, we will do the work of updating our program’s offerings accordingly. For example, our health communication concentration is just a year old, and was born out of our recognition that a number of strategic communication students had a strong interest in taking classes and possibly working in the health field. The health and biotech industries are booming in San Francisco, and there is also a growing need for health communicators—people age, get sick, need wellness programs, and demand care regardless of where the economy goes, and health communication prepares students to help fill those needs.
On top of our carefully designed curriculum, we also offer San Francisco, which is not only a gorgeous and dynamic place, but is also a fantastic location for networking and finding quality jobs. As mentioned previously, we have a robust alumni network here in the San Francisco Bay Area, and internship opportunities and job opportunities abound.
Thank you, Professor Shreve, for your excellent insight into the University of San Francisco’s Master of Arts in Professional Communication program!