Communication Arts: Celebrating 30 years

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From a simple radio lab to a full department offering multiple courses of study, the communication arts department has flourished over the past 30 years.

The communication arts department, which was an expansion of the speech and theater majors, began in 1984 with the addition of radio and television courses and the opening of a new broadcasting laboratory, located in C-19 of the Penick Academic Complex.

Prior to the new department, a radio lab was constructed in the summer of 1980, and Patty Foellinger Smith taught the first radio class that fall. Over the next few years, the curriculum expanded to include television production classes and internships with WDXI radio station, WBBJ television station and The Jackson Sun.

Betty Hillix Foellinger taught as an English and journalism professor for 22 years. Her daughter, Smith, came on board in 1979 as an adjunct professor and transitioned to full-time in 1983.

At the time, several students had expressed interest in communications courses. Speech and drama were popular programs within universities all over the country, but as technology was changing, communications departments were being incorporated as well, according to Smith.

Smith built the audio lab, taught speech, continued adding classes and developed the curriculum. The process of starting the new department took about four years.

Robert E. Craig, university president, was supportive of the idea. His own daughter was one of the first students to take classes in the department.

“Dr. Craig gave me the OK; he initiated it,” Smith said. “He said ‘We have a little extra money, why don’t you go ahead and order this television equipment that you need?’”

About $50,000 was made available to purchase television equipment that was first used in the fall of 1984. That semester, 41 students were in the communication arts department. Media, speech and theater were the three concentrations available under the new major.

“It was so exciting for me to be a pioneer and be on the ground floor of establishing something like this because we truly wanted it to succeed, and it was a whole new department,” Smith said.

Along with Smith and Foellinger, theater director C.C. Kinnison and department chair Michael Pollock were the original faculty members, although current theater director David Burke, professor of theater, joined the department two years later, in 1986.

Students were required to take 12 hours of core classes and select 18 hours from their chosen concentration. As a new department, there was high demand for the first classes available. Smith recalled having 19 students in her first television production class and later having to limit the class to 12 students each semester.

Smith was also the first faculty to put communication internships in the academic catalog.

Brad Douglass, news anchor for Channel 7 Eyewitness News in Jackson, was one of the department’s first intern students. He later was hired because of his internship. Douglass transferred to Union in 1983 from Southern Baptist College, a two-year school that is now known as Williams Baptist College in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas.

“I was told that they had a radio class and a journalism class, and that they were working on adding a television production class,” he said.

The first class that Douglass took was radio production. He said he remembers the basic laboratory setup including an audio board, a microphone, two turntables and two cartridge machines.

WKUU was the campus laboratory radio station. Television equipment was brought in soon after, which included two cameras on dollies, a switcher, videotape machines and a video editing station. This was all in the same room as the radio equipment.

“It was basic, and it was small, but we were glad to have it,” Douglass said.

Through classes and connections at Union, Douglass participated in three different internships.

“You get to network and talk to people and find out what it’s really like,” he said. “And if you find out that working in this industry isn’t for you, then you’ve got a taste of it and figured that out. But in this case, it was what I wanted to do … It was hard work, but I enjoyed every minute of it.”

His internships taught him both radio and television skills. He had opportunities to write news, work control rooms and work with commercial production crews. Douglass eventually began working weekends and filling in when needed at WDXI, his first part-time job.

“I worked Christmas Day or Thanksgiving Day because I was new in the business, and that was just part of it,” he said. “The internships really paved the way for the career I have now, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to get a job in either radio or television.”

Douglass graduated in 1986 and has worked at WBBJ for the past 20 years. Douglass said he is thankful for what Union has been in his life and for the establishment of the communications arts department. During his time as a student, he also dabbled in writing for the campus newspaper and yearbook.

“I got a taste of everything while I was at school,” he said.

Kathryn Feathers, senior media communications major, works at WBBJ with Brad Douglass.

“It’s cool to see Union people working together in the actual workforce,” she said.

Feathers also started out at WBBJ as an intern, and that eventually led to a job.

“Working at WBBJ is a lot of fun,” she said. “It’s a really good experience, and I’ve enjoyed my time there so far.”

Even before the department was introduced, Foellinger supervised the Cardinal & Cream newspaper and the yearbook, Lest We Forget, for more than 20 years. Because of her legacy, the Betty Hillix Foellinger Award is still presented to communication arts students today.

Ashley Fitch Blair, assistant professor of communication arts, was one of those award recipients when she served as the editor-in-chief of the Cardinal & Cream.

One of many communication arts couples, Blair and her husband, Chris, met as students in 1990. Now, they are both professors in the department. Chris Blair is professor of communication arts and coordinator of the digital media studies and film studies programs.

Kathleen Murray is another former student who returned to Union to teach in the program. She graduated in the fall of 2005 with a degree in sociology and was the first Union student to graduate with a minor in photojournalism under former assistant professor, Jim Veneman.

“It takes a long tradition of really good faculty working hard to reach all these different milestones,” Smith said. “I was just fortunate enough to be in on the first beginnings of all of this.”

The slogan of Union’s Homecoming in 1984 was “We’ve got what it takes. Smith said this was appropriate for the commencement of the new department that year.

“It was a lot of work,” she said. “I think it’s important for your generation of students to understand that you’ve got a really strong foundation that was founded by professors that really cared, really loved their students, and we really wanted to be on the cutting edge of all of this.”

The current department includes majors in communication studies, digital media communication, journalism, broadcast journalism, public relations, speech and theater as well as a minor in photojournalism and interdisciplinary minors in digital media studies and film studies.

Web Drake, chairman of the communication arts department, came to Union in 2008 to start a debate team. Since its establishment, the Union Debate Team has won the International Public Debate Association’s championship tournament twice, the novice season-long sweepstakes championship three times and the varsity season-long sweepstakes championship twice.

Last year, the team received the Founder’s Award, the most prestigious award in IPDA.

Drake recalled several other highlights of his time at Union, including: the Cardinal & Cream receiving top college newspaper honors in the Southeast; the public relations major becoming one of only 34 programs in the world certified by the Public Relations Society of America; Steve Beverly, associate professor of communication arts, receiving the Tennessee Communication Association’s Outstanding Communication Educator of the Year award; and multiple communication arts faculty being finalists for Union’s Faculty of the Year award and being honored with Newell Innovative Teaching Awards.

“The faculty is not just outstanding in the Union sense, but in a national sense,” Drake said.

He credits the faculty as what sets the department apart and makes it special. According to Drake, the curriculum is grounded in theory and designed to expose students to a wide variety of media skills and experiences including social media, video, photography, film, broadcast, digital media, writing for multiple platforms, public relations, public speaking and interpersonal communication.

“Those are the things that we are inundated with every day, so we need to be wise consumers of it,” Drake said. “But [communication arts students] also need to be able to make it, to produce culture when the opportunity presents itself.”

About Danica Smithwick 41 Articles
Danica Smithwick, class of 2016 journalism alumna, is former Editor-in-Chief of the Cardinal & Cream. She is now a reporter for Community Impact Cy-Fair in Houston, TX. Follow her on Twitter: @danicasmithwick.