Reflections, Projections, and Challenges for the SSCA

Terry M. Thibodeaux, Ph.D.

Twenty-one years ago a young, second-semester graduate student returned to his home state to attend his first professional academic convention just a few hundred yards from this very location. This new member felt intimidated, excited, intrigued— almost overwhelmed. But that first SSCA convention made a lasting impression. Never in his wildest dreams would that grad student have envisioned addressing this group today as its president. I am humbled and most pleased to think of the confluence of events and circumstances that allow me to do so.
The background that brought me to the 1984 SSCA convention was that of a high school teacher from Louisiana's bayou country, about one hundred fifty miles to the southwest of here. My Cajun background seemed worlds away from this academic conference setting I first glimpsed back then. I confess that I did miss the legendary crawfish boil, which was one of the highlights of the convention in 1984, and has become part of the lore of SSCA. At that point, I figured I had been there, done that and, befitting my poor-grad student status, just wanted to save a few bucks. I will be getting my fill of mudbugs this week. I also remember coming away from the conference thoroughly impressed, particularly with my fellow graduate students who presented their research.
This morning I'll share a few more personal reflections and assessments from my years in SSCA. I'll try to look into the future of SSCA, and present some challenges that i believe we face. 


Becoming a part of SSCA

Even as I began participating in SSCA as a graduate student at the University of Southern Mississippi, I felt welcomed by everyone--by members, by division leaders, and eventually by members of the executive council as I began serving there in the late 1980's. That introduction into the collegiality of SSCA at an early stage in my career is something about this organization that I cherish.

I was fortunate to befriend and be influenced by and encouraged by people who I consider "giants" of SSCA—Dale Leathers, Gregg Phifer, Dwight Freshley, and John Sisco to name a few.  As an aside: please keep Gregg Phifer in your prayers as his health has deteriorated recently. We all wish him the best.
Since this convention also marks a change in executive director for SSCA, I want to say a little about those very important leaders of our organization who have served recently. John Sisco was executive secretary as it was called in 1984. It was a few years later that i was fortunate to meet and spend a little time with him and lovely wife. I know many of us today feel fortunate to have been under his influence. Howard Dorgan became executive secretary in 1985, and over the years gave me encouragement and validation for the importance of my research on cajun culture and music. Susan Siltanen was the next executive secretary, and the title changed during her tenure to executive director, to more accurately denote the duties of the office. Susan was also my graduate school mentor at USM and dissertation director, along with Larry Hosman. Besides all the encouragement, wisdom, and even meals they provided at conventions, they instilled in me how important it is to be professionally active. 
Richard Ranta continued the strong line of executive directors as i became more active in executive council. Like many, I consider Dick a consummate member/servant of SSCA.
Hal Fulmer, my friend, colleague, and former convention roommate, is ready to hand the position to the next executive director. Hal led SSCA through a time of societal and organizational transition. He introduced more use of technology in administering SSCA, and strengthened the organization's financial standing in a difficult economic time. He hands the controls to Emmett Winn, who has been in full transition mode for several months already. I can attest that from what I have seen, SSCA will be in good hands through the end of the decade with Emmett Winn as our executive director.  All these leaders were instrumental in the evolution of SSCA into the strong, vibrant professional organization that it is today. They each provided countless hours of hard work, along with strong, progressive leadership, and their own unique gifts and wisdom to ssca would all the past, current and executive directors-elect please stand so that we can show them our appreciation.

The Essential Nature Of SSCA

Over the past several months I have thought much about what is the nature of this organization many of us love. The SSCA constitution states that its purpose is to promote the study, criticism, research, teaching, and application of communication. The two primary ways we do this are through our conventions and the association journal.
To what extent we are successful in achieving those purposes depends in large part on the involvement and active participation of members willing to provide various services to the organization. Whether as divisional officers, committee members, or in other roles, individual members power the engine of this association.
While the structure of SSCA provides many opportunities for various forms of service, there is another important aspect of member involvement that also is an important characteristic of SSCA, and one that, I believe, makes this association unique. This is the camaraderie, collegiality, friendliness, or whatever you want to call it, that, to some, is the distinguishing feature of SSCA. Members find colleagues, collaborators, and mentors in other members. They encourage, critique, and listen to each other as we talk about our research or teaching. And all with more civility and compassion than many of us have found in any other professional organization. This immediacy is a central defining characteristic of SSCA for me.
While lack of membership records from 20 years past make size comparisons difficult, we can look at the evolution of the division/interest group structure to see how SSCA has changed. In 1984, SSCA had ten divisions. The only one of the ten that is no longer a distinct division of SSCA is theatre; some others changed names.  But six new divisions have joined the landscape of SSCA since that time: applied communication, community college, gender studies, interpersonal communication, popular culture, and public relations. The strength and diversity of this new group is evidence of the evolving nature of the field and its reflection among SSCA members.
In 1984, what has become the ubiquitous internet was in its infancy. In recent years, we have seen more and more use of electronic communication, particularly via e-mail and the internet to both facilitate members' participation in various association activities and also to provide members with information and services. For instance, paper submissions for SSCA conventions are routinely exchanged between program planners and submitters via electronic means.
We have seen the birth and coming of age of the SSCA undergraduate honors conference, now the Theodore Clevenger, Jr., UHC, that yearly brings 100 or more outstanding undergraduate students to our convention to share their scholarship. Over the years, the UHC has become more integrated into the regular convention and includes special receptions and events for those students in addition to the competitive panels. The success of our UHC is evidenced by the other regional associations copying our idea at their conventions.
SSCA has gone from being a primarily white male-dominated organization to one that more accurately reflects our wider discipline, both in demographics and in interest areas. We have also seen a broadening of the association in attracting members from all regions of the country and beyond. Our journal is truly a national journal, with acceptance rates as stringent as most NCA journals, for instance. 
And SSCA has seen some serious strategic planning efforts in the past few years to address issues critical to the health and vitality of the organization. Katherine Hawkins spearheaded a weekend workshop in 2003 hosted by Dick Ranta in Memphis. Those plans set new directions for the association and pointed out the need for periodic planning, separate from the hectic pace of the annual convention. Last summer, the line officers of SSCA, Past President Marilyn Young, who also served as our host in Tallahassee, myself, Vice President Ken Cissna, and Vice President-Elect Charles Tardy met to consider again short and long range planning for SSCA. My report of that workshop can be found on the SSCA webpage. I concur with Former President Hawkins that these planning sessions are vital to the continuing health of SSCA in an evolving academic and socio-political world.


Since predictions and challenges seem to be related, I will deal with them together.
An on-going issue and concern for SSCA is membership, since members are the lifeblood as well as the financial supporters of the association. Besides the historically strong demographic of college and university professors, the association should work to attract more junior college faculty, adjuncts at all levels of university teaching, and both graduate and undergraduate students. The convention should continue to innovate in order to provide the kinds of dialogues and programs that are needed as our field changes.  Those changes will also bring challenges in making SSCA and its leadership reflective of the diversity of the field, as it continues to embrace new directions, perspectives, issues, and interests within SSCA.
SSCA now is in contact by e-mail with more than 95% of its members. Officers are trying to find better ways to use the association webpage. In the next 5 years, we should see a great increase in the number and scope of member services augmented by the SSCA website, from online membership applications and renewals to convention registration to publication activities.  One consensus emerging from last year's strategic planning workshop was that the regular association newsletter, Connections, should be revived. This vital communication link between members is needed, whether online or paper, or both. The Executive Council has charged the incoming Executive Director with finding a way to bring back Connections. Bold, but measured steps have been recommended by the Executive Council and approved by the membership of SSCA at this convention that will move SSCA into the mainstream in electronic publishing. 
A critical component of SSCA is its annual convention. While continuing to be frugal and prudent in planning SSCA conferences, we must be creative as well. Preliminary discussions among the officers about the possibility of a joint convention with Central States Communication Association resulted in general discussion and rejection by the members of pursuing such a joint conference in 2010. Whether or not a joint convention is part of our future convention planning, careful site selection and contracting with host properties must continue in order to offer the physical and social spaces our convention requires, while maintaining rates at price ranges that are affordable to our members.
While SSCA's general financial picture is solid, we should redouble our efforts to fully endow all association awards and build our reserve funds as a buffer against an uncertain economic future. It is ever more important that we continue sound fiscal management of SSCA assets and liabilities. I believe the steps we have taken at this convention regarding the publication and dissemination of our journal will enhance our financial standing.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the warm, welcoming, inclusive culture of SSCA reminiscent of "Southern hospitality" should be nurtured. We should carefully consider institutionalizing within our association structures, meetings and measures to welcome and integrate new members and visiting participants, especially at our conventions. I believe there are many colleagues in communication departments and programs at colleges and universities in our geographic region who do not know enough about SSCA to realize how valuable membership in it could be for them. SSCA should establish outreach efforts to bring those colleagues into our membership.
Probably like many of you, I have a very special place in my heart for this association.  It has been an important part of my professional life throughout my career. Serving as your association President has been a great privilege and a highlight of my career. With your continuing help SSCA has a bright future as a leader in promoting the communication discipline on our campuses and in the world outside of academe.