In 1981, the Department of Speech Communication joined the School of Communication, as the College of Communication & Information Sciences was known then. Previously, the department was housed in the College of Arts and Sciences, where it originated from courses in the Department of English into an independent academic unit, the Department of Speech, in 1932. T. Earle Johnson was the first department chair, and two years later, the department welcomed its second faculty member, Helen Osband.
During the World War II era, a speech and hearing clinic and courses in radio communication were added to the department’s curriculum. In time, the study of radio communication was moved to a separate department, the Department of Radio Arts. After World War II, the Speech Department included the speech and hearing clinic, rhetoric and speech, and theatre.
In 1949, the Speech Department’s Alabama Forensic Council, under the direction of Annabel Dunham Hagood, attracted attention throughout the United States for winning the first of its 20 national team titles, at the National Debate Tournament. The forensic council traces its ancestry to the American literary societies that were common on university campuses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Throughout its history, the forensic program has enriched students’ educational development and trained them for the challenges of a complex society, while traveling them to various debate and individual speaking competitive events.
In 1956, the Speech Department moved from Morgan Hall to the Music and Speech Building, now Rowand-Johnson Hall. Dr. Allen Bales succeeded Johnson, in 1969, as the second chair of the department. In 1973, Annabel Hagood became the third chair of the department, by then known as Speech Communication and Theatre. That same year, the speech and hearing clinic left to become part of the Department of Communicative Disorders. Three years later, in 1979, theatre joined with dance to form their own academic unit, and the name of the department was changed to the Department of Speech Communication. Hagood remained as chair until her retirement, in 1987, and it was during her tenure that the decision to move from Arts and Sciences to Communication occurred.
Upon Hagood’s retirement, Dr. E. Culpepper Clark, who had been a faculty member in the department from 1971-79, returned to UA to assume the position as the fourth chair of the department. He served in that position two years, when he was appointed Executive Assistant to the President of the University of Alabama, in 1990. The next chair was Dr. Eva McMahan, who was appointed in 1990 and served until Spring 1998. At that time, she took retirement from the UA system to accept a position as Director of the School of Communication Studies, at James Madison University.
The change of the name of the department, from Speech Communication to Communication Studies, occurred at the end of 1998. The national professional organization had already changed its name, from Speech Communication Association to National Communication Association. Clark, who was now Dean of the College, and McMahan believed the department needed to follow the organization’s example and to drop “speech” from its name. After several attempts, the faculty finally accepted a new name, Communication Studies, even though many thought the label was too vague and others rued the loss of our “speech” identity. In the years since, the confusion of the name of the department with that of the College has at times been an advantage, but more often, a source of frustration.
After the name change and the departure of McMahan, Dean Clark was the nominal chair of the department, from 1998-1999. In 1999, he hired Dr. Marsha Houston to be the new department chair, and she served in that position until 2005. Dr. Beth S. Bennett has been serving as department chair from 2005 to the present.
The mission of the Department of Communication Studies emphasizes the connections between thought, action and public participation, studying theory and practice in the areas of rhetoric, persuasion, political communication, relational communication, organizational communication, leadership, and culture. We aim to prepare students as competent communicators in their personal, civic, and professional roles by fostering their abilities to think critically, to express and advocate ideas effectively, and to understand and appreciate the diversity of human communication practices.