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Some of my Recent Communication Currents

I wanted to share some of the Communication Currents articles that I have completed in the last few weeks. I hope you enjoy learning about recent research in Communication!

Social Media may offer a Remedy to Hollywood’s Whitewashing Problem (August 29, 2019)

This Communication Currents is about whitewashing in Hollywood, which is when a white actor is cast in a role that was written as race-neutral or as a person of color. The authors argue that social media might be able to encourage white people to see movies with a predominantly minority cast. It’s a really good read about why the economic logic behind whitewashing doesn’t hold up.

For People Living “Overdraft to Overdraft,” Social Support Can Make a Difference (September 9, 2019)

This Communication Currents deals with the important issue of providing social support (e.g. comforting people, financial support, etc.) to people who are financially precarious. Social support can help people make better decisions and avoid bad decisions. The summary includes some personal experiences people shared during a focus group.

Skeptics in the Court: The Use of Rhetorical Skepticism to Protect Abortion Rights (September 23, 2019)

This Communication Currents focuses on how Justices Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor used rhetorical skepticism during a 2016 abortion case. The essay describes how this skepticism brought women’s lived experiences into the courtroom.

Is “A Cake Just a Cake?” The Commitment to LGTBQIA+ Equality in the Marketplace (September 30, 2019)

This Communication Currents addresses the conflict between equality and freedom when business owners use claims of religious freedom to impede an open marketplace, thus nullifying claims to equal citizenship for members of the LGBTQIA+ community. The article focuses on media coverage of a prominent case in Oregon concerning a cake for a same-sex wedding. Media coverage of the case contributes to how the public understands the legal balance between freedom and equality.

Writing about Scholarship from a Different Perspective

After I defended my dissertation, summer was a whirlwind. I recently relocated to the Washington D.C. area to join the staff at the National Communication Association (NCA). NCA is a scholarly and professional organization for researchers, teachers, and practitioners in the field of Communication. You can learn more about NCA in the video below.

I am currently working as the Content Development Specialist for NCA. I write content for NCA’s website and social media pages. I have already written two articles for Communication Currents, an NCA publication that summarizes recent research in Communication.

One article focuses on how campus carry laws have affected instructors. Researchers interviewed instructors at a university in Texas and found that most felt unsafe after the passage of a law that permits concealed carry of guns on campus. Some teachers even changed their teaching practices because of the possibility that students might carry guns. You can read about the ways that instructors reacted to the campus carry law on NCA’s website.

The second article focuses on how John Oliver uses trolling tactics on Last Week Tonight to propel social change. The article breaks down a few common trolling tactics and explains how Oliver has used those tactics effectively. It’s a great read if you enjoy late-night comedy.

I will try to keep this site updated with interesting writing, especially from Communication Currents. I’m really enjoying my work at NCA, and I’m excited to see where this position takes me.

What does it mean to “deposit” a dissertation?

After I defended my dissertation, I told my family that I was almost done. I had one step left: depositing my dissertation. This prompted my family to ask, “What does that mean?”

Dissertations and theses are stored in the campus library where they can be accessed by students, faculty, and visitors. These manuscripts are considered “deposited” after they are approved for storage in the library system. The deposit process at the universities varies, but it typically requires almost-doctors to conform to a particular format. Luckily for me, I got my degree in 2019. I didn’t have to worry about typewriters or white out. With word processing software, citation management software, and other tools, it is so much easier to research, write, and proofread documents than it was decades ago.

Preparing to Deposit: Proofread, Proofread, Proofread

The first step in preparing my dissertation for deposit was to proofread my manuscript. To more easily make line edits, I printed the 200 or so pages of my dissertation. Although I felt a bit wasteful printing that many pages, proofreading on paper makes it easier to catch one’s mistakes. I went through each page line by line to check for grammar errors and wording issues. I also used my Chicago Manual of Style to check the footnotes at the bottom of each page. I used Zotero citation management software to organize my sources, so I was reasonably sure that my citations were correctly formatted. However, I wanted to double-check. With nearly 1260 footnotes, there was a lot to check. This process took a few weeks.

Preparing to Deposit II: Formatting the Dissertation

The second step was to conform my now-proofread manuscript to Graduate College’s formatting requirements. I wrote my dissertation in Microsoft Word, but it needed to be submitted as a PDF. I also had to make my dissertation double-spaced, even though I wrote it as a single-spaced document. After I made it double-spaced and added my bibliography, it was nearly 350 pages. In addition to these technical requirements, I wrote my dedication and acknowledgements. It was satisfying to finally get to thank my friends, family, and mentors who had helped me through this process. With my formatting complete, I sent my revised manuscript to my department.

Preparing to Deposit III: Departmental Approval

The third step in the deposit process was departmental approval. I already had my committee’s approval after my defense. However, a staff member in my department also proofread the manuscript and checked the formatting. She sent me a few more revisions. Despite the length of my document, I was able to complete these corrections within a few hours of receiving my manuscript from her. With my department’s approval, I moved on to depositing.

Preparing to Deposit IV: More Corrections

The fourth step in the deposit process was to deposit my now-corrected manuscript to the Graduate College for a final review. Thanks to the excellent staff member in my department, I only had one correction to complete. With that correction made, I was finally ready to deposit.

Deposit!

The Graduate College swiftly approved my corrected dissertation. After filling out two surveys about my graduate school experience, my degree requirements were complete. My degree will be officially conferred in August, but I now have a PhD. My dissertation will eventually be available in through the Illinois Digital Environment for Access to Learning and Scholarship (IDEALS). I have decided to withhold publication for now, but I would be happy to discuss my work with you on LinkedIn or Academia.edu.

“Congratulations, Doctor”

Last Thursday, I successfully defended my dissertation. In preparation, I had spoken to my advisor and colleagues about what to expect. My advisor prepared me for the format of the defense and what I needed to prepare for my own presentation. My colleagues repeatedly told me that my defense would be much more casual than I anticipated. I struggled to understand how that could be. In my mind, my dissertation defense had been built up as the ultimate demonstration of my expertise. It’s natural for graduate students to feel that way. We often spend years working on our degrees and a year or more on the dissertation itself.

In advance, I prepared my presentation. In public speaking classes, I teach students not to speak from a manuscript. Speaking from a manuscript can leave you stilted and unable to interact with the audience. In the end, because of my nervousness, I broke this rule. I wrote out a manuscript and read from it. My advisor told me a slow down a few minutes into my presentation. I confessed that I was nervous, so I had typed out the presentation. After that point, I continued to read from it, but felt a bit more relaxed.

At the conclusion of my presentation, I feared the worst. I had labored over the 200 single-spaced pages of my dissertation (excluding my bibliography). Although criticism is an important part of developing academic writing, I was afraid of what this criticism would entail. Yet, the conversation was relaxed. It felt like a conversation between equals. I was at ease finally getting to talk about the topic that I had worked months on. I now know what improvements I can make on my project, but I am proud of the work I have done.

Near the end of my defense, my advisor told me “Congratulations, Doctor.” Although I still have to deposit my dissertation, I am nearly done. All weekend people have asked me how I feel. It feels a bit surreal. I worked for years toward this degree, and, in a matter of 2 hours, I was done. It feels a bit anticlimactic.

The Divide Between the Humanities and STEM

When I was an undergraduate student, I majored in Radio-Television-Film (RTF). Much like the author of this BBC article, my decision was greeted with skepticism. I wasn’t planning to work in the film industry, so people often wondered why I would major in RTF. When I chose to pursue a humanities degree in graduate school, my decision was met with similar skepticism. My graduate work has been in communication, so people asked incredulously, “You’re learning to help people communicate better?” People often doubt the value of a humanities degree, and this doubt is often fomented on campuses themselves. The goal of a liberal education is to create well-rounded students, but campus geography and course requirements often de-emphasize this.

Campus geography can contribute to the barrier between STEM and the humanities. On my campus, the liberal arts and STEM departments are literally separated by a busy street. There is little reason for a humanities graduate student to cross the street to go the North Quad, where the STEM departments reside. Likewise, STEM graduate students have access to all the coffee shops and libraries they need on the North Quad, meaning they don’t need to go to the Quad. This physical barrier emphasizes the difference between these degree paths. Students even refer to STEM students collectively as “the North Quad.” Recently, the North Quad has been the recipient of grants and upgrades, while the humanities buildings are aging. For a humanities graduate student, this is a clear signal that the humanities do not matter. We do not produce the grants or research that would prompt the university to build us a shiny, new building. For STEM graduate students, it reinforces that they are empirically better than their humanities counterparts.

Beyond the geographical divisions, STEM and humanities students are divided through coursework. They rarely take the same classes, so are unlikely to run into each other in an academic setting. If a STEM student has to take a humanities class as a general education requirement, they may also write it off because it is not part of their major. Likewise, many humanities students are reluctant to take math and science classes because they fear failing. This contributes to the myth that these students have nothing to contribute to one another’s education. This is an insult to the idea of a liberal education. I have taught Public Speaking since 2012. At the University of Illinois, Public Speaking is required by many majors across campus. My classroom is often a mix of majors from business to English to agricultural engineering. Students pick their own topics for their speeches. This exposes students to unfamiliar ideas and topics. Students might learn about genetically modified meat in the same class that they learn about how women are paid less in the film industry. Beyond the diversity of speech topics, I also favor in-class activities as a teaching method. Through in-person interactions, students can build ties across campus and come to a new appreciation for different majors.

Some universities have recognized the importance of connecting the humanities and STEM. Purdue’s Cornerstone program is an attempt to bring the liberal arts and STEM together through undergraduate coursework. At the University of Illinois, I have worked with a program called Engineers Skills for Presenting Engineering and Applied Knowledge (SPEAK). Through the program, communication and engineering graduate students work together to prepare senior engineering undergraduates for a presentation of their final projects in an engineering course. The presentation is the culmination of a semester of designing and building an engineering project. This may be one of the few times that these students see the expertise of humanities graduate student legitimized within a STEM environment. This demonstrates to those students that they need communication skills, in addition to their technical expertise.

While there is some evidence that the divide between humanities and STEM may be waning, there is also evidence that that divide continues to be firm. As a union organizer, I have seen how this divide affects the ability of graduate unions to organize on campus. STEM graduate employees are often reluctant to join the union because they believe it mostly benefits humanities graduate students. Yet, STEM graduate employees are not immune from employment problems. A few years ago, the union won a major arbitration protecting graduate employees’ right to have a tuition waiver under our union contract. The union challenged a Department of Computer Science policy that violated the tuition waiver clause in our contract. Under the policy, students in the Master of Computer Science (MCS) degree program were told that they were ineligible for tuition waiver-generating appointments, such as teaching assistantships, in their department. If the students sought an appointment from another department, the other department would have to pay the student’s tuition, instead of the student receiving a tuition waiver. This turned the waiver from a benefit into a cost of employment. The students affected were mostly international students, who had expected to receive an appointment. When they did not, they had to pay the international tuition rate to complete their degrees. Unfortunately, despite our track record of protecting STEM students, STEM graduate employees often see the union as the domain of the humanities. This makes it hard to find out when there are employment problems in STEM departments.

Universities cultivate these divides on campus through geography, research, and teaching. Fighting for the value of a liberal education requires addressing the walls that have been built between the humanities and STEM. Education is not complete when it ignores other ways of thinking and learning.

Teaching Civility in the Classroom

I recently attended a conference where I was on a panel to discuss civility in the classroom. The Illinois Communication and Theatre Association Conference differs from other conferences I have attended because there are high school teachers in addition to graduate students and university faculty. We structured the conversation so that the audience had ample time to ask questions and give feedback. Overall, it was a generative conversation that left me thinking about what civility means and how to cultivate it in the classroom. Here are a few takeaways I had from the conversation:

Carefully consider what you mean by civility

At the beginning of the conversation, I brought up that civility may not always be desirable. Prior to the era of accusations of “fake news,” feminist scholars and others had argued that the longing for civility was longing for an era that “never existed.” Further, civility may disenfranchise some voices that use emotion and story, which may not be accepted as part of the norms of “civil” debate. Thus, it is important to consider how we define civil discourse and if it is desirable.

Is ethical communication the same as civility?

One of the goals we had for the panel was to discuss what students need to know to be ethical communicators. However, ethics in communication covers a range of ideas from professional ethics in journalism to ethics of peace.  Thinking of online debates over “tone policing,” one might consider that norms of civility can also be used to disenfranchise. If civil debate can stifle marginalized groups, is it ethical? Marginalized groups who lack the same access to debate may be disenfranchised based on language and tone before ever having their concerns heard.

How can we keep the conversation about civility grounded?

Considering ethical debates over civility is good, but, ultimately, we all have to go back to our classrooms and teach. When we get to those classrooms, we may deal with uncomfortable questions and comments. One of our goals for the panel was to have something for people to implement in their classrooms. Here are two activities that we offered as options to implement:

The CRAAP Test

The CRAAP Test was created by Sarah Blakesee at Cal State-Chico. The test asks students to answer certain questions about a source to judge whether it is credible and appropriate. CRAAP stands for currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose. Using this five-pronged test, students address how recent their source is, whether it is relevant for their argument, who wrote or created the content, how it lines up with other information on the topic, and why the content was produced.

Many of the attendees had used the CRAAP test, although some had changed the title of the test. Regardless, the questions and probing more deeply about the sources was widely considered effective in getting students to use more reliable sources in their research. Using reliable evidence was mentioned by both panelists and attendees as an important part of civility in the classroom. By implementing evidence, students are also learning to make good arguments and avoid fallacies. The CRAAP test or something similar could also be implemented as a kind of media literacy exercise to help students evaluate sources online.

Structured Class Discussion

My contribution to the panel was an activity that I implemented in my upper level undergraduate class, Media and Youth Culture. The goal of the activity was to have students engage in a discussion about how cyberbullying behavior should be regulated online. My hope was that students would come away with knowledge of the complexities of media regulation to further enrich our discussions of media literacy and media regulation in class.

Prior to the class period, students read a law article on regulating cyberbullying in light of the First Amendment. During class, students were asked to read the XBOX Code of Conduct and an article from Kotaku about a woman who was harassed over XBOX Live, but whose harasser wasn’t punished in accordance with the policy.  After reading the articles, student reflected on self-regulation as a method of dealing with cyberbullying. Then, students were offered a sample legislation to punish cyberbullies and considered whether that regulation would work.

I have done this activity 6 times total. In smaller classes, I have structured it as a Lincoln-Douglas debate, which was very successful. In larger classes, it was an open discussion. The diversity of evidence presented helped students to consider the issue from multiple points of view. They were also able to use the evidence to support their arguments in favor of government regulation or self-regulation. By using the same common evidence, students were able to have a fruitful discussion. Classes overall differed on their policy preference, perhaps indicating that students had considered the plurality of evidence and viewpoints. If you would like a copy of the activity, feel free to send me an email through academia.edu or LinkedIn.

Concluding Thoughts on Teaching Civility

There is a need for classroom activities and tools that help instructors navigate discussions and push students to consider the credibility of their evidence. The panel largely focused on evidence because it is easier to build evidence into teaching activities. At the same time, we still need to consider how civility is defined and what we (and our students) want discussion to look like in our classrooms.