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Teaching (and not Teaching)

From August 2012 until August 2019, I taught at the University of Illinois. When I first began teaching in August 2012, I was nervous. I was only a few years older than my students and had never taken a public speaking class. Yet, in a few short weeks, I was trained to teach public speaking to first-year students. I worked with my colleagues and mentors on how to best present materials to students. Eventually, I became confident in my ability to teach public speaking, a course that I would teach many times during graduate school.

Teaching was one my favorite parts of graduate school. I developed confidence in my ability to explain concepts to non-experts and improved my own public speaking skills. I also learned to develop expertise on a topic quickly, so that I could teach it to others. Teaching also presented opportunities to collaborate with my colleagues. We often spoke about how to develop classroom materials and how to approach topics in the classroom. While people may think of graduate school as primarily about research, many graduate students are also learning how to teach.

This August was the first August in seven years that I did not have to prepare for teaching. I did not have to write a syllabus, create a Moodle page, or come up with an ice breaker activity for the first day. Many of my friends still teach regularly. I see a lot of social media posts about teaching and still get questions from my friends about how to best approach Communication topics in the classroom. Although I may not be in the classroom every day, I continue to stay on top of the latest teaching research in Communication. Through NCA’s Communication Currents, I summarize this research for teachers and the public.

In a recent Communication Currents, I discussed research from Communication scholars that addressed which stories are most relevant to students in the classroom. Students frequently felt that stories that related to their own experience were the most relevant. For example, some students felt that stories about struggling as an undergraduate helped them through their own struggles. In addition, stories that explained concepts through pop culture references were also helpful. One quick note is that students may not always find teachers’ pop culture references relevant. As a teaching assistant, I learned (to my surprise) that many of my students had not seen Star Wars. This was not an insurmountable hurdle, but it meant that I had to be a bit more attuned to the pop culture that they were consuming.

You can read the full Communication Currents piece on NCA’s website.

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.