Diversity in Communication?

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Whether teaching online or on ground, as faculty we are presented with an array of diversity issues. From race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, income level, geography and age, to motivation levels, learning and personality styles as well as academic and technological skill levels. Without a doubt any or all of these issues appear different depending on our “positionality” (Brookfield 2005). An additional cultural issue with which we are now presented is the idea that we’re entered a post-racial, post-feminist and post-Internet age with justice, equality, access and interactivity for all (Nakamura 2008). Whether or not this is the case is a debate left for another time. What's important is that this kind of utopian rhetoric challenges the diversity issue I would like to share, which relates to the field of communication itself.

Last spring I was teaching an on ground Communication Theory Capstone class and as part of the curriculum decided to include units about the origins and contemporary demographics and status of the field. As my students and I discussed the fact that today women outnumber men as majors, we learned that as the field formed its own identity (as a mix of sociology, psychology, rhetoric, persuasion etc.) that very few women were involved; thus accounting for 14 out of the 15 theories in our text being researched and created by men. This led one student to ask the class “is it possible that the field of communication could itself be fundamentally biased?”

The class was generally in shock. Though this was the point I was hoping would be raised, it was obvious that it had crossed few students’ minds. Rather than answer the question myself I threw it back to the class. I asked, “What do you think? Could this be possible? And, if so, what might it mean for us?” The discussion was fascinating. Despite having read articles that documented how women were funneled into social work programs rather than into sociology or psychology programs, many students could not see how this might affect the development of the communication field.

Some students, particularly the female students, began to connect the dots and see how the field’s development could’ve been limited in some ways. Then the class began to debate whether the field as it looks today, and even our class’ curriculum, could be biased against women. This presented me with a serious challenge, especially as a female professor. How could I account for this? Am I part of the problem? Is there anything I could do to make things more equitable while avoiding “repressive tolerance?” (Brookfield 2005). I found myself relying on traditional liberal theories that obviously repressed alternative ideologies.

There were several avenues to take. One is the “five-minute inventory” suggested by Brookfield. Another would be to take Elbow’s (1996) “Methodological Belief Approach” to ask learners to consider implications of the alternative perspective for 5 minutes. A third approach could’ve been to revamp the syllabus then and there with the students using Brookfield’s formula of personally choosing 30% of the texts or questions, having students choose another 30% and constructing the remaining 40% as a group.

As we moved through the discussion, which lasted one and a half class sessions, I could also see how some students were moving through the stages of Hoopes’s Intercultural Learning Process (1979)—specifically from awareness to appreciating/valuing stages. I could also see how some were discovering their own social locations and the preferences/biases that accompanied them. Finally, through discussion I could see how the students were questioning dualist epistemology. By recognizing and debating the multiple sides to the issues, they began to see that there are conflicting answers and that if they wanted to see a more equitable attribution of knowledge in the field, they would have to be part of catalyzing that change.

That’s what led me to improvise an individual/group assignment. Since it was a theory/praxis class for homework I asked them to answer 3 questions and bring their answers to the following session: (1) what is the nature of human nature? Or, why do we do what we do? (2) What is the proper social order? (3) Is equality possible? During the next class session I broke them up into groups of 4 and asked them to use their individual answers to create a representative group answer to these questions which were then presented to the entire class. This assignment allowed them to continue to discover their own positionalities, collaborate with their peers, and confront/consider perspectives that clashed with their own. It also “humanized” us and created a learning culture that valued openness, competency, debate, and acknowledgment power relations and structural inequalities that shaped the ways in which we looked at theories for the rest of the semester. Though somewhat accidental, this has proven to be one of the most valuable teaching experiences I’ve had thus far.

You asked: (1) what is the

You asked: (1) what is the nature of human nature? Or, why do we do what we do? (2) What is the proper social order? (3) Is equality possible?

Wow those are tough questions, maybe too tough for me to answer in such short order (of course i could take longer to answer more thoughtfully, but now I find myself in a hurry lol). Maybe to answer all three questions, I should have been in your class. I am not sure what you mean by what is the nature of human nature. I mean I guess we are motivated to please ourselves even when it seems like we may doing good for others. When we decide to have children or when we give the homeless dude a buck or when we keep an eye on our neighbor's property, we do all of those things because ultimately we feel rewarded in some way or another.

As for the proper social order - I don't think there is one really. Things have a way of working themselves out. It's almost a survival of the fittest. But I think I look at the social order through western socialization. If I were from India, my idea of the proper social order might/would be vastly different. But as far as an American/western perspective is concerned, the social order is economically motivated. Yes, there is institutional racism and sexism to contend with, but I think I do have some control of the order. Not total mind you - there are other sociological aspect that do/have/will come into play - but I do believe that the work I put in gives me the desired result.

Finally, as for equality? Of course it's not possible. Look at my answer to question one. The mere fact we are goaded by the want to please self means we could never have equality. We uplift those who will help us be uplifted to even greater heights.

Socratic Approach

Great example of a Socratic approach to class dialogue, not only asking what they think but asking them to consider its implications. I enjoyed reading your post!
Gordon McLean

Wow Marcia, what an intriguing post.

I am amazed at how well you handled the situation and how useful it was for your students. I think your suggestions are great ones, particularly the 5-minute inventory. I especially like that approach and have learned a lot from your experience. Thanks Marcia! Your students are lucky to have such a great teacher.
Tammy Root