Published: May 6, 2015

Peter SimonsonThe Department of Communication and Media Studies's Associate Chair of Undergraduate Studies Peter Simonson attended ASSETT's Teaching with Technology Seminar this past spring.  Simonson designed an eight week conversation module across an online “civic commons” through D2L and a Wordpress site.  He encouraged student engagement with Twitter conversations about the issues they had chosen to investigate.

The larger problem I am facing is how to design a 200‐person first‐year lecture/lab course on the topic of Conversation in a way that stimulates student engagement, teaches basic concepts, provides opportunity for the development of communication skills and doesn’t put too much strain on the five graduate teaching assistants in charge of the 19‐person lab sections. The core skills are tied to conversational practices of speaking, listening, and embodied interaction as well as critical thinking and basic argumentation; but the course opens out toward multiple media as both stimulants of conversation and channels through which it occurs publicly and in social networks. I want students to engage in conversation across media and internalize the “big idea” that communication helps to create the social worlds we live in and through. The course is one of four 8‐week modules that first‐year students will take‐‐the others being Storytelling, Images, and Information.

Overall, I am looking to improve students’ abilities to: (1) recognize that discourse presented through news, social media, scholarly publications, face‐to‐face talk, and other forms of cultural expression are part of longer and wider conversations about issues marked by differing perspectives that have a history/unfold over time; (2) consider how that conversation is differently advanced across different media; (3) engage in that conversation themselves in ways that skillfully, intelligently, and ethically recognize issues, audiences, situations, and communication forms; (4) critically reflect on their engagements making use of key concepts for the course and with an eye toward what makes for a vibrant and diverse participatory democracy.

These interrelated goals point to a pedagogical problem insofar as students: often do not connect what they read or experience as audience members and what they say or write as communicators to larger social discourses; often do not fully recognize varied and competing perspectives on issues or the ways they can be expressed through affordances of different media and communication forms; and often do not participate in them as skilfully or reflectively as they might.

I’ll gauge whether students have made progress in achieving these outcomes through a eight‐week summative project in the course.  Here are the main parts of the assignment:

  1. Find an issue of contemporary concern that people are addressing in the news, through social media, and/or through other public media like music, film, or performance. (Goal: stretch yourself out and find an issue through which you might teach your classmates something and raise consciousness).
  2. Investigate the issue, and chart key differences of perspective and opinion on it. (Goal: combine wide online search with thinking and talking about the issue to discover multiple ways of looking at it, experiencing it, and making arguments about it.)
  3. Educate yourself on the issue, ask questions, explore how you feel about different aspects of it, and develop your own positions on it.
  4. Find organizations that are dedicated to addressing the issue and bringing about social change through action, policy, and/or public opinion.
  5. Participate in conversations that take place face-­to-­face conversations and through Twitter and other media as a way of investigating the issue, clarifying your views, and engaging with democratic publics.
  6. Write an artful 1,500 ­word essay that draws attention to differing perspectives on the issue, helps readers to learn more about it, takes a stand, and potentially moves others to adopt your position and bring their beliefs or actions into line with it. The top two essays from each lab will be posted on the public website for Concepts and Creativity and earn extra credit for members of the Conversation Groups that the authors belong to.
  7. Share the essay with members of your lab section and take part in a discussion led by another member of the class.
  8. Reflect on the assignment in a 500 ­word essay that applies key concepts from the course to interpret your work as an effort to shape social reality through communication.

The summative project for the course will take place over the entire 8‐week Conversation module across both an online “civic commons” (formed through D2L and a Wordpress site) and through face‐to‐face meetings in lecture and labs. For the purposes of this post, I will focus on one dimension of it: student engagement with Twitter conversations about the issue they have chosen to investigate (#5 above). It is one of several ways to address the larger problem of students needing to recognize how public conversations about social issues cut across media and face‐to‐face talk; and unfold through particular turns/moments of participation that are variably intelligent, skillful, appropriate to the forum/occasion, and respectful of others.