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Teaching on Day 1 of Trump

November 10, 2016

This post was spurred by an email from Tarleton Gillespie and Hector Postigo to contribute to a collected series that appeared on Culture Digitally today. The focus of that series is for scholars to “think hard about our own work and research agendas, and how they should shift to face new political realities.”

I didn’t have a chance to contribute to this collection yesterday because I was trying to figure out how to prepare a lecture on the networked press to a class of undergraduates I’d never met before.  Months ago, I agreed to give a guest lecture in Henry Jenkins’s Communication & Technology class and it never occurred to me that November 9th would be such an ominous day.

I hadn’t slept the previous night as I tried to quell a dizzying headache and nausea, thinking about what I could possibly say to students about how a field I’m supposedly an expert in got everything so wrong.  I spent the morning avoiding news coverage, deeply angry at an institution I’m supposed to be invested in.  Instead, I played with different lecture openings, looked at old slides, arranged and rearranged arguments I’ve made countless times before. I thought that I’d just rely on a PowerPoint deck I knew well, get through the 90 minutes, and return to my fog.

Time eventually ran out, I bundled up my preparation as it was, and made my way to campus.

I walked into the room still unclear about what I’d say.  I didn’t know these students (I was the guest lecturer) and, after seeing several “Make America Great Again” t-shirts on campus the previous day, I wasn’t sure what they’d be feeling.  I mentally prepared myself for everything from tears (theirs and mine) to being drawn into an encounter with celebrating Trump supporters.

I began class. I asked them to put away their laptops and had the lingerers in the back come up to fill out the front row seats.

I started honestly: I told them that I didn’t really know how to begin, that I’d never led a class like this on a day like this, and that I wasn’t even sure this was where I wanted to be right now.  Their smiles, nods, and knowing glances at each other put me at ease.

I asked them why they studied Communication.  I told them why I did.  I told them that our jobs as Communication scholars was to figure out why people act together, build meaning, and share consequences.  And I told them that there was never a more important time for us to be world-class at what we did.  I told them that we can’t make the mistake fish make: they don’t know what water is because they’re always swimming in it.  We can’t not think critically about media because it’s all around us and we think we have little power to shape it.

I asked them to take out a piece of paper and free-form write for 7 minutes on two questions: what do you want from online news? And what do we need from online news?  They wrote and I stared out the window.

When the time was up we talked about similarities among their individual desires, where they thought those desires came from, how hard it was to define a “we”, and whose responsibility it was to differentiate a want from a need.  All of their comments were peppered with stories from the previous night: how confused they were about what was happening, how unexpected everything was, how disconnected they’d felt from pro-Trump parts of the country.  It was exhausting, they said, to have to individually create media worlds that challenged what their instincts made them want.  They didn’t know what a public might need from the news.  They assumed that the news media knew.  And they talked about “objectivity” and “balance” and “neutrality” in all the ways students usually do when they first start thinking about journalism.

I then went old-school.  We talked about James Carey’s transmission versus ritual models of communication. I channeled my advisor Ted Glasser to argue that the press exists in traditions not nature (news is never found, it is always made).  We looked at the history of the AP Style Guide to see the contingency of language: e.g., how it took the New York Times a long time to call women anything other than “Miss” or “Mrs.” (“why were woman ever defined by their marital status?” one female student said) and why the Times called gay men “longtime companions” instead of lovers or partners in AIDS plague obituaries.  We talked about the difference between writing “illegal” versus “undocumented” immigrant.  We talked about why the AP captioned an image a young person of colour wading through chest-high water carrying food as a “looter” versus why the Agence-France Presse said two white people in a similar photo were “finding” bread.  We talked about gender, and orientation, and race and I claimed victory when one student said “it seems like objectivity is just a construct.” Yes, yes, yes.

We then looked at Pew stats on social media and the news.  We looked at data, asked questions about where it came from and what it meant, and tried to write headlines for stories that might be written about the findings.  One student said she was “angry” at her Facebook algorithm for keeping from her news about the rest of the country; she’d assumed that her feed of Hillary supporters was similar to everyone else’s.  She didn’t understand why a friend in Georgia texted her to say she was nervous about Trump winning because Hillary’s impending win was “all over social media”.

One student asked when news organizations began endorsing candidates and whether such endorsements mean anything anymore.  We looked at Pew’s stats about how Republicans, Democrats, and Independents use social media differently, questioned their significance, and started asking questions about the people who weren’t showing up in social media statistics.  For me, the best conversation came just as class was about to end.  I asked “if many people are getting their news from social media, why don’t platforms endorse candidates?” and one student replied “because they think they’re being neutral and objective, just like the press thought it was.”

I know there are ongoing debates about the empirical bases for filter bubbles and how it’s incredibly hard—and dangerous—to track media circulation using media effects methodologies.  That wasn’t the point of our discussion.  It was to be fish who noticed and thought about the water.  It was to ask new and uncomfortable questions about platforms and news.  It was to demand different kinds of data.  It was to challenge the wisdom and sincerity of tech leaders who say they’re running technology companies, not media companies.  It was to refuse to accept that media systems are only the responsibility of individuals tasked with figuring out the differences between what individuals want and publics need.  It was to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past: eras not when “we” thought it was okay to run sexist, homophobic, racist media systems but when those with the power to make such systems thought such failures were acceptable artifacts of chasing the myth of objectivity.

I’ll be honest that teaching hasn’t always been the favourite part of my job. I do it, I’m not terrible at it, I sometimes admire and learn from some of my students, and every now and then I get a high from a class well taught or a student who “gets it” and helps us both see the world differently.  But yesterday’s class reminded me of what it sometimes felt like to go to church.  Teaching felt like a form of communion: a way not only to transmit information but critically, reflectively, constructively figure out what it means to live together.  This is the spirit of the media systems we need now more than ever, that I’m re-energized to help build through teaching and scholarship.

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