5 Questions with Sumana Chattopadhyay

Sumana Chattopadhyay
May 10, 2022

Sumana Chattopadhyay is an Associate Professor of Digital Media and Performing Arts in the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University. Chattopadhyay’s research interests focus on public opinion, political campaigns, and cross-cultural media coverage of environmental and migration crises. Chattopadhyay has been active in NCA’s Political Communication Division and Mass Communication Division, having chaired both divisions, served on the NCA Legislative Assembly on behalf of both divisions, and participated in convention planning for the Mass Communication division for the 2011 NCA Annual Convention and for the Political Communication Division during the 2019 NCA Annual Convention. She also served as a member of NCA’s Leadership Development Committee from 2020 to 2022. At Marquette, Chattopadhyay teaches a variety of courses focusing on political campaigns, media and politics, social campaigns, media management, viewing television through a critical lens, television as a global industry, and international communication, media theory, and research methods.

1. In a new article published in NCA’s Journal of Applied Communication Research, you and your colleagues Rachel Italiano and Fanny Ramirez examine U.S. adults’ perceptions regarding police use of force. What were your findings and how do they relate to current criticism of the police? 
Our JACR study examines how U.S. adults define police use of force and how such perceptions could relate to police–civilian interactions. The findings of the study demonstrate that citizens’ attitudes toward police use of force are split between pro- and anti-law enforcement stances. Pro-law enforcement individuals look upon use of force as integral to police officers’ jobs, have positive emotions toward the term, and are willing to offer the benefit of the doubt to police officers while blaming victims for the need for use of force. Anti-law enforcement individuals associate “police use of force” with negative emotions, weapon imagery, injustice, racial bias, abuse of power, and harm or death. 
Further, results show that those who are young, Democratic-leaning, and of lower socio-economic status, and who have had prior contact with the police are most likely to express anti-law enforcement attitudes. Drawing from Communication Accommodation Theory, the study recommends that police officers should model their communication to be more accommodating toward the needs, concerns, and fears of civilians, particularly marginalized individuals, helping to build a climate that is characterized by less violent police–civilian interactions.

2. In the recent volume On the Vocation of the Educator in this Moment, you authored a chapter about teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. How did the pandemic change your teaching?
As mentioned in my chapter in On the Vocation of the Educator in this Moment, this pandemic has changed my teaching in quite a few ways. What started as a challenge ended up revitalizing my teaching. During the fall of 2020, many faculty at my university, myself included, had to figure out ways to accommodate both in-person and online students in the same class. 

One class that I was teaching during that time was Television Criticism. For this class, I had to figure out a way to teach that would create a similarly immersive experience for both in-person and online students. Having never before catered to both kinds of students in the same class, I was a little anxious about how things would go, given that the goal of the course is not just to impart knowledge about concepts, but also to teach students to be critical thinkers and to develop a deeper understanding of the TV industry. 

To be able to accommodate these complex goals in the new environment, I was forced to innovate and adapt my teaching. I realized that regular, lecture-based course experiences would not be successful in inspiring critical thinking. So, I decided to mix things up and created a course plan that required students to attend a regular lecture (either in person or on Microsoft Teams) during one day of the week, and then do work at home on the other class day. On the “at home” work day, students would read assigned material and my notes about a specific TV show and scholarly analysis related to that show. Then, they would watch an episode of the show and participate in an online discussion board. While this reduced the number of in-person class days, it also encouraged students to engage in more interactive and immersive learning. 

Prior to the start of the pandemic, I had always used discussion boards in my courses, but my discussion board questions back then had only assessed whether students were reading the content assigned for class. With the course redesign prompted by the pandemic, however, I created a more interesting online experience designed to inspire students to interact extensively with the shows and their characters, while also extrapolating these ideas emerging from these connections to concepts learned in class. 

I designed discussion board prompts that would be perceived as “fun” by students. I would ask students about their favorite characters in the episode they had watched, their favorite scene, and other questions that were specific to the concepts they had read about that week. For their posts, students were required both to respond to my questions in the prompt, and to respond to another classmate’s post on the board. I always perused the discussion board posts after and added screenshots from different student responses to the in-person lecture slides for the following day of class, with the student respondent names shared in each slide. 

The strategy paid off! The discussion board posts were in-depth and insightful, people interacted well with one another on the board, and when we discussed the responses during class time, there was always meaningful discussion. This is a practice I still follow, and discussion board and in-class participation continue to be strong in my classes. 

The pandemic also encouraged me to exercise grace with my students to a greater extent than I had in the past. This pandemic has highlighted the systemic inequities that exist in society and within the student population, and it has also underscored the mental health challenges that current students are grappling with more than previous generations. Sometimes, all a student needs to be successful is someone who is willing to empathize with them. As a result of this attitude shift, my students recently identified me at a campus meeting with the University administration as one of the faculty members who is doing an extraordinary job in helping students navigate another pandemic semester.

3. You’ve researched and taught at Marquette University in Wisconsin since 2006. How has Marquette allowed you to balance teaching and scholarship? 
One thing I love about Marquette University is its teacher-scholar model. When I first joined the university as an Assistant Professor, I did not quite understand how crucial such a model would be to my development as an academic. During the early years, I struggled a bit with how to balance my teaching with the demands of research that I needed to fulfill in order to get tenure. However, with experience, this became less of a challenge. 

I started making better use of the summertime, using those months to make headway on bigger projects while tackling shorter projects during the school year or the winter break. And Marquette’s generous sabbatical policy also helped me considerably. During my 15-plus years at Marquette, I have been awarded three semester-long sabbaticals that allowed me to focus exclusively on my research. During these sabbaticals, I realized how much I love the teacher-scholar model. Being away from young minds in the classroom during those months made me appreciate how my teaching enhances my research. My spirit of inquiry has been enriched as a result of the many conversations I have with my students on a broad range of topics. Further, I have come back from every sabbatical not only having made some progress on my research projects but also having recharged my batteries and feeling more energetic about my teaching. 

4. You’ve been active in NCA’s Political Communication Division. What is the value of being involved in division leadership? 
I have been active in NCA’s Political and Mass Communication Divisions over the years in many different roles (including chairing both divisions). Division leadership is a great opportunity to grow as an academic and to give back to the discipline. Though it can feel like a slightly daunting responsibility at first, that anxiety subsides with time, once one realizes that there is a lot of support from the other officers working for the division and from NCA itself. This has been the case for me during my stint with both the divisions. 

Further, while working in these roles, I developed many lifelong friendships with colleagues who also were involved with NCA, and I extended my network of connections with other academics. I have also had moments when I had to learn how to respond to crises and conflict, but these have been excellent growth opportunities that have helped me build the skillset required to take on other challenging leadership roles at my own campus. 

I am currently a member of the NCA Mass Communication Division’s Diversity Committee. During our last meeting, I realized that by serving as the program planner for two NCA divisions, I have developed a strong understanding of the logistics of conference planning and the challenges and opportunities inherent to the process – something that can help as a regular NCA member and also in other future academic leadership roles.

Being involved in division leadership also makes one more visible to other members. As a woman of color, I have realized that my leadership example empowers other members, especially young scholars who happen to be people of color. I felt this even more strongly during the 2021 NCA Annual Convention when I was awarded the “Service to the Division” Award by NCA’s Political Communication Division. Right after that awards ceremony, a young NCA scholar, who happens to be from my part of India (and who I had not met prior to that very moment), came up to me and said it was truly empowering to see a Bengali woman win a service award from a large NCA division. 

5. Within NCA’s Political Communication Division, you’ve had a few different roles. Which was your favorite and why? 
Out of all my leadership roles in NCA’s Political Communication Division, my favorite has been the Chair role. I took on the position right before the pandemic started, so we did not get to meet in person during that year’s convention. Despite that, our division showcased amazing research that year and we had a well-attended Zoom business meeting, where some important division policy changes were discussed. Seeing the energy of members at that meeting made me realize that even the restrictions imposed by the pandemic could not dampen that strong sense of community we all feel as a part of NCA and NCA’s Political Communication Division. 

As the division’s Chair, I was lucky to be involved in establishing the book, research paper, and dissertation award committees that year. During this process, I tried to pay attention to how we could broaden racial, ethnic and gender representation in these committees. Over the years, NCA’s Political Communication Division has endeavored to become more diverse, and this was one of the contributions I wanted to make toward this effort. 

Being program planner for the division as Vice Chair during the 2019 NCA Annual Convention also was enjoyable because it exposed me to many interesting research projects happening in the early days of the U.S. 2020 presidential campaign. Being able to thematically organize panels on the various interesting research themes was an experience I was very happy to be a part of.

Watch a video with additional insights from Sumana!