From the President - How Not to Be a Social Change Spectator

November 2, 2020

Some of us lived through the 1960s and 1970s, a period historians and media have identified as one of revolution, civil rights activism, and groundbreaking societal change. What will historians say about the 2020s? What might keep this period from being marked as an era of profound change?

While the 1960s and 1970s saw significant social and cultural change, not everything that was broken was fixed, not by any means. Furthermore, the period between then and now has been a lesser-known but temporally longer era of backlash and retrenchment that has turned back some of the hard-won changes. Is it any wonder that, in 2016, many who remembered the 1950s fondly (or perhaps remembered representations of the 1950s fondly) jumped back on board Trump’s (originally Reagan's) "Make America Great Again" train? Some would argue that we are still living through the retrenchment, as media pundits are now predicting a return to an early 20th century version of the Supreme Court.

In this brief article, I want to suggest ways Communication educators, professionals, and researchers can participate in the change and activism afoot today—the backlash to the backlash, if you will.

Still, there continue to be mass demonstrations in cities throughout the United States protesting police violence against Black people, other people of color, and other socially disadvantaged people, such as transgender people. The movement to reform the prison industrial complex is ongoing. And, Black Lives Matter has a larger following than perhaps at any other time in its short history. On television and in the streets, we continue to witness civil resistance calling for dramatic change.

One thing that makes the ’60s and ’70s different from the (20)20s is that universities back then were incubators of consciousness raising. They were critical providers of education for young adults who were thirsty for knowledge. College educators joined radical student movements in retooling university curricula to become "relevant education." Teach-ins, speak-outs, and consciousness-raising sessions were integral to the movement and helped make college education also about community engagement, decolonization, social empowerment, and social justice, not simply intellectual history. Communication teachers and scholars were not immune to this zeitgeist. Many developed new courses and adjusted their research programs to answer the social call. They joined movements, attended organizing efforts, wrote about social movements, and brought equivalent amounts of energy and information into the classroom.

In this brief article, I want to suggest ways Communication educators, professionals, and researchers can participate in the change and activism afoot today—the backlash to the backlash, if you will. These ideas have been inspired by my own experiences—both as a professional and in my personal life—engaging in social activism and working in diverse communities inside and outside of the university. At my own university, my colleagues and I are fortunate to have had Black graduate students and other students of color pushing our Department of Communication members not only to do more to support anti-racism, generally, but also to engage in self-reflection and then to forge policies that help advance our department's anti-racism efforts.

To be clear, this would not have happened had our graduate students come from homogeneous backgrounds. Ensuring that graduate cohorts represent the broad diversity of our global society is critical to making needed institutional changes. Many universities throughout the country have made GRE scores elective. Whether this is a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic or not takes nothing away from that fact that it can lead to smarter and more equitable graduate programs and departments that are better attuned to today’s challenges. University and departmental funding to aid directors of graduate studies also can help facilitate diverse recruitment. Holistic admissions policies can be developed. Requiring diversity statements as part of graduate admissions can, too. Working with all faculty and graduate students to recruit more diversely is possible. We need to reimagine what a Communication graduate student looks like and who "we" admit and give the opportunity to shape the future of the Communication discipline and the university.

Of course, diverse graduate cohorts are often argued for by members of a diverse faculty, who, themselves, make departments better, stronger, and smarter. So, faculty recruitment also is essential to creating a diverse department. Minimally, job ads should state the department's, program's, and university's commitment to diversity. Yes. But, diversity is the minimum goal. Indeed, if we are serious about equity and access, the job ads and the descriptions themselves should include the word "race," and particular research emphases, such as "African American Communication," "Queer Media Effects," or "Critical Disability Studies," should be prominent in the job titles, not just words listed in the ad text. Whether they are intentional about it or not, departments signal what research matters and what research does not matter by the choices they make in creating job positions and deciding on who should fill them. Rethinking what jobs we develop, how they are titled, what the advertised job description says, and what is requested in application materials (e.g., a diversity statement) is one step in that direction.

Once a diverse faculty is created, retention of those faculty is necessary. Creating a culture that is welcoming is the first step, and perhaps the hardest. We cannot be bystanders when we witness faculty of color being subject to negative comments and negative treatment in faculty meetings, in the hallways, and in private spaces. We cannot simply, passively stand by as these actions happen, thinking they will somehow just go away. We must proactively work together to create spaces that make our departments and programs not only livable, but also enjoyable for all. In addition to this, though, departments and programs, and certainly colleges and universities, need to commit resources and develop cultures to make it possible to retain the key people they have worked so hard to hire. Without retention, it is impossible to sustain IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access) efforts. 

In addition to attending to graduate admissions and faculty retention, structural changes, such as how we do our daily business in departments, colleges, and on campus, can be made. Comprehensive IDEA strategic plans can assess where organizations are with regard to these efforts and can chart a short-term and long-term course for change. While less comprehensive, policies, such as "Codes of Conduct"; departmental resolutions and statements indicating that the department cares about diversity, sees diversity as part of its definition of excellence, recognizes diversity's significance, and describes the actions it is taking to address its own problems; and workshops for faculty and students about IDEA can all result in positive change. Regularly inviting speakers (even via Zoom) to address matters of social importance, anti-racism, anti-homophobia, or anti-sexism, for example, can help create a culture in which those from marginalized backgrounds feel welcomed and affirmed, and also can help further sensitize the broader community to the racial, cultural, social, and political realities marginalized people face.

At a broad level, committing to a departmental teaching program that addresses IDEA issues in meaningful ways is critical. But, how does one implement such practices? At my own institution, it is common for syllabi to reflect institutional priorities concerning inclusion and care for students. At some institutions, these priorities are universally required or expected to appear on syllabi. Unfortunately, diversity priorities are not required on my campus yet, but that is part of the anti-racism work graduate students and colleagues in my department are currently engaging.

Diversifying readings and choosing materials (such as media) and topics that are sensitive to IDEA issues and that would be interesting to diverse constituencies of students also is vital. The journal article #CommunicationSoWhite (2018, Chakravartty, Kuo, Grubbs, and McIlwain) provides information about the lack of journal articles about race, the scant publication of diverse scholars’ work, the limited inclusion of diverse scholars on editorial boards, and citation practices that often overlook people of color. A similar study on inclusion of race and people of color on Communication syllabi has not yet been published, to my knowledge. Teachers must familiarize themselves with IDEA issues, research concerning race, and the people who do this research, in order to make headway on the teaching front. Additionally, we need to avoid thinking that using people of color as experts in class and teaching our students what people of color have said will somehow be received poorly by students. Part of the education we all need is to learn through practice how to teach diverse scholarship to students.

Finally, just as in the ’60s and ’70s, the changes we have already seen in these areas at our universities have often occurred as a result of undergraduate and graduate student, combined with faculty, activism. If faculty and university administrators support IDEA efforts, they should facilitate (not interfere with) student and faculty efforts to organize in order to create and participate in collective mobilizations.

All of this—which is by no means all of the good work that can be done—is the kind of labor Communication educators, scholars, and practitioners need to do to help meet the current social, political, and cultural challenges. Those of us in universities know that disciplines, universities, programs, and departments move slowly, even when currents beyond the university are moving quickly. If, at this moment, when activists are in the streets calling for an end to police violence, when climate catastrophes cause out-of-control wildfires, hurricanes, and floods with unimaginable frequency, and when a global pandemic changes our very social relations, we hew only to the original reasons that brought us to the academy in the first place and become what some call "social change spectators," we will have lost the opportunity to join with those who are working hardest to effect social change and be on the right side of history.