Emerson students tend to be a focused bunch. They arrive as first-year students knowing what they want to study, and they delve into their majors with passion.
What they don’t do very often is identify with their school. School of Communication Dean Raul Reis hopes that a new initiative this semester will begin to change that.
Last December, students in all School of Communication departments (Communication Sciences and Disorders, Communication Studies, Journalism, and Marketing Communication) received copies of Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. This semester, they’ll engage in a series of activities around the book—together.
“One of the main points for us is finding new ways to connect with students and engage with students, and really form this sense of cohesiveness within the school,” Reis said. “We want the students to [feel like] they belong and like they’re part of something bigger [than themselves].”
On February 21, students and around 10 faculty volunteers will take part in a “hack-a-thon,” brainstorming ways to put different themes of the book to work. They’ll have discussions centered on questions prepared ahead of time by faculty, and come up with concrete ways to communicate those issues, through video, digital publication, posters, or anything they dream up.
“We want students to think in terms of action,” Reis said. “If they had to take the message to a broader group of peers, or if they had to engage in some sort of action around themes of the book, what would that look like?”
The project will culminate on March 26 with a presentation on the “hacks” and a visit from Snyder himself.
The events are open to students across campus, regardless of school, major, or year, Reis said, but they’re targeted at School of Communication first-year and first-year transfer students. That’s because when students first get to college, they tend to either “jump in with both feet,” he said, or—away from their families and high school friends—experience a deep sense of alienation.
“I think we have to play a big role in getting students to feel like they belong, like whatever field of communication they choose to study, we are all connected,” he said.
Communication Studies senior lecturer Heather May, one of the faculty volunteers, is hoping that, in addition to a sense of connection, students will come away with a better sense of how to debate issues civilly.
May volunteered to help with the project because she loves Snyder’s book, particularly the way he breaks down the ways that, while history doesn’t exactly repeat itself, its lessons should inform everything we do today.
One of On Tyranny’s chapters that May is guiding her group through is called “Believe in Truth,” which draws connections between today’s “fake news,” whether that be made-up stories spread by Russian bots or the impulse of many to call every fact they don’t like “fake,” and tactics used by previous generations with different technology.
The ability to think critically and debate civilly are skills that are atrophying on a national level, and teaching “critical dialogue” can be difficult in a college classroom, because oftentimes everyone more or less agrees, she said. But May thinks On Tyranny will elicit several different opinions.
“My hope would be, by using this particular book as a jumping off point, we can help those conversations happen and…help facilitate them,” May said, “so we can see [that] we can actually disagree and talk with each other and have this civil yet crucial discourse.”
Both students and faculty will have the opportunity to learn from discussions or viewpoints outside their usual disciplines.
Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) Associate Professor Ruth Grossman, another faculty volunteer, said due to its more scientific, clinical nature and its being housed in a different building from the other three School of Communication departments, CSD can sometimes feel a bit removed from the rest of the school. She said this initiative has given her and her colleagues the chance to highlight the kinds of issues and questions that they hone in on, and the ways their discipline can add value to a dialogue.
One of her group’s book excerpts deals with eye contact, and the relationship-building value of looking someone in the eye and smiling. But as a CSD faculty member, Grossman knows that some people, due to neurological conditions, injury, or shyness, aren’t able to do that.
She plans to ask students to think about ways someone could signal support without making eye contact.
“There are a lot of pieces [in the book] where you can take something that seems like a straightforward point and broaden it to include a larger swath of humanity,” Grossman said.
“Whenever we do talk to each other across disciplines, it’s…informative, and it’s interesting to see how other people see the world,” she said.
Looking at issues from different perspectives is nothing new for Jasmine Williams ’20, who is taking part in the initiative through Communication Studies Chair Greg Payne’s Argument and Advocacy class. Williams is a double major in Communication Sciences and Disorders, which she describes as “very science- and fact-driven,” and Communication Studies, which is more about politics and public policy.
Williams said she approaches her CSD studies “not necessarily in a therapy or rehabilitation way, but what can I do to make their lives better in general [and] give them a better quality of life.”
Because she has a foot in each major, she sees firsthand how “segregated” the majors at Emerson can be.
“I kind of like the idea [of a school-wide project],” Williams said. “It gives a sense of community on Emerson’s campus.”