Luke Winslow

Online Argument, CTL Mini-grant Fall 2015

Instructor: Luke Winslow, Communications

Summary: One of Professor Luke Winslow’s learning outcomes in COMM 482, Communication & Politics, is for students to engage in productive, sustained online political discussions. To achieve this goal, Winslow directed groups of students to address controversial issues on politically motivated sites, encouraging them to analyze and employ effective rhetorical strategies in order to demonstrate communication competencies and act as citizen communicators by promoting improved public deliberation in online communities. The project helped him to align his course learning outcomes with those of the School of Communication by introducing technological and collaborative components to his pedagogy.

Final report

What I Did

I implemented this new teaching innovation for Communication & Politics (COMM 482), comprised of 45 upper-division Communication majors, in the Fall of 2015. The primary learning objective of the course involves teaching students the best practices of the communication discipline in order to understand, analyze, and improve on the conditions of American political discourse. The teaching innovation I developed sought to align with this objective by teaching my students to employ the best practices of their communication major to find a more productive way to communicate in online political arguments. More specifically, this assignment required my Communication & Politics students to identify the discursive source of a politically controversial issue, a particularly partisan political community, or an ideologically-slanted news outlet, think tank, or Super PAC. For example, students can access the websites of climate change deniers, anti-Muslim Facebook pages, and anti-immigration Reddit feeds.

The students were then required to engage in a sustained dialogue for a significant period of time marked by a series of dialogical and robust arguments and counter-arguments. The students were expected to display all the best communication competence practices, including proper conflict resolution techniques, demonstrated evidence of listening skills, acknowledging the validity of the other person’s perspective and arguments, marshaling evidence, avoiding fallacies, seeking common ground, and working toward a productive resolution.

Finally, the students presented their experience to the class in an oral presentation and a reflection essay. Students explained why their chose the discursive source they did, what arguments their interlocutors offered and how they responded, how the argument was resolved, and what they learned from the experience that could inform their understanding of how to improve our political discourse.

How It Went

This new teaching innovation improved on my current teaching practices by aligning with several learning objectives for my course and the School of Communication.

The first student learning objective of the course is to identify communicative strategies in political deliberation in the United States. This objective aligns with the School of Communication’s desire to graduate students with a working knowledge of the core concepts definitions, and assumptions of the communication discipline.  The Online Argument assignment helped to fulfill these objectives by introducing students to the putrid state of our present political discourse occurring commonly (although not exclusively) through technologically mediated channels.  In addition, by requiring the students to make rational arguments, marshal legitimate evidence, and employ the most competent communication practices in the online argument I ensured students first learned the most competence communication practices.  I used our course readings, lectures, and class discussions to ensure the students were well-equipped to employ these techniques. This feature of the assignment also met a second learning objective for the course and the school: students were expected to analyze the ways in which political deliberation has influenced our understanding of the discipline of communication studies.  This objective aligns with the School of Communication’s desire to graduate students with an awareness of the history, nature, scope, and evolution of communication and politics in our discipline.

Second, the Online Argument assignment aided in meeting the student learning objective of the course concerned with encouraging students to analyze and evaluate the rhetorical strategies that influence the effectiveness of political messaging. This objective aligns with the School of Communication’s desire to graduate students who can diagnose the relevance and implications of communication and politics in hypothetical and actual contexts.  Politics is fundamentally concerned with how scarce resources are allocated, and because communication facilitates the meaning making process required to make sense of that resource allocation the communication discipline is well-suited to lend insight into the underlying messages that construct our present political conditions.  Put more simply, our polarized, dysfunctional, and undemocratic condition can be traced back to ineffective communication.  This assignment forced students to locate – in a concrete and vivid way – part of the origins of that ineffective communication that too often move smoothly from crack-pot Internet chat rooms to the Senate floor.

Third, the Online Argument assignment aided students in meeting the learning object of the course focused on encouraging students to become more engaged political communicators.  This objective aligns with the School of Communication’s desire to graduate more competent “citizen” communicators who can contribute to improve public deliberation. My hope was that once the students have personal experience with the toxic state of much of our political discourse, and have demonstrated the communication skills required for offering an alternative, they can now synthesize and integrate competent communication practices into their daily lives.  For example, I hope the students are now able to respond competently the next time their drunken uncle complains about “the immigrants taking all our jobs” or their friend warns them against vaccinating their child because they “knew someone” who vaccinated their baby and she ended up with autism.

All together, I am pleased with the way the assignment met these objectives. As I will detail in the final prompt below, there were certainly ways I would improve the execution of the innovation if I were to do it again (but that is often the case with new pedagogical innovations).  What was most challenging for me was my lack of technological expertise. I have a flip-phone; I am not on Instagram or Twitter; and I am not really familiar with many of the online communities my students are a part of. Initially, I was worried my inexperience in this area would inhibit my ability to both teach the principles reflected in this assignment and facilitate the execution of it. But that did not turn out to be a problem. My students seemed to enjoy the assignment (I have included a PowerPoint deck from my presentation to my School about this assignment here that shows some of my student’s work on it). I received many positive qualitative comments about the class, and specifically, this part of the class, and the overall mean total from my course evaluations were 4.70 – far above our School’s average.

What I Learned

My initial goal with this assignment was to force myself to take deliberate and pro-active steps to strengthen an area of my pedagogy where I am weak: technological aptitude.  I think I did improve on that, but more importantly, the spirit that encouraged me to initially apply for the grant as a way to improve my teaching seems to be a far more important trait that I hope follows me my whole career. There are other weaknesses that I have as a teacher that I hope I can continue to identify and work to improve in this way, including assessment procedures and grading efficiency, and I hope in the near future to also find to improve on those areas.

Most of what did not work and what I would change in the future had to do with the way the way I had the students present their results. Group work is always challenging in this regard, I think, because certain members end up performing a disproportionate amount of work – and this assignment was no exception. I have not figured out how to remedy that, but one specific change might be to make this assignment an individual one for each student, forgo the group presentation, and instead put more assessment emphasis on an individual reflection essay. The reason I did not do that in this case was because I thought the student’s presenting their work on what they found when they engaged in an online argument would be so useful to hear, and my class was too large to have each student present on an individual experience with the assignment.

The group presentations were great. My students did enjoy sharing the specific dialogues they had online. But I need to consider for the future how I can balance the challenges of group work, the most effective presentation format, and the benefit of each student going through this whole process individually.