Communication and Social Change

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About the Course

Of all the courses that I have taught regularly over the years, this one has changed the most. Perhaps the reason is that no topic is more attuned to the character of communication as a discipline than communication and social change. As a result, a course on that subject becomes a very sensitive barometer of changing climates, and perhaps even changing weather.

Well here we go again. Is there a more “in” term these days than “change”? We are in the midst of a presidential campaign in which every candidate without exception is championing change. But as each of them talks about it, there is little similarity in what they mean by it. Although we are not interested in studying political campaigns in this course, the current campaign may well be a Rorschach test on various approaches to change we will study.

And then there are social movements. One of the 20th centuries great vehicles of change are themselves being altered nearly beyond recognition by the technology of the internet and the globalization of contact it has spawned. Ironically, the growth of transnational and pancultural movements has been matched by the growth of localism. This has dramatically changed the nature of social movement. The case that the modern era is giving away to the postmodern with its lack of centrality seems more cogent every year.

So, we have a veritable smorgasbord of change to pick from as we examine communication and social order. All this is good, because one of the goals for the semester is to understand the variety of ways in which communication shapes social order and, with it, social change. We live our lives in a dialectic of permanence and change. We confront new events each day. We interpret them in communication with others, sharing understandings of ways to respond. We must respond in familiar ways or the coordination of daily life becomes too disjointed. But if we do not adapt to the changes we encounter, we fail to adjust to a changing world. Thus, change occurs and communication lies at the center of the process. We will concentrate on three modes of change:

In each of these modes of change we will seek out important communication events and study them briefly to understand the basic process which links communication with the way we live our lives. The three modes for change have different models with which we describe communication. They require different ways of understanding the forces of change. We want to study their differences, but also their similarities, for taken together they mark the ways in which communication shapes the way we live.

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Who is the course for?

People who are fascinated by social change and particularly by communication’s place in it. After that, a great variety of interests should find a place in the course: political communication, attitude change, persuasion, rhetorical criticism, the creation of publics, social influence of media, public relations, etc. You should also be interested in discovery by research. I will help guide you through the learning process, but the focus will be on learning by immersing yourself in communication as it reshapes social form.

Typically this course enrolls students from several majors and with different background experiences. I embrace this diversity of perspective and consider it a strength of the course. I strive to make the course worthy of the interests that bring a diverse group of students to the course. To that end, however, I ask everyone to abide by a few ground rules:

Thank you for your attention to these issues and welcome to the course.

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What should you know and/or be able to do after completing the course?

I expect two things. First, I expect you to have a broadened sense for the variety of ways that communication intersects with social change. Second, I expect you to develop an ability to work effectively as a researcher with actual discourse. You will know where to look for the data of your study communication and what to do to develop knowledge that contributes to the dialectic of permanence and change.

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What will the course be like?

There are four types of activities that will mark our work this semester. First, there will be some time when I will be presenting perspective to you. I hesitate to call these lectures, since I want them to be more interactive with you asking questions and relating them to your knowledge. But I will be primarily responsible for these sessions. The literature we will be considering in this course is not a unified literature. Indeed, we will be reading three different literatures. It is the need to tie the literatures together into an overall perspective that necessitates some presentation of perspective. There will be from a half to a full class period on each unit.

Second, we will have discussions of reading material that frames the relationship between communication and social change. I will be posting some questions or activities on the website to assist in stimulating your reading. These will help us correlate our approaches to change. I have found that such discussions are more fruitful if we begin the discussion by generating a list of topics we want to discuss, and that you prepare a brief statement (about a page will suffice) to get us started on the discussion. These may be generated by things you fail to understand, questions you have about material, material that strikes you as particularly insightful, an application that yielded insight for you, places where you think the author is wrong, or any other topic you wish to discuss.

Third, following a consideration of the theory and methods of studying social change, we will be studying instances of social change in some depth. I have chosen as subjects social change from the past, the present, and arguably the future. We will use different processes of study, but they share the characteristic of seeking to apply our theoretical understandings to real world change.

Fourth, we will be working toward a semester project. I will try to carve out some class time for some discussions of your progress on these projects. Although our methods nod to social science, they remain qualitative, humanistic, and interpretive.

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Texts

At additional times during the semester I will ask you to go to the library or the internet to capture discourse.

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Assignments

Seminar Argument. You will present an argument on either political change or social movements based in our study of the Clinton health care process or the movement we choose to examine. (Generally, I will let you pick, but do want the number of presentations to be relatively equal.) Present a fifteen minute argument about communication strategies in this instance of change. I expect these to clearly identify a thesis, to develop that thesis using the things you have learned, and to support that thesis. I expect you will rely somewhat on secondary sources here, including the work of others in this seminar during the previous week’s discussion. You need not comment on all the discourse; you simply need to make a cogent statement about the campaign or some message in the campaign. Political change due February 26; movements due March 25. 30 percent of the grade.

Your research team. Those presenting on political change will constitute a research team on the Clinton health care process. Those presenting on movements will constitute a research team on whatever movement we choose to examine. The primary purpose of these teams is to guide the entire seminar in conducting research on their topic. I do not expect the team to do all the research for the seminar, but to make assignments. The team should assess the possible research avenues and formulate a distribution that minimizes our duplication of effort. Then, they will lead the discussion on the week we deal with their topic. The team will all receive identical grades to be 10 percent of the semester grade.

Major Research Project. You will prepare a paper on the communicative strategies in some moment of social change. The project you select may be on any of the units of the course, on discourse of your choice. This paper should be about 3000-5000 words. This should be a project that makes an original contribution to research and works in primary sources. Be certain you narrow your focus sufficiently to make your project possible in an essay of that length. I encourage these projects to be related to the dissertation research or to serve as seminar papers for MA students. Please indicate on a title page or a author note: (1) the word count as produced by your word processor, and (2) the provenance of your work as explained below. Due one week after your oral presentation of the project to the seminar. 40 percent of grade.

Oral Presentation of the Project. A week before your project is due in written form, you will make a twenty minute oral presentation of the project that will be followed by response from the class. Due May 6 or 13. 10 percent of grade.

Your Overall Quality of Contribution to the seminar during the semester will be the final portion of your grade. 10 percent.

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Grading

Papers and presentations will be graded on: (1) insight or significance of project; (2) cogency and clarity in explanation and argument in all assignments; plus (3) quality of writing or presentation; and (4) following of proper form in the written assignment. An "A" paper will be superior in all ways. I recommend Chicago form, although APA or MLA are acceptable.

Late papers? You may give me a request for a paper to be late before the due date of the paper. You will need to request a form to make such a request, or download it from my website. That request should include a new due date. Papers that do not arrive by the due date will have a grade assigned, but have no comments. Obviously, no late group work or oral presentation.

Provenance of your work. Scholars working on projects – your paper for this course being an example – always see their work within a broader frame of reference than a single iteration. Projects inevitably balance novelty with long periods of development. I expect that your work in this seminar will be both original and a part of your ongoing program of research. To facilitate your thinking on this relationship I offer the following observations:

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Attendance

I am assuming your attendance at every session. You will be missed.

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