Authors criticize how communications is taught

LAWRENCE – Asking basic questions about her field of study and teaching has led Meggie Mapes, assistant specialist and introductory course director for the University of Kansas Department of Communication Studies, to oppose “punitive” approaches to teaching and instead to favor an “emancipatory” method of education that takes student input deeply into account.

That is the gist of an “agenda-setting theory essay” Mapes co-wrote titled “Against the grain,” first published online April 23 in the journal Communication Education.

Mapes and her co-authors — Lore/tta LeMaster, B. Liahnna Stanley, Angela Labador, Ana Isabel Terminel Iberri, Megan Stephenson and Tyler S. Rife — examined over a century’s worth of writings in the journal (originally called The Quarterly Journal of Speech and then The Speech Teacher) to question the assumptions they found there. In their telling, it’s a damning list: criminalizing Blackness, erasing Indigeneity and working to secure US empire near and far through a compulsory disciplinary focus on US-centrism.

And that’s just for starters.

“Critical communications pedagogy” is just a jumping-off point, the authors write, “to advance what we understand as far more crucial political demands that meet our contemporary political moment: Decolonization of Land, Water, and Body-Mind-Spirit; Abolition of Prisons and Police; and Transnational Solidarity Against US empire.”

Mapes knows it’s a lot to consider for someone who only knows of John Dewey as “one of the most prominent American scholars in the first half of the 20th century.”

“If we want to understand how our discipline came to be, then we need to really look at the first journals that were so important,” Mapes said. “And it’s so reliant on Dewey, who clearly uses language that says ‘Education is about getting rid of the savages.’ So it’s about creating a good citizenry.

“But, of course, that citizenry is supposed to look and act a certain way. And we, in our discipline, have used communication as the vehicle to try to train people, often, to look a certain way, to use professional communication under these conditions.”

The co-authors write that “the Dewey-ian philosophical core has led the discipline to champion nationalist and imperialist discourses and agendas through educative means and under the guise of advancing and securing democracy.”

Following that thread leads Mapes and her co-authors to question all sorts of “settler colonial” assumptions and to argue, instead, for communication education that is emancipatory in outlook.

“We insist,” they write, “on abolishing punitive practices in the classroom that penalize difference and dehumanize students, like attendance, participation, plagiarism software, and other carceral technologies of surveillance. We refuse US centrism and US English hegemony.”

“This article is asking us to recognize that most of those questions are based in a particular history, and maybe that’s not the only way,” Mapes said. “Maybe that’s not the only route to how education could look.”

Mapes said that, as much as possible, she tries to incorporate the philosophy outlined in the article in her classroom.

“What we say in classrooms really matters,” she said. “When we talk about classrooms as not being of the real world, that’s not fair, because of course classrooms are the real world. How we treat students and models for them in classrooms matters, so they’re not neutral. They are political spaces that we should think of as such.”

image: Meggie Mapes in the classroom. Credit: Rick Hellman/KU News Service

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