Rethinking the Christian college communication curriculum

Keynote address, Campbell University’s Faith and Communication Conference, April 1, 2011.

One hundred years ago, at an alumni reunion on an April night, Woodrow Wilson asked a sobering question:

Would Abraham Lincoln have been a better instrument for the country’s good if he had been put through the processes of one of our modern colleges?

Wilson was president of Princeton at the time, not yet the president of the United States. And he said the answer was no.

He also said that the processes to which a college student are subjected do not make him serviceable to the country, and that “the colleges of this country must be reconstructed from the top to the bottom.” He said this was a “moral adventure.”

Well, here we are 100 year later, and the answer is still no. And reconstruction has yet to begin in earnest.

James Wright, who recently retired as president of Dartmouth, says today we confuse certification with education. And that without college, Lincoln understood what educated persons must understand—their place in history, in culture, and in the world.

In recounting this story and Wright’s response for the Pittsburgh Gazette, David Shribman says Lincoln figured out who he was and what he stood for without sitting in a seminar room or going to the college writing center. He studied history and respected tradition. But more than that, he imagined a world where our best traditions were enhanced and our worst ones eliminated.

Colleges today still fail to get us there.

The problem we face

Heather Wilson, who has served on Rhodes Scholarship selection committee for over 20 years, wrote in the Washington Post that students “seem less able to grapple with issues that require them to think across disciplines or reflect on difficult questions about what matters and why.”

They know how to manage a group, but not how to set an agenda, she said. They are, in her words, “curiously unprepared and superficial.” And faculty themselves are part of this inability to think more broadly, as we face more pressure to publish in ever more obscure journals.

But we live in a world where Rebecca Black, an unknown 13-year old, received over 65 million pages views on You-Tube last month for a fairly banal song about Friday night. In such a world, our student don’t even know what the questions are, much less how to answer them.

They are not without ambition or will. They just lack understanding or wisdom. The list of reasons for this is no doubt very long.

But let me suggest two of them: the lack the capacity for reflection and the humility it inspires.

In her new book,Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Sherry Turkle discusses our “edited lives.” A Facebook profile, she notes, is a performance, not a disclosure. She argues that we are more connected but less engaged than ever, and “the triumphalist narrative of the Web” is “not the whole story.”

Apparently the digital natives are not as happy as we imagine. Her interviews with teens indicate texting is not their medium of choice because it’s convenient. Anyone knows this who ever tried to type with her thumb. Rather it’s a way to hide our reactions and give us time to think. But it appears to have been tossed off casually, making a text message every bit as fake as if it were on Facebook appear spontaneous.

They are “on” all the time, and this phenomenon is echoed in our own adult worlds where there is no escape from the constant demands of being connected. Without time to think, however, we never consider the possibility that we might be wrong. And a different force is in play here. How could we possibly be wrong when everyone is above average?

In Everyone’s a Winner: Life in Our Congratulatory Culture, sociologist Joel Best celebrates this unfortunate reality.

There are literary prizes for 12 different categories of detective fiction, for example. Now there are 10 instead of five Oscar nominees for Best Picture and over 100 Grammy awards. Seriously, there is an award for everything.

And you can always congratulate yourself, as often as your parents and your teachers do. You can count the hits on your blog or You-tube video. As reviewer Sam Schulman observes, “The congratulatory culture makes every one of us, in a metaphorical sense, an entrepreneur with unlimited capital and no competitors.”

On the academic side, some schools now have dozens of valedictorians. Grade inflation is rampant. And we graduate more and more students who can’t think and have no idea that they can’t.

The price we pay

All this is purchased at such enormous financial cost as to threaten the entire infrastructure of what we euphemistically call higher education. Over the last 25 years the price of even a public university education has increased from $2500 a year to over $60,000.

Parents and students have gone into debt to achieve this. Parents have taken second jobs. Grandparents have sold their stocks. Students have sold their souls and hocked their futures. And everywhere we look the evidence mounts that it’s not worth it.

I can offer many reasons why we can blame this on the internet. But I can’t offer any why we can’t blame it on ourselves.

For one thing, we have failed to keep up. We fail to keep up with our own disciplines and especially our technology. Rarely can a student explain to me what an RSS feed is or explain how a wiki works. Even more rarely, however, can I find a faculty member who can do so.

Very few of us consider the ways in which technology generally and the internet specifically are shaping how are students think and what they think about. This is important, even if McCluhan is only partly right.

Nor do our curriculums adequately confront the challenges of reflection or the opportunity of interdisciplinary thinking, even though communication is better situated to do this than most other disciplines.

The forces we face

So where to start.

This is not an exhaustive list, of course. But I’ve been thinking about three trends that will impact our programs and our students and are often unaccounted for in our conversations about curriculum.

The first of these is individualization.

Search technologies will continue the drive toward an audience of one. With ad words, the messages on your screen already relate to the thing you searched for and this will become the standard for every medium. What John Battelle called a “database of desire ” in Search will prove irresistible, the holy grail of marketing.

But it will also become the expectation of any student in the future. Our cookie cutter approach, so grounded in the industrial revolution will not survive in the Twitterverse. This is not because our students lack the capacity for reflection, which they do. Nor is it because we have no responsibility to ground them in the history and literature of our field, because we do.

Individualization is important because the options for their lives, and the sources they can consider, and the tools at their disposal are multiplying more rapidly than our current system can manage.

So we have to rethink how to do this, at a time when the only thing that does not change is the truth itself, and even that is under attack. So each student’s education can be different. And will have to be. We kid ourselves to think this is not true.

The second of these trends is localization.

As all this is happening, the demand for local messages is also increasing. Video for local merchants on web-based centers of community generated content will provide endless opportunities for students. Even when every computer screen becomes an individualized newspaper, TV or radio station, all news is still local.

This seems like a paradox in a global economy. But it is true. Those around us are trying to differentiate themselves in a local context. And our greatest opportunities may be toward those who are the least among us. Our students’ careers will be built on helping them do this. And we must help them do this in ways that reflect the character of Christ.

That’s the value of localization. In a world where students want to save the world we must teach them to serve their neighbor, bringing more than hype to the table.

Entertainment is the new standard.

As we move forward, branded content and messages with high entertainment value will be at a premium. Good story telling with high aesthetic and technical standards will be at a premium, even in local markets. Opportunities for our students to produce, perform and publish original work will explode.

But here is where we can offer wisdom and teach responsibility. Technical expertise is everywhere. Good judgment is not.

Digital content can be, and will be, edited in India. But somehow we need to have more conversations with our students about which story gets told in the first place. We have to talk about the wisdom of the ages and the needs of our neighbors and the responsibility of any believer.

We don’t solve these problems by adding a course in social media. Nor do we resolve them by ignoring the implications of its constant hectoring in our lives.

So what are the implications of all this for those of us called to teach students today who will live in tomorrow?

Where to begin

I can think of three places to start:

Context is critical.

Our students need to actually know what they are talking about. This means we should broaden our programs rather than narrow them. We should return to required minors and add general educations courses.

But we also need magazine subscriptions instead of textbooks, aggregators with RSS feeds for our specific classes; these are the sorts of things needed to keep students current and marketable.

They need much more. They need to have read the classics in our field and be able to ground the stories they tell in the best traditions and values of our faith. And we will have to help them think about this because they don’t know how.

We must think about, and write about, and talk about ancient ideas. And we must relate them to specific contemporary issues, technologies and opportunities, not just the most recent pop-culture artifact, although that’s a good place to start.

Collaboration is important

There is so much information and so many tools that very few of us can find or produce the best solution on our own. Our teaching should reflect this, and teamwork has to extend far beyond the largely ineffectual group projects we assign today.

Required work with collaborative web2.0 tools such as wikis, and earnest useful collaboration on meaningful projects with working professionals should become the norm. New partnerships with industry professionals and web-based collaboration and media convergence should be commonplace.

We are our brother’s keeper. And we are our brother’s helper. We have taught interpersonal and small group communication for decades. But we know very little about how this works in distributed communities. We should learn this and teach this.

Calling is essential.

In all this, our calling as Christians to “speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15)” should distinguish us and our students.

And it gives us an advantage in a world where we are both more and less connected. In fact, people who understand their message and their motive will succeed as the glut of information heightens a need for meaning and authentic relationships.

Parker Palmer explores this theme, citing Tocqueville’s “habits of the heart” as a way to restore our capacity for community. These habits require reflection that enables discrimination. Everyone is not a winner and not all ideas are important.

As Palmer puts it, students today need humility and chutzpah, the abilities to listen carefully with respect and to speak clearly with conviction.

As departments, we often stress listening and speaking. But this is not enough. It’s respect and conviction students lack. Even a cursory glance at comments on a news article or a you-tube videos reveals that this no longer informs our civic discourse. But respect and conviction should inform the conversations in our classroom and in our student’s careers.

To speak the truth in love is their calling. And it is ours.

A sense of calling enables them to manage an overwhelming flood of change in a world where connection is not the same as community. The toolbox for such a calling certainly must include Twitter. But it also includes the truth of redemption and a capacity for reflection.

Equipping them in this way is the moral adventure to which Wilson called us. But it is more than that.

It is the work of God in the world and the foundation for a communication curriculum that joins him.

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