Teaching the “Dark Side” of Communication, Part 2: The What and Why (by Jeremy Osborn)

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Osborn_109x163Teaching the “Dark Side” of Communication, Part 2: The What and Why

Jeremy Osborn, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Communication, Cornerstone University (jeremy.osborn@cornerstone.edu)

My “relationship” with the “dark side”[1] of communication began, at least from a pedagogical and scholarly standpoint, in 2007.  I was only three years removed from completing my doctoral program and had spent a great deal of time and energy studying compatibility, marriage, and the myriad factors that contribute to romantic relationship success (and failure).  Anyone who has devoted significant time to studying relationships can attest to the fact that humans are often at both their best and their worst in the context of romantic relationships.  In spite of that, though, research on relationships has traditionally been disproportionately focused on the “best” side of the coin—a trend that Brian Spitzberg and William Cupach described as indicative of the “honeymoon phase” of relationship scholarship and the tendency of researchers to collectively adopt a “Pollyana-ish” view of their subject.[2] Having seen that tendency myself, I was very interested in exploring this other side of interpersonal research and bringing it into the classroom in a more explicit way.

That began a nine-year journey in which I have taught stand-alone courses on the dark side in multiple formats at multiple institutions (both Christian and secular[3]), and have also worked to infuse this material throughout the Communication Studies curriculum.  In this guest blog post and the one that follows it, I will share some of what I have learned during this journey.  This first post will unpack exactly what the dark side is and why it is an important and useful topic for us as Christian Communication Studies scholars and teachers to tackle.  The second post will offer suggestions and techniques for teaching the dark side and integrating it with Christian worldview.  For those of you who, like me, tend to think of things through the lens of the Journalist’s Six Questions, this first post will address the “what,” “why,” and to some extent “where,” while the second post will address the “how.”

What is the dark side of communication?

It would be impossible for us to effectively delve into the subject of teaching the dark side without ensuring we have a common understanding of what the term “dark side” means. Most people initially assume that the dark side refers to areas of communication that are negative or harmful.  This is a logical assumption to make, but one that is not wholly incorrect.  As a starting point, Spitzberg and Cupach identified seven “themes” of dark side research, and virtually all of them focused in some way on the negative aspects of human communication.[4] These themes included the “dysfunctional, distorted, distressing, destructive aspects of human behavior,” “deviance, betrayal, transgression, violation,” “direct and indirect implications of human exploitation,” and “attraction to the study of the unattractive, unwanted, distasteful, and repulsive.”[5]  Similarly, during roughly the same time period, Robin Kowalski compiled additional scholarship in this arena in a separate, edited volume in which she described the topics as “aversive interpersonal behaviors.”[6] Topics that have fallen into these categories in past scholarship include gossip, deception, secrets, rumors, revenge, sexual coercion, infidelity, psychological abuse, relational transgressions, intentional embarrassment, social aggression and bullying, negative emotional expression, and a variety of others.

By the time Spitzberg and Cupach published the second edition of The Dark Side of Interpersonal Communication in 2007, their treatment of the topic had evolved to thinking of dark and “bright” side behaviors as existing within a four quadrant grid in which the axes represent normatively appropriate vs. normatively inappropriate behaviors and functionally productive vs. functionally destructive behaviors.[7] Communication behaviors that are both appropriate and functional would be the only true “bright side” behaviors, while behaviors falling into any of the remaining three quadrants can be considered dark by at least some measure and understanding of the term.  In other words, a large percentage of the communication behaviors we encounter contain elements of both light and dark. Even when we consider these axes, categorizing any particular communication episode proves problematic.  Who determines moral appropriateness and functionality?  If I spread a negative rumor about a co-worker, for example, that rumor could functionally help me get a promotion ahead of that co-worker and could even focus on an area that others would consider acceptable to discuss.  Does that make my rumor light or dark?  Using the functional productiveness criterion, one could argue that spreading this rumor is somewhat light, but most would argue it as being dark based on the moral appropriateness criterion. It is those complexities that make ambiguity an inherent part of studying and teaching the dark side, but it is precisely that complexity that makes it such fertile ground for cultivating critical thinking and analytical skills in students.  In my experience, many students enter higher education with relatively simplistic schemas for understanding the social world.  They often believe the lines between light and dark are more clearly drawn than, in reality, they are.  Dark side content pushes those boundaries for students.

Considering those ideas as a general backdrop, I want to shift attention now to some specific dark side topics and how the integration of a Christian worldview radically shifts the way those subjects can be handled in the classroom.  Given the ambiguities discussed previously, it may seem as though settling on topics could prove challenging, and it certainly can.  When choosing among dark side topics, I consider several things.  First, there are some behaviors that almost everyone considers morally inappropriate and functionally destructive (to at least some parties) in most situations, and these are logical topics to include.  For example, sexual coercion is a topic that is virtually wholly dark.  Second, I look for topics that are relatable to students, and that spur on both interactive discussion and introspective self-reflection.  Topics such as gossip, revenge, and jealousy resonate in personal ways with virtually all students.  Finally, I look for topics that tend to be marginalized or ignored in traditional course work.  An alternative way to look at the dark side is to consider those areas of social life that reside in the shadows—topics that researchers, and lay persons alike, have traditionally been hesitant to address.  Topics such as unrequited love and stalking fall into that category. Although this is a starting point, the final decisions are ultimately a function of the outcomes you are seeking to achieve and the structure and content of your curriculum.

If you stop for a moment and consider the topics I have listed thus far and how you might cover them in class, there are likely a few thoughts that come to mind.  When I initially developed the dark side course, the burning, unanswerable question we seemed to be left with each day was, “How can there be so many behaviors that we almost universally regard as wrong but that virtually all of us encounter on a regular basis?”  There was something immensely unsettling and unsatisfying about that question and the emotions that accompanied it.  The class was virtually always full and students were stretched in important ways by it, but the semester ended with this lingering sense that the big “why” question behind the awful things humans do to one another was never really answered.

When I came to Cornerstone I began approaching the dark side through the Christian lens of creation, fall, and redemption.  This perspective offered two things I could never bring to bear on the topics when teaching them from a non-Christian standpoint.  First, it offered an answer to the lingering “why” question.  Beginning with the fundamental truth that we live in a broken world in which everything has been warped, twisted, and corrupted by the Fall allows us to at least understand behaviors such as sexual coercion at some systemic level that extends beyond an individual’s selfish choice.  Second, it shifts the end point from one of almost hopeless resignation to one of hope and redemption.  That is not to say that there was a complete sense of resignation in my prior approach to the course—we did discuss how to prevent things like sexual coercion and how to navigate difficult events such as relational transgressions. However, there was a reactive, damage-control approach to them.  Integrating the concept of redemption and what it might look like for us to act as agents of God’s love and redemption in a broken world changes the narrative in a significant way.  It makes the end of the semester a time for discussing how we can go into the world and be salt and light instead of how we can go into the world defensively, with eyes open for inevitable, powerful evil.

Why is it important to teach the dark side?

That brings me to the overarching question of why a dark side course is a valuable curricular addition, or even why we might integrate some of these topics into other courses.  The answer to that question has several dimensions, and for the first I want to draw on what I discussed in my first guest blog post for the CCSN.  In that post I discussed at length the importance of making program- and course-level decisions based on learning outcomes—the principle of “backward design.”  When I initially developed the dark side course, it came following an assessment of programmatic and departmental needs that culminated in two identified needs—a need for an advanced course in interpersonal communication and a need for courses that promote critical thinking and diverse perspectives.  As the previous section of this post highlights, an upper-division course on the dark side of communication accomplishes both of these well. At the general level, regardless of whether an institution has a faith-based focus or not, dark side content promotes and cultivates particular perspectives and abilities that benefit virtually all graduates.

In addition, dark side content offers Christian educators numerous opportunities to push students to reflect on their own communication behaviors and how those behaviors impact others—then to engage students in a discussion of those reflections.  Over the past two semesters, I have facilitated multiple class discussions in even freshman-level courses on the roles we all play in behaviors such as gossip and cyberbullying.  Dark side topics are thought-provoking because many of them seem negative in the abstract but take on a different life when students are pushed to consider them in light of their own specific behaviors in those areas.

Extending that to our institutional outcomes as evangelical Christian institutions, we strive to produce graduates who are equipped to influence and reach the world for Christ.  We will send our graduates out from the “safe” bubbles of our Christian colleges and universities into a broken world in which they will come face-to-face with the harsh reality of darkness such as exploitation, human trafficking, immorality, crime, and extreme poverty.  Confronting dark side content while they are still students offers them an opportunity to begin understanding the depth of sin’s impact and the reality of their role as redemptive agents as well.  As I will discuss in more detail in my next blog post, my Cornerstone students work together as a class to create a guide that explains the different dark side topics and offers concrete suggestions for how we as Christians may bring light into those areas when we are confronted with them.  While those same opportunities may exist in other courses within the curriculum, there is a unique opportunity to address that at an even deeper level with dark side topics.

These factors collectively present a compelling case for the inclusion of dark side content in our curricula.  In John 8:12, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”[8]  He also, quoting the prophet Isaiah, declares in Luke 4:18 that he was sent to set the captives free.  In many dark side topics we see the clear intersection between communication and the effects of sin that lead to brokenness and bondage.  Equipping students to confront those topics and address them in a redemptive way can be a powerful tool as we all seek to reach the world for Christ.  At a general level, presenting dark side content also enhances critical thinking, self-reflection, and a broader understanding of communication as a symbolic activity.

Recognizing what the dark side is and why it is important is the first step.  Planning how to teach these topics is the next.  In my next, and final, guest blog post, I will outline some of the techniques, strategies, activities, and assignments I have used in my own courses.  Until then, I would love to hear your thoughts on dark side integration. Are you addressing these topics?  Would you like to?  What questions do you have?


[1] In this first mention of the term, I use quotation marks to reflect the somewhat contested and ambiguous nature of this term and the domain it describes.  This ambiguity is discussed in detail in the “What is the Dark Side of Communication?” section.

[2] Brian H. Spitzberg and William R. Cupach, eds.,The Dark Side of Interpersonal Communication, 2nd ed. (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2007).

[3] It is important to note that I initially developed a dark side course at Albion College, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church.  In spite of that affiliation, though, Christian worldview was not explicitly discussed in classes, chapel was not mandatory, and students did not take Bible classes.  Therefore, while it is technically not a secular institution by some definitions, Christian principles and practices were not a central aspect of student life.

[4] See Brian H. Spitzberg and William R. Cupach, eds.,The Dark Side of Interpersonal Communication, 2nd ed. (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2007).

[5] Ibid.

[6] See Robin M. Kowalski, ed., Aversive Interpersonal Behaviors  (New York: Plenum, 1997)

[7] Spitzberg and Cupach, eds. The Dark Side of Interpersonal Communication, . 2nd ed.

[8] Jn 8:12 (NIV).

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