Teaching the “Dark Side” of Communication, Part 3: The How (by Jeremy Osborn)

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Osborn_109x163Teaching the “Dark Side” of Communication, Part 3: The How

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

In my previous guest blog post, I discussed what the “dark side” of communication is and why it is an important topic for us as Christian Communication Studies scholars and teachers to address.  If you have yet to read that post, I would encourage you to take a few minutes and do so, as it lays out some important definitions and foundational ideas.  In this post, I turn to some of the techniques, strategies, activities, and assignments I use to effectively present dark side content.

Why is teaching the dark side challenging?

As a starting point, I want to flesh out two issues that make teaching the dark side potentially more difficult than addressing other issues.  First, dark side content is almost always sensitive and personal in nature.  This sensitivity creates challenges around both the individual, personal experiences students may have had in those areas and the general perceptions, and general discomfort, that accompanies discussion of them.  Based on data on the prevalence of dark side behaviors, it is almost certain that at least someone in every class will have personal experience with the topics.  When discussing social aggression, for example, there will likely be students who have been victims of bullying.  As you discuss sexual coercion, you may be doing so in a class that includes victims of date rape.  Similarly, topics such as gossip, revenge, jealousy, intentional embarrassment, and guilt can be accompanied by a wide range of painful personal experiences.  In addition, the fact that many dark side topics border on (or cross over into) the taboo makes them challenging discussion topics even for students without those experiences.

The second issue that makes teaching the dark side a challenge is the format in which most of the current scholarship on the dark side has been disseminated.  Unlike curricular staples such as interpersonal communication, group communication, and public speaking, the dark side does not enjoy a vast catalog of undergraduate-level textbooks that present its material in simple, digestible terms.  Original chapters and articles on dark side content are long, complex, and laden with statistics.  This can prove challenging even for students in an upper division seminar.

Teaching the dedicated dark side course

Those two issues must be central in decisions around course design and delivery.  In my program at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, we address dark side content in two primary ways—through a dedicated 400-level Dark Side of Communication course and through the integration of dark side content in other courses.  In both cases, there are three fundamental tasks we are trying to accomplish: (1) promoting comprehension of the material, (2) promoting effective discussion, and (3) promoting reflection, analysis, and suggestions through a redemptive lens.  These three areas are significant because they reflect both an awareness of the issues discussed in the previous section and targeting of multiple levels of learning outcomes.

(1) Promoting comprehension of the material

Given the lack of a single dark side textbook, I begin the design process by assembling a course pack of readings that cover the topics I have chosen to discuss.  For each reading, I then assemble and create resources that guide students in their reading, reflection, and response.  At a minimum, I upload presentation slides on the material to our course site in the learning management system (we use Moodle) prior to the class in which they are discussed and provide a set of reflection/discussion questions that direct students toward important points and though-provoking extensions.  For example, for gossip I ask, “Do we ever have a ‘right’ or good reason to discuss the personal affairs of others when they are not present?”  This question addresses basic comprehension by referencing a component of the definition of gossip (discussing the personal affairs of others when they are not present), but also invites them to consider that idea in terms of actual circumstances and behaviors.  In some classes, I have even provided supplemental reading guides that provide an outline and help students make sense of the structure of a complex article or chapter.

(2) Promoting effective dark side discussions

Basic comprehension is a key foundation for all higher-order learning (as it is in all classes).  Once it has been established, we turn to perhaps the most important component to effective dark side instruction—class discussion.  There are a wide variety of techniques for facilitating effective discussion in any classroom, but my focus here will be on four techniques I use to overcome the challenges in dark side instruction that I laid out earlier in this post.

The first of these occurs before discussion even begins.  Given the sensitive nature of the topics, it is important to start by laying out ground rules  for class discussions.  Ground rules should cover areas such as classroom respect, sensitivity to the experiences and views of others, maturity, and maintaining some sense of confidentiality with respect to things shared in class.  I also remind students of our responsibility to love God, love others, and be responsible stewards of the gift of communication he gave us as we interact with one another in class.  The classroom does not (and should not) serve as a counselor’s office, but it should be a safe and open place where students can voice their views and engage in critical dialogue with one another.

The second technique is making frequent use of online discussion forums.  Requiring posts on provided questions prior to class ensures that students read, process, and respond to material before discussing it with others.  It also serves as an important way to ensure everyone’s voice is heard.  In a sensitive-topics course such as this (or really almost any course), it is not uncommon for two or three students to dominate discussions.  Students who prefer to process information before responding, as well as students who have had negative personal experiences with the topics, are often hesitant to participate.  Allowing them to present their thoughts in a format that allows for careful consideration and editing will draw out insights and perspectives that would otherwise go unspoken.  As an instructor, I can then pull comments from the forum before class and reference them during discussions.  Students often bring up issues I may not have even considered, so this is also a way of aligning discussions with their experiences and concerns.

Following the engagement theme, my third technique is the assignment of dedicated “discussion leaders” in most class periods.  Each class period, one or two students are assigned to lead the class discussion for the day.  Typically I will set up the basic overview information, then turn the room over to the students.  They offer reflections and personal answers to the discussion questions I provided, then prompt their classmates for additional thoughts.  Similar to the forums, the discussion leader technique ensures that all students has a chance for their voices to be heard throughout the semester.  When teaching the course in a 15-week format, students serve as a discussion leader twice, usually with one other student.  This format creates an active learning environment in which students take greater ownership of the learning process, and open discussion is the norm.

A final technique I use that addresses both the engagement issue and the complexity of the material is to utilize a small group/large group format for some classes and/or topics.  This involves providing discussion questions to groups of five or six students, before opening the floor for the groups to share with the larger group and continue the discussion at a broader level.  I have found this to be especially useful in classes in which multiple students are hesitant to speak to the full class.  They are much more likely to voice their views in a  group of five than in a group of 25.

(3) Promoting analysis, application, and a redemptive lens through assignments

In order to truly capitalize on the richness of the discussions that occur in a dark side class, the core outcomes must focus on analysis, application, and a consideration of what God’s redemptive work looks like for dark side topics.  To that end, the final piece of my dark side classes is always a set of assignments that push past comprehension and require those more complex activities.  I typically structure those assignments both to allow students to reflect on their personal journey with the dark side and to collaborate with one another.  Two assignments I have used with success are the Dark Side Portfolio and the Dark Side Guidebook.

For the portfolio assignment, students compile ten examples of dark side behaviors and offer a theoretical analysis of what occurred in each situation.  At the end of the semester, they complete a synthesis paper in which they discuss the prevalence of dark side behaviors in our society and the effects those behaviors have on us as individuals and as a collective.  This focuses their attention on how dark side behaviors reflect the effects of the Fall on our lives and our communication.  It also helps set up the major group assignment—the Dark Side Guidebook.  The guidebook pushes past the Fall and focuses their attention on what, in concrete terms, it might look like to be God’s redemptive agents in the dark side areas.  They work together in groups to create a guidebook that outlines different dark side topics and offers Christian suggestions for navigating that area.  I encourage them to model the guidebook sections after the discussions of different conditions on the website, WebMD.[1]  The guides on WebMD include sections on symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment, and I have students do similar sections in their dark side guidebooks.  When I taught the class as a two-week intensive seminar this past January, my eight students actually worked together to create their guidebook online as a website.  This guidebook included a wide range of biblical examples and reflected in a prototypical way the integration of faith and learning.  In this case, they brought Christian values, principles, and hope to bear on the non-Christian scholarship in the field in an applied way that can be disseminated to a variety of audiences.

Integrating dark side content into other courses

At this point, most of our attention at Cornerstone with respect to integrating dark side content into other courses has focused on our 100-level core course, Communication in Culture.  In that course, we focus on a small number of dark side behaviors that students likely encounter on a daily basis—for example, gossip, deception, and complaining.  We present that content using both non-Christian research articles and Christian texts on the power of communication.  For several years, The Weight of Your Words by Joseph M. Stowell was used.[2] This summer, I am using Tongue Pierced: How the Words You Speak Transform the Life You Live by Nelson Searcy and Jennifer Dykes Henson.[3]  In both cases, the learning outcomes focus on introducing students to the power of communication to both heal and hurt early in the curriculum.  This conditions them to see both sides when considering other areas of communication and helps prepare them for the deeper discussions that occur around sensitive topics in the 400-level dark side course.  The teaching techniques I use in this integration are similar to those in the dedicated course because I am working to overcome the same issues.  Typically I focus on some combination of online forums, class discussions, individual journal reflections, and applied activities (keeping a gratitude journal, for example).  Other courses would be approached in the same way.  The key considerations when looking at the possibility of bringing dark side content into courses are your learning outcomes and those unique dark side issues discussed previously.

Concluding thoughts

I am grateful to the CCSN for the opportunity to share with you and hope you have found something in my three guest blog posts that you can apply in your own program and courses.  As I conclude these posts, I leave you with several thoughts.  First, dark side content should occupy an important place in the curriculum of Communication Studies programs, especially at institutions with evangelical Christian missions.  Few topics introduce students to both the brokenness of a world under the influence of sin and the redemptive work of Jesus better than those in the dark side realm.  Second, dark side integration is a task that must be approached with both intentionality and sensitivity.  If you do not explicitly plan for how you will bring the content into your course, it is unlikely to happen in an organic fashion.  Similarly, if you attempt to integrate the content without considering its unique features and the challenges that accompany it, you may struggle to engage students effectively.  Broaching subjects that are so closely linked to personal pain, hurt, and brokenness is not easy, but the benefits certainly outweigh the costs.  Finally, if you are interested in integrating dark side content or developing a dark side course, I invite you to participate in our upcoming CCSN webinar, “Teaching the Dark Side of Communication.”  You can register on the CCSN website using this link.  I also invite you to contact me with questions or comments.  Thank you for your interest in this important topic.


[1] See http://www.webmd.com/ for examples.

[2] Joseph M. Stowell, The Weight of Your Words: Measuring the Impact of What You Say (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1998).

[3] Nelson Searcy and Jennifer Dykes Henson,Tongue Pierced: How the Words You Speak Transform the Life You Live (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2015).

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