Statement of commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion
Often when explaining to students the social impact of the digital mixed-reality technologies that I study, I draw upon a more analog example. In the summer of 1976, the remains of two people were unearthed beneath University House, the large residence of UC San Diego’s chancellor. Dated to nearly 9,000 years old, these bones (and many more since discovered) have been studied, toured, and publicly displayed before being housed in a local archaeological center with the agreement of this area’s aboriginal people, the Kumeyaay. With some prodding from me based on a few core Communication concepts, student discussion tends to gravitate toward ways that distinct social groups can view the same land differently. My goal is to illuminate the mixed reality that many of us already live in offline — that even without the spectacles of augmented-reality (AR) technologies, ancient communication processes participate in overlaying social discourses and political ideologies (virtual content) onto everyday realities, reframing the world and even relabeling the very land. Helping students to see communication operating in this way bolsters their understanding of technology’s contributions — as well as the idea that such programming (digital or otherwise) may be hacked in order to counter hegemonic discourses and create social change. One student, for instance, voiced their own lightbulb moment related to an increasingly common practice: “So is this why a lot of UCSD people have started mentioning being on Kumeyaay land in their email signatures?”
As a lifelong communication professional and scholar, I recognize the big impact of seemingly small gestures. My own email signature today includes my preferred gender pronouns — not necessarily to label myself or performatively display my own social consciousness but to embolden others to feel safe doing so, too. I link in the signature to an article by a trans person thankful of cis people participating in this recent trend. “When you do that,” they wrote, “I feel more comfortable putting my pronouns — they/them. I feel more comfortable being visibly out as nonbinary. I feel more comfortable asking people to use the pronouns that feel most like me, that make me feel most seen and whole, instead of just resolving to be mis-gendered and mis-represented and whatever who cares anyway.” From my own experience as a gay man (who came out in the ’90s), I know well the positive power of making social identities increasingly visible, as well as the magnitude of social change that can swell from such apparently miniscule changes in language, labels, and imagery. In every engagement within a university community, I make whatever room is necessary for all students, faculty, and staff to empower the representations of who they are.
In designing courses, I strive toward equity and diversity by prioritizing and centering the contributions of scholars from underrepresented backgrounds in the readings and viewing materials. Previously, I had made efforts toward representative equity by merely adding a week or two of sources focused on such perspectives — the “diversity week” approach, which I know now likely only increases the marked status of certain voices. Most recently, in reviewing and updating the syllabus for UC San Diego’s Introduction to Communication lecture, I started by first selecting works and studies from non-white scholars as nodes for the term’s themes, and then adding additional texts. Throughout the term, this kind of re-centering surfaced a more nuanced and reflective understanding of the field and its own diverse evolution. Likewise, I learned that starting with the “canonical” texts often meant I was (however inadvertently) reproducing the field’s marginalization of black scholarship as auxiliary to the otherwise unmarked work of white authors. In the future, I plan to continue this process of curriculum development and look forward to applying it to both courses I’ve been teaching for a while and new ones.
As I prepare for individual classes, whether lectures or seminars, I make sure that all of my materials are ready for multiple levels of accessibility. Part of my typical first-day advice reminds students not only to be tolerant of each other’s opinions and respectful of diverse backgrounds but also to show consideration for different levels and styles of comprehension. I also attend to this in my design of slides and the formatting of multimedia materials — making slides available to students well before class begins, preparing different ways of explaining certain key concepts (using examples relevant to different social groups, if possible), and enabling transcriptions or captioning videos. If digital captioning is unavailable, I make sure to have the text posted online or printed as a handout. (This has proven crucial to all levels of understanding during my protest-music course as we listen to songs with lyrics that even careful, expert listening may struggle to discern.) The reverse of this is also important: making sure to read aloud any text I’ve placed on slides or otherwise project. The rapid shift to online teaching during the pandemic exposed the challenges of ensuring that digital communication is accessible to all students. I am fortunate to be part of a department that organized quickly to guide instructors in best practices for this approach to accessibility, and I will continue applying what I’ve learned to the preparation of all my classes going forward.
A final, more personal note: Throughout my journalism career, I wrote a significant amount of reporting and criticism about folksinger Woody Guthrie and socially conscious music inspired by him since; much of this work was buttressed by a yearlong fellowship during which I conducted extensive research at the Woody Guthrie Archives, reading nearly all of its contents. I continue to hold up Guthrie’s cultural legacy as a beacon of forthright, plainspoken advocacy for the dignity and worth of all people. In an oft-quoted passage from one of his newspaper columns, Guthrie expressed disdain for any expression that does anything besides lift people up or open people’s understanding of each other, concluding that “no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built — I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you.” His mission statement is easy to adapt, and I strive to keep it in practice daily — making my teaching spaces and my messaging not just accessible to all but defensive of an equal opportunity to speak, learn, and contribute to social change. To paraphrase Woody, I am out to create classroom experiences that make all students take pride in themselves and their work and to produce scholarship in which “all sorts of folks” can see themselves.