Sample syllabus: Social justice concerns for communicators

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Want to go straight to the syllabus? Use this link to go to the Google doc.

I completed my first semester in the University of Oregon’s Communications and Media Studies Ph.D. program in December. In my course on teaching/professional life, I was challenged to create a syllabus for an undergraduate course I would like to teach. I created the class I wanted as a student: A discussion of the choices public relations/strategic communication professionals (and all communicators) can make to create responsible communications and advance social justice concerns.

Rather than simply creating a list of case studies of PR mistakes made by companies, I focused this course on the need for students to consider their own identities, privilege, and biases and how that shapes their thinking. I also sought to discuss ways whiteness is perpetuated within public relations/strategic communication and provide concrete skills-building opportunities (explorations of conscious/inclusive language, the ethical use of photography, digital accessibility, and ethical/dignified storytelling practices).

I know from personal experience that it is too easy for communicators (and particularly white communicators) to assume diversity/equity concerns are something “others” should address.

Every communicator, however, makes choices about the words, images, and stories they use along with the counsel they give to others. Too often communicators will make decisions that treat people like photos or props for their organization’s benefit without considering the thoughts and feelings of the individuals involved. Additionally, there is seldom only one way for items to be framed or worded, and those choices can have significance.

While students would not end my class as experts in these topics, it is my hope that the course would prepare them to consider the choices they will make at work and encourage their curiosity to explore further.

Feel free to review my syllabus, and I’d love feedback. (I do know the reading list is too much. The syllabus, admittedly, became a bit of a file cabinet for interesting articles).

Some of the key choices I made when building this syllabus include the following:

  • The course is laid out over 10 weeks as this is the academic calendar used at UO. In most instances, ideas/topics are introduced on the first class of the week (Tuesday), and opportunities for their application are discussed on the second day (Thursday).
  • This course is structured as a stand-alone course that covers a wide variety of topics. This is not ideal; it would be better if these topics were embedded throughout a student’s coursework (for example, discussions of inclusive language being part of initial writing coursework while ethical storytelling in content development). In this format, I tried to give students a basic understanding of the various topics, issues, and choices they may encounter in their work.
  • I selected to use an ungrading approach as part of an effort to encourage students to hold themselves accountable. I also chose to make the assignments (including the final project) very general so that students could pick something that was of interest to them.

Want more information/resources to share with your students?

I have a blog and spreadsheet of resources I’ve collected on equity concerns for communicators. I started this while I was working, and I continue to update it as I find new resources.

While we cannot always change how our organizations operate, communicators often have a wide degree of freedom in deciding the specifics of what is included in any individual communication (what specific words are written, which photos are shared, whose stories are featured, etc.). I hope educators can join me in helping students understand those choices so they know the power they hold.

It can feel too late to try to ask/answer these questions once someone is in the workplace. There is only so much you can do once you have a supervisor who is demanding you churn out content to meet the next rapidly impending deadline. Additionally, while many organizations want to be welcoming, many only allow limited time to learn about the need to change the way things are done (let alone, analyzing and changing your own ways of thinking).

Want to use any of this with your students?

That’s great! Anyone is free to use any part(s) of this syllabus that looks useful. I’d appreciate it if you could leave a comment or contact me on LinkedIn/Twitter to share what you’ve found helpful along with how it was received by your students. It’s likely I’m going to come back to this syllabus throughout my Ph.D., so I’ll be excited to receive any feedback you want to share.

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