Sample syllabus: Social justice concerns for communicators

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Use this to go straight to the syllabus.

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 major 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 by default within public relations/strategic communication and provide concrete skills-building opportunities (explorations of conscious/inclusive language, the ethical use of photography, 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. 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.

I would love feedback on my proposed course. (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 PR/communications classes. In this format, I decided to try to give students a basic understanding of the various topics, issues, and choices they may encounter in their work.
  • I chose 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 projects) 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 continue to update it since I know many communicators who express an uneasy feeling of knowing they are creating communications that are tokenizing/performative but not knowing what else to do.

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 is too late to try to ask/answer these questions once you’re 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. While many organizations want to be welcoming, there is 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. While you don’t have to, I’d love it if you leave a comment or contact me on LinkedIn/Twitter to share what you’ve found helpful and your experience. 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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