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Stephen McDowell Making a World of Difference: Faculty Who Promote the Global Engagement Experience


Stephen D. McDowell

Director, School of Communication

John H. Phipps Professor of Communication

The Florida State University

Interviewed by Pamela Crosby, Character Clearinghouse Editor




As chair of the Academic Subcommittee for the FSU Global Pathways Certificate program, describe how you think students’ experience in earning the Global Pathways certificate has helped to broaden their perspectives about the world as well as shape their worldviews.

The certificate was developed by a group of people from across the university to address the need for students to develop a global worldview in the contemporary social, career, and cultural settings in which they will live and work.

Students have the opportunity to participate in a variety of events and activities. These opportunities include coursework in a theme area, language study, on-campus activities, intercultural or international experience, and capstone synthesis paper.

The overall plan a student proposes is important, as are the reports on campus activities that ask the student to reflect on the development of intercultural competencies, as well as complete the final synthesis project. While learning arises from knowledge acquisition and experiences, the thinking prompted by writing reports on the types of interactions students have had and how they can approach new situations and new people is a very important part of that development.

College peer culture can have both positive and negative influences on students’ personal, social, and academic life. How might international centers such as the Center for Global Engagement (CGE) moderate the negative influences of peer culture on college students?

The work and programs of the CGE at FSU are great in many respects. These have introduced international students and visiting scholars to the university and to domestic culture, and have introduced a variety of programs and activities to connect domestic U.S. students to people, issues, and cultures from around the world. I’ve participated in a number of these events. Some are more social and cultural, like the international coffee hour on Friday evenings. I’m in a bluegrass band, and we have played at coffee hour several times, showing one example or one slice of American culture. Some CGE activities are more issue oriented, such as the Engage Your World panel series. I’ve attended and participated in a number of panels, and they are a great way to inform students by drawing on people on campus and in the community, and also to address contemporary issues and events that require greater understanding.

One way to address the dynamics of peer groups is to provide people with opportunities to build a network of new peers. The types of activities I’ve mentioned can provide opportunities to get to know new people, to build different relationships, and to broaden the scope of relationships.

As co-director of the FSU Institute for Intercultural Communication and Research, please describe how organizations and initiatives such as this one has helped to advance the exchange of ideas among differing cultural perspectives and attitudes.

One of things we have done is to host visiting scholars and journalists from a number of countries, working with the School of Communication in many cases. These have included scholars from Russia, Ukraine, India, Pakistan, China, Brazil, and Korea.

The Institute also hosted two groups of Iraqi professors in science and technology fields, sponsored by a Fulbright Foundation program in summer 2010 and summer 2011. The Institute group organized a common series of seminars for these scholars, and also made connections with faculty mentors from around campus. We now have ongoing contacts and follow up visits with several scholars from Iraq, as do faculty across the university. These sorts of professional connections are always happening all over campus, given the reach and scope of faculty members’ research interests and expertise and their professional and personal connections.

What’s been really interesting to me is to see is how international the STEM fields are. For instance, the Mag Lab at Innovation Park connects with a community of researchers from around the world, and although everyone is very busy, they also have been extremely welcoming to the Iraqi scholars.

In what ways do undergraduates in the media/communication program learn about “ethical issues.” How have ethical issues concerning media remained the same as well as evolved in the digital age?

In the School of Communication, we have tried to address ethical issues in a number of ways. Given that parts of communication study are professionally oriented programs, we offer courses which prepare for professional practice. Other courses we offer include media ethics, political economy, and media law and policy, addressing issues such as speech, privacy, intellectual property, media ownership, and online security. In these courses students engage with questions of rights and obligations, and also how these shape personal behavior and professional practice.

With digital communication and social media, what were once issues for media organizations have now become questions for personal behavior. Posting a picture of a friend at a party is a form of publishing, and that image becomes part of the worldwide digital record. Media literacy, digital literacy, and the ethical considerations we need to think about as we communicate with each other, have become more important and part of our daily lives. It may be in my self-interest not to create an online record that is inaccurate or reflects certain parts of my life, but it is also something I should think about when representing others. There are many examples of how this affects people’s lives, especially young people. One is the “Star Wars Kid” from Quebec. In 2003 his classmates posted a video of him practicing moves for a Star Wars parody with a golf ball retriever. This went viral in successive waves and also unleashed a huge amount of media interest. After receiving so much media attention, the young man was bullied at school, and his life was changed in fundamental and serous ways.

Legal approaches may try to protect privacy or limit the use of certain online information in job screening, but we also need to try to understand our personal responsibility in protecting ourselves and those around us. We also need to think about our ethical responsibilities in using information about others, such as their social media postings, in assessing their character. I’ve seen in class discussions over the last few years that there is an increasing awareness among students about needing to be careful about what they post about themselves. But we also need to recognize we are part of a community.

Being aware of the consequences of online behavior is tough for students in schools and universities, and online responsibility is something we should talk about more. Social networks may pass along digital representations and stories that are hurtful to others, although these stories may have some entertainment allure. We have ethical standards and norms in face-to-face interpersonal communication that we may or may not follow, but we might forget these standards in online settings. It’s easier to control yourself when it is someone in your circle, but even though someone is distant and is a stranger, we need to ask what communication ethics apply to particular situations.

Some critics think that college students should stick to work that relates only to their academic education. In other words, it is not the business of higher education, at least public universities, to teach students to be good global citizens, virtuous people, or caring souls. How would you respond to these comments?

If you look at the people who are leading organizations in the public sector, in the private sector, or in non-profit and community organizations, they are most often people who are oriented by something more than just doing the job. Although self-interest is often presented as a way to understand economic transactions, it is only part of the story. Much of the value created in our society and economy, but is not tracked as well because goods and services are not recorded, come from the informal and voluntary sector, or from various types of gift economies.

Critical thinking involves not only understanding how we should do things, but also talking about and debating what are the things that we should be doing and what we should value. This is hard to do, because what we should want and value is often represented as just a private choice for consumption or fulfillment of private desires, especially in advertising. Choice, freedom, and ethics can extend to other areas. It’s useful to have public conversations in many settings about what is good, and what should be valued, whether socially or personally. Universities can and should serve as places to support that thinking and questioning. And, as noted above, it’s the type of questions and conversations that help develop leadership. For example, questions about climate change are part of a contemporary debate that raises a whole range of issues and potential responses, including our personal roles, and connects our communities with those around the world.

In the United States, one example that keeps coming up is the Peace Corps volunteers. The program was strongest in the 1960s and 1970s. Although this was a program that enlisted mainly young people in international service work, it provided a practical way to work out a variety of questions. Many of these people have subsequently shaped U.S. institutions and communities by serving in leadership roles.

In the context of service and volunteer work, and international experiences, there are ways to raise questions about citizenship, and about connections with our domestic and international community.

I did some service work in Mississippi and Arkansas, and took away at least some unanswered questions and not fully formed understandings about other people and culture.

To push this a bit further, we might even propose a hierarchy of value. It is legitimate to think about personal career goals, since developing our skills in a work setting is for many one of the main ways we interact with the world, along with developing our sense of self and personhood. Acquiring wealth is only part of the picture. Much of what we value in society is produced in homes and by voluntary and non-profit groups. Trying to serve others and broadening the scope of our community are of greater value than wealth acquisition. We don’t have to wait until we are financially secure to advance causes that promote higher values.

In college life today students are encouraged to join many activities and options at a time of considerable personal freedom. Do you think that a college can encourage students too much to be involved in co-curricular activities? Why or why not? Do you think there should be more efforts in connecting student activities to their academic experiences? Why or why not?

Co-curricular activities may be the best available settings to develop leadership skills, build experience at working with others in collaboration, enrich key communication and problem solving skills, and apply ideas and concepts arising from course materials. We sponsor many enrichment activities in our school, such as the speech and debate teams, a student public relations society chapter, an advertising team and advertising club, work with media on campus organizations such as V89 (the student radio station), Seminole Productions (a sports media auxiliary), and WFSU (the PBS/NPR affiliate), as well as internship placements in off-campus organizations. Involvement in these activities has the benefit of building capacities and relationship networks that are very relevant to professional practice and career development, but also provides opportunities to think about and work at larger social problems.

Many of your students have come from various countries and cultures. What are some of the ways that you may have encouraged students to maintain their distinctiveness and pride in their own cultures while learning about other cultures, relating to others, respecting difference, and sharing in a diverse community?

Students’ main interactions with other cultures are through their coursework, and a few social events and interactions with guest speakers that our school sponsors. For instance, we host visiting scholars and journalists, and also have a number of international guest speakers. Across campus, there is a rich range of opportunities of events, presentations, and clubs for students to learn about other cultures. Some students take advantage of as many opportunities as there are available, others less so. There are not as many opportunities for interaction as there could be, and this is something we need to address.

Describe one way that social media have influenced intercultural communication of college students today that you see as having both positive and negative impact.

Since much of our knowledge of the world comes through some media platform, building critical skills for media literacy is crucial in examining how we obtain and use that information to form our views about the world and different places and cultures. When we read or see a media representation about a local person or event, we might have some alternative route to check that information. Most people don’t have that for international events. For instance, I do research on media in South Asia, which has included many trips to India and Pakistan. This has given me the privilege of meeting and talking to many people, mainly academics and journalists. As a result, I have a different sense of these societies and people than I otherwise would.

While mass media representations of specific issues in these countries may be accurate at the best of times, they reflect our priorities and selection of issues that are important, and we have to think about this as we form our views. Some people think that social media can help us escape biases by offering other sources of information, or direct contact with those in other countries. However, avoiding bias still takes efforts, and there may need to be a link of a shared interest or shared language to get started.

That’s why personal contact with students from other countries on campus can be an important source of information and new perspectives. While social media can expand the number and types of people we can connect with, in many cases these connections may be limited to people with whom we already have a connection and some shared experiences. For instance, many of my Linked In connections are former students who are spread out all over the world, or colleagues whom I have met at conferences.

For international students, they also have the direct benefit of living and studying here to temper views they might have formed from media presentations.   Direct interpersonal relations may not happen spontaneously, and so programing to encourage this is useful.   At the same time, online media might allow them to stay connected to developments and family and friends in their home countries.

Many institutions are now offering online courses and degrees. What influences will this shift to online educational pathways have on intercommunication among faculty, students, and the academic communities in which they study, research, and work?

Developing research, critical thinking, and communication and collaboration skills in educational and work settings in both face-to-face and online settings is very important for students today. Many relationships and organizations now use a mix of these methods, and that mix is likely to continue to shift.   For instance, I use web based reading resources in my face-to-face classes rather than textbooks, since this is the most relevant primary research in the area. Online postings can help set up class discussions.   The idea of the flipped classroom has gained a lot of traction: instructors use online tools to deliver lectures, and use the class time for interactive discussion and student engagement.

For education processes, online resources and communication open up the possibility of access to a wider variety of information and voices from outside our local context. The challenge is how we use this. For instance, in relevant courses, we can establish live audiovisual links to people around the world to engage them, and establish opportunities for cross cultural working groups. While the possibility is there, this all takes planning and work and commitment.

For fully online courses, that challenge is to provide forums for quality interactions and discussion. Content delivery is relatively easy, but effort and effectiveness of grading written work and discussion postings will shape the quality of the course. Retention is also a big challenge, so building ties to other students is also important.

We may think mainly of physically proximate people and groups when we talk about a community of learning and research. This will always have value, in that proximity is part of the way in which social connections and social capital are organized in other parts of society, such as work settings, social groups, and voluntary organizations.

Some universities organize learning centers to complement online resources. Figuring out ways to provide advising and online versions of student services may be the next important step to support online learning.

Finally, being on campus with a class schedule and course syllabi provides ways to structure our day, week, and semester. Being on campus also reflects an ability and decision to spend our time focused on our education goals, an important resource consideration. Course attendance requirements may seem coercive, but these requirements are one way of breaking the larger objectives of a course into smaller chunks. With online courses or degrees, students will need to be able to manage their time in progressing in many courses. Students who are undertaking independent research may also need some other cues and support to structure their progress, which they might find as a part of a face-to-face research team. Blocking out a time for study is also a prerequisite for success.

Your scholarship and academic service are impressive. Do you still have much time to interact with students? If so, in what ways? How do such interactions influence your attitudes on students’ needs and interests?

I enjoy interacting with students in a number of ways, in classes, in the supervision of research projects, and in thesis and dissertation committees at the undergrad, master’s, and doctoral level. Additionally, we usually have a variety of project teams that include students, such as planning a special event, graduate student recruiting, or preparing various reports. Scheduled meetings with these students take up a significant part of my day, but I enjoy this as it is a break from other types of responsibilities, and is a way I can encourage progress and meeting outcomes for the student.

Giving students the opportunity to develop and apply their skills, and advance their goals, in academic and other projects is one fun part of the role.  We also assign many graduate assistants to teaching assistant roles. What is unique about a university setting is that with our multiple roles, while we have research objectives, we also need to include students in our projects as part of our educational objectives. This means we are always bringing new people on board, and trying to identify the developmental part of an assignment, and vary assignments so students develop a portfolio useful for them in their career development.

If you had to guess, what would the typical college day be like for students five years from now?

While electronic connectivity and digital resources may become ubiquitous, buying students’ own time and attention will remain the most difficult and costliest part of education. This is true for the face-to-face students we have now, many of whom have part-time jobs. The allure of an online course might be that because it can save students’ time in travel to scheduled classes, they can manage that time effectively, or somehow manage the other requirements of work, family, and community that may invade their plans.

Students may have more online courses, but still may want to go to common workspaces, like learning centers. These could provide tutoring, but also social connections and peer support and opportunities for students. While course content may be widely available online, coaching, teaching, and mentoring are the value-added that educational institutions can provide.

What we will need to be careful of is how to assess the many different types of systems that will emerge and what support they provide, although all might claim to offer courses and degrees.

Are colleges and universities doing enough to help promote the well-being of their students? If so, in what ways do they help to do this? If not, explain why not and describe ways that higher institutions can better promote student well-being.

Universities today, and especially large public universities, include a strange mix of activities that are hard to explain without using historical and cultural explanations. We offer a variety of points of engagement with students, alumni, and community members. This variety includes educational and research programs, but also co-curricular activities, outreach to non-traditional students and professional development, internships and service learning, and cultural events for students and those aimed at the wider community, as well as sporting events. There are lots of things going on and lots of ways for students to become involved, but the scale of some of these activities in larger institutions may be daunting.

I think it is important that all of the different activities based on university campuses make special efforts to include students in their program and allow for meaningful opportunities for professional and leadership development. Course syllabi, for example, provide very specific objectives, assignments, and benchmarks for achievement. Figuring out how to provide more ways to encourage and track student engagement, like the Garnet and Gold Scholars Society program or the Global Pathways certificate, is perhaps one method to think about identifying and tracking outcomes associated with student well-being. Drawing in other elements alongside our core educations goals of critical thinking, disciplinary subject matter knowledge, and effective communication service, such as leadership development, professional planning, health management, can also be part of an expanded course curriculum.

What do you find to be the most challenging obstacle to positive cultural intercommunication?

Among the obstacles to positive intercultural interactions are not having the confidence to meet and learn about others, and being reluctant to observe and to interact in different settings that may leave us feeling like strangers. This may take place outside our comfort zone. It is also hard not to jump to judgments when people sound and look different from us.

I had the opportunity after high school in the late 1970s to spend a year in a church voluntary service project, and spend time as part of a larger group in communities in northern Arkansas and mid-state Mississippi. These communities were very warm and, since they were smaller and locally focused, there was lots of time to meet and do things with people. This gave me and others in the program the benefits of more time to work through initial perceptions of difference. We also had very generous local contacts to help introduce us to key people.