Chair of Communication Studies
University of San Diego
What has been your most memorable project so far?
After a few years on the tenure track, I decided it was time to experience the excitement and anxiety inherent to collecting in-person experimental data with children (certainly readers of this spotlight can empathize). Though I had assisted in data collection with children in graduate school and during my postdoc (thank you to the brilliant Kris Harrison and Sandy Calvert, respectively), this was my first solo endeavor. The project investigated how exposure to counter-stereotypical, STEM-centered depictions of girls on tween television programs could influence 6- to 9-year old girls’ STEM beliefs. The results were published in the Bulletin of Science, Technology, & Society, and later archived in the Gender Action Portal, Harvard University’s database of influential gender research. The study was not primarily memorable because it was my first time leading such a project. It will long have a special place in my research identity because it was the first time as a faculty member that I developed really strong mentorship relationships with a team of undergraduate research assistants. The insights I gained from those students and our experiences together still guide my mentorship practices to this day.
Which achievement are you most proud of, and why?
The community engagement component of my “Children & Media” class immediately came to mind when I read this question. As part of this upper-division elective course, my students volunteer at a local after-school program for at-risk youth once a week. They bring their experiences with the children back to our classroom, where they serve as observational evidence that students use to reinforce or challenge theories and study conclusions. The final project in the course is a media literacy workshop that is entirely conceptualized, developed, and implemented by my students. I am so very proud of this particular experiential learning project because my students develop meaningful connections with the children they work with all semester and, as such, are deeply invested in the media literacy projects—not to earn high marks, but to ensure that they are actually having a positive influence on the children. At the end of every semester, when I visit the after-school programs to watch my students deliver their workshops, I am brought to the verge of tears (OK maybe a few times I was actually brought to tears) seeing the bonds that have developed between my students and the children in the after-school programs, and the innovation in their media literacy workshops.
What is an important question from parents and practitioners that we as academics
cannot provide a good answer to yet?
I am a firm believer in the utility of new media for social experimentation, particularly for adolescents who are trying to figure out their place in the world. When I talk about the varying levels of benefits and risks for youth involved in online identity experimentation, self-disclosure, or engagement, parents (and more so practitioners) inevitably ask “where do we draw the line?” “When is teen experimentation healthy, and when do I need to monitor or even censor?” I always find these questions perplexing, and hope that clearer answers lie in future research.
What would be your work motto?
You matter. Whether I’m developing lesson plans, designing a questionnaire, or putting together an agenda for a faculty committee meeting, I try to remind myself that the students in my classes, the participants in my studies, and the colleagues I work with matter—and then ask myself if I’m doing all I can to ensure that I’m not only caring for myself, but for others.
Which of your publications is your favorite, and why?
I have no children of my own, but I feel that this question is like asking parents to choose their favorite child. On that note, however, I’m nearly certain my mother would declare me her favorite child without hesitation (apologies to my brothers), so I’ll give it a go. My most recent publication in Communication Research is among my favorite. The study was a longitudinal experiment that exposed participants to a television program featuring a predominantly queer cast of characters over a 10-week period, and concluded that negative attitudes toward gay and lesbian individuals significantly decreased from the pretest to the posttest only among those who developed at least a moderate parasocial relationship with one of the queer characters. This is among my favorite publications because the over-time experimental design afforded the opportunity to make strong causal arguments about the value of mediated social ties with marginalized or minoritized outgroups (nod to the Waterhouse Family Institute for funding this project).
If you had unlimited resources, what kind of project would you want to do and why?
I would be thrilled to engage in large-scale, over-time experimental research to investigate media’s influence on the identity acceptance and well-being of adolescents with multiple marginalized or minoritized identities. For example, studies suggest that a lower SES, Latina female adolescent who identifies as lesbian is likely to feel a sense of happiness and community when viewing higher SES, White gay male characters on television. Over time, however, qualitative evidence suggests that the same adolescent (only seeing other queer characters on screen as higher SES, White, and male) begins to engage in social comparison that makes her question if she belongs to the LGBTQ community, thereby decreasing identity acceptance and well-being. Evidence for this “representational tipping point” is largely qualitative, and causal experimental studies dissecting this intersectional representation would need significant resources (NGOs and foundations: my email is firstname.lastname@example.org)
If you had to give one piece of advice to young CAM scholars, what would it be?Embrace your failures. Too often young scholars focus on tangible measures of productivity, which is understandable given the pressures of the job market and the tenure process. But when your measures are unreliable, or your interview data seem impossible to theme, or your analyses do not reach significance, realize that you are being given an opportunity to reflect and reformulate your study of communication phenomena. Reframe traditionally defined “failures” as opportunities to grow. I have learned so much more from my missteps than from my successes, but it took me some time to accept the fact that spending an hour engaged in deep, critical thinking about my mistakes (often while staring at a blinking cursor in a blank Word document) was indeed productive. Remember, your intellectual worth cannot be measured in p-values.
Who would you like to put in the spotlight next, and why?
I nominate Sarah Rosaen, professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan-Flint. Sarah’s 2011 publication investigating parasocial relationships within a sample of vulnerable children was among the first pieces I had read that applied parasocial concepts to child audiences. This work ultimately played an important role in my own research within that realm. I would love to know what she is working on, and how she is balancing her scholarship with her role as department chair.