LAWRENCE, KS — At a time when many college instructors might see cell phones as a distraction, Simran Sethi encourages students to bring cell phones with texting capabilities to her Diversity in Media class at the University of Kansas.
The devices make possible the class’ research into ways that multicultural populations use social media and the effects of net neutrality and the digital divide.
“Increasingly communities of color, particularly African Americans, are participating in social media via mobile media,” said Sethi, associate professor of journalism. “They’ve leapfrogged over that need to have a home computer or access to a computer at the library or at school, and they’ve also leaped over the need to have a high-speed Internet connection at home.”
Sethi’s students are required to maintain Facebook and Twitter accounts, and to send regular status updates and tweets on issues that pertain to race, gender, religion, sexual identity, class and other facets of diversity in popular media.
“Initially, much of the class was really not convinced you could use Facebook or Twitter to engage in deeper conversations or to tell any story of real substance,” said Sethi. “But I would say that most of them now are highly engaged — even when they’re not required in class to be tweeting — because they want to have a dialogue with their followers.”
In addition to conducting much of the class via social media, the KU researcher has organized field trips for her students to the Brown v. Board of Education Historic Site and the Haskell Indian Nations University Cultural Center and Museum. She also has invited guest speakers to engage with her students in a series of virtual lectures, including Josh Stearns of Free Press, hip-hop feminist blogger Latoya Peterson, Adam Baruchowitz of HEEB magazine and Nate Phelps, son of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps.
“They all use social media to talk about their communities,” noted Sethi. “That’s the thread that ties all of these people together.”
For a final project, Sethi and her students have organized a digital summit on multiculturalism and new media, dubbed “Telling Stories of Diversity in the Digital Age.” An array of speakers recruited by the class will address social media and the idea of a “post-racial” America; women in new media; the role of social media on the global stage; and how mobile and digital media aid the communication of differently abled people. The event will be streamed live at unityjournalists.org. More information about the summit is available here.
“One of the most important opportunities we have is to engage with a broader audience outside of the classroom,” Sethi said. “It raises the bar on our reporting. I thought for this class, the best way to do this would be to collate some of the strongest social media creators in the space of diversity. We’re exploring this in a number of different areas. Everybody who consumes news through social media should be tuned into this event — that includes producers and consumers. It’s a really great opportunity to see how we can use these platforms in ways that can be newsworthy.”
The Diversity in Media class is a joint offering through the KU schools of journalism and social welfare. Because the class aims to drive positive change in the world and serve as a catalyst for innovative leadership and social responsibility, students can use the experience to help qualify for a service learning certificate at KU.
But for Sethi, the intention is simply to foster better storytelling from more points-of-view.
“One of the fundamental goals of this class was to make the invisible visible,” she said. “What we’re trying to do here is to say, ‘A lot of perspectives are being overlooked.’ While diverse communities may have been engaging in an insular way, now what we’re seeing is that everyone has an opportunity to engage with these communities. But how do we do it best? What stories do we need to tell that we haven’t been telling?”