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First Year Seminar: Communications and Culture in Main South

Interview with Sarah Michaels, associate professor of education

How did you come up with the idea for this first year seminar?
Actually it grew out of communication and culture fifth-year graduate student Tim Dzurilla's senior thesis. For his thesis, Tim conceived of and developed the community Web site I was planning to teach a first year seminar with materials that revolved around the Introduction to Communication and Culture course, but I also was looking for a way to involve the students in really thinking hard and even making things that revolved around communication and culture. So when I heard about, it struck me that incorporating something about this site would be a really great way to introduce these freshman to the study of communication and culture and to Main South, their new neighborhood—thinking about communication and culture in Main South, looking hard at their new neighborhood with respect to the signs and the ways that meaning are made, who represented things—and to use state-of-the-art communication technologies to communicate those messages. The really important thing to me was that Tim did not envision the site as a Clark effort but rather an effort to create a voice for residents of Main South. It struck me that involving the students in that kind of an enterprise would introduce them to people who live in Main South in a way that they would never get introduced otherwise. I think this is a very interesting opportunity for Clark students to come to understand their community and new home.

So how did the component of the course work?
We invented it as we went along. Each week the Clark students and students from the University Park Campus School (UPCS) would meet for three hours to work on developing ideas and content for the Web site. We got the students started by walking around the neighborhood together, photographing things. Because we were working with kids who lived in the neighborhood, talking with local business people and people they grew up with, it became a way for Clark students to meet kids and people who they wouldn’t normally meet. For the Clark students, it also became an opportunity to coauthor things with the neighborhood kids, a way to put tools from the academic world of communication and culture into action, and a means to help them reflect on what they were making through the medium of a Web site.

Were there any things that surprised you as you got students involved in the Web site development?
Developing the site's home page turned out to have some interesting issues. We worked really hard with Tim and the Clark and UPCS students on what the home page should look like. A group of UPCS and Clark students in what we called the art group went out one day and photographed street graffiti. They came back with amazing photographs that, when cropped and put up on the Web site, were interesting pieces of street art. The very first home page that we worked with had a slide show with these pieces of art. Users were asked to pick their favorites and to vote online. At the end of the semester in both this first year seminar and the Introduction to Communication and Culture class, I asked  the students on their exam to put on the hat of a communication theorist and to critique the home page. The freshman from the seminar were much more positive about the meaning-making involved in making street art and framing it as art. The introduction to Communication and Culture students, in contrast, were very negative about that original home page. They thought using images of street art communicated a mixed message, arguing that if we were trying to create a  positive introduction to the Main South neighborhood, using defacement of public property, in other words graffiti, as the main visual on the home page was communicating a negative image. The interesting thing here is that to the first-year students who had helped construct the home page, it told a very different story.

So what did you do about the home page?
We decided to change the home page because we didn’t want to send out a mixed message. We changed the images to beautiful artistic photography. In the second semester, I had students interview people in the neighborhood about the two different versions of the home page, showing respondents photographs of the original home page with the street art and the new home page with artistic photography. The older residents liked the original home page.  So, we’re interested in whose meaning matters. We’re experimenting with lots of different ways of representing Main South, and we're recruiting the viewpoints of many different people in the neighborhood. It’s an evolving thing.

What kind of traffic are you getting on the site?
We’re very committed to surveying and looking at the impact the Web site is having on the neighborhood. We're constantly looking at our data and analyzing where users are from, what pages they are on, how long they stay, and what they look at. So there’s this back and forth between creating and researching. Between getting informed and informing.

Do you use Blackboard for the class?
Blackboard has been a great resource for this seminar since it provides a space for students to post content. They can post videos that they develop, photographs and ideas. We have lots of different forums running so people can look at what others in the class are coming up with. We also have all the traditional uses of Blackboard like posting class announcements, the syllabus, turning in papers and commenting on articles. For us, it also became a wonderful place to put up candidate home pages and to explore large digital files.

What kinds of assignments did you give your first year seminar students?
The actual assignments involved the students in doing some kind of original research. One example was when we read a wonderful theorist's, views about the use of PowerPoint as a tool for presenting complex information. He thinks PowerPoint is a terrible tool for presenting complex, analytic material. Now PowerPoint happens to be a critical tool for my teaching. For the assignment, the students had to do some original communication research looking at a couple of hours of TV and coding the segments with respect to gender roles. Then they were asked whether or not things have changed between now and 30 years ago when comparable research was done in this area. So they had to collect data, videotape and analyze it, code their segments and come up with an answer. Then they had to create a PowerPoint presentation of their findings. Finally, they had to write a paper addressing whether they agreed with this theorist and or not. So they were grappling with this theoretician’s ideas but were also doing their own research and struggling with how, as researchers, they would communicate their findings. While that particular assignment did not relate directly to the Web site, it did make us all think hard about how we were communicating complex information on the site—even if it’s about trash—to the community.

How do you think the seminar turned out?
I think it turned out even better in some ways than we expected. In fact, I’m hoping that we can use as a part of the Introduction to Communications and Culture course so that students in upper grades will start to look at their neighborhood and the material space, signs and people around them as objects of communication and culture.

The other thing that added to the seminar was the peer learning assistant component. Every week, in addition to the class sessions and time with UPCS kids, the students had a special session with a Peer Learning Assistant, who was an advanced communication and culture major. She worked closely with the students each week discussing about the readings. So these first year students really worked harder in this seminar than the students in the Introduction to Communication and Culture course. And I think that’s a good thing. They were introduced to the culture at Clark as both researchers and makers of a Web site; as critics and as members of the Main South community. They impressed me as the most engaged, serious, hard-working, dedicated work of freshman I have every worked with.

Do you have an changes planned for this seminar in the future?
My hope is that we can use the Web site as raw material for students to think and theorize with. For example, if we’re reading Roland Bart’s article on the photographic image, I’ll ask students to then go to and choose any photograph and write about how that photograph is connoted in Bart’s terms. It will be especially interesting if they pick a photograph that they took or was taken on a street photography journey with a UPCS student—and maybe they cropped it or framed it a particular way when they were taking it. Deconstructing that photograph now as an observer will be meaningful in a completely different way. The goal is for students to be makers and critics.

I'm also hoping that we can develop some other content areas of the site through the seminar and introductory courses. For next year I’m thinking about doing more with music, art and voter registration. I am talking to a music professor here at Clark about doing some showcases of local musicians, a virtual battle of the bands.  It would help us look at how we come together and how can we use the virtual medium to achieve communication. Another area I'd like to tap into is voter registration, which it turns out, is very low in Main South. Again, this goes back to the fact that we’re interested in the linkage between the virtual and the real. Voter registration ties into real work about who represents you and what you think. We could use to get the word out about voter registration, which in turn helps get the word out about using the site as a communications tool. It’s been interesting as the course and site evolves. We’re always learning, and it never stays the same.


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Additional Resources
Mainsouthspeaks Home
Interview with the Professor
Interview with Students
Course Structure and Syllabus (.pdf)
About Professor Michaels

Sarah Michaels Sarah Michaels,
Associate Professor of Education
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