What is teaching excellence?
I define teaching excellence as providing dynamic and sustainable tools to engage critically with a world that is perpetually in flux, and inspiring individuals to try harder, be better, and apply these tools in their personal and professional lives, regardless of fear or apprehension regarding difficult topics. I feel privileged to have this opportunity at Newhouse, which has helped me work toward a life goal of elevating public discourse by helping train generations of media producers, consumers, and users, and honored to have received the Award for Teaching Excellence from the 2017 graduating seniors, confirming the enduring effectiveness of my teaching.
I seek to elevate discussions regarding the complex future of media through four key areas: (1) in the classroom, (2) through individual student mentorship, (3) and through public conversations. Each of these venues provides a unique opportunity to achieve teaching excellence and encourage individuals to think about media differently, and more importantly, feed off of each other in order to elevate public discourse.
It is important to note that my approach to teaching cannot be discussed in isolation of one category at the expense of the others. My classroom and public conversations inspire and encourage students to seek me as an advisor and mentor; these public conversations are then incorporated into lesson plans and assignments so as to ensure that students see the value and application of theories and research; my interactions with students in the classroom have made possible my public conversations as students describe the value of my classes and my impact on their overall ability to engage with others. And through individual student mentorship, I gain greater insight into the needs and concerns of our students, thus making me a better instructor and interviewer.
For the Committee’s benefit, I will expand on these categories separately to emphasize how my work through Newhouse over the past six years has served to benefit our students, our community, and our industry as a whole.
In the Classroom
I have taught Newhouse’s flagship introductory class, Communications and Society (COM107) seven times and the 3-credit diversity class, Race, Gender, and the Media (COM346) fourteen times. I have also had the privilege of teaching several classes of my own design including Psychology of Interactive Media (COM300, 400, 600) twice as well as two 5-week diversity short courses: #singlecitygirl and Struggle with Satire.
Despite differences in specific subject matter, my goal in the classroom is always the same, to encourage students to think differently about media, the world, and their place in this relationship. I often tell my students that we are at the intersection of the past and the future; that is to say that the decisions and actions of the past impact and will continue to impact the media we create and consume, and the media that we create and consume impacts and will continue to impact the decisions and actions of the future, including the treatment of different groups. This cycle, although simple to define, is complex and requires every individual to consider how they themselves are involved, a daunting task that can make many students uncomfortable.
This was the essence of my address to new students in August 2017. Entitled, “I ” (video and transcript available at wp.me/p2Yvpt-Xa), I focused on the inherent discomfort associated with discussing issues of diversity and marginalization, including self-segregation and interpersonal microaggressions that systematically marginalize and discriminate within the university environment. I received praise from many members of the Syracuse community, including incoming students, current students, parents, fellow faculty members across departments, the provost, and the chancellor.
This mission to make students aware of their place in the world and especially as future media producers is in line with our goals at Newhouse and at Syracuse University at large, but is often in conflict perceived self-reported course evaluations assessed at the end of semester. Although I am at a statistical disadvantage as a young woman of color with high standards who teaches psychologically and politically charged topics, my evaluations are consistently within Newhouse means and standard deviations, barring my medical situation in the 2017-2018 academic year, and have steadily improved throughout the past six years (see Figure 1) such that I was above the overall Newhouse mean in my most recent semester (Spring 2019).
It is important to note that Newhouse has eliminated two questions from evaluations beginning in Spring 2019: “Would recommend” and “Shows genuine interest.” Therefore, I have retroactively removed these items from the analyses featured throughout this application and instead presented adjusted 3-item means for both my evaluations and Newhouse. In doing so, the percent of courses where my total mean is equal to or higher than the Newhouse mean jumps from 26% (6 of 23 classes) to 57% (13 of 23 classes).
Furthermore, the majority of students in my classroom walk away with an overall positive opinion of my courses when reviewing the open-ended responses. Sentiment analysis reveals an average of 73.2% positive or strongly positive statements (see Figure 2), including when my quantitative means have been less impressive, revealing the complicated nature of evaluations as well as the complicated process of quantifying teaching excellence.
While I am a hard teacher and I have high standards for my students, I go out of my way to help them meet those standards. For many, this is an opportunity to expand and improve their skill sets to incorporate media critique: the capacity to describe why something is good or bad, problematic or progressive, is essential to creating content that is meaningful and encouraging others to support meaningful content, especially when it is counter to previously successful content that can be (overtly or covertly) rooted in historical stereotypes and outdated usage patterns. Students leave my class with the skills to disrupt these cycles and the self-efficacy to do so and this is evident through student progress, student projects, and voluntary interpersonal student feedback, all of which will be described in detail within the course-related sub-folders and course summaries that accompany this application.
However, I am an excellent teacher because of my ability to inspire students to be better producers, media users, and people. As one student said, “[This professor] teaches in a way that makes you want to be better.” Teaching excellence is more than simply delivering the course material or achieving the learning goals; it is having a long-lasting impact such the class and the instructor continue to resonate months, years, decades after the semester. This is why the Award for Teaching Excellence was so meaningful to me in Spring 2017: I was on leave and had not engaged with students for months, and in some cases years, at the time of the survey. Given the nature of my course material, the current social and political climate that demands complex conversations, and a media industry that discourages complexity, I was honored that my lessons and messages were still salient in students’ minds, despite being away from Newhouse and the classroom.
In each of the course-related sub-folders, I describe briefly my learning goals for each class and the ideal expectations for students delineated in the syllabus. I then describe and demonstrate how students have continuously met and surpassed those expectations, both within the semester and long after they leave the classroom through their individual and group work and personal correspondence. Finally, I discuss trends in course evaluations, how I have improved over the past six years, and my intentions and goals for the class moving forward.
Individual Student Mentorship
Mentoring students has been a calling for me for almost two decades. From teaching elementary and middle school students how to edit video through the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston as an undergrad, to working with the McNair Scholars Program at three different institutions, to graduating my first PhD student this past year, I delight in helping to guide individuals through research, work, and life. Through these one-on-one interactions, I can directly provide dynamic and sustainable tools for students and ensure that these tools are best tailored for their needs; mentorship also provides me with greater insight into how these approaches work with students, allowing me to adjust my in-class and public efforts to achieve teaching excellence.
At Syracuse, I have formally advised or mentored 12 graduate (3 Doctoral, 9 Masters) and 6 undergraduate students, both within and outside of Newhouse, including from the iSchool, Communication and Rhetorical Studies, Psychology, English, and Political Science. Many of my advisees had never taken a class with me; they reached out because of my research, faculty affiliations, or general presence on campus. These formal student relationships include thesis and independent study advising, where I assist students in their individual research questions to help them generate the best possible project, and internship sponsorship where I oversee students working in industry positions and provide support to ensure that they get the most out of this opportunity (even if – or especially if – the internship involves less than glamorous tasks).
As an advisor, I demand the same quality that I demand of myself. Much like my approach in the classroom, I believe that students will rise to a standard of excellence and I work closely with students to provide the tools necessary for them to achieve this. I treat every student interaction as I would a co-author, meeting with them weekly or bi-weekly, requiring (and adjusting) their writing schedule, exploring different possible research questions and methodologies to ascertain the best possible answer, and encouraging them to see their work as a first step in an academic career, even if that is not their primary goal. Several of my students have gone on to publish their research projects including Stephen Kendrat (M.A., Media Studies 2015; B.S. TRF 2011) and Patty Terhune (B.S., TRF 2017). Although not all students react well to these expectations, those who continue to work with me achieve excellence.
However, my student mentorship goes beyond my formal advising and mentees. Students regularly approach me outside of formal channels to discuss academic, professional, and personal issues. Over the past six years, I have had students simply approach me in the hallway because they have heard about me, or because they attended one of my talks. In my first year, a student who was not enrolled in any of my classes came to my office and said that she could tell by my hair that I was someone she could talk to. I have had students reach out simply because of who I am and the topics that I address in the classroom and publicly. As someone who did not have women of color as mentors in college or graduate school (13 years total), I am familiar with the feelings of isolation that these students experience and I cannot turn them away. This willingness to talk to students has endeared me to our student community and I’m proud to know that I can be present for them.
Over these past six years, I have also continuously sought to provide dynamic and sustainable critical media tools to more than just my enrolled students. I have coordinated two recurring public conversations that expand teaching beyond the classroom: The Annual Conversation on Race and Entertainment Media at Newhouse and Critical and Curious, a podcast with TRF Professor Robert Thompson critically discussing “pop trash.” In addition to these series, I coordinated a “watch-in” to address a racially-charged incident on campus.
Although it may seem strange to include these under teaching and not service or scholarly/creative, these public conversations are designed to encourage students to think differently about media and diversity by connecting theory, research, and media history to industry practices and popular culture, and based on the responses from students, these efforts achieve excellence in teaching outside of the classroom. Furthermore, they allow the Syracuse University community and the community a glimpse into what happens every week at Newhouse, making these conversations an extension of teaching.
Annual Conversation on Race and Entertainment Media
When I arrived at Newhouse, the Annual Conversation on Race and Entertainment Media had been hosted for 12 years by now-retired TRF Professor of Practice, Richard Dubin. I was excited and honored to bring my friend Larry Wilmore (Figure 3) to campus as that year’s guest and in doing so, lovingly usurped the talk from Prof. Dubin. Since then, I have had the opportunity to interview some amazing individuals at the top of their field, including Robyn Lattaker Johnson (2015), VP of Unscripted Programming at Syfy and creator of Face Off (Figure 4), Erika Green Swafford (2016), Executive Producer on How To Get Away With Murder (Figure 5), Donny Jackson (2017), Executive Producer on CNN’s United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell (Figure 6), Jonathan Jackson (2018), Co-Creator of website BLAVITY (Figure 7), and Dana Gills (2019), Director of Production and Development at Lionsgate (Figure 8).
These conversations are simultaneously casual and professional; we have a friendly conversation about the state of media and diversity that connects research to industry. As one student said in response to the 2019 conversation with Dana Gills…
The nature of the conversation overall felt very free-flowing and comfortable. Professor L’Pree did an excellent job of controlling the direction of the discussion and hitting all the necessary talking points while maintaining a pleasant, lighthearted tone to the exchange.
But the students get more than an entertaining exchange from these conversations. I actively incorporate the key terms and theories from class when prompting my interview subject to help them see the value in what can be perceived as dry and esoteric content.
One of my favorite moments in the first interview with Larry Wilmore (2014) featured a quote from Stuart Hall, who had recently passed, on inferential racism. I quoted Stuart Hall’s definition of inferential racism, “the naturalized representations of events and situations relating to race with racist premises or propositions as unquestioned assumptions” and asked Wilmore, what are some of the unquestioned assumptions in industry?
WILMORE: One of the most insidious ones was that black writers weren’t as good as white writers. And this happened in the agencies and at the networks. You know it’s just something that people kind of felt and I always hated that kind of assumption. It wasn’t always said but you know was kind of there. And also by extension, black shows weren’t considered as high-quality as what were called white shows and so I’ve always liked even with Bernie Mac, I was proud of the fact that we won a Peabody with that show.
These conversations ask students to think about things that they had never considered before, and these responses are often the most poignant and satisfying. My goal in teaching, in the classroom and through public conversations, is to help students see thing that they have been actively encouraged not to see, and with every conversation, I’m able to push the boundaries of their knowledge and perceptions of the world.
Although we often talk about the presentation of groups in media, and the unique nature of media production, Newhouse’s Conversations on Race and Entertainment Media bridge these two conversations. I have been lucky and grateful to integrate a psychological thread that connects the dots between the experiences of producers, consumers, and research. These conversations are the ultimate recognition of the scholar that I want to be, one that bridges the siloes of academia and industry to foster more robust conversations and improve current discourse around issues of race via entertainment media. I have included several student responses to these conversations in Conversations > Student Feedback folder and highlights are available via YouTube using the embedded links above.
Critical and Curious: A Pop “Trash” Podcast w/ Bob Thompson
Layering academic research and theory over popular culture and industry is a personal passion and essential to connecting with students. In a recent collaboration with Professor of Television and Popular Culture Bob Thompson (TRF), a renowned and respected pop culture academic, I have actively pursued this educational approach instead of simply integrating popular culture examples into lecture. Originally conceptualized as a 5-week diversity short course but scrapped due to scheduling, we have released two seasons of our podcast, Critical and Curious, which explores pop “trash,” or content that academics have largely disparaged, through media history and theory as well as race, class, and gender.
Our first season (2018) critically discussed the Fast and Furious franchise, which at the time was comprised of eight feature-length theatrical films and two short films as well as two video games. This franchise has grossed over $5B in box office sales and established a cultural phenomenon in the United States and around the world. Despite this unprecedented popular response, the critical analysis of these movies by academics remains minimal. Each episode systematically analyzes each film in the series, beginning with what we love and despise about these films and rationalizing this response through critical analysis of characters, themes, and individual scenes. Listeners can dive right in by connecting on a subjective and visceral level with us as fans, but the critical analysis quickly goes deeper and deploys academic critical studies methodology. We also end each episode with a related personal question, inviting our listeners to connect with us on a very personal level, thus further disrupting the stereotype of a dispassionate, analytical professor. I like to say, “If you’re a fan, you’ll love it; if you’re not a fan, you will be.”
I offered Fall 2018 COM107 (Communications and Society) students the option of watching a Fast and Furious movie and listening to the associated episode from Season 1 or asking a friend or family member who is a fan to listen to an episode and interview them; students were instructed to describe how the podcast helped them (or their interview subject) think about the movie differently. According to one student’s mother:
The mere fact that communication scholars felt this franchise was worthy of further thought and analysis made me think of these movies differently. I have never seen any of the Fast and Furious movies. I had dismissed them as pure action and adventure fluff. But, after watching these two movies and listening to the analysis, I am convinced that there is more substance to these films that can be observed by close viewing.
Although we had not intended to do a second season, it was a delight and a joy to critically analyze pop “trash” and we missed these conversations. Given the largely positive feedback from the first season, we realized that we were doing academic work in an alternative format. We deliberated extensively to come up with an idea for the second season; other franchises comparable in length had already received academic attention (e.g., Star Wars, Harry Potter, James Bond) and we were eager to tackle something that had largely flown under the radar. After discussing the possibility of The Matrix, we settled on a star study of Keanu Reeves.
Keanu Reeves has been a household name for more than 30 years with the release of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure in 1989, although he was featured in several films before this breakthrough role. Ted Theodore Logan III still plagues the popular understanding of Reeves; as one of our colleagues said when I mentioned our focus for this season, “Has any other bad actor been in so many good movies?” This popular disregard despite an impressive and diverse body of work led us to a Star Study of Keanu Reeves. The methodology of the star study is attributed to Richard Dyer’s 1979 seminal work, Stars: a star phenomenon (i.e., the image of a star that the public adores) is defined as the intersection of the constructed star image and reality and an assessment of this phenomenon draws on the celebrity’s personal story and on-screen performances, as well as audience reception and the sociopolitical environment of their time. Although the current season is not a complete star study as we are not systematically engaging with every Reeves artifact, we focus closely on 25 films across 11 conversations, establishing a representative sample of work in order to track the star phenomenon that is Keanu Reeves. The conversation is nuanced and offers ways to think about weighty matters. As Lani Diane Rich, New York Times bestseller, podcaster, cultural critic, Newhouse alumna, and current Newhouse adjunct faculty put it:
I’ve been professionally critiquing media with regard to narrative for the past ten years, and the idea of a star study having its own extra-textual narrative had honestly never occurred to me. When I first heard that Professors Thompson and L’Pree were to study Keanu Reeves as a text, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but as I listened to and eventually participated in the discussions, the in-depth academic examination of the role of a particular star in the meta-narrative of his own work opened my mind to a whole new angle on story analysis. Dr. L’Pree’s willingness to take seriously pop culture properties that many academics of her caliber would scoff at created a space for an intriguing and original approach to understanding our stories and, by extension, ourselves. It’s nothing less than brilliant.
Each episode features two Keanu Reeves’ movies to establish how these films work together to promote a complex understanding of Reeves as a man, an actor, and a cultural icon. Given the “Keanussance” of Summer 2019, I’m particularly proud that we got ahead of the Keanu fever that accompanied John Wick 3, Toy Story 4, and the announcement of Bill and Ted 3. I offered Spring 2019 COM346 (Race, Gender, and the Media) to listen to any of the Season 2 episodes available to date and describe how it made them think differently about the featured movies, Keanu Reeves, or race, class, and gender.
The Critical and Curious conversations make often weighty topics more accessible; our episodes have been streamed over 2000 times. I have summarized all of the episodes and featured a quote from student submissions and the general public to demonstrate how this series serves as an alternative teaching strategy and helps students think differently about media (Season 1, Season 2). Even those who discuss these issues extensively still find these conversations revealing and those who believe that they are experts in the artifact itself find new things to love (and hate) after listening to our podcast.
Struggle with Satire
These public conversations can also emerge from a need that is not being addressed. As described in my cover letter, I am often a (obligatory) sounding board for minority students who have limited familiar faces available at Newhouse. Therefore, I am aware of situations that happen on campus that require a nuanced approach. One such incident has since evolved into a major area of my work.
In fall 2015, a distressed student approached me to discuss an incident that had happened in her dorm. She showed me a picture of a whiteboard with an incomplete hangman game: the clue was “people who annoy you” and the letters read “N _ G G E R S.” She explained that when she tried to draw attention to the issue, she was constantly countered with the fact that this was a joke from South Park and that she should “get over it.” The student was deeply hurt by this, and understandably so. I found this response frustrating particularly because it refuses to address the crux of the issue: that the “joke” was being deployed at the expense of the larger satirical message featured in the episode.
The 2007 episode entitled, “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson,” features a character who, faced with this situation on Wheel of Fortune, shouts out the associated racial epithet; the answer turns out to be “NAGGERS.” He then becomes a laughing stock and a social pariah for his “faux pas,” which he interprets as discrimination, deploying social justice language to describe his personal situation, all the while failing to recognize actual discrimination being suffered by marginalized groups. This episode was critically acclaimed but the viewer must know America’s discriminatory history in order to get the joke. This is the struggle with satire: when does it work to promote diversity and when does it fail?
In order to address this question, I organized a “watch-in,” a variant on a “teach-in,” with Prof. Thompson, Terra Peckskamp (Director of Residence Life), and Cedric Bolton (Coordinator of Student Engagement at the Office of Multicultural Affairs). About 75 students attended the event; we watched the episode, discussed the meaning of satire, its unintended consequences, and important things to consider when creating, critiquing, and sampling satire.
Although this event may be considered by some to be service, this was an opportunity to teach about a subject that needed to be taught to students not enrolled in my classes. I effectively organized and taught a mini-lecture because students needed the tools to engage with events in their residential lives. It is easy to dismiss what happens in the dorms as outside of the responsibility of teaching faculty, but I see it as an opportunity to apply course material, or if course materials do not apply, to restructure and incorporate new lessons to ensure that students are better prepared for what happens outside the classroom.
The event was so well received that I taught 2 sections of a 5-week short diversity course the following semester entitled Struggle with Satire. I will be teaching 3 sections of this class again this fall, a request of the late Dean Branham after the Theta Tau “satirical” sketch videos rocked the campus in 2018. The class has also inspired several research projects including a book chapter co-authored with a former TRF undergraduate student who was enrolled in the class, and an upcoming textbook published by Wiley.
It has been a privilege to teach at Newhouse for the past six years and I hope that this document demonstrates that I have approached teaching as a multi-faceted discipline that extends far beyond the classroom. I am honored and proud that Newhouse has given me the opportunity to be a media educator on a grand scale. My life goal for the past 20 years has been to improve media discourse and by extension intergroup interactions and society at large. I have always believed that this is only possible through increased media literacy and I am excited to engage in this endeavor every day. When putting together this dossier, I realized that I have spent every day of the past six years working toward creating a more inclusive and media savvy future and for that I am grateful.
I hope that my descriptions above provide context for why I deploy these strategies, even if some students do not react positively immediately. My goal in the classroom is to encourage students to see things that they are actively encouraged not to see, which often results in uncomfortable reactions, but I know that my class material, discussions, and the resultant skills stick with students over time, as confirmed by the Award for Teaching Excellence in 2017. As one student volunteered at the end of the second iteration of Struggle with Satire in Fall 2016:
You were the best professor I ever had, and probably will ever have… I know that I will leave your class better capable at questioning the environment I live in and the actions of my [fraternity] brothers, and my family. I am Hispanic, and have grown up in a Fox News minded household, with a bigoted group of friends and a misinformed group of brothers. I have come out of it all with poor and ignorant opinions about race, gender, and society as a whole. So thank you, thank you so much, for helping make me more conscious of the things I did not see.