Teaching students to research Covid communication
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected many aspects of everyday communicative practice, and some of the effects are potentially long-lasting. The massive shift to on-line work-from-home cuts the costs of office space as well as commuting; telephone clinics free up time and space for hard-pressed medics; and school and college closure creates a major opportunity for Big Tech and Edu-businesses to extend their influence in education (Williamson et al 2020; Selwyn et al 2020). As Adami (2020) notes, the pandemic has sparked lots of conversations about the pros and cons of pandemic changes in communication, but is this metacommentary sophisticated enough to contradict – or even engage with – cost-benefit analyses based on economics and narrowly defined organisational goals? What authority will voices carry that call for attention to complex diversity in the communicative experience so vital to cultural and interactional well-being? And if these voices just sound impressionistic, what’s to stop post-Covid communicative life being entirely dictated top-down?
So far, specialists in communication – linguists, discourse analysts, semioticians etc – have responded in two ways:
- many have sought funding to research the ways in which their specialised frameworks can illuminate the new conditions, and a substantial number of robust empirical studies is likely to emerge in a year or two;
- others have set up or used web platforms such www.panmemic.hypotheses.org, Facebook PanMeMic, https://www.diggitmagazine.com/, https://www.languageonthemove.com/ and https://viraldiscourse.com to identify changes in linguistic and communicative practice more or less as they occur, often inviting a broad range of contributors.
These two paths have potentially complementary strengths and weaknesses:
- the traditional research route is rigorous and well-incorporated into university structures, but it is also slow, narrow, competitively selective and relatively inflexible;
- the platform strategy has openness, breadth and flexibility, but it is more impressionistic and faces the challenge of sustainability once the core demands of university work reassert themselves.
To optimise the relationship between these two routes, and to produce potentially powerful new voices capable of contributing to discussions of our communicative futures, we need to add a third path:
This can be based in already very well-established pedagogic procedures at university, involving:
- teaching particular analytical frameworks to our BA and MA students (frameworks for describing face-to-face encounters, multimodal images, mediated interaction, political rhetoric, classroom discourse, medical consultations etc etc), and then
- asking them to use a particular framework in their own empirical projects, orienting to the usual standards of academic production (scientific method; trustworthy claims; creative rigour etc).
It will simply differ in
- directing student projects towards questions about Covid-related changes in communication.
The effects of this would be to:
- take sophisticated analytical lenses into communicative arenas well beyond the reach of established academics;
- generate a steady stream of well-honed contributions to websites concerned with Coronavirus communication, contributing to their sustainability;
- increase the number of people able to make persuasive, knowledge-based contributions to in debates about the changing communicative environment (Hymes 1969:56-7).
In fact, there are good reasons for building the Covid problematic into our teaching right away. Many universities are shifting from embodied to digital teaching in their plans for September 2020, encouraging staff to turn themselves into ‘world-class’ on-line educators. This is a tall order, and unstinting efforts to recast last year’s modules within the newly mastered intricacies of Moodle and MS Teams could draw all our attention away from the fast-moving local and global change (actually also setting ourselves up as easy targets for critical ‘consumer feedback’). Instead, it may be wiser to talk to students explicitly about Covid’s challenges for teaching and learning, capitalising on its (intercontinental) topicality, positioning our shared difficulties as useful data in a live and intellectually exciting collaborative effort to better understand the transformations.
So there is, I think, a strong case for introducing a teaching strand into our discussions of communication and Covid-19. University classrooms can be places where the responsiveness of web forums synergises with the disciplines of traditional research, and the digital challenges next term can be a resource for reflexive analysis. We might all benefit if, for example, a platform like www.panmemic.hypotheses.org were to set up some pages for the discussion of teaching ideas and materials, and in due course, there could also be a case for a digital repository/showcase for good student assignments (see the Multilingual Manchester project for a model – http://mlm.humanities.manchester.ac.uk/). It’s unlikely that there will be a quick return to how things were before the virus, so our innovations could also have some shelf-life. Most important, we’ll be increasing the number of people able to articulate their experiences of the changing communicative environment with persuasive authority, and ourselves finding out a lot more about it as we go along.