Moody Faculty Spotlight: Late Spring 2022
Dr. Josh Gunn is a professor of communication studies. He is currently teaching COM370H (Hygiene/Politics of Waste) and CMS 390R (The Subject). Gunn’s most recent book Political Perversion: Rhetorical Aberration in the Time of Trumpeteering, was published in 2020.
How does your research influence your teaching and vice versa?
With a couple of exceptions, most of my classes are developed around something that I am researching about. My “Rhetoric & Religion” class came out of my first book, and “Celebrity Culture” came out of my work with what is called public sphere theory. Although I refuse to assign my own work in my classes (seems like a conflict of interest), there is almost always a tie between what I teach and what I research. I cannot imagine this job otherwise!
The stuff I learn from research inevitably ends up in the classroom, and the stuff that inevitably ends up in the classroom (conversations, usually) ends up in my work. This freedom of exchange, for the most part, is that none of my classes are required classes but electives. But my classes tend to focus on offbeat topics and popular culture, so I cannot imagine them as required courses anyway. I try to develop a new course every two or three years, just to keep me on my toes, and to give the students something fresh and new. Since I came to UT in 2005, I’ve developed and taught fifteen different courses. I’m currently developing a course on the politics of hygiene and a political communication course that focuses on the role of demons and the devil in politics (currently titled, “The Darkside of Political Rhetoric”).
Do you have a favorite course to teach?
Ahh! I can’t make Sophie’s choice! I guess I could say that my favorite course to teach is the newest one I have developed. I’m excited to develop “The Darkside of Political Rhetoric,” which traces the role in which devil figure or demons play in politics. It will begin with reading John Milton’s /Paradise Lost/ and end with an examination of the QAnon conspiracy.
What online practices have you carried over into in-person or hybrid instruction?
Very few, but an important one is due dates: both online and in person, students have much more flexibility with deadlines (so, for example, the assignments for one unit of instruction are due after two or three weeks, as opposed to a specific day every week). I also give extensions on assignments routinely, whereas before the pandemic I had a “no late work” policy. There is no telling what our “normal” is going to look like when COVID-19 is endemic, and so many of us have been through so much the past two years. I've chosen compassion over strictness, with one exception: academic dishonesty.
Could you describe how you use Perusall in your classes?
Perusall is the best annotation software I’ve tried, and every year I’ve used it, it gets better and more smoothly integrates with Canvas. In my online courses I use Perusall for an annotation assignment (they have seven annotations per semester, with the lowest two dropped). Students are asked to highlight a section of the reading. They are then to paraphrase what the highlighted claim is, and then they are to respond (agree, disagree, provided an example) and so on. For this assignment, you can also respond to a classmate’s annotation, and that counts as an annotation. I’ve found this avoids a forced discussion or smokescreen because students are to engage a course reading. I also use quizzes as an assessment (five, multiple choice questions on a reading or film). I find that students do much better on quizzes after they have completed the annotation activity.
What advice would you give faculty who want to incorporate more inclusive practices into their work?
Reference objects that students are interested in (popular culture especially) and use it as a relevant example for a lesson. I routinely ask my students what they are watching or listening to, and then when I get home I watch or listen to their suggestions.
Paraphrase a lot: whether responding to a student online or in person, I paraphrase what I think they are saying. This affirms their point of view, but face to face, it also helps students in the back of the room hear what their peer is saying. In short, listen. This creates more of a conversation and less of a monologue. Of course, when one lectures there is always going to be a monologic dimension, but you reduce this “transmission” model of teaching by trying to create an environment for conversation.
In larger classes, I find this is often best achieved with the “think-pair-share” activity: Ask students to think about a question, then to pair up with two or three other students and share their thoughts. After some minutes, reconvene the class and ask for volunteers to share their group’s answer. This helps students through the inevitable intimidation factor that comes with large classes.