Innovative Pedagogy Interview

Dr. Mary Brinson, Visiting Assistant Professor, Communication Studies


     In a digitally enhanced political news-media world, where most information is presented to us in sound bites heightened by flashy graphics and hyperactive “happy faces” that have been socially networked, photo shopped and designed to emulate a carefully crafted image…it is not hard to believe that some might argue that we have reached the content saturation threshold. Not for Dr. Mary Brinson, Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies.  She believes in the power of spontaneous, student centered teaching moments---moving away from the confines of clutter and encouraging students to interact directly in the real world.

Tell us about your recent teaching experience:

     This past summer, a group of USD students attended the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia with me through a national organization called the The Washington Center.  It was a two-week program, where we attended academic seminars during week one, (which included daily guest speakers such as the Democratic National Convention Committee Chief Executive Officer Leah Daughtry, former Governor of Philadelphia Edward Rendell, and Action News Morning Anchor Matt O’Donnell), and worked at the convention during week two.

     Students worked for various news organizations (CNN, Univision, Talk Media News) as well as for Hillary Clinton’s communication director).  They were able to experience in person this historic event, and attend notable speeches by President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Hillary and President Clinton.

Why the field experience?

     When I taught my first class as a TA at St. Louis University in 1995, I fell in love with teaching – I knew I would someday come back to it.   However, I had a strong commitment and desire to bring real world experience to the classroom.   After more than ten years working in advertising, PR and publishing – I went back to finish my Ph.D and start my teaching career.

     The reality for teachers is that most of our students will not go on to graduate school or academic careers.   So it is our job to give them a well-rounded education.  In my mind this is defined by guiding them through the understanding and importance of theory, helping them arrive at the ability to think for themselves, the ability to communicate these thoughts – both in written and spoken form, and finally to show them how it all relates to real world experiences (both professional and personal).

Did teaching in the “real world” change the tone of your course?

     Although this course included group meetings where academic materials were discussed as well, I was moved by how impactful the real life experience was for them.  Some students had articles published, some received job offers, and some expressed that is was the best experience of their lives so far. 

     As university teachers, we can sometimes get caught up in the academic materials (which are important, don’t get me wrong), and stumble through our syllabus mindlessly discussing theories and struggling to find the right video clips to keep our students awake.  The experience of this convention course reminded me of the reason I first loved teaching, which was the interconnectedness of pedagogy and practical experience.  

     When my type-A self was forced to stray from my Political Communication course syllabus this semester, I won’t deny that it caused a bit of anxiety.  But how could I stand there and discuss democratic theory with them, while this historic (and insane) election was taking place. Thomas Jefferson once said, “I give you this Republic, if you can keep it.”  It is our responsibility as citizens to engage in debate, to vote, and have the political knowledge to do so. 

     After discussing a bit of theory, and debating about how we have strayed so far from our founding fathers intentions – I decided in a personal “aha” moment that we need to be involved as a class in this election.   If we are not part of the solution then we are part of the problem.  

What have you been working on this semester?

     A large portion of my course this semester will focus on active engagement.   Not theoretically, but literally.   Students are working in groups to create awareness and knowledge on our campus.  We are working with Casey Dominguez in Political Science who is overseeing the USD votes program.   Their task is to read everything they can, attend multiple on and off campus political events, and share their knowledge.   They will be using social norms theory to develop a campus wide “get out the vote” campaign.   It will include USD radio spots, writing articles for the Vista, creating TV spots for USD TV, creating social media viral videos, creating a poster campaign, interviewing students and teachers, and much more.  

     A political knowledge portion of the campaign will follow up this program.   Students will be challenged to share political knowledge about the choices of this election in creative ways that will attract other students.   They will communicate on our campus, the importance of doing your research and not voting based on heuristics and propaganda.  They will also communicate with students the best way to acquire information in this election where truth and facts are scarce.

Have your students welcomed the challenge?

     I believe strongly in civic engagement, and I want to instill this in my students.   One of my most memorable recent moments with a student reflects this passion.   She was telling me about some of the passionate debates and activities that she and some other past Poly Comm students were having.  I laughed and said “you all are out of control,” to which she responded – “you created us monsters, Dr. Brinson.”  I hope to continue to create more passionate “political monsters” this semester and many more to follow! Further, I encourage faculty to get students involved!  Tell them to click on this link and register to vote by October 24: