Critical theory continues to play vital roles in our everyday lives as communication studies students, scholars, practitioners, and advocates. While decades of scholarship have been published and debates had on what critical theory is or is not, critical theory might simply be understood as the attempt to reveal something as connected to a larger system and the hope that this revelation may make changing this something more possible. Critical theory, defined here, has two components that are intimately connected. First, critical theory aims to reveal, connect, or highlight how an idea, practice, object, or discourse participates in a larger (and often hidden or obstructed) structure, ideology, or system of thought. Second, this aim of critical theory is rarely neutral, meaning the hope of this exposing or revealing is so that these power relationships may be dismantled, deconstructed, or somehow overcome.

Understood like this, critical theory and communication studies have close affinities because of, on the one hand, the way that we create, identify, make natural, or otherwise participate in systems of possible domination through communication practices. For example, the use of gendered language like mankind or male pronouns for the U.S. President normalizes and naturalizes a world in which men are presumed to be the norm, a world in which everything is organized around men, and a world in which non-men are considered deviations judged as less than. On the other hand, because these gendered systems are produced and made possible through our continued linguistic choices and discursive affirmations means that they are capable of being un-made and changed. Rather than use gendered language like mankind, we can use humankind. Instead of using the generic he to refer to the position of the U.S. President, we can say she, he, or they.

During the fall 2019 semester at James Madison University, fourteen graduate students and I journeyed through challenging readings and texts, difficult conversations, and moments of critical community and relationship building in hopes of better understanding these roles that critical theory play in our communication, advocacy, relationships, and community. This open educational resource publication is part of the journey; reflecting a perspective into our conversations and community-building, but also an attempt to share out some of the insights we gleamed that critical theory can offer.

The communication and advocacy graduate seminar “Critical Theory and Communication” was designed and organized around this central idea that critical theory has much to offer and learn from beyond what is often siloed off to the university grounds or other so-called intellectual vanguards. We made sure that every class discussion came back to questions like how learning this concept, theory, or application helps us understand our communication & advocacy practices. What perspectives or experiences are now revealed and highlighted that were previously hidden, covered over, or even excluded? How do our discursive practices connect and/or break with other systems of knowledge, power, and truth? How can knowing this help us advocate for, communicate with, and impact the lives of others?

Below you will find the topics for the semester and the associated readings for each topic. And while we took on a different critical theory angle or perspective each week, several themes emerged across the semester. First, we are not without hope. Reading and discussing every week how we participate in and create systems and structures that might be potentially violent or exclusionary can be overwhelming. But with each passing week, we also identified ways that these practices and choices can be undone, unstuck, and made a new in hopefully more empowering ways. Second, we kept coming back to the affective, relational, or emotional side of critical communication. Better understanding how affect, emotions, and feelings drive us to want different identities or identifications can help explain why we do things or participates in systems of oppression, even and especially when we know they are destructive. Foregrounding the powerful force that affect/emotion enables us to curate and create different identities or discourses that are less violent. Third, our discussions kept coming back to the various roles we play in creating, maintaining, and resisting dominant ideologies. As many of us are teachers or teaching assistants, we discussed how we can influence the classroom differently to be more inclusive, even selecting different critical theory & communication readings and assignments in our own seminar.

The student projects here reflect an attempt for each of us to think about how we would take and translate the critical communication work being done in our field and by us for a more public audience. Each student was asked to identify a critically informed research article and to review it with a public audience or audiences in mind. Students had the option to write essays, create podcasts, or design other creative endeavors to perform their public review. Everyone selected either an essay or podcast; and they are engaging, entertaining, and thought-provoking. Within this class project you will find reviews that take on larger structures and ideologies, like structural violence or neocolonialism. Some students selected articles that draw attention to the powerful ways in which media practices can influence and frame what is possible or not possible within public discourse through the stories they and we tell. Still other students chose critical pieces that reflect on our roles within academia, whether in the classroom as instructors, within the academy as researchers, or navigating institutional structures. Finally, some students focused on specific applications of critical communication within a given context like sports controversies, U.S. Supreme Court discourse, or how we communicate about eating disorders.

Paul Mabrey
Assistant Professor, School of Communication Studies

Browse the contents of SCOM 542 Public Projects 2019:

SCOM 542 Class Readings
SCOM 542 Project Podcasts
SCOM 542 Project Papers