By Ami Berger
Graduate students in the SJMC's M.A. and Ph.D. programs are producing cutting-edge research on many of today's hot-button issues. They're also preparing to be leaders of the next generation of mass communication scholars.
Kate Roberts Edenborg: Exploring conceptions of girlhood
Before coming to the SJMC: I came to the SJMC's M.A. program in mass communication right after graduating from UW-Stevens Point. My background at that point was mostly print journalism. I gained editing and design skills at the U while working as a teaching assistant and then left to work for a bit at a daily newspaper in Wisconsin. I then came back to the SJMC to finish my Masters' thesis and start the Ph.D. program. Initially I wasn't sure that I was cut out for it but then I realized how much I enjoyed all aspects of academics--both the research and the teaching.
Her current research project: My dissertation research explores conceptions of girls and girlhood in American history from 1865 to 1952. My main goal is to identify representations of girlhood in American mass communication texts--specifically books and periodicals--that targeted girls as a primary audience. Overall I hope to inform an understanding of what is taking place with the marketing to 'tweens' today. I am excited to see what differences and similarities arise in the girlhood representations over the historical period I am looking at.
How the project got started...: During the final stages of my Ph.D. coursework I started to notice how much focus there is today on marketing to girls in their 'tweens'--ages 8-12. I started to think about what kind of attention might have been paid to this age group in earlier eras. Since I wanted to focus on how girls were being represented over time, I thought that books and periodicals were a good source. Books were also definitely the media that I remember connecting strongly with when I was a girl as well. I think that this idea about girls, reading, and literacy has been on my mind for quite a while.
...and where it's going: I also believe that books--especially mass marketed, popular, best selling books--are a form of mass communication and that study of these books should be considered a valid scholarly endeavor. The 'American Girl' doll and book series has been part of what sparked my interest in this topic--it's such a clear marketing model using girlhood representations. Frankly, I'm a bit torn about the impact that the series has. On one hand, it's a great way to teach girls about different eras in history, but on the other side, I question the accuracy of the girlhood representations that are provided by the books. Of course, as with all histories, the details tend to be generalizations about that point in time in that region of the country. I believe that girls are best served knowing that there is not a single girlhood history, but many girlhood histories. Books are just one form of media that show girls how to 'be' and the more ways of 'being' they are exposed to, the better.
Bastiaan Vanacker: Hate speech law and the online environment
Before coming to the SJMC: I got a M.A. in philosophy at the University of Ghent, Belgium. After that I enrolled in a one-year program in mass communication at the University of Antwerp. I applied for and received a Rotary scholarship to continue my studies abroad. I chose to come to the University of Minnesota in 1998 to enroll in the SJMC's M.A. program because I knew the city from a previous visit and because the reputation of the program. I finished my Masters in 2001 and then continued in to the Ph.D. program.
His current research project: In my dissertation, I discuss the development and theoretical underpinnings of hate speech law in Europe and the United States and analyze how these laws have been applied to the online environment. Among other things, I provide an in-depth discussion of the legal and technological attempts of European countries, which have stricter hate speech laws than the United States, to limit their citizens' access to hate speech originating from the United States. I develop a framework to evaluate these attempts and offer suggestions for how European nations can have their laws enforced without interfering with the open structure of the Internet.
How the project got started...: The difference between the American notion of 'freedom of speech' and the one I was familiar with in Europe is fascinating to me. Combined with my interest in Internet studies, I found a way to give my interest in these different concepts an academic outlet. The global reach of the Internet has made it so that different free speech paradigms no longer exist in isolation, but interfere with one another. In my M.A. thesis, I studied the conflict between the European Union and the United States regarding standards for online privacy as an example of such a clash of free speech traditions taking place on the Internet. This project was the basis for my dissertation.
...and where it's going: In my research, I try to be both a legal and an Internet scholar. I study the impact of hate speech law on the Internet and vice-versa. If and how content will be regulated on the Internet by governmental and private actors will have great implications for the meaning of the new networked age. Based on my previous Internet research, I believe that one of the most pressing questions for Internet scholars is whether the Internet will be a global borderless medium or a collection of regionalized 'Intranets.' Will speech on the internet be free or highly regulated, and who will we trust with deciding what speech is permitted on the Internet?
John Wirtz and Penny Sheets: Religion, politics, and voting
Before coming to the SJMC:
John: After college, I worked in the sports department of a daily newspaper--The Springfield News-Leader in Missouri. I left the newspaper to become the head public relations writer at a small seminary in Missouri, and then took a job running the public relations department at a college here in Minnesota. Then I decided to go to graduate school. I chose the SJMC's Ph.D. program because I had heard a lot of positive things about it, and I wanted to work with Brian Southwell and Marco Yzer.
Penny: When I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I decided grad school was in my future. I came into the SJMC's M.A. program interested primarily in media ethics, but in my first few courses I really fell in love with political communication and the role of the media in our political system. Next year I'll be leaving to study political communication at the University of Washington's Ph.D. program, with David Domke [SJMC Ph.D. '96] as my advisor.
Their current research project:
Penny: Our project examines how people evaluate political candidates, especially when they have very little information about those candidates. We are specifically interested in how cues about a candidate's religious beliefs--in this case, conservative Christian beliefs--may affect a person's evaluation of that candidate, and whether those effects depend on the religious beliefs, political ideology, or psychological characteristics of the person doing the evaluating.
John: Basically, we found that there was no difference in the attitudes towards political candidates across conditions and our variables of interest (willingness to endorse orthodox Christian beliefs, willingness to endorse liberal Christian beliefs). There was, however, a difference in the confidence in the judgments by the two religious beliefs conditions: people who endorsed liberal Christian beliefs were less confident in their conclusions about the candidate, while people who endorsed orthodox Christian beliefs were more confident in their conclusions about the candidate.
How the project got started...:
Penny: Our initial inspiration was the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court in October, 2005. Reaction to the nomination was mixed, but several leading political and Christian conservative figures supported Miers, and used references to Miers' religious beliefs to suggest that she was fit for a position on the high court, and, more importantly, to suggest that her faith was 'all you needed to know' about her fitness for the job. We were interested in figuring out whether in a hypothetical election, a religious endorsement is a sufficient amount of information for someone to make a confident judgment about whether to vote for that candidate or not.
...and where it's going:
Penny: We hope that the project will shed at least a little bit of light on how people with varying belief systems use endorsements to make political judgments. If subjects see a candidate about whom they know very little, but they see that the candidate is endorsed by an organization that is consistent with the subjects' beliefs, will they be as confident in their evaluation of the candidate as they would if they had more information? Clearly, endorsements are useful information in evaluating political candidates. But the question is if an endorsement--and only an endorsement--is enough for people to confidently evaluate a political candidate about whom they know little else. If so, it sends a potentially stark message about the nature of American politics and how voters are using information about candidates before voting.
John: Early indications are that at least along the dimension 'conservative' to 'liAugust 29, 2006 confidence when one receives limited information. A continual struggle for us is the labels we use to describe groups in the study: as you can imagine, labels like 'fundamentalist,' 'liberal,' or 'atheist,' can elicit strong reactions. We also need to account for non-Christian faiths. This is still a pilot study in its beginning stages, but we're confident there's something worth pursuing.