A health communication course taught by Dr. Susan Kahlenberg ’93, assistant professor of communication, encourages students to examine how media represent health issues, risks and problems. “Even after they graduate, students will always embody the role as ‘patient,’” says Kahlenberg. “I think it is important for students to critically analyze messages about health that they receive through mainstream media.”
Through readings and discussions, topics of healthcare are explored, sometimes with healthcare professionals; last semester an internist came to class to discuss how the pharmaceutical industry targets primary care physicians through marketing and how direct-to-consumer advertisements affect the physician-patient relationship. For a major component of the course, students become active participants in disseminating health messages to the Muhlenberg community. This past fall, students incorporated extensive research of past media campaigns, as well as their own audience segmentations of the Muhlenberg student body, to design and implement two different public information campaigns: an anti-smoking campaign, “No Ifs, Ands, or Butts,” and a mental health campaign, “Stress Free Day to Play.” These campus-wide campaigns were disseminated to the entire Muhlenberg community. The anti-smoking campaign, for example, targeted social smokers and incorporated many visual effects to increase awareness of the long-term consequences of smoking, including pictures of damaged lungs, cigarette butts collected on campus, and a video of commercials created by the Truth Campaign, which played continuously in the Seegers Union. Means for quitting, such as informational packets, candy, rubber bands, and coupons for Nicorette were distributed, and carbon monoxide testing (by representatives from the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Valley) was available to students, faculty and staff so that they could see how much their bodies were affected by smoking.
According to Kahlenberg, the construction of these public information campaigns encourages students to combine knowledge about “healthcare policies, effective strategies for designing healthcare messages, and theories presented in our readings.” Students also had to understand what health issues were potentially afflicting Muhlenberg students. “I want students to leave this class understanding the link between theory and practice, and recognize that as patients, they can abdicate or advocate for their own healthcare,” she says.
Strong communication students are eligible for the communication honors program, co-directed by Sullivan and Taub-Pervizpour. In order to apply for the program, students must have obtained at least a 3.5 GPA in the major, and 3.3 overall. According to Sullivan, the program is valuable because it allows students to do something different, outside the classroom, with their individual interests.
In addition to group discussions with visiting communication scholars, the program recently instituted an honors seminar, currently taught by Jansen and Jeff Pooley, who joined the communication faculty in the fall. The seminar emphasizes student-faculty collaboration and meets at various faculty members’ homes. It has become a required part of the honors program, a tenth course in addition to the nine required of non-honors majors. “The seminar allows for a great interaction with the faculty, which is sometimes difficult with such a large major,” says Sullivan. “This program supplies a mechanism for this interaction and learning.”
The seminar pairs readings and discussions with the opportunity to meet the communication scholars who have authored those readings. Scholar Christopher Simpson recently attended the class, after students were required to read his book, including 100 pages of footnotes. “Students were daunted by the amount of his research,” says Jansen, “but then we brought him here and students realized he was a real person, just like them. In this way, the course works to demystify the notion of author and may even encourage students to believe that they can be authors too.”
In addition to directing next spring’s honors seminar, Sullivan will teach a unique course on media power and American politics in the fall. The course, which will closely examine the 2004 elections, will be co-taught by Dr. Lanethea Mathews-Gardner of the political science department, focusing on the election process, campaign ads, public opinion polls, and media representation of the election.
With a dynamic faculty and a series of courses that integrate both theory and practice, the department continues to challenge students to connect their everyday lives with their learning. While the communication major continues to gain popularity among college campuses, it is still unusual to find extensive departments at small liberal arts schools. Muhlenberg is distinctive as having a growing department that emphasizes both classroom learning and real-world application. “I think it’s rare to find a communication department that blends both skills and theory,” says Sullivan. “We have a unique program here that provides students with both.”