The diversity of Georgia Southern University’s Communication Arts Department has improved significantly over the years.
On a macro scale, the department has always been majority white, but in 2017, minority students in the journalism and film and production divisions,for instance, encompassed the majority in each, at 56.6 percent and 52.6 percent, respectively.
The improvement is significant, especially when compared to the early 1980s, when anywhere from zero to eight minorities were graduating with communication arts degrees each quarter.
From 2015-2017, African-American enrollment, specifically, increased in certain divisions, including public relations, multimedia journalism and theatre.
Today, Pamela Bourland-Davis, the current department chair, says that despite the Department’s relatively diverse student body, the number of minority faculty remains disproportionate to the student population.
Much of the Department’s faculty are white men and women, and they’re more balanced in terms of gender than race, ethnicity, and other factors. It’s crucial for the Department to have more than one, for instance, African-American or Asian-American professor, because one faculty member can’t represent the perspectives of multiple students in the same racial or ethnic group.
Bourland-Davis says it’s not always as simple as just hiring another faculty member of color, as many are hesitant to work in a small Southern community like Statesboro. But an essential part of the minority student experience is seeing and learning from professionals who look like them, says Maurice Nelson, coordinator of diversity education and program outreach in Georgia Southern’s Office of Multicultural Affairs.
Nelson believes that a more diverse faculty and staff, whether a result of religious background, race, ethnicity or other characteristics, promotes a more balanced mix of students by default.
The Communication Arts Department facilitates this diverse professional exposure byregularly hosting guest speakers of color, including Charles Floyd Johnson, executive producer of NCIS, Ty Johnston-Chavis, founder of the Atlanta Pitch Summit, and Asra Nomani, a journalist who has written for The Washington Post,The New York Times,The Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal.
“You need to know that there are African-American journalists out there, or there are female journalists, or male public relations practitioners,” Bourland-Davis says. “You need to know that there are ways for you to get ahead, make inroads and do well when you graduate.”
A Good Professor and a Fair Chance Research has shown that students who learn from teachers who look like them tend to perform better in school. Kristyl Tift, an African-American theatre alumna who graduated from the Department in 2004, says that learning from African-American theatre professor Mical Whitaker had a positive impact on her education and career.
Tift called Whitaker the missing puzzle piece that she needed as a theatre student. Tift was originally a music major, but Whitaker, an accomplished director, stoked the flame of performance within Tift and inspired her to change her major to theatre.
Tift went on to star in numerous productions at Georgia Southern, including “Ah! Wilderness,” “The Matchmaker” and“Blues for an Alabama Sky.”Tift fared well as a student, but despite Whitaker’s guidance and Tift’s diverse group of friends at the time, she still wasn’t able to shield herself from what she says was a covert display of racism from a professor.
Tift recalled an incident during which she knew for certain that she was the absolute best person for a lead role in a play, but her professor, she says, had a very specific image in mind about how he wanted his cast to look, and it was an image that didn’t include an African-American woman. When she wasn’t cast for the role, she cried. She said it was the first time she had ever encountered casting discrimination in theatre, and she also remembers her fellow students saying they experienced the same sort of behavior from the professor as well.
“You think that, if you’re just good enough, that will be enough, but then I realized my perfect little world, and the way that I see people, that’s not real,” Tift said. “He had his vision,and his vision did not necessarily include someone like me in a lead role.”
But Tift didn’t let one professor stop her from pursuing what she loved, evidenced by her record of lead roles. Today, Kristyl Tift is Dr. Tift. She teaches acting at Kennesaw State University and has previously taught theatre courses at Georgia Southern and the University of Georgia.
She says she is a proud alumna of the Communication Arts Department and that,overall, she’s very lucky to have had the experiences that she did.Ramadan and Assumptions, while some displays of racism and prejudice are subtle and covert, others are more obvious and blatant.
Kiara Griffin, an African-American multimedia film and production alumna who graduated from the Department in 2017, recalled two instances during her time as a student in which the latter was the case.
Like Tift, Griffin says the Department’s student body when she was a student was relatively balanced in terms of diversity, but unlike Tift, Griffin didn’t have the benefit of learning from a professor who looked like her.
Griffin is more than grateful for the instruction she received while a student and says she feels the Department effectively prepared her for the professional world; however, she says could have lived without witnessing the often concerning behavior of a professor in one of her introductory communications classes.
Griffin says she remembers hearing the professor tell students that they couldn't’ miss class for a religious holiday unless she approved of it beforehand. A student spoke up and said she would have to miss class for Ramadan, a widely observed Islamic holiday, but Griffin said the professor told the student that she didn’t recognize Ramadan as a holiday. Georgia Southern’s class attendance policy allows students to observe holidays set aside by their religious faith.
In addition, faculty members are expected to be sensitive to students observing religious holidays, and students are responsible for notifying professors of their absence in advance so arrangements can be made.
Later in the semester, the same professor gave a slideshow presentation on diversity in media, Griffin says, and, ironically, caused an uproar in the class when she said African-Americans prefer to be called “black people” because one of her African-American colleague stold her that was the case.
Griffin remembers a student raising their hand and asking the professor, “So, your friend speaks for the entire black community?”, to which the professor supposedly responded, “Well,the fact that you just said ‘black’ right there just proves my point that you guys don’t like to be called African-American.”
“Everything was going fine” Griffin said, “and she just got to that point where she started to say that little tidbit, put her two cents in there, and that’s when we were like, no.
As a white woman, I don’t think it’s your place or position to say things like this.”Addressing Related Issues and Continuing to Improve, Isabel Thomas, a graduate assistant for the Diversity Peer Educators at Georgia Southern, compared the concepts of diversity and inclusion by using the classic melting pot vs.salad bowl metaphor.
It’s one thing for a Department to support a melting pot, a hot blob in which each student may lose his or her unique identity, and it’s another for it to support a rich and diversified salad, in which each student has his or her differences celebrated.
Another great way to help the majority of communication arts students foster a diverse and inclusive environment is for them to study abroad, Bourland-Davis says. The Department has participated in the program for 18 years, taking students to places like London, England and Montepulciano, Italy.
Traveling to foreign countries may help students develop the perspectiveof how it feels like to be a stranger in a strange land.
“It helps them see sometimes what other people might go through,” Bourland-Davis said.“Because all of a sudden, they’re the minority.”
Bourland-Davis says the Communication Arts Department takes claims of unequal and unfair treatment very seriously and reports them to Georgia Southern’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX or the Dean of Students Office.
The Department plans to continue hosting guest speakers from all walks of life, and itsdoors remain open to all potential faculty and staff members, regardless of race, ethnicity, sex,sexual orientation, gender identity, religion or disability.
Kiara Griffin is a multimedia film and production alumna. She graduated in 2017 and currentlyworks as a production and social media assistant at WJCL News in Savannah, Georgia