ERIC Identifier: ED399569
Publication Date: 1996-00-00
Author: Ryan, Cynthia A.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading English and Communication Bloomington IN.
Risk Communication in the Cultural Studies Composition
Classroom. ERIC Digest.
The field of risk communication has much to offer instructors of cultural
studies composition who want to revive students' sense of personal risk in the
discursive practices of their culture. Broadly defined, risk communication
refers to the "interactive process of exchange of information and opinion among
individuals, groups, and institutions,...involving multiple messages about the
nature of risk." The term refers to "other messages, not strictly about risk,
that express concerns, opinions, or reactions to risk messages or to legal and
institutional arrangements for risk management" (Committee on Risk Perception
and Communication, 1989). Introducing these messages (and the theory behind
their dissemination) into the cultural studies composition classroom provides a
number of opportunities that current pedagogies fail to offer, 4 of which will
be discussed in this Digest.
CHOOSING TOPICS OF REAL RISK
The study of risk
communication as a cultural process allows students to choose topics of real
risk for study. The "content" of the cultural studies composition course
centers, then, on strategies for exploring the messages about these risks
through a variety of media. Topics of risk are automatically situated in current
sociohistorical contexts, involving issues with which college students as
members of particular communities are concerned.
At the start of the semester, students are asked to read a selection of
essays focusing on the concept of "generations" in Diana George and John
Trimbur's text, Reading Culture: Contexts for Reading and Writing (1992). Now,
it is evident in class discussions that many students feel that the authors of
these essays have sadly missed the mark in expressing what the concerns of their
In one of the essays, Michael Oreskes argues that members of today's MTV
generation fail to involve themselves in political issues and worldly events in
the committed way that youths from past eras had. Many students, however,
respond angrily to such accusations, stating that they have a number of issues
about which they feel quite strongly. Unfortunately, they claim, they feel
powerless to change the world they have inherited from those past generations
Oreskes praises. The reasons for their sense of disempowerment? They are
inundated with messages about the complexity, dishonesty, and inflexibility of
the political system. Further, they are overwhelmed by the devastating messages
they receive via television and magazines about the dire state of a society with
little promise of a better future. Students have absolutely no faith in their
ability to decipher the "system" and to get "democracy" to work.
A course centered on risk communication would encourage students to begin
with issues that matter to them, issues that they feel represent real risk in
their lives. The frustration that results from the onslaught of messages about
these issues can be viewed as an opportunity to teach students how communication
constructs our perspectives about certain dangers (e.g., AIDS) and about diverse
groups of people in society. Essentializing statements such as "Nothing I do
will make a difference" or "We'll probably all die from environmental poisoning
anyway" are clearly tied to the multiple risk messages distributed daily across
a wide range of media, from classrooms to television tabloids to local
newspapers to community interest groups. It makes sense, then, to help students
untangle these messages so that they can more intelligently judge for themselves
just how much control they do have in their lives and how much power they have
to effect change in the environments within which they interact.
EXAMINING GUIDELINES AND INFORMATION
communicators must consider rhetorical factors when preparing scientific
findings for public consumption, there is an element of selectivity in every
risk message. Examining both the guidelines by which risk communicators regulate
their messages and the resulting information that individuals receive can be an
excellent source for cultural critique. Clearly, the content and dissemination
of risk information relies on considerations that are highly value-laden in
nature. For instance, consider the ongoing war over tobacco. The tendency for
the public to identify "villains" in risk situations is evidence of the
subjective nature of this form of communication. A course focused on teaching
students to decipher risk messages can lead them to study these stories of blame
by critiquing the data and language used to construct stereotypes about certain
members of society.
If "A Consumer's Guide to Risk and Risk Communication" (National Research
Council) were written for the general public, as the Council has suggested, such
a guide would outline the basic knowledge necessary for citizens to understand
more clearly both the process by which risk messages are constructed and
conveyed and the strategies that individuals can use to analyze and interpret
them. Simplified definitions and explanations of such notions as "comparability"
(e.g., the risk caused by smoking as compared to the risk taken when riding a
bicycle down a busy city street), "risk magnitudes" (e.g., determining just how
great a risk one is taking by living in a certain area of the U.S.), and
"validity of findings" are ways in which we can make more Americans "risk
literate." Involvement in the formation and translation of risk messages seems a
much better way to teach students how discursive practices work than situating
them in closed contexts such as class and asking them to locate experiences that
fall within the boundaries established by the teacher.
FOCUSING ON CONCRETE MESSAGES
Focusing on concrete messages
versus on abstract categories for study (e.g., race, class, or gender)
encourages students to situate themselves in discursive practices. Rather than
beginning with prefabricated units which limit their ideas, students are able to
draw conclusions about power relations and institutional influences in their
daily lives by examining the use of data and language to motivate public opinion
and behavior regarding risk.
Government and corporate risk communication practices have been widely
criticized over the past decades, as citizens and members of private and public
interest organizations claim that dishonest and inaccurate messages have
affected regulations that fail to protect all social groups. The voices of
cultural studies theorists seem to resonate in such criticisms of the "system"
for failing to treat people fairly and equally (Rowan, 1994). Yet, rather than
beginning with stories of race or class or gender mistreatment, critics of risk
assessment, communication, and management go to the source of problematic
discursive practices. When public and private interest groups identify a lack of
information or an overlooked audience in risk communication that leads or
contributes to discriminatory conclusions and resulting policies, they also
identify concrete data upon which to lodge their campaigns for change.
INCORPORATING THE POLITICAL FROM THE START
The reception of
risk communication has very real consequences for public attitude, behavior, and
policy. While in many critical cultural studies pedagogies, the political
implications of cultural study are merely assumed, a course based on risk
communication incorporates the political from the start. Students can influence
the formulation and perception of risk messages by actively exploring their
implications and responding to those individuals and institutions responsible
for producing them.
A cultural studies composition course focusing on risk communication provides
students with the tools for participating in the public sector. According to
Niklas Luhmann, author of Risk: A Sociological Theory (1993), media rely on
individuals and groups in society to keep interest in risk issues alive. Only
through the identification of conflicting views and values regarding risks can
the debate about how scientific data is gathered, disseminated, and standardized
through public policy continue over time. Students clearly need to gain some
knowledge, then, about how to assess risk information and participate in its
transference to the public if they want to maintain the freedom to make choices
concerning health and safety. And, in the composition classroom, they must be
empowered to select their own topics of risk for paper assignments.
In the past several years, some attempts to
incorporate risk into the classroom have been made. However, in most cases the
teacher selects the risk issues, and the avenues for critique rest on
predetermined categories of race, class, or gender (Bowen, 1993; Kutzer, 1992).
Though James Berlin and Michael Vivion claim in Cultural Studies in the English
Classroom (1992) that "cultural studies is not a prescribed content, but instead
a method or various methods of making meaning and exploring how meaning is made" (see also Leight, 1995), most pedagogies cover quite similar topics or contexts.
The cultural studies composition course, however, should deliver what it
promises. Students can be taught methodologies that will enable them to
participate in society as more informed, productive citizens.
Berlin, James A., and Michael J. Vivion, Eds.
(1992) Cultural Studies in The English Classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.
[CS 215 474]
Bowen, Peter M. (1993). In Writing AIDS: Gay Literature, Language, and
Analysis, Timothy F. Murphy and Suzanna Poirier, Eds. New York: Columbia
Committee on Risk Perception and Communication, National Research Council
(1989). Improving Risk Communication. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
George, Diana, and John Trimbur (1992). Reading Culture: Contexts for Reading
and Writing. New York: Harper Collins.
Kutzer, M. Daphne (1992). "A Ghostly Chorus: AIDS in the English Classroom."
In Social Issues in the English Classroom. C. Mark Hurlbert and Samuel Totten,
Eds. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English. [ED 349 574]
Leight, David (1995). "Cultural Studies and Its Impact on Composition."
Clearing House, 69(1), 8-10. [EJ 514 559]
Luhmann, Niklas (1993). Risk: A Sociological Perspective. Translated by
Rhodes Barrett. New York: Aldine De Gruyter.
Oreskes, Michael (1992). "Profiles of Today's Youth: They Couldn't Care
Less." In Reading Culture: Contexts for Reading and Writing. George and Trimbur,
Rowan, Katherine E. (1994) "The Technical and Democratic Approaches to Risk
Situations: Their Appeal, Limitations, and Rhetorical Alternative."
Argumentation 8, 389-407.