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Follow-Up Friday: Five Questions for Dr. Katie Cruger, Creator of the Media and Social Change Conference

Follow-Up Friday is a new HC Chatham feature! We’re checking back in with Celebs we’ve featured in the past to see what they’re up to now.

The Third Annual Media and Social Change Conference runs March 31 through April 4 at Chatham University, and organizer Dr. Katie Cruger created an amazing lineup. “I’m really excited about the student film screening on Tuesday,” she says. “I think the student short film screening should be really interesting.” With a new theme, “Seeking Sustainability,” the conference will feature sessions that creatively integrate environmental awareness. “I’m actually really excited about this wandering workshop that’s going to be happening,” says Cruger. “It’s called BiodiverCITY. It’s actually two graduate students in the sustainability program that are leading the participants around to explore urban ‘nature’ and what that means and how we can capture that through photography.” Whether you’re an experienced conference attendee or a total newbie, you won’t want to miss a week filled with thrilling original research.

We first interviewed Cruger, HC Chatham’s Faculty Advisor, in January 2012. This week, we sat down with her in the ADC for a chat about MSC’s genesis, the Chatham communication program and top tips for stellar presentations.

How did the Media and Social Change Conference begin?

You know, I think it started because the first year that I came to Chatham … we had a new master’s program (which we don’t have any longer) and the undergraduate student major, and there hadn’t been a full-time, year-round communication professor in my position for a little while. And so I thought it would be nice to do something that would bring those groups together, have the graduate students meet the undergraduate students, let students have the chance to see what sort of work they were doing, and kind of unify the department in some way and give it an identity. Now – because it went quite well that first year – now it’s shifted because now it’s not just for communications students, really, it’s open to any students at Chatham that are doing work that kind of unifies around this theme. So now I think it’s become more about making connections between the communication and media fields and daily practice, and the kinds of things that we do and the kinds of choices that we make, I think, to try to make the world a better place. Because if there’s one thing that unites Chatham students pretty consistently, it’s that they tend to want to make things better. They tend to have this social commitment, and so giving them the opportunity to use different kinds of tools than they otherwise might use to be able to go after those kinds of projects is what it’s about now.

Why should prospective communication students choose Chatham?

In some ways, I really like the way that our program is laid out. Communication is one of those majors – it means something very different everywhere you go. Sometimes it’s in the drama department, sometimes it’s with film, sometimes it’s with English. Sometimes it’s very production-heavy, sometimes it’s a professional degree, sometimes it’s a liberal arts degree. It can be kind of confusing for students to even be able to figure out what they mean by, “I want to be a communication major.” And so one of the things that I like about the way that we do communication majors here at Chatham is that we have this theoretical foundation. We have basic, practical courses in human communication, in interpersonal communication, in media theory, all of those sorts of things that … help students become better thinkers, become better writers. Basic stuff that can help really anybody regardless of what they want to be doing as a career. And then, we give students the opportunity to choose a concentration that is contemporary, that is appealing: graphic design, public relations, human communication, journalism. They have the opportunity to have this two-part degree in the sense that they have this practical, skill-based training on one level, and they have the training in critical theory and critical thinking and media history that helps them in other facets of their life. So I think it’s a really well rounded degree. And I think because Chatham is such a small place, students can get individual attention. I’m not sure if it has to do with what we’re doing in our department or the awesomeness of our students, but they get really great internships, they’re here in Pittsburgh and they’re successful after graduation. That’s kind of nice, when you can see students being successful in what is sometimes an unkind environment post-graduation.

What do you think students get out of presenting at the Media and Social Change Conference?

Well, at a very basic level, they get practice presenting. I think one of the things that I would like to kind of take on at Chatham moving forward, perhaps, would be to consider a “speaking across the curriculum” or “communication across the curriculum” aspect to general education. Because I think it’s important to speak eloquently, articulate your thoughts, be argumentative in a public forum and be comfortable doing that. The way that you become comfortable doing that is with practice. These presentations, students have ideally practiced over and over and over again, they’ve timed it appropriately, they’ve worked on things like verbal fillers and vocal pauses. And they are working with group members to express their ideas and use visual aids and the whole package, which is a really important skill, and it’s not one that we always teach formally in higher education. So there’s that basic component, but I also think it’s a nice chance to show off and share with the rest of the campus community the kind of work that communication students do. The creative writing students have the Minor Bird, but they also have readings and things like that. There are other departments that have this sharing component, and I think it’s nice for communications students or students who are doing this kind of work to have the opportunity to share what are in some ways really practical, real world projects. Like, this is how our work affects the world around us.

What are your top tips for giving excellent conference presentations?

Practice ahead of time! Record yourself. It’s really uncomfortable, but it helps. We tend to do the same sort of nervous behaviors over and over again, and we tend not to notice them in ourselves. So really, it’s uncomfortable, but everybody’s got the MacBook Pro. Just video record yourself and see what you say. I think that helps with the basic delivery bits. The content’s always more important than the delivery, but the delivery is kind of the icing on the cake. If you can get that, it will go a long way in convincing people that you have something worth saying and worth listening to.

I guess my other tip is, stick with the time limit. Make sure that your program is well organized, that you go within the time limit. I don’t know how many times I’ve been on conference panel presentations – probably thirty, forty, fifty times at this point in my career – and, inevitably, at every single panel that I’m on – and this is at a communication conference – somebody will go over time and basically take time away from other presenters. How rude and inconsiderate is that? I know they’re not being intentionally rude and inconsiderate, but as a gesture of goodwill toward your audience and your fellow presenters, I think being organized enough and confident enough that you know what is supposed to go where – that you know that you’ll fill your time limit – is important. I can’t give content pointers other than have an argument and have evidence to support that argument.

Addressing the Chatham community, why should students attend the conference?

Well, first of all, I think it’s nice to support what your peers are doing, so supporting the efforts of one’s peers even if you’re not necessarily interested in media and social change or you don’t know that you’re interested in media and social change. Supporting your fellow Chatham students is a nice thing, particularly at a school that is this small and close-knit. But the other nice thing about presentations is that they’re often much more interesting than we think that they will be. So if students are working on projects that they’re passionate about, chances are that other students can find something of value, something interesting to think about. I think sometimes students can have very demanding schedules, and I think sometimes they feel as though campus life – or their education – is what happens during their class time, what happens during their homework time, I suppose, and what it says on their degree. I don’t think that that’s a good way to think about higher education, and I think the kinds of programs that are offered on campus – attending those, participating in larger community discussions – is essential. And certainly, you can’t do everything, and certainly some students have family commitments and some students have job commitments, but feeling as though you also have a responsibility to be a part of campus intellectual life is important.  

  Mara Flanagan is entering her seventh semester as a Chapter Advisor. After founding the Chatham University Her Campus chapter in November 2011, she served as Campus Correspondent until graduation in 2015. Mara works as a freelance social media consultant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She interned in incident command software publicity at ADASHI Systems, gamification at Evive Station, iQ Kids Radio in WQED’s Education Department, PR at Markowitz Communications, writing at WQED-FM, and marketing and product development at Bossa Nova Robotics. She loves jazz, filmmaking and circus arts.  
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