by Josh Templin
Dr. Jessica Hughes sees communication as the primary way we build inclusive communities.
Editor’s note: This year, Dr. Hughes is celebrating her first full year teaching at RACC. To get to know Hughes better, take a look at this extensive interview that FSJ did last fall.
When I left Dr. Jessica Hughes’s office last fall, she asked if I wanted to grab a piece of candy from a fishbowl on top of her filing cabinet. I rifled through it, passing over a few fun-sized chocolate bars and fruity candies and found some stickers. The stickers were the kind you may have been given in third grade on the top of a history test. Maybe with a T-Rex wearing sunglasses, cheering you for doing a “Great Job!” When I asked Hughes about her sticker collection, she said that some students couldn’t eat candy, so she thought to bring them stickers.
Picking up candy and then taking a little extra time to find stickers exemplifies Hughes’s ethos, which she calls “inclusive excellence.” That means accommodating students’ needs while also encouraging all students to strive for their best work. For Hughes, it means that even though some students can’t eat sugary snacks, they all deserve a reward.
In conversation, Hughes is effervescent: her love of communication comes through in her warm smile. She glows when talking about her diverse students and learning about them and with them through each class.
Hughes also drops more than a few y’all’s during our chat, a pronoun she prefers because of its inherent inclusivity. Her love of “y’all” might come from being around her family of Floridians, though she was raised in Pittsburgh.
After graduating high school in Plum, PA, Hughes earned a bachelor’s degree in German Language and Literature from Boston University. She subsequently taught English at Technische Universität in Dresden, Germany and earned a master’s degree in Language Studies from Lancaster University in England. She graduated with a doctorate in Communication from University of Colorado, Boulder.
Throughout our conversation, Hughes highlighted the ways that her study of communication has affected her outlook on building community and how our community shapes our communication.
Has it been difficult to adjust to teaching?
I really love teaching. From the beginning, one of the challenges—and it’s an ongoing challenge that I’m constantly working to improve upon—is teaching my students where they’re at. Finding the most effective ways of communicating ideas. Helping my students to succeed—whatever that means for individual students. Specifically here, the challenge has been the increase in the number of courses I’m teaching and the amount of grading I’m doing. It’s a practical challenge.
What do you really like about teaching?
There’s lots of things. I really like working with students. I’m inspired by students and I really enjoy forging relationships with my students — getting to know them and celebrating their successes. That’s just a joy. But I’m also really interested in classrooms as communicative spaces; there’s some sort of magic that happens the classroom. Learning is facilitated there and I’m convinced it doesn’t happen the same way in other spaces. When I left my undergraduate degree I didn’t think I was going to grad school. I thought I would just work and said “Yeah I’m still interested in these ideas I’ve been playing around with, but anything I wanna learn I can just read a book.” But that ended up not being true for me. I realized that I wasn’t going to get as far on my own as I would in a classroom. There’s something about those conversations you have with other students and instructors that facilitates learning. As a Communications scholar, I find that just endlessly fascinating. Thinking about all the ins and outs; how we [can facilitate learning] better; the challenges for every individual community — that stuff is just really interesting to me.
What’s your philosophy when it comes to teaching?
There are certainly some key threads that inform my teaching no matter what I’m teaching. One of those is my approach to teaching communication—I see communication as a really practical discipline. If we understand how communication works and we constantly think about how to be better communicators, then we can really use communication to understand and intervene in social problems.
I’m really interested in this connection between communication and society, the ways in which communication informs and shapes our identities, [the ways in which] we can use communication to change the world. So that’s a piece of every course that I teach.
In terms of my teaching style, the key philosophy that informs that is inclusive excellence, which is all about diversity and how diversity is a real strength in the classroom. Part of the magic of what happens in those classroom spaces is that you have a bunch of different people with different perspectives and different experiences coming together and it’s those different perspectives that really help to drive our learning forward. When you’re by yourself and you can’t see all those different perspectives, it’s not as effective as classroom learning. Inclusive excellence is all about recognizing the value of diversity in the classroom and trying to foster support and harness that diversity in any way that we can. So I’m constantly thinking about ways of making my classroom spaces more accessible and inclusive, of helping students to engage to their fullest capacity.
What do you love about language and communication?
I started off studying literature; so it was really about style and poetics and that turn off phrase that just gets you. I love the way that language can grab you. When I was studying the mechanics of language, especially whenever I was teaching English and then later doing independent study as a senior at BU, I was studying translation. [With translation], it’s about how we express ideas and how we translate from one language to another and those things that are lost in translation. The nuances and meaning we can convey through language is really fascinating.
In my graduate work I’ve been studying the connection between communication and society: on the one hand, how society shapes our communication and on the other hand how communication can change our society. There’s an endless kind of push and pull. That to me is the big idea that sort of drives everything about my scholarship. I’m teaching now that our communication matters, not only in terms of how we express ourselves and what kind of identity we establish but how we forge relationships and how we participate in social movements and actually change our world on a big level.
Language is very fascinating on many levels.
What kind of communication that students are engaged in now is really important?
I’m really interested in communication on social media. It was a key part of my dissertation, looking at the ways in which people use things like blogs and Twitter, especially as a means for social activism. I’m also really interested in the ways in which we use social media to forge relationships now and the shift in that relational communication even within my lifetime. I’m thinking about how I used to communicate with friends growing up, even the way we used phones back then was totally different; people would call me at my house and if I wasn’t there, we’d talk later. If you were making plans, you had no way of contacting someone at the last minute and so you had to make plans in advance and kind of stick with them. Now, that’s totally different.
I’m not sure that I’m as aware as I should be about how students [now] are talking in general. The ways in which public dialogue moves so quickly and the ways in which we use all of these digital avenues to communicate with different people in different ways, both inside our own social sphere and outside; that’s really interesting. Especially in terms of political participation, it offers a lot of opportunities.
What do you think are the limits versus the benefits of activism on social media?
I’ve spent more time thinking about benefits. I think that … social media allows us to enter into public conversations [much more easily] than in the past. I think Twitter is a great space for that. I’ve seen firsthand the ways in which people use Twitter to organize a movement. You can tweet a politician; you can tweet your congressperson and maybe even get their attention. You can tweet corporations and actually have a voice in terms of how they do business. I really like the democratic potential of Twitter.
In terms of drawbacks, one [problem] I see on Facebook is the way we end up curating a kind of echo chamber where not only are the opinions that are exposed within the same wheelhouse, but you don’t even know if that information that’s being passed around over and over again is even true. A meme [might be] provocative, but is there any substance behind it? So I’m still fascinated by what’s happening there and I think that it’s still doing good work in terms of helping find like-minded others and rallying together around particular issues. But the echo chamber effect can be kind of dangerous. I think part of being well informed is listening to opposing viewpoints, finding ways of respecting those viewpoints and responding to them.
If you could pick one book that every student should read, what would it be and why?
Oh my God, I have no idea. Because if I think of the books that have influenced me as a scholar, I don’t think my students would be into them at all. [Laughs]
Actually, my impulse now is just to pick a work of fiction, but that has nothing to do with my classes. I just think everyone should read for fun. And fiction helps us build empathy for others.
Okay, so what’s one really great book that a student should pick up right now?
One of my favorite works of fiction is by [Richard] Russo—he won the Pulitzer for Empire Falls but I don’t think that’s his best work. I really like Nobody’s Fool; I think it’s my favorite by him. The other book that came to mind was Confederacy of Dunces [by John Kennedy Toole]. I’m not really sure why except that it’s just a really fun read. One of the few books that I’ve read several times. Suddenly, you asking for book recommendations makes me think I should go back and read that.
What are some of your other interests outside the classroom?
I love eating good food. [Laughs] I love spending time with my family: my husband and my kid.
How old is your child?
He’s two-and-a-half. So he’s super fun. It’s just fun to see the world through his eyes. We go camping a lot. We’re talking about going winter camping this year again; I was surprised it was actually very fun the times that we’ve done it.
It frightens me. I’m not an outdoorsy person at all.
I was really frightened the first time too. As long as I wear four pairs of underclothes I’m fine. If you really bundle up it’s kind of cozy. [I also enjoy] traveling, and this summer we’re talking about taking some road trips. I think that’s probably one of my preferred forms of traveling.
Do you mind telling me about your tattoos?
So [I have] a dove on an olive branch. [I have] a mourning band with three hearts. My first tattoo was [a tattoo of the word] “evolve,” [which was] just a note to self and others.
The dove and olive branch is all about peace. The hearts are all about love. The mourning band [is about] people I’ve lost.
And the ring tattoo?
Oh, yeah. It’s my wedding ring. My husband is a cabinet maker and the risk of losing his hand in a machine because the ring gets caught on something is a significant concern. So we decided to get tattooed rings. I actually lost my engagement ring tubing so I figured this would ensure that I wouldn’t lose this one. [Laughs]
No, it makes sense to me. I lose everything, so a ring on my finger that was tattooed on would be great.
Yeah, that’s never gonna disappear. Actually, whenever we got them, our tattoo artist was like “Are you sure? This isn’t gonna stay.” But it doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere for several years.
Do you have any music you like or a favorite album?
In my family, we actually talk about musical preferences in terms of [whether people are] raccoons or koalas. So people who are koalas are folks who like one genre of music and they get totally into that genre and that’s where they live, the same way koalas only eat eucalyptus. All eucalyptus, all the time.
If you’re a raccoon, then you kind of pick and choose from all different genres and you eat lots of different things, including maybe garbage. So I definitely fall in the raccoon category; I listen to lots of different things.
These days, my son is really into bluegrass. And so we’ve been listening to a bunch of bluegrass. And through researching that, I found Gillian Welch, whom I really like.
The other day I was listening to some J. Dilla: that’s something I would recommend to anybody. The Black Keys is on constant rotation at our house. That’s another one my son really likes to dance to.
New Black Keys or older Black Keys?
Both. Although [my son] prefers the newer stuff, and because I listen to more of that, I’ve actually been returning to the older stuff, like wanting them more pared down.
[I grew up with] just blues all the time. Every day. [My mom] is a koala.
Although that’s a huge genre!
Yeah, but I can only listen to 12-bar blues so many times before I want to throw a chair out a window. But I always was trying to expand her listening and I found that [the Black Keys album] Rubber Factory was like a good way to get her to —
She dug it?
Yeah, she liked it a lot.
Does she like the album with Kimbrough (the album is called Chulahoma: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough and contains covers of the eponymous blues musician – Ed.) The Black Keys did covers of [Junior Kimbrough, this] majorly influential blues artist.
I haven’t given it a full listen, just the stuff I have around. But, like I said, the 12 bar [structure] is—while I appreciate the formalism or…
[Laughs] You need some variation?
Exactly. So how about any movies or TV shows that you like?
So I’ve been following The Walking Dead.
[Laughs] Now there’s a show we could talk about the narrative of, right?
Oh, my gosh, oh yeah.
I think there’s two camps right now of The Walking Dead fans; there are those who are simply watching it and not making [any] analysis…
And just kind of going with it? “No critical thinking! No critical thinking!”
Do you have any valuable advice for students?
One thing that I didn’t figure out until later on—much later on—in my academic career as a student is that there’s lots of cool stuff going on [around] campus and lots of really excellent resources on campus that I just wasn’t taking advantage of. So one of my goals in my classes is to inform students about stuff that’s going on that they might want to learn more about.
[I tell students] “Go to events! Check out this speaker that’s coming! Check out this free event; there’s usually food.” But there’s also really great resources, like the Mental Health Fair. There’s all these amazing community partners coming in and giving information, so [I urge students to] take advantage of the resources that your college community offers.
If you only have your blinders on thinking about your classes and your GPA, you’re gonna miss all this cool stuff that’s going on . . . and maybe miss all these other resources there to help you. RACC does a good job of letting students know where those resources are to help.