A Pair of Professors Breathe New Life into Communications Program

Drs. Amanda McClain and Janice Xu - Holy Family University Communications ProgramAfter Dr. Amanda McClain came on board as a faculty member in the communications department at Holy Family University in 2011, she was quickly assigned a large task. Dr. Michael Markowitz, then the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, asked McClain to bring the program into the 21st century, including a complete overhaul, redesign, and update of the current technology and course offerings.

McClain, a modern pop culture junkie, is the author of two books focusing on today’s pop culture landscape: American Ideal: How American Idol Constructs Celebrity, Collective Identity, andAmerican Discourses and Keeping Up the Kardashian Brand: Celebrity, Materialism, and Sexuality. With a strong idea about what is currently trending in today’s society, McClain began to reshape the program from the ground up, including adding or altering 10 courses and bringing in new technology to keep the University competitive with other top programs.

Working alongside with Dr. Janice Xu, an expert in crisis communication, public relations, and the Chinese media industry, the pair have since added two additional courses and are continually thinking of ways to keep the program fresh.

“The field of communications is continually evolving in technology and social media,” McClain said. “We want our curriculum to reflect industry practices and to reflect what is actually happening in the media. That allows our students to get jobs in the field. Dr. Xu and I both really strive to stay abreast of contemporary popular culture and technology news. We’re constantly consuming news—not just mainstream press news, but technology news, media news, and academic news. When you’re an expert in the field, you’re so interested and passionate about it that you can’t help but stay abreast.”

To bring students the most up-to-date communications knowledge, McClain and Xu also proposed the University’s new social media minor, which is also becoming a certificate program. In this minor, students are taught the fundamentals of social media, building an online audience, and using the platforms in a professional setting. The response to the program has been immense.

“The new social media minor attracted a lot of students,” Xu said. “Even before the minor passed, students were asking how they could enroll and become involved. This not only reflects the trend of the industry, but also reflects our effort to accommodate the skill sets that our students have, because some of them are experienced in using social media.”

McClain agreed, adding that knowledge of social media is not only expected, but required when entering the communications field now.

“We wanted to reflect the contemporary media landscape,” McClain said. “This allows students that are graduating to say that they have experience in social media. It is a new area of job growth. Every company, every non-profit, every government organization has at least one social media manager. For our graduates to be able to say that they have experience in this field and that they can help cultivate and run these profiles, it gives them an edge in the job market.”

Xu explained that students go into the social media classes with the notion that only a couple of platforms are useful, that everyone uses it the same way. However, she added, that it is those who learn how to use it effectively are the ones who will succeed in this booming industry.

“In the beginning, they believe that everyone is posting the same stuff about their animals, their vacations, and their family gatherings,” Xu said. “What this minor is teaching them is how to expand and use the medium professionally—how journalists and marketing professionals use social media in their day-to-day lives.”

Whether it was new equipment in the television studio, cutting edge programs in design and video production, or the use of iPads in the classroom, both McClain and Xu believe that keeping students current on today’s trends are what will help them succeed after graduating from Holy Family University.

“I believe in experiential learning,” McClain said. “I believe in taking what is happening outside of the classroom and bringing it in. For example, my Digital Media class lets everyone borrow an iPad for the semester. That’s what people are doing outside of class. They’re using Twitter and using iPads. In the class, students are encouraged to live tweet the class and have a back channel of conversation about course topics. In Law and Media Ethics, every student brings in a relevant current events article. The law, especially media law, is never stagnant. To see how what we are learning in class resonates outside of the classroom is very important.”

The communications capstone course, Multi-Media Storytelling, has also been revamped to provide students with a way to tell a full-fledged digital story.

“The students put together digital photography skills, audio skills such as podcasting, writing skills, and video skills,” McClain said. “They then create one big project where they learn how to tell a multimedia story. This is more then just journalism because you’re putting together all of these moving parts and making decisions for how to tell this story. Having a finished product like this at the end of their college career can really help students showcase what they can do.”

The change in the program has paid dividends for the students.

“The semester long project that were working on is a great learning tool,” Rachel McAnany, a senior Communications major in the Public Relations track, said. “This class and project will teach me not only how to tell a story through my writing, but also visually. We live in a digital world where multiple media elements must be combined in order to keep the reader's interest. The capstone taught me how to combine these elements in a thoughtful and compelling way.”

Students are also able to participate in a number of communications clubs on campus, including the TV Club, the student newspaper, and the Public Relations Student Society of America. Drs. McClain and Xu are the faculty advisors for all of these programs. Another form of first-hand experience comes with the program’s mandated and acclaimed internship program. Previous students have interned at the Bucks County Courier Times, NBC 10, Q 102 FM, The Fan 97.5, and the Philadelphia Flyers.

“The students do internships and know what is going on in the communications field by participating in daily operations of the media,” Xu said. “They are with radio and television stations, professional sports teams, and they bring the latest activities back to the classroom. They discuss what is going on in the industry.”

With a revitalized course offering and a fresh communications philosophy in the classroom, McClain and Xu are ready to offer Holy Family University students the most comprehensive communications experience.

“As instructors, what we can do is find or help create opportunities for them, where we can bring out their talent and engage them with people in the professional field,” Xu said. “Holy Family University has strengths that other colleges in the regions do not have. As Holy Family students in the communication major, students will proudly say that they are confident, competent, and capable of producing high-quality content for the profession and for the society.”