UW-River Falls course studies communication and anti-racism
March 9, 2021
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UW-River Falls offered a new course this spring on communication and anti-racism.
The instructor who developed the course is Jennifer Willis-Rivera, a professor of communication and media studies at UWRF for over 15 years. Willis-Rivera also serves as the chair of the Department of Communication and Media Studies. She said much of her dissertation for her Ph.D. focused on racism, and it is an area she has continued to research.
Willis-Rivera said this class came about after many students wanted more once they completed an intercultural studies course. After the death of George Floyd this summer, Willis-Rivera said she felt this class was needed. She had taught a course about communication and race about 20 years ago at Southern Illinois University, though many updates have been made, including a focus on anti-racism.
Though Willis-Rivera has an extensive background with the scholarly side of racial issues, it also interests her on a personal level.
“I ended up marrying someone Latino who used to work at River Falls, Daniel Rivera.” Willis-Rivera continued, “We have two children who are seniors in college who are bi-racial. So my research has really tracked with my experiences. When the girls were little I wrote an article about naming them. We named them with very Latin centered names and we did that with the knowledge that we wanted their Latina heritage to be forwarded because we were in a very White area and we wanted that to be a solid way to do that. But we also knew that would very potentially open them up to harassment and being made fun of as kids.”
Willis-Rivera grew up in a majority white town, which she said has helped her to relate to students who are struggling to grasp some concepts, or are feeling uncomfortable with the material. She said though it can be challenging, her own family means she has another reason to keep going.
“It’s really hard for students if they are not already familiar with some of these concepts to work through it and I’m really empathetic with that because I remember doing that,” said Willis-Rivera.
Natalie Rodgers is a junior majoring in communication and media studies and a minor in women, gender and sexuality studies.
“It’s been a really great class I definitely have learned a lot and I definitely feel more comfortable talking about race and identity than I did before starting this class,” said Rodgers.
Rodgers said she enjoys the weekly discussion boards, and said she often gives lengthy responses because the posts are more engaging than the discussion boards in her other courses.
Josie Yerhot is a senior taking the class. Her major is Marketing Communications and Communication Studies. Yerhot said the class has been a great experience so far.
“In a lot of instances in college classes we can have a lot of similar voices but I think actually the benefit is there’s some people in the class who maybe think a little differently.” Yerhot continued, “I think Jen has done such a good job setting it up like the expectation is that we’re all going to say something wrong, which I think is a really good expectation. And we started with a lot of theory that sets it up that racism shouldn’t be like you are stuck with this label forever, which I think is really healthy and is a healthy view to start developing for everyone.”
Yerhot said Willis-Rivera has been a good resource and very patient in her explaining each topic. Yerhot said this has built a good environment for the class and she will never miss one of the weekly virtual sessions.