Jenny Warren is a Communication Skills instructor at Collin College in Dallas Texas, teaching the Basic Course, Public Speaking, Honors Methodology, Business and Professional Communication, and Leadership. As part of her Basic Course in Communication Skills, Jenny includes an assignment which demonstrates course concepts through creating a hypothetical online dating profile. Jenny took a moment to speak with Acclaim about how she designed the activity, and about student responses and engagement surrounding simulating online dating.
JW: The assignment edifies how Communication Studies concepts function in the “real world.” The students in my class do the following:
a) Write a dating profile, similar to one you would see on Match.com, EHarmony.com, etc. A student’s profile includes 1) a catchy header 2) an about me section 3) an about my ideal mate section 4) the top 5 adjectives that describe him or her, and 5) the top 5 adjectives that would describe his or her ideal mate). The students can fabricate all the information or portions of it, if it makes them more comfortable.
b) The students turn in the assignment with a cover page. The cover page is the only place on the assignments where their names are shown. When I pick up the assignments, I rip off the cover page and make note of whose assignment is whose (I make note of their real name and their catchy phrase).
c) I then distribute the profiles amongst other students, making certain not to return the assignment to the original author (or to his/her friends). Students are then required to apply course concepts to the profiles they’ve received using the class textbook and the lecture notes. For example, if the profile author says he/she wants to be in a relationship with a person who likes to hug, kiss, and hold hands in public, then the profile reader would show how that applies to the course concept of haptics, or nonverbal touch.
– The profile reader is required to identify at least 10 course concepts like these
– The reader defines these concepts, properly referencing the textbook, my class lectures, or another text.
– He or she elaborates on how the profile exemplifies these concepts.
– After all the students return the assignments to me, I give the profiles back to their original authors. Students may throw the profiles away if they like.
ACCLAIM: What are the course concepts that the activity enables you to teach?
JW: This assignment does not “teach” any concepts, per se, other than self-disclosure, but rather allows the students to apply all the other concepts they’ve already learned to a real world experience, to see how they function on a daily basis.
These concepts include: stereotyping (blondes are ditsy), mono & polychronic time use (being late or punctual; doing many things at once), culture (sharing some similar traditions), symbols (a ring symbolizing marriage; discussions of tattoos), script (how a date should happen), psychological noise (memories or mental biases), types of touch, space differences, rhetoric/persuasion (having to win arguments; always wanting to be “right”), paralanguage (speaking with an accent), and artifacts (desirable clothing & car types).
ACCLAIM: Can you describe the idea of self-disclosure?
JW: With respect to self-disclosure, we learn about the Johari window, a heuristic technique that allows individuals to better understand the ways that they relate to and interact with others. As with verbal and nonverbal communication, what we communicate can be interpreted in numerous ways, and even, unfortunately, in ways we did not intend. For example, if a female dater used “hot to trot!” as her catchy header, it could be read as though she were exciting and fun, as though she were sexually adventurous, or even still, that she is flirty and daring. After students complete the assignment, I discuss with them how people tend to disclose more and more personal information online than they ever would in a face-to-face meeting, and how this affects relationship maintenance and expectations differently.
ACCLAIM: How do you see students applying the ideas when interpreting their peers’ profiles?
JW: Our discussion is couched within the importance of CONTEXT. Context is a dominant concept throughout the semester, as it is impossible to separate context (setting, situation, individual reality, etc.) from communication and interpretation. For example, a student last semester said. “I think the person who wrote the profile I analyzed was a racist because they mentioned only wanting to date Hispanic men.” Another student vehemently disagreed: “No way this person was being racist! She identified as being Hispanic herself, so she was merely showing her pride and her love for her own people. That’s not racist. And beyond that, we are all attracted to certain people (tall, short, thin, thick, dark, light, or something in between). That doesn’t make us racist, it makes us human.”
Another example: one female stated that she only wanted to date men who made more than $90,000 a year. A classmate thought this was disgusting and elitist, and responded, “You will miss out on meeting some really great people who might not make that much money. You are a gold digger!” The original student responded with a personal story that explained her preference. She said her father had made just under $90,000 a year for most of her life and that she and her family were generally comfortable. They were not, however, happy. She said her father worked too much and her mother and siblings didn’t respect her father or all his hard work. The reason she wanted to date a person like her dad, she explained, was to prove to herself and her family that money is not the most important thing. However, she elaborated, you should be respectful of it and proud of the person who makes it. She said she wanted to be with a man who worked hard like her father, but she wanted to treat him differently than her family had treated her dad. We can see here that the personal connection (or context) greatly altered the way her need to date someone who makes at least $90,000 could be interpreted.
ACCLAIM: You’ve mentioned that there are often discrepancies between what students intend to project, and how their profiles are read. How do these discrepancies enable students to self-assess their communication skills? How do you bring this up in class discussion?
JW: When I tell the students they can completely fabricate their profiles, they are super happy, because the idea of sharing private information with a classmate is “mortifying.” I find, however, that students do end up self-revealing, as it is often cathartic and helpful. In fact, many later admit that they wrote what they really felt/wanted because they were curious as to how their real profile would be read by outsiders. They wanted to see if what they “put out there” was received in the manner they intended. We’ve had great, in depth class discussions about how and why we interpret communication in the ways that we do and how and why language is so important.
Many students (maybe a little less than 1/2 the class) later admit that the profile they turned in was, in fact, at least partially, cut and pasted directly from their real online dating profiles. These individuals have each told me that the assignment caused them to change their real profiles, in the hopes that their messages would be more positively received by their target audiences.
ACCLAIM: Are there any students who are uncomfortable with the project? How do they respond to the project?
JW: Some are timid in the beginning, but once they know a) their name will not be on it; b) they can make it all up; and c) they get to destroy it at the end, they lose that fear and, generally, become really excited about it. We do a fun little ceremonial thing after the class discussion is over – we destroy the profiles together. Some semesters we burn them, some semesters we rip them up, etc.
ACCLAIM: What have students said about the project in course reviews?
JW: It helped them see how academic concepts are relative to the real world and what they experience every day. For example, the relational concept of “predictability vs. novelty” is easy to memorize and spit out on an exam, but students want to know what it means to them and how it applies to life. This assignment shows that, even if the conversations started with a somewhat silly profile.
Jenny Warren is the Director of the Collin College Honors Institute, and the creator and coordinator of the annual Undergraduate Interdisciplinary Student Research Conference, where students from across the US present their original research in an academic setting. Jenny has a Bachelors degree in Communication Studies with an emphasis in Rhetoric and a double minor in Business & Women’s Studies from Arizona State University, and masters degree from the University of North Texas. Outside of teaching, Jenny is actively involved with ECA (Eastern Communication Association). She also works as an engaged Public Speaker. She has spoken with North Texas teens regarding appropriate communication techniques, given numerous faculty and staff training seminars regarding professional communication skills and non-verbal cultural competencies, and lead informational presentations regarding how to initiate, promote and maintain a successful academic institute.