Summer Reading, COM Style

A letter from Dean Mariette DiChristina

COM Dean Mariette DiChristina seated at table on COM Lawn.
June 1, 2021
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Summer Reading, COM Style

After graduating from COM in ’86, I used to dream of returning to BU for a new semester. What would I get to learn this time?! In my dream-come-true life as COM’s dean, I’ve been diving into a lot of books so I can keep up that learning. I was surprised to see that that the non-fiction books fell into a few common themes. I thought I’d share them with you.

Deaning 101

One of the first days I arrived, Senior Associate Dean Dustin Supa handed me the CO 101 textbook, The World of Communication: The Human Storyteller. I read it with breakfast every morning that first semester, more or less keeping pace with the class—the perfect intro to the many different aspects of COM’s communication research and practice areas.

New to fulltime academia, I turned to How to Run a College, by Brian C. Mitchell and W. Joseph King. It provided a nice, somewhat philosophical overview of how colleges operate, and how they can try to stay relevant. I found the The Empathetic Workplace: 5 Steps to a Compassionate, Calm, and Confident Response to Trauma on the Job, by Katherine Manning, helpful during the stress-filled COVID times.

My predecessor, Dean Emeritus Tom Fiedler, kindly left me a copy of Transformations: A History of Boston University, by Kathleen Kilgore. It taught me such fascinating things as that in 1923 student vote, the Boston Terrier beat out the next highest vote getter, the bull moose. I paired it with a slim volume from the “campus history series” called Boston University, by Sally Ann Kydd. BU’s history is full of remarkable firsts, such as being the first to award a Ph.D. to a woman, training the first Black psychiatrist, teaching the first female LAW school grad admitted to the bar in Massachusetts, granting the first theology degree to a woman, starting the first university-based program in music in the U.S.—and starting the first public relations degree in the U.S., here at COM. 

Campus Topics

After working for 30 years in the corporate world of editorial and publishing, I’ve felt a need to familiarize myself with campus issues. During the controversy over a BU visit by Ben Shapiro, for example, I turned to Free Speech on Campus, by Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman. It gave me a renewed sense of appreciation for our country’s First Amendment rights. The ability to have a fulsome discussion, even when we disagree strongly with each other, is a valuable one.

As a longtime science journalist, I’m an admirer of science and the research process as an engine for human advancement. But that benefit isn’t clear to everyone. For insights, I turned to Research Universities and the Public Good, by Jason Owen-Smith, who makes the case for the unique and irreplaceable value of American research universities such as BU.

In response to #stopthesilence, I read Sexual Citizens: Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus, by Jennifer S. Hirsch and Shamus Khan. Hirsch and Khan each bring to bear a researcher’s empathetic and honest efforts to truly understand the issues and cultural context. Although the book’s topic is troubling in the extreme, I found it ultimately enlightening—and in that illumination, it provided me with a sense of hope about the possible pathways and approaches to positive change.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

When I was growing up, as a first-generation college student from an Italian-American family, I remember being called, among other things, a “wop,” “dago,” “guinea,” and also being the subject of frequent jokes about supposed family ties to organized crime. But my experiences were a cakewalk compared with the horrible systemic injustices and murderous violence I have witnessed against people whose families originated in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Spanish-speaking countries. It makes me heartsick. But it isn’t enough to feel badly; we also need to act. And appropriate actions start with knowledge.

To absorb more perspectives and begin to develop a better understanding of the historical and cultural contexts, I have turned to several helpful texts. I found invaluable Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist, both by Ibram X. Kendi, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities at BU and founder and director of the BU Center for Antiracist Research. Stamped provides the sweeping and awful history of how racism became systematized in the U.S. How to be an Antiracist evocatively combines helpful recommendations for the reader’s improvement alongside Dr. Kendi’s account of his own personal experiences and reflections on racism and being antiracist. White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, also opened my eyes about the ways white people like me avoid and repress the unpleasantness of how we’ve benefitted from our privilege. I’m now reading Four Hundred Souls, edited by Dr. Kendi and Keisha N. Blane, an evocative book of 80 essays covering the past 400 years.

Building on the historical and sociological perspectives, I delved into books with individual stories. I recommend learning about Howard Thurman’s extraordinary life through his thoughtful autobiography, With Head and Heart. With lyrical prose, President Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, provided a compelling journey and exploration of his relationship with his often-distant African father. Describing his childhood in apartheid South Africa as the son of a Xhosa mother and Swiss father, Trevor Noah kicks off Born a Crime with the hilarious/terrifying account of why he was thrown out of a moving car to save his life. 

During a fractious time in the U.S., I also took some comfort from Dan Rather’s inclusive thinking in What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism. Each chapter looks at a unifying theme of U.S. life. 

Speaking of U.S. culture, I also ended up looking at it through yet another lens—a TV camera’s—as well. Dustin Supa (a public relations scholar) and I (a journalist) ended up co-teaching the “Understanding TV” class (FT303) during fall 2020. The course’s textbook, Only Connect (4th edition), by Michele Hilmes, provided a sweeping view from the 1920s to now, including challenges in diversity in the TV industry. 

The Arts of Communication

In addition to being Dean, I am a Professor of the Practice in Journalism. As a working journalist who had only thought about my side of the equation over the past three decades, I found insightful Strategic Media Relations in the Age of Information: An Evidence-Based Approach, by COM’s own Dustin W. Supa and Lynn M. Zoch; media relations has changed a lot since I first walked into a newsroom. Looking at another area, the economics of journalism, Ghosting the News, by media columnist Margaret Sullivan, provided a fairly haunting account of how the loss of local news and the “Fourth Estate” undercuts democracy.

Coming back around to the themes of COM 101, I explored the relationship of our own species with narrative in the excellent The Science of Storytelling: Why Stories Make Us Human and How to Tell them Better, by Will Storr. And Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence provided an easy-reading survey of neuroscience tricks to help engage your audience’s brains and keep them wanting more.

For the next year, I’m going to do what our students do, and learn from the real experts: COM’s faculty. Lots of great books and articles are in store! Can’t wait.