Meet Darren Stevenson. He is a doctoral candidate in Communication Studies at the University of Michigan and a Junior Affiliate Scholar at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society. Darren’s background and training are in digital media, information technology, and data visualization. This led him to pursue a Ph.D. studying the intersection of computing and communication where his research focuses on personal data, trust, privacy, and message personalization in the context of “programmatic” marketing and advertising.
Prior to coming to Michigan, Darren managed the Visualization Laboratory at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science & Technology and studied in the Institute of Communications Research, the College of Engineering, and the School of Art & Design, all at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He’s had the opportunity to study and do research in a number of labs and universities in the U.S. and abroad, including the School of Computer Science and Communication at the Royal Institute of Technology KTH in Stockholm. Most recently at Michigan, Darren has served as a member of the Media Psychology Laboratory at the Institute for Social Research and the Infrastructure Research Laboratory in the Department of Communication Studies and the School of Information.
Comm Studies: You just finished instructing a course that you designed. Can you give us an introduction to your course?
Darren Stevenson: Sure! This spring semester I was fortunate to design and teach my own course, Marketing in a Connected World (Communication Studies 404). The purpose of the class was to expose students to an array of ideas and emerging practices in data-driven, digital marketing. Most college students are captivated by social media and spend substantial portions of their days connected to each other through various social channels using smartphones and other devices. The course allowed students to examine the marketing system that supports most of the digital tools they frequently use, often without giving them a second thought, including social media platforms, search engines, and e-commerce websites and apps.
To examine these tools and their implications, we began with fundamentals of marketing, like pricing, segmentation, and advertising. From there, we moved on to more specific technical issues in the field, including the influence of algorithms, predictive analytics, and the practice of buying and selling online ad space automatically (i.e. often in real-time while a webpage or app is loading), referred to as “programmatic advertising.” To balance the technical content we also explored the many social, ethical, and policy concerns that accompany marketing activities today. So we read a lot about privacy and consumer protection, discussing best practices and working through arguments for and against personalized advertising and regulation.
These two strands of content, marketing technology and related social concerns, supported the formal course objectives. These goals were for students to 1. Understand key technical components of today’s internet-based, data-driven, integrated marketing system and how these components serve marketers, consumers, and the broader digital economy and 2. Develop a critical understanding of the impacts of recent marketing technologies and practices, including ongoing ethical and policy issues related to marketing.
CS: What was it like to design your own course?
DS: The freedom to design a new course was both exciting and challenging. Creating a class from scratch was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun and a tremendous experience. To have fairly wide latitude in inventing a new University of Michigan course was really an honor. Most of our students are extremely engaged and place high standards for teaching on their professors. Additionally, students and often their parents are putting forth substantial financial resources to receive a Michigan education. All of this means students often have great expectations when they enter the classroom. So I felt a great sense of responsibility to create and deliver a course where students could learn a lot and leave the class different from when they began.
CS: What motivated you to pursue this opportunity?
DS: Two things really. First, it is a very exciting time for digital marketing. The state-of-the-art has changed considerably in just the past 5-10 years, largely the result of new ways to observe and study consumers and then tailor advertising messages across digital devices. At the same time, these technical advances have raised a number of social and policy issues surrounding privacy and fairness, especially when it comes to how information about consumers is collected and put to use.
There is a flurry of activity surrounding recent developments in marketing technology and related conversations about the social implications. So you have very timely subject matter most college students are familiar with and experience all the time (i.e. targeted advertising). This provides a topic through which students can gain practical skills linked to communications theories they’ve encountered before, such as ideas about message reception, persuasion, and power. The topic also forces students to wrestle through larger societal concerns ranging from human agency and social discrimination to policy matters, like how best to regulate or not regulate emerging technologies and media practices.
Second, regarding practical skills, for a while now undergraduate students in the Department of Communication Studies have expressed the desire for additional hands-on courses. I do a bit of consulting in marketing and advertising technology, so I was eager to impart some of these skills to students who will soon be entering a very competitive job market. Even for those who are not considering a career in marketing, it never hurts to have some experience analyzing numerical data and communicating technical information. Today, mentioning these analytical skills in a cover letter or job interview might help students stand out from their peers. So, quite purposefully, there were several course components very similar to what students would encounter in various digital media jobs, including analyzing web traffic, publisher costs, click-through rates, and sales data, all from actual ad campaigns, and then making recommendations and writing formal reports. I was excited to create a course that was really hands-on, especially if it can give students a little boost in their applications for internships and jobs.
CS: What were the types of skills you refined by designing and teaching this course?
DS: First of all, I learned course design is an art form. It requires a completely different skillset from being a teaching assistant or implementing someone else’s course, which is what we typically encounter in our Ph.D. training. I learned a lot from constructing a coherent syllabus. As anyone who has created a new course before can attest, it’s fairly easy to come up with a new course; it’s not so easy to design a good course, especially one that integrates well with the existing curriculum and keeps students engaged. Similarly, when it comes to content and assignments, it’s a fine balance between overwhelming students and boring them.
I also became much better at writing lectures and delivering them. In graduate school we typically have the chance to refine our public speaking skills whenever we present research at conferences or seminars. These opportunities occur only a handful of times each year (if we’re lucky!).
However, as the primary lecturer for a new course, you are not only writing content but also delivering it to students multiple times per week for the entire term. Standing in front of a full class of students and having to perform again and again each session is a great trial-by-fire experience. You realize you really have no choice but to become comfortable with yourself and how you deliver information while a bunch of people stare at you assessing your every word (and non-verbal cues!). For me, after a little while the whole process became more automatic and much more conversational. I think it’s definitely a case of practice makes perfect. I actually learned a lot about communication.
CS: What were some of the challenges you experienced?
DS: The largest challenge was the breakneck pace of the course, which was compounded by some of the technical subject matter. The Michigan spring and summer term courses condense what would usually be 16 weeks of material into just 8 weeks, allowing students to earn the full number of units for a regular course but at in accelerated period. This means we had to cover an enormous amount of material in a short time. The pacing leaves little room for dwelling on a particular topic, question, or concept. I pushed the students pretty hard on the volume of readings we covered, which they let me know about on a regular basis!
Other challenges that came up were less problematic, like the relative disparity in students’ previous experiences. Some students had worked in summer internships and were quite familiar with a lot of marketing practices and terminology. For others it was the first time they had encountered some of the core concepts. This smoothed out as the semester progressed and the less familiar students got up to speed.
Also, our classroom was tucked away in the basement of the Modern Languages Building. In the summer. For a two-hour class period. Three times a week. Nobody was particularly thrilled about spending that much time in a drab basement in the summer, but we all survived!
CS: What was one of the biggest lessons you learned from creating and teaching your own course?
DS: The biggest takeaway for me was the importance of being adaptable, especially when teaching new content. Envisioning how a given reading or assignment will be understood, or how an in-class activity will proceed, is very different from actually testing it in the wild. Things do not always go as planned and it was important for me to learn to roll with it. Something I envisioned to be a great thought experiment may end up simply confusing students. Assignment parameters that seem fine on paper may turn out to contradict when attempted by students. Or what I think of as a “brilliant” article to engage students may conjure a collective response of “meh” or silence from the class. Being able to adapt on the fly was important.
Additionally, college students can be wonderfully unpredictable. Some days the whole class seemed to be filled with tiger blood – they had read ALL the material for that day, even the footnotes, and showed up to class excited to debate new ideas from the literature. Other days it felt like everyone was asleep and/or had a little too much fun the night before. Learning how to deal with the unexpected and adapt a discussion or an entire class period was really important. I learned to be more flexible. Hopefully the students did too.
CS: Looking back, how did this opportunity impact you?
DS: Designing and teaching this course has definitively been one of the highlights of my time in the Ph.D. program. It was really rewarding to watch students learn new concepts and skills and be a direct part of this. I felt a sense of accomplishment whenever students would mention they had not encountered a particular idea before or that they had learned something about how a technology they use all the time (e.g. social media platforms, web browsers, etc.) works under the hood.
Additionally, the class was composed of juniors and seniors who occasionally discussed the jobs and careers they hope to pursue very soon when they graduate. Several of the students expressed aspirations for working in digital marketing. It was exciting to have the opportunity to expand their skillsets and critical understandings of current issues. For the students who plan to go on to careers in digital media or information technology, it was satisfying to feel that the course was having a real impact on their next steps.
Overall, the experience stretched me in many ways. I learned about leading a class all on my own and also a lot about myself. It helped me think through my own career plans and what path I’ll pursue next year when I finish my Ph.D. Having the opportunity to design and teach a course as a Ph.D. student is a great opportunity. Also, the students were excellent and that makes a huge difference. I would do it all over again. Although, after being stuck in the classroom for much of the summer, I’m also glad it’s over!
Darren Stevenson is on fellowship for the fall term and will defend his dissertation in 2016. He is currently on the job market. For additional details, please see DarrenStevenson.org.