One of my more interesting class assignments this semester was organizational communication, which is basically the study of the complexities of communication within organizations. These organizations can be corporate, not-for-profit, social, familial, and faith-based. The complexities come from the issues created both by in-person and mediated communications. Topics included networks, ethics, meetings, crisis communications, and intercultural issues, just to name a handful.
As I was developing this class, I kept trying to think of ways to bring in media examples. Television shows, particularly workplace sitcoms, offered plenty of examples: Parks and Rec, The Office, The West Wing, The Good Wife and even Night Court. Movies also were fairly easy to come by, such as Office Space, Gung Ho, Working Girl, and even Bladerunner.
Of course, true to form, I wanted more to bring in a documentary. I strongly believe a documentary is out there for a class on any subject. Fortunately, organizational communication is pretty easy to find documentaries for — most social documentaries have some kind of organizations behind them or within them. Many docs address issues of labor, and many others address issues of corporate behavior. To wit: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, The Corporation, Wal-mart: The High Cost of Low Price, Roger & Me.
The one I chose was As Goes Janesville. The documentary features several scenes of people in meetings, but the communications within and across organizations (General Motors, city council, local businesses, and others) appear throughout. The documentary has a strong message and makes it well, but the message is not a strident one as sometimes appears in documentaries about this subject. I didn’t want the tone to overshadow the messages therein, which could result in students responding to the tone and not to the messages.
For this class, I used this documentary as an in-class assignment, though I divided it over two weeks. In the first week, I offered some background about documentaries, particularly toward their reality foundations and their truth claims through a sustained argument. From there, I offered some tools for “reading” them — social actors, talking heads, voiceover, and the like. I also reviewed the requirements of the assignment.
The assignment was this: Choose a couple concepts from organizational communication and review them before class. (I suggested they choose more than one in case one proved too difficult to bring together in the end — a back-up plan, as it were.) As the documentary plays, watch for the concepts and how they develop. After the documentary ends, develop a thesis statement about the concept and the documentary, and use examples to support the claims. From there, offer one-two takeaways. The deliverable involved a 5-10 minute speech.
In the second week, I screened the documentary and allowed them time to develop their speeches. We ended up watching the broadcast version instead of the full-length version. This class has been working groups all semester, and they chose to remain in those groups for this presentation.
The ideas they applied to the film were diverse but all very well developed: ethics, values of meetings, gender and power, and groupthink and policy development. The richness of the presentations fueled a great discussion afterward!