University News

Sept. 25 DifCon Program to Cover 'Nasty' Social Media Communication

September 18, 2013

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MACOMB, IL -- Western Illinois University's Expanding Cultural Diversity Project will begin the third year of its series "Difficult Conversations" (also often referred to as "DifCons") next week. The conversations offer the campus community an opportunity to talk about issues that arise when people unfamiliar with others' backgrounds, values or experiences are asked to work and live side by side.

The first DifCon of the 2013-14 year, "When Social Networking Gets Nasty: Destructive Communication on Social Network Sites," is scheduled for 3:30-5 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 25 in the Multicultural Center (multipurpose/activity room). Bree McEwan, assistant professor in Western's communication department, will direct the small-group discussions, which are the heart of the DifCon programs.

According to the DifCon organizers, some social network users think it is all right to post anything that comes to mind, including comments they would not think of sharing in face-to-face encounters.

"Others believe their messages are private and will reach only their intended audience. Yet, given the proliferation of social media, their pervasive presence in society and persistent questions about online privacy, these beliefs need to be questioned," McEwan said.

She noted questions participants will be invited to consider include:

  • How do individuals decide what is appropriate to share online?
  • Do they know who the audience will be for any online messages they send?
  • What can be done if a person finds a hurtful, inappropriate message online?
  • How important is context when deciding on what can or should be said online?

All subsequent DifCon programs for the 2013-14 year will also take place from 3:30-5 p.m. on Wednesdays (scheduled for November 6; February 5, 2014; and March 26, 2014) at the Multicultural Center (the multipurpose/activity room).

"The companion conversations in November and February will revolve around tensions that can arise as a result of misperceptions about urban and rural cultures. Participants in the November conversations will explore tensions felt by students on both sides of the urban/rural divide, who bring their personal cultural backgrounds to their on-campus experiences and interactions," Janice Welsch, WIU professor emerita and co-director of the WIU Expanding Cultural Diversity Project, said.

In February, Welsch added, DifCon participants will focus on the urban/rural divide as it affects the relations among WIU students, faculty and staff with the larger community.

"Ideally, university towns are places where the campus and the surrounding community contribute to each other's sense of well-being and quality of life, but cultural differences between 'town and gown' can create tensions, as well as positive interactions. In small groups, DifCon 3 participants will share their experiences in Macomb and the surrounding area and will discuss underlying values and perspectives that can cause misunderstandings or strengthen connections," Welsch said.

Tracy Knight, professor in Western's psychology department, and Andrea Henderson, director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Access, will provide the context for the 2013-14 year's final Difficult Conversation, "The Challenge of Empathy," March 26.

"Describing empathy as 'the capacity to recognize and appreciate the feelings, thoughts and beliefs of others,' facilitators will ask why it is often easier to feel sympathetic or defensive, rather than empathic, toward some people, especially those whose cultural perspectives and values differ. Participants will have the opportunity to discuss their own experiences and to consider why it can be valuable for themselves and others to develop empathy," Welsch explained.

WIU faculty, students and staff are encouraged to participate in the Difficult Conversations' programs.

For more information, contact Debra Miretzky, assistant professor in the educational and interdisciplinary studies department and co-director of the Difficult Conversations series, at

Expanding Cultural Diversity Project (ECDP) co-sponsors include: WIU's Center for Innovation in Teaching and Research (CITR), the Office of Student Activities, the University Diversity Council and University Professionals of Illinois Local 4100. The Difficult Conversation series is one of several ECDP-sponsored programs planned for the academic year.

For more information about the ECDP at WIU, visit or contact co-coordinators of the project, Welsch at or Gloria Delany-Barmann at

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