Meet the faculty: Whitney Phillips, assistant professor of digital platforms and ethics

Whitney Phillips
Photo by Jeremy Parker.

Hometown: Pacific Northwest

Primary research interests: Political and informational hellscape, political communication, reactionary violence, political media landscape

Favorite book:Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Favorite quote: “Altogether elsewhere, vastHerds of reindeer move acrossMiles and miles of golden moss,Silently and very fast.” - W.H. Auden, “The Fall of Rome

Say “hello!”: Follow her on Twitter @wphillips49

The modern media landscape is flooded with urgent sociopolitical news begging for immediate consumption, complicated by political biases and implicit messages. It’s up to the consumer to filter out harmful communication and coercive language until the true story is revealed — a challenging task, to say the least.

The UO School of Journalism and Communication’s (SOJC) new assistant professor of digital platforms and ethics, Whitney Phillips, coined the term “information hellscape” to describe this environment. Both her research and her teaching aim to help us navigate this potentially treacherous terrain.

Finding her passion — and her way back to UO

Phillips’ path to this area of expertise has taken many turns. She holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Cal Poly Humboldt, a master of fine arts in creative writing from Emerson College and a doctorate in English from UO, which she completed in 2012. When she arrived at UO in fall 2008, she was committed to the idea of studying political humor.

Her initial line of research led her to 4Chan, an image board-based internet forum. The website served as an alternative subcultural network for those interested in what was perceived as outcast content. At the time Phillips found it, 4Chan wasn’t explicitly political and was fashioned with playful elements, but all that soon shifted to a “cheering section for violence” rooted in alt-right ideals. Noting the influence of 4Chan on the media landscape, Phillips began devoting her research to understanding and navigating the unprecedented political landscape of our time.

Phillips’ work is also inspired by her reading. A book that has been both personally inspiring and relevant to her research is Robin Wall Kemmer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass.” This novel blends indigenous knowledge with western science to explore the relationship between humanity and the natural world. Kemmer encourages readers to regard other beings — both sentient and not — with equal consideration.

"I use ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ to situate how I think about our relationships to the mediated world. An enormous element of my most recent book, (“You Are Here”) is thinking about how we configure self to technology, self to other people, self to culture, and what are the ecological overlaps there, and how can we talk about those connections differently to try to inspire more humane, more inclusive, more responsible behavior,” Phillips said.

For Phillips, coming to teach at UO feels like coming home.

“I’m here, not because this was the job that I got, but because this is the job that I wanted,” she said.

Teaching and supporting students

Phillips said she is most looking forward to engaging with students and her fellow faculty members. A primary facet of Phillips’ research is understanding the ways society members engage with civil structures. She hopes to use her role as an academic to help students connect research to journalism, the entertainment industry, grassroots efforts and other organizations in civil society. Her goal is to cultivate an improved media ecosystem.

Phillips said the material she teaches is stressful for her and her students because it dictates the structures of civil life and culture. Over time, and as a consequence of her research, Phillips has learned the importance of self-care. To be an engaged member of society and navigate the political landscape effectively, Phillips learned that she has to nourish her mind and body first. She uses her own experience with self-care and mindfulness to inspire students to take care of themselves before attempting to tackle political problems.

“Part of being a political subject is recognizing and addressing the effect it has on our bodies,” she said.

Her main goal at the SOJC is to nourish the body politic. To Phillips, this means using UO’s resources as a major research institution to garner collaboration and connection between academics and the larger society. She will do so through compassionate and collaborative teaching rooted in an understanding of human needs.

This fall, she will start with a course centered on media’s role in the 2022 U.S. midterm elections. Students will investigate the particulars of the elections using a historical lens to determine the unique qualities of this cycle. Phillips will also bridge the gap between pop culture and politics to engage students by relating relevant stories to topics that matter.

“There’s a wellness aspect to the course — which is fundamental to how I teach all of my courses — but then there’s also, you know, what can you take from this course that adds value to how you communicate effectively to other people and how best can you do that?” Phillips said.

This upcoming election cycle is a precursor to the 2024 presidential election, which Phillips sees as a potentially stressful event for students. To prepare, she will help her students in her fall course create a toolkit for navigating the stress of the political landscape that will incorporate individual wellness techniques as well as communication strategies for approaching conversations with people on the opposite side of the political spectrum.

To Phillips, the modern political scene is riddled with miscommunication and reactionary thinking, which bleeds into policy making. She thinks the best way to influence the future of politics is inspiring students to address controversial topics with compassion and build consensus through mindful communication.

“Our motives don’t necessarily impact the outcome and truth isn’t a failsafe against problematic outcomes. As long as we are thinking through that, it allows for more robust ethical reflection and it’s something I think, regardless of the communication profession, that’s really important to remember. This is the most important thing I want to impart on my students,” she said.

—By Lauren Tokos ’24

Lauren Tokos (she/her/hers) is a third-year SOJC student majoring in media studies with a minor in commerce and society. She is also a student in the Clark Honors College and a member of the Wayne Morse Scholars Program.