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A new culture of learning: implications of digital culture for communities of faith.

"A new culture of learning"--a bold title for an essay of this sort, but one borrowed from the title of a book published by two luminaries who work in the field of learning more generally, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011). Yet I think this title aptly captures what we can see all around us, if we look closely, and thus I feel free to borrow it. There are shifts underway in how learning happens in the 21st century. We, as educators working in Catholic communities, in a globalized world, need to be attentive to those shifts if we want to design learning experiences that are effective and constructive in that midst of that shift.

This essay will begin by laying out the elements of this new culture of learning, drawing heavily on the work of those researchers connected with the MacArthur Foundation's "new digital literacies" projects, and which Thomas and Brown so well summarize, particularly Mizuko (2009) and Jenkins (2006). The overall project is accessible via the web at I will then contextualize that work more fully in Catholic contexts and make a few tentative proposals for our continued development.

Before I go any further, I need to be clear about my own situatedness. I am a Roman Catholic layperson who teaches in an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [ELCA] seminary in the United States. Each of those labels already narrows and constrains the lenses I bring to bear on this situation. At the same time, I have been working in the fields of media education and religious education for more than 20 years, and during that time have traveled to multiple contexts around the world learning from people who are studying the intersections of media, religion, and digital cultures. From that point of view I hope to offer useful "hooks" into the relevant literatures and a frame for considering how these shifts that are being identified might emerge in other contexts and teaching environments. Please understand that what I offer here is meant to stimulate discussion and experimentation, and is not intended to be definitive.

What is this "new culture of learning" we hear about? It is crucial to the argument that Thomas and Seely Brown are making to grasp that learning happens not simply on an explicit or intentional level, but also at the level of the implicit, or incidental, and even ultimately, the null, or taboo, levels. They begin their observations by using the metaphors of the information network, and the petri dish. That is, they point to the potentially limitless nature of the current information environment and argue that in order to support learning in such a space educators must design appropriately bounded spaces. Here the metaphor of the petri dish is particularly evocative because it speaks to the deliberately constructed nature of a biological culture, which necessitates creating an environment upon which the specific organism one hopes to grow depends for development; and the challenge of keeping such an environment, such a "culture," appropriately rich and yet clearly bounded.

As Thomas and Brown point out, this culture is not about:
   unchecked access to information and unbridled
   passion, however. Left to their own devices,
   there is no telling what students will do. If you
   give them a resource like the Internet and ask
   them to follow their passion, they will probably
   meander around finding bits and pieces of information
   that move them from topic to topic--and
   produce a very haphazard result. (p. 81)

As Thomas and Brown--and frankly, most other people who are attending to the challenges of teaching and learning with digital tools--note, we can no longer work in this environment, we can not adequately create such "petri dishes" if our approaches are teaching-based; instead they must be learning-based. The distinction Thomas and Brown make is increasingly common not only in the worlds of digital learning, online and distributed technologies, and so on, but also deep within a variety of accrediting organizations and other institutions dedicated to assessing and supporting learning. A "teaching-based" approach assumes a stable base of information to be shared "about" the world, whereas a "learning-based" approach is focused on learning "through" engagement with the world (p. 37).

In my own context, for example, the recent shifts in the standards of the Association of Theological Schools are in precisely this direction. The focus of the ATS accreditation process requires schools seeking that accreditation to articulate clearly their learning outcomes, not simply at the level of individual student learning objectives in specific courses, but at the broader level of entire degree programs and the implicit as well as explicit learning of an institution. (See ATS, 2011, for details.)

So the first shift in a new culture of learning is an intentional shift from "teaching-based" to "learning-based" approaches. The second shift has to do with moving away from the debates over the "private and the public" which have so captivated our attention in regards to social media in particular, and to think about and embed in learning design, the "personal and the collective." Thomas and Brown are particularly alert to the kinds of learning that are taking place in various gaming structures, especially those with social and participatory elements to their design. The example they explore at length is that of World of Warcraft. In that environment (and the other games like it), unlike in our more typical definition of community, people do not learn in order to belong but rather participate in order to learn.

Pause for a moment to think about that shift.

Collectives are not, as Thomas and Brown note, "simply new forms of public spaces." Rather, "they are built and structured around participation and therefore carry a different sense of investment for those who engage in them. Collectives, unlike the larger notion of the public, are both contextual and situated, particularly with regard to engaging in specific actions" (p. 56).

Why does this matter? If we pick up on the implicit curriculum at work in these places, if we pay attention to what Thomas and Brown highlight as the "tacit" knowing that is occurring, we will recognize that an increasingly large number of people are "learning how to learn" in ways that stress their own passion, interest, and agency. Picking up on the work of Polanyi and others, Thomas and Brown note that tacit knowing is the kind of knowing that builds from constantly changing experiences. Explicit knowing, on the other hand, tends to be that which has become stable and fixed over time. Here again you can pick up on the need for a shift from "teaching about" the world, to "learning through engagement with" the world. In a context in which there is a large body of fixed and stable knowledge, "teaching about" might be both functional and adequate. In a world, however, in which what constitutes "knowing" is constantly changing, rarely fixed, and deeply embedded in personal agency and experience, in that kind of world, one must "learn through engagement." That is, we learn by doing, watching, experiencing.

In such a world the third element of the shift noted by Thomas and Brown is that of a move away from asking "what do we know?" to "what are the things we don't know, and what can we ask about them?" (p. 83). This is a practice particularly evident in the midst of various gaming environments, where often the primary objective in a given "room" or "area" of a game is to explore the space and figure out what resources exist there, what surprises can be tapped, and so on.

Thomas and Brown begin to talk, in this part of their argument, about practices of "indwelling." I imagine that many of us in the Catholic community might find our ears perking up at this word. Thomas and Brown define "indwelling" as the "set of practices we use and develop to find and make connections among the tacit dimensions of things. It is the set of experiences from which we are able to develop our hunches and sense of intuition" (p. 85). The more people play certain kinds of video games, for instance, the more they hone their ability to pick up on clues that lead to unlocking new resources, and the more they experiment with what they can "do" in a given place. Incidentally, there is much to be made in this argument about the importance of "place," of situatedness and location, yet another resonance with contemporary theological education.

Thus far, there are three elements of the shift in the new culture of learning: (1) a move from "teaching-based" to "learning-based" approaches; (2) a shift from the public and private, to the personal and collective; and (3) a focus on tacit knowing which grows from inquiry-led approaches.

Perhaps the clearest statement Thomas and Brown make, is to note that "the new culture of learning is about the kind of tension that develops when students with an interest or passion they want to explore are faced with a set of constraints that allow them to act only within given boundaries" (p. 81).

Let me turn, now, to explore some of the possible implications for Catholic communities. First, I think we need to ask: Is any of this really all that new? Formation in collectives that draws deeply on personal experience and which is alert to tacit knowing could be one way of describing the work of religious communities, such as the "collectives" of the School Sisters of Notre Dame or the Jesuits, to mention only two of the hundreds of religious orders that exist.

This culture of learning may be breaking down in congregational settings, where a community's ability to socialize their young, let alone to initiate and form new members, was often dependent upon a larger cultural surround which is now often multi-faith in ways rarely appreciated in previous times. It may simply be, as Davidson (2011) notes, that our practices of attention have been disrupted enough by these emerging digital technologies to enable us to "see" what has indeed been going on all around us.

To return to Thomas and Brown's definition, "the new culture of learning is about the kind of tension that develops when students with an interest or passion they want to explore are faced with a set of constraints that allow them to act only within given boundaries" (p. 81).

I want to ask a specifically theological question about this definition, and to do so I'll draw on a famous quote of Frederick Buechner's, who wrote of "vocation" being where "your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet" (1973, p. 95). Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of the world we are moving into, at least for those of us who live within Christian communities--and I would venture to guess, rather than to assert, that there are similarities to be found in other faith communities--is that Christians believe human being to be something that is both a gift from God, and deeply broken. That is, to paraphrase a common assertion from the Lutheran seminary where I teach, we are "simultaneously saint and sinner."

Thus when I consider Thomas and Brown's work on a "new culture of learning," I inevitably want to ask where that definition allows us to engage the brokenness, the sinfulness of human being. Where might we speak of God's agency, not simply human agency? What draws us to faith in the midst of pain? I think that one of the potentially most difficult challenges posed by this "new culture of learning" to communities of faith has to do with the deep affirmation we carry that we are not alone, we are not isolated beings complete in ourselves. It is not up to human beings, of our own individual accord, to control the world. We are not, in ourselves, singularly creative. We participate in creation, we participate in making the world whole, but we do not do this alone. To quote Gaudium et Spes, "The Word of God, through whom all things were made, became man and dwelt among us.... He reveals to us that 'God is love' and at the same time teaches that ... the effort to establish a universal communion will not be in vain" (No. 38).

I think part of the very real and authentic skepticism that religious educators have brought to moving faith formation into digitally mediated, online spaces is that we recognize--although rarely publicly acknowledge--how difficult, limited, and sinful the learning can be even in those environments we believe we have shaped most carefully. Given our concerns about the brokenness of our current institutions, about the wounding of the world through global capitalist exploitation, about the breakdown in relationship we see all around us, it is not surprising that we would ask serious questions about moving the already difficult process of theological education into spaces that would appear to attenuate our relationality. As Pope Benedict 16th noted in his message for the 45th World Communications Day:

The new technologies allow people to meet each other beyond the confines of space and of their own culture, creating in this way an entirely new world of potential friendships. This is a great opportunity, but it also requires greater attention to and awareness of possible risks. Who is my "neighbor" in this new world? Does the danger exist that we may be less present to those whom we encounter in our everyday life? Is there is a risk of being more distracted because our attention is fragmented and absorbed in a world "other" than the one in which we live? Do we have time to reflect critically on our choices and to foster human relationships which are truly deep and lasting? It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives. (Benedict XVI, 2011, [paragraph]5)

I believe, however, and have argued extensively in other contexts, that digital spaces are no less relational than so-called "in-person" spaces (Hess, 2005, 2008, 2010, 2011a, 2011b). The challenge is to attend to the tacit knowing that is being drawn on in a given space. So, for example, when I find myself as a woman feeling deeply discounted and "dis-embodied" by the gender dynamics in a face-to-face academic setting, I need to critique and engage them. Similarly, when colleagues argue that digital environments allow us to be pulled beyond our racialization and the systemic racism which confers white privilege upon me, I want to see the proof (see Nakamura, 2002; boyd, 2008, and

Thus there are elements of critique and awareness that religious educators do--and must--bring to this new culture of learning. But are there other ways in which we might engage this analysis?

I would point to five strengths that appear within communities of faith when viewed through the Thomas and Brown lens. Keeping in mind that I am drawing these strengths from my particular location, and thus suggest them as evocative rather than definitive, I would note, first, that Catholic communities are largely tending a fairly esoteric body of knowledge. Thomas and Brown write of how compelling the pursuit of esoteric knowledge is within gaming environments. There are scholars such as Detwiler (2010), who use that analysis to suggest ways in which we might make our esoteric knowledge more inviting and intriguing to people who have grown up learning through gaming. His description of structuring learning the Bible so that students might "level up" in particular ways is both compelling and fun. We have centuries of tradition and practices upon which to draw, and enormous storehouses of complex and sophisticated theological reflection and liturgical wisdom to share.

The second element I would note is that where Thomas and Brown talk about the limitless nature of information in a networked society, I would ask us to think about our own wisdom within communities of faith for engaging and managing approaches to the infinite. That is, as Rahner points out, it is our recognition of our own limits that points to the limitless. It is in recognizing our own finitude that we become conscious of the infinity of a transcendent God. We have, within Christian community alone--there are myriad approaches in other faith traditions--a deep sense of the humility necessary for conversation about infinity. As Edwards (2002) has written, we have a "characteristically sensitive approach to boundary conditions where we know reason is prone to err badly" (p. 4). "Limitless" access to information is not, in and of itself, access to wisdom. Yet wisdom is what has been cultivated within religious traditions over eons.

The third and fourth elements I would point to as strengths that I see within communities of faith for engaging this new culture of learning, grow out of our deep commitment to what Palmer (1993) has termed the "whole sight" of knowing with both one's heart and one's mind (p. xxiii). We acknowledge that there is a necessity to know in this "whole sight" way, and we have much to share from our own work with that commitment. We have drawn from our tacit knowing, our own experiences of seeing, doing, and being to shape practices that lead to wisdom. These practices compel us to witness to the limitations of reason as well as to the limitations of emotion. We have centuries of practices that have been shaped to allow human beings to hone their integrative abilities. Schneiders (1986) is particularly evocative in her recognition of a Catholic understanding of spirituality:
   spirituality is understood as the unique and personal
   response of individuals to all that calls
   them to integrity and transcendence.... [It] has
   something to do with the integration of all
   aspects of human life and experience.

   ... fundamentally, spirituality has to do with
   becoming a person in the fullest sense.

   Spirituality is that attitude, that frame of mind
   which breaks the human person out of the isolating
   self. As it does that, it directs him or her to
   another relationship in whom one's growth takes
   root and sustenance. (p. 264)

Intimately connected to these third and fourth elements would be what I would label the fifth, although perhaps these are so entangled that it's hard to separate them? But the fifth element I would lift up is that communities of faith have long practice with bounded environments. Indeed in some ways I think that the growth of certain more clearly bounded religious communities emerges out of the larger need people experience for finding bounded environments in the midst of what can often feel like dramatically unbounded, unfounded, anti-institutional ways of being.

These five elements--esoteric knowledge, experience of finitude, commitment to integration, experience with tacit knowing, and practices of boundedness--are, however, all facing new challenges in our larger environments. These five elements which can contribute greatly to a new culture of learning, and which would appear to flourish in such a culture, are also newly at risk.

Consider, for instance, the ways in which the esoteric knowledges we tend are becoming rapidly inaccessible. Far too many theologians and catechists have refused to be present in digital spaces, have resisted making their work accessible in open source ways, have fought the development of online learning, and have generally argued that we ought not to be engaging digital technologies. I suppose that one element of what defines "esoteric" knowing is that it is "likely to be understood only by a small number of people with a specialized interest" (the definition that "pops up" when I query the dictionary on my MacBookPro), but if there are no ways to excite interest such that people are drawn into engagement and inquiry with that knowledge it will no longer be esoteric, but instead extinct. The M.Div. students at the seminary where I teach, for instance, are required to take both Greek and Hebrew. My colleagues, who are excellent scholars as well as creative teachers, have found ways to invite these students to use newly emerging digital tools such as Accordance to draw them into deeper study of the languages. These students are discovering a passion for inquiry that will serve them well with these languages even once they are beyond the bounded classroom environments of a seminary.

The second element, a recognition of our finitude which leads to awareness of the divine and of our need for humility in the face of the divine, is also fading rapidly. A larger sense of God's agency and power is diminishing all around us. Scientific explanations have been picked up in the wider popular culture as explanations that leach out the wonder of creation, that settle agency on human beings alone. I'm not sure all of our scientists are comfortable with this. There are many who have written of the ways in which scientific method can lead into deeper wonder at the complexity and beauty of creation, ways in which scientific method forces open-ended humility (see, for example, Palmer & Zajonc, 2010). But that is not the stance most often presented in wider popular culture. Communities of faith, theologians, and lay catechists in particular, need to focus more directly on inviting engagement with the transcendence of God, and helping people to participate in--and thus learn--the practices which shape our belonging as humble humans in religious knowing.

The third and fourth elements, which have to do with a commitment to "whole sight," and the practices of integration that shape it, are also facing keen challenges all around us. As Deck (2012) has noted: "Another way to express this idea is to say that the catechesis broke down and failed to successfully make the connection between information (the content of faith) and performance (behavior), and between belonging to the Church and believing what it teaches" (p. 4). I have written elsewhere about the ways our practices of attention are being shaped in digital environments (2011). I would point, here, to the movement emerging within Christian religious education, which focuses on practices that are deeply constitutive of Christian identity but not specifically liturgical or creedal. The resource or issue here is developing daily practices, ways of engaging in a relationship with Jesus connected to the church in daily life. A good introduction would be Bass (2010). There are resources being developed in local parish contexts throughout the u.S., some of which are being shared via the web and digital apps, some of which are simply too contextual to share broadly.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge to our strengths, however, is that which is being posed to our bounded environments. In the united States, at least in the Catholic community, we have tended to understand our boundedness through the structures of parish and diocese. But these structures are crumbling all around us, and it is not yet clear how they will be revived, or what will replace them. If we truly believe that the church is intimately missional in its being, and if we also affirm that the people of God are the church, then we must respect that God is doing something with us even in the moments and places that seem most unbounded. How might we do this?

In theological education, at least in my institution, we have begun to focus more directly on helping our students to practice what Cormode (2006) has called "homiletical" or "gardening" forms of leadership, which tend directly to meaning-making, and in doing so help to shape the communicative practices of a community. Such communicative practices can be embedded in social media just as much as they can be embedded in the structure of an institution, although they will take different shape in different environments. Here is a place in which the practice of communicative theology is particularly pertinent and helpful.

Communicative theology is a:

method where the source of its assertions can be identified ... there is a critical correlation between content and form in communicative theology, that is highly relevant to context as well...

Theology is a critical reflection on and understanding of the communication event ... there are processes of communication that draw on the skills of everyone, where expertise remote from real life has no place, but where people cooperate in striving to find a theological practice that answers the needs of the community ...

Communicative theology can be understood as a process that directs its 'gaze'--in the sense of theological hermeneutics--toward the communication event.... [It is] shared and participatory ... (Scharer & Hilberath, 2008, pp. 20-23)

There are some important implications to such a process, among them:
   moving from "assent to truth" to entrusting oneself
   to God's "communicatio" and "communio"
   (p. 75)

   There is a dynamic process engaged in theme-centered
   interaction that moves from the I, the
   We, and the It to form a triangle encompassed in
   a Globe.... [T]he individual subjects--the "I"
   factor--participate in the We and are oriented
   toward faith ("It") as their response to the communication
   of God in the ambivalent situation
   marked by the Globe.... [T]he authentic theological
   places where God shows God's self to
   human beings in history include not only their
   biographies but also their interaction and communication
   ... (p. 147)

   Thus the processes shaped towards eliciting
   and identifying this revelation must of necessity
   be open, communicative, and oriented towards
   the borders, the edges, the spaces in which disturbance,
   perplexity, and conflict arise. (pp.

There is far more that could--and should--be said about the processes of communicative theology. While these theologians are articulating a very specific way of doing theology that relies on theme-centered interaction, their underlying assumptions have resonance with a number of differing theologies over the years and around the globe. The practice of communicative theology may well be one method by which we can listen carefully for what God might be doing in our midst--and listening is a key component of discipling and missional leadership.

Strengths--and challenges to those strengths--live all around us in catechesis and theological engagement. Yet I have not even touched on the specific suggestions that Thomas and Brown (2011) and others are making for how to help educators move into and draw on what they are calling the new culture of learning. They argue, for instance, for three distinct yet overlapping frames for redesigning learning: homo sapiens, homo faber, and homo ludens, or "humans who know, humans who make (things), and humans who play" (p. 90).

In the space of "humans who know," Thomas and Brown want very much to emphasize the place-based nature of that knowing. Where are we knowing, and how is that sense of place shaping our knowing? I think this is a question that has permeated theological education for at least the last several decades, and Jennings (2010) provides further compelling substance to that inquiry. The advent of digital technologies, and the ability to use those technologies to make theological education accessible to people far beyond specific, seminary-based, locations has been a huge challenge to theological education--and a wonderful opportunity at the same time. What can we learn from these experiments for our Catholic schools, our parishes and our lay catechists?

Thomas and Brown talk at length about the issue of homo faber, and I have done so as well in other contexts (2008, 2010, 2011), because media educators learned long ago that one of the best ways to help students learn something effective about media was to help them to create in a specific medium. Yet I think it is worth noting, in this essay, that we ought to be asking, "what are we making?" Are we making disciples? Are we making communities? Are we making collectives? Are we making lay catechists? Perhaps we are "making" all of these, or many of these, at once. But I'm not sure how often or how clearly we articulate this element of our educational environment.

I certainly believe that there are elements to our "making" that have been profoundly problematic. In the ELCA context, for instance, in the national Book of Faith project, we are learning that some of what has been taught in seminaries--the implicit curriculum of teaching the Bible, for instance--has "made" scholars, but not made teachers who could go out and help other people to learn the Bible in ways that are effective and constructive. Indeed, we are discovering that some of how we have taught biblical studies has led to pastors "teaching" their parishioners that they must have an expert in attendance any time they open up their Bible. (Schussler-Fiorenza, 2009, and Martin, 2008, have observed this more systematically in their own books.)

The third form of knowing that Thomas and Brown point to--that of homo ludens--is at the heart of their book, particularly given all of the MacArthur Foundation research upon which they have drawn. But what kinds of play are religious educators engaged in? I think we could potentially draw on multiple forms of play, everything from the sacred play of liturgy to the formal play of theater of the oppressed. But I'm not sure how often we give ourselves permission to engage in play, even in carefully constructed "educational" play. The work of Huizinga (2008) and others points to the very serious nature of play, and the crucial ways in which learning takes shape in environments of play. One element of play, of course, is the making of mistakes, and learning from failure. I doubt that making mistakes and learning from them is much in evidence in the seminary in which I teach, and anecdotal conversations with my colleagues in theological education suggest a similar pattern elsewhere. Jenkins and colleagues (2006) have identified a set of learning outcomes they believe that citizens of the 21st century need to achieve. Play, understood as the "capacity to experiment with one's surroundings as a form of problem-solving" is at the top of their list (p. 22).

Here again is a place in which I would note the work of communicative theologians as a resource. There is much that can be learned within the structured "play" of liturgy as well.

As I move through the work of Thomas and Brown, and indeed the work of all those upon whom that book rests, I am struck repeatedly by its resonance with the discussion of theological educator David Tiede, who has been writing for years about the notion of a seminary as three-fold--academy, abbey, and apostolate (as described by Aleshire, 2008, p. 126). A seminary as an academy, in all the rich complexity of the "academy" as understand at the "American Academy of Religion," is no doubt the form with which we are most familiar. Some of us may also have some experience with the "abbey," particularly those of us who live within vowed religious communities. I suspect the notion of an "apostolate" is much less familiar to many. Yet in the Christian community at least, the earliest followers of Jesus did not form an academy or an abbey--they were an apostolate, a community of apostles sharing their learning and experiences by engaging other learners and other experiences.

If we are serious about a "new evangelization," if we are committed to understanding our church as missional to its core, then we must begin to look for what God is already doing with us. The "new culture of learning" opens up new arenas of action for us, whole new contexts in which we might engage learning, and in doing so share and learn with others both close at home and far away. I want to close by quoting Thomas and Brown at length, for their emphasis on play is one that opens up new room for us to see God at work in our midst:
   The almost unlimited resources provided by the
   information network serve as a set of nutrients,
   constantly selected and incorporated into the
   bounded environment of the petri dish, which
   provides the impetus for experimentation, play,
   and learning. Accordingly, the culture that
   emerges, the new culture of learning, is a culture
   of collective inquiry that harnesses the resources
   of the network and transforms them into nutrients
   within the petri dish environment, turning it
   into a space of play and experimentation.

   That moment of fusion between unlimited
   resources and a bounded environment creates a
   space that does not simply allow for imagination,
   it requires it. Only when we care about
   experimentation, play, and questions more than
   efficiency, outcomes, and answers do we have a
   space that is truly open to the imagination.

   And where imaginations play, learning happens.
   (p. 118)

I believe that religious education is entering a new era of evangelization, one of enormous potential for growth and engagement--but only if we truly allow our imaginations to be at work, and to play with the Spirit as she breathes amongst us.


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Scharer, M., & Hilberath, B. J. (2008). The practice of communicative theology: An introduction to a new theological culture. New York: Crossroad, 2008

Schneiders, S. (1986). Theology and spirituality: Strangers, rivals or partners? Horizons, 13(2).

Schussler-Fiorenza, E. (2009). Democratizing biblical studies: Towards an emancipatory educational space. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

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Vatican Council II. Gaudium et Spes. (1975). In A. Flannery (Ed.), Vatican Council II: The conciliar and post conciliar documents (pp. 903-1001). Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. (original work published 1965)

Mary Hess
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Author:Hess, Mary
Publication:Communication Research Trends
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2013
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