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APSU editor, communication grad student Brian Dunn wins top student paper at regional academic conference

Austin Peay State University - APSUClarksville, TN – On June 2nd, 2020, a week after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Brian Dunn logged onto his social media accounts and noticed that several of his friends had replaced their profile pictures with solid black squares.

Austin Peay State University student Brian Dunn won Top Student Paper for the SSCA conference. (APSU)
Austin Peay State University student Brian Dunn won Top Student Paper for the SSCA conference. (APSU)

Those faceless accounts popping up on his feed were participating in #BlackoutTuesday – a social media event in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

But something about the event – the idea of silencing yourself to raise awareness – sparked Dunn’s curiosity. He now works as a university editor/writer for Austin Peay State University (APSU), but he’d previously spent 20 years as a journalist and editor, which helped him develop a critical eye for any newsworthy event.

In 2019, he also enrolled in Austin Peay State University’s Master of Arts in Communication program, which only enhanced his analytical skills. While scrolling through his feeds, a question began to take shape – with #BlackoutTuesday, were his progressive white friends on social media really being allies to the BLM movement or just performing like ones?

“(O)nly two of the 18 white people on my Facebook feed who posted #BlackoutTuesday shared links and resources about how to get involved,” he wrote. “The others simply announced their arrivals.”

Dunn explored this idea in a paper for his social media theories and practices class, a graduate-level class at APSU. Department Chair Rob Baron suggested Dunn submit the resulting work, “Examining White Allyship, White Fragility, and Performativity Amid #BlackoutTuesday,” to the Southern States Communication Association Conference.

The highly competitive academic conference not only accepted Dunn’s paper, but reviewers for the conference named it the Top Student Paper in its division.

“The main reason I recommended Brian submit his work to the Southern States Communication Association (SSCA) conference was that his project takes on a crucial question of our time: What does it mean to be an ally when others are struggling for their rights?” Baron said.

“The project was intensely personal for Brian, and, at the same time, something very much at the core of a lot of current communication scholarship. I knew it was something that had a strong chance of being accepted for a regional conference like SSCA. Conference presentations like this are how graduate students cut their teeth as scholars. Today’s conference presentations often become tomorrow’s dissertations, journal articles, and books,”

Dunn will present his work during a virtual popular communication session on April 9th. He is the only master-level student to present at this session.



Baron will also attend the conference, presenting his work, “Debate Judging in the 21st Century: Hope and Concern for Providing a Pedagogical Learning Environment.” The two are the only APSU representatives on the event’s agenda to present.

Once the conference is over, Dunn plans to continue exploring his topic, academically and personally.

 “By reflecting on the event, and my own movement within it, my goal was to drill down to a better understanding of how white fragility—in the performance of white solidarity or white silence—prevents white progressives from engaging fully in antiracism,” he wrote.

For information on APSU’s Master of Arts in Communication, visit https://www.apsu.edu/communication/graduate-programs.php.


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