Dr. Johanna Dunaway is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the Bush School. Dr. Dunaway‘s areas of interest include news media and politics and political communication, with an emphasis on how the changing media environment is shaping news consumption and political knowledge, attitudes, and behavior.
My name is Johanna Dunaway. I am a professor and I’ve been in the Political Science Department since 2020.
After completing my PhD program at Rice University, my first job was at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. My second job was at LSU (Louisiana State University), a rival in the SEC. I was there for nearly eight years, and I was appointed in both the Mass Communication Department and the Political Science Department. When I first came to A&M, I worked in the Department of Communication for four years before switching over to Political Science, which is my field of training.
What research projects are you currently working on?
I guess I should probably talk about the book I just finished because it’s about to come out. It is based on a long-term project with multiple studies trying to see whether there are effects from reading about or watching the news on your mobile phone compared to doing so on a computer. We had all these reasons to expect that reading or watching on your mobile phone would make the information harder to retain. Even though more and more people use their phones that way to access content, and that means a lot more people can access the news, but they do so for shorter periods of time. Even when they read or watch stories – and it matters regardless of whether its video or print – they still don’t learn as much or pay attention when on a mobile device – they can’t focus on the content as long, so they come away with less information.
It was fun because we studied it with eye-tracking and with physiological data where we measured heart rate variability and changes in rates of skin conductance to see how engaged people were with the content. These are newer ways of measuring attention and engagement with news, which was kind of fun.
What are you hoping to learn through your research?
The biggest thing that drove my original interest was that people were talking a lot about how mobile phones were bridging the digital divide, and they are in terms of access because mobile phones make it possible for more people to have access to information. But really mobile phones just putting up a different kind of divide, one that’s more about the quality of internet access you have rather than simply whether you have it. More and more people – those who are younger or have fewer resources are relying completely on their phones for internet access. They use a smartphone instead of having a wired-up computer, which means they’re kind of mobile dependent for internet access and lower quality access to news. So even though more people have that access, it’s not as good. And in the U.S. there are several groups – typically those with lower resources who are mobile dependent. But across the world, there are many countries where many people only have access through their phone. And if that results in lower-quality news consumption, its something we need to know. Also, in some places, schools are swapping out tablets for computers in libraries. It’s a problem because it is not as comprehensive a learning tool for children – or other people using the library – as a computer would be. That’s due to the screen size as well as for reasons having to do with connection speeds. But even just the screen size alone means that you can’t retain as much of the information.
What do you like most about working here?
I really enjoy working in the Political Science Department at Texas A&M. It’s always engaging, and never boring. The students at A&M are good. The graduate students that I’m working with now, and get to teach regularly, are better than at any other institution I’ve ever worked in. It makes a huge difference for teaching, but also for research, because the students work with us on our research projects. So, all around, it makes for a really good experience.
Have you ever worked outside of academia, and how does that inform your research or teaching?
I was one of the people who took one year off between undergrad and graduate school. And when I graduated with a Political Science degree I was basically not qualified for a whole lot of things (at least that were at least immediately obvious), so I ended up working at a temp firm, which meant I was a secretary or receptionist at several different law firms. Part of me was doing that to see if I wanted to go to law school, but I was quickly told by every single attorney with whom I worked that I did not want to do that. I also learned quickly how terrible working 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year and having to get dressed up and basically do someone else’s bidding, while not using your brain, was terrible. So, it helped me realize how much I wanted to go back to school. And then once I got back to school and started working in my first graduate program, I realized how much I loved it. And I think it improved my performance because it affected my appreciation for being able to go back to school. And now I get to read and write and think all day long. I’m grateful for that year because it taught me, no no no, this is not for you – go back.
What is your favorite class to teach and why?
It is probably the grad seminar that I teach in this department, the American Politics sub-field class. We call it a pro-seminar but it’s a class that’s basically supposed to touch on multiple areas of research in that American Politics field. And that just means I get to pick all the cutting edge, super interesting research in a bunch of different areas in that big subfield and help guide students through that work. Since they’re at the grad level, its mainly discussion. We get to talk about the research we read, and tear it apart, but we also discuss everything we learn from it and think about what it means for what researchers should do next. So probably that one because it’s peer discussion-based and also involves getting to read lots of cool studies.
What else do you work on?
I do work on lots of other things too. I say I’m kind of a jack of all trades, master of none, but I mainly study lots of stuff relating to different kinds of news media. Some of my work examines polarization, media bias, partisanship, and public opinion, so I do research on those kinds of things too. It is all fun, so if anyone is interested in those things they should come see me and come take my classes.