Professor Spotlight: Alexander Helberg is Bringing the Digital World and Social Media to Trinity Classrooms

6 min read

Hannah Lorenzo ’25

Contributing Writer

Visiting Assistant Professor in the Allan K. Smith Center for Writing and Rhetoric Alexander Helberg advocates for an educational atmosphere that integrates more research on online media through students’ engagement with what they define as a digital world.

The digital world is a major influence on student life here at Trinity College, where students are very knowledgeable on the aspects of social media and online coverage of what is trending today. Though this digital world can be viewed as a topic separate from the normal conventions of a classroom—where students are expected to receive their information from physical textbooks—Professor Helberg changes that narrative.

Before Helberg came to Trinity College, he pursued both of his graduate degrees at Carnegie Mellon University, where he studied and developed interests in public engagement in activist and advocacy contexts. Helberg says that his decision to work at Trinity College was influenced by the college’s focus on community-based learning and the opportunity to develop digital education and communication in the courses he teaches.

Helberg teaches College Writing and Writing for a Digital World, both of which contribute to the Writing, Rhetoric, and Media minor. Along with his investment in the impact that rhetoric can have for students’ development in writing, he adds that it is also about “learning how to read the world.”

“Rhetoric writing and media studies is all about teaching the kind of critical reasoning skills that it takes to go out and make sense of the world around you.”

In the classroom, Professor Helberg takes an alternative approach to the standard notebook-and-pencil style of teaching, where he said he focuses on the students’ own knowledge of the concepts being discussed. “Becoming aware of what you’re doing and becoming more of a flexible, adaptable, reflexive communicator and rhetorical rhetorician involves bringing your life to the classroom and being able to analyze the things that are most relevant to you, the things that you would otherwise take for granted.”

Some of the topics he covers in his Writing for a Digital World course, for example, involves in-depth conversations of students’ reactions to social media trends, such as “Booktok” on TikTok, in order to learn more about types of digital genres. Helberg mentions that he includes social media applications as a manner of connecting students’ understanding of the classroom materials with relevant modes of communication in today’s society.

“Whenever we make a collaborative document in class together, that’s designed to kind of test out some of the concepts or thinking skills that we’re working through altogether, that will eventually build up into a larger writing assignment. But I want us to all feel in that moment like we are kind of generating a community of knowledge builders together, like we are actually collaborating on something that all of us are coming in as learners, including me.” Along with utilizing more online methods of collaboration in his classroom, Helberg’s teaching style aims to showcase his “genuine enthusiasm for this stuff. And [his] hope is that that’s infectious, and that does kind of rub off to the way that other people end up feeling about it too.”

Helberg also incorporates his interests in community-based learning with the advocacy project for the Healthy Hartford Hub, which is a project aimed at improving food insecurities in the North Hartford area for individuals and families at risk based on gender, income, unemployment, and transportation statistics. His project includes his students’ efforts in creating a podcast that will bring attention to food justice advocacy on campus and the Hartford community. “It’s clear to me that podcasting as a genre or as a medium has a lot of potential for doing this kind of transformational public work of raising consciousness, of raising a sort of critical publicity you might say, toward certain social issues.”

His students will partake in this project as one of the class assignments, where he said that he believes they are “going to do an incredible job of putting together something that is really, really going to deliver on behalf of the people of Hartford and the North end specifically.”

Speaking of podcasts, Professor Helberg runs a podcast called re:verb. The podcast was formed alongside other Ph.D. students at Carnegie Mellon University. As one of the co-executive producers, he said that they aimed to create a podcast that is educational yet engaging with intriguing content focused around the significance of rhetoric. “We need to make the public aware that what we do here in the humanities is really relevant and can really help expand people’s critical capacities too, especially like sussing out misinformation and disinformation, being able to rhetorically reckon with the narratives that we are experiencing a deluge of on a daily basis.”

The re:verb podcast gained recognition in other classrooms, as he mentioned that it was web-trafficked by over twenty syllabi, meaning that instructors in the United States were assigning the podcast as a classroom resource. Helberg adds that this is an example of how students learn and study in more digital manners, “it gives students another way to engage with intellectual information that’s not just reading.” When asked what his favorite topic or episode is, Helberg said Episode 71: “re:pronouns.” He said he and his team “were, in addition to being kind of confounded at the backlash that this is getting from various kind of like culture warriors out on the Internet, we also wanted to do kind of a deep dive into the linguistic history of singular ‘they.’”

Outside of the classroom, Helberg’s ventures place him outdoors. Along with his recent interests in kayaking in New England and traveling the waterways of Connecticut, something that makes Helberg stand out is that his “favorite thing to do is to go to my students’ sports games” to further connect with his students beyond the classroom norm. “It’s just kind of nice to see students in a different venue that’s outside of the classroom. It reminds us that we know that we are whole people that have lives outside of the classroom. We can sometimes forget that about our students, too, so that’s kind of a nice reminder. It’s also just really cool to see Trinity students win at sports a lot of the time, too.”

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    LINDA flower

    This is just a remarkable educational project. Kudos to Trinity for supporting it. How many students get to combine real media skills with the intellectual side of rhetoric, with making an actual difference in a community.

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