Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Monday, July 26, 2010
Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, professor of cinema studies at Ithaca College and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
8 is a lucky number in Singapore, especially at Chinese New Year. During Lucky Draws at parties, a sort of raffle with a generous collective ambience where small gifts are dispensed (I won a bunch of neon highlighters!), any number drawn that has an 8 in it elicits hurrahs. 8 is auspicious: good luck, good fortune, good health, good cheer. My time at NTU was auspicious indeed, blessed with all four.
My six month appointment as the Shaw Professor in the School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore bloomed with many 8’s.
Below is Part 1 of my list of my take-aways from my wonderfully engaged colleagues at SCI, in no particular order of importance, with my first four in this posting. They are highlights but also useful metaphors and maybe even benchmarks or conversations for US colleges and universities, now grappling with precipitious cutbacks and reorganizations from the GEC (the acronym Singaporeans bestowed on the Global Economic Collapse, barely felt in Asia):
1. The SCI Weekly Research Seminar. Organized by my colleague Marko Skoric, an intensely clear-thinking quantitative communication scholar from Serbia , the weekly seminar featured scholars from both SCI and across campus. 20-30 minutes of presentation, then discussion.
After the ferocious “let me make an intervention” battle calls of Northeastern US intellectual life, I appreciated the more collegial and less combative style. Maybe it was the round table we all sat around. Maybe it was the fact that the room was filled with faculty from so many disciplines and methodological schools in communications. Maybe it was the Asian value of harmony. Who knows?
I heard about remittance cultures in Asia and new media, about global Asian cities marketing themselves as new media and IT promised lands, IT access for development in Nepal and Indonesia, the problems of Asian communications schools teaching courses from a US perspective, the SARS epidemic and representation, internet law in Malaysia, social media and news in Germany.
I learned so much from these presentations because they exceeded my own discipline of film/media studies and historiography and pushed me beyond my comfort zone. It didn’t matter if there were 5 or 35 faculty in attendance. The ideas and research popped with freshness. The research seminar changed a lot of my ideas. And it was a great way to meet people for future lunches of dim sum or laksa.
2. The SCI Book Exchange. On the fourth floor of the SCI building, a faculty lounge offered coffee, tea (always my favorite, the stronger brew of Lipton Yellow Label, hard to procure in the US), snacks, a continuous news feed from Channel News Asia, and, my favorite, a book exchange.
Across Asia, you’ll see these book exchanges in hotels and hostels. Books are heavy to carry, and, very expensive in Asia. The book exchange at SCI struck me as both practical—books are expensive so why not share ?—and symbolic—ideas circulated and were shared.
Spy, thriller, suspense, historical, and literary novels, travel guides to countries in Southeast Asia and communication books, jammed the shelves. There was also plenty of trash reading, although as an former English lit major, trash is not to my taste.
I borrowed quite a few literary novels—Marguerite Duras (who wrote feminist novels about sexuality and Vietnam), Amitav Ghosh, Aravind Adiga, John Burdett (who writes detective novels set in Thailand), Jhumpa Lahiri. And I left books there as well.
I liked how the book exchange idea was pirated from backpackers and then adapted. I wondered why more US based departments don’t adopt this practice. In a puritanical and individualistic culture, maybe we can’t admit we read novels --or anything--for fun and relaxation. They remain secret pleasures.
3. Continuous Discussions about Pedagogy. By US Carnegie criteria, NTU would be considered a Research institution in Tier 1.
In the US, an ideology persists that only four year student-centered institutions care about teaching, with those student-remote research one schools focused exclusively on publication.
What I discovered at NTU was that a lot of these schools in the US claiming to focus on teaching actually focus on catering to students, student evaluations, student centered learning and the potential market for future students—a big difference from pedagogy. Students in the US often are figured as simultaneously customers, a market, and clients. I wish we could think of students as burgeoning intellectuals. My former dean, Thomas Bohn, once told me when I was a young assistant professor that our job as faculty is to invite students into a larger disciplinary based conversation. Quite a different idea from a service-centered pedagogy....
Not a day passed at NTU without a substantive and deeeply intellectual discussion about pedagogical issues, whether it was with colleagues or administrators: how to deliver an effective curriculum, how to update courses with new research, how to structure courses around ideas and their development, how to build intellectual critique and good writing skills. Research and teaching were always intertwined, like the yin and yang symbol so prevalent across Asia.
A continuing topic of discussion was the question of laptops and various electronics infiltrating the classroom, with some students doing continuous Facebook updating during class! My colleagues Mark Cenite and Nikki Draper confronted this menace to engagement as an intellectual conundrum that needed careful deconstruction culturally, socially, economically, ethically.They were not dismissive of these students, but wanted to understand what was happening in the cultural shift towards ubiquitous social media in order to structure their classroom time to maximize engagement.
In cinema studies at IC, we have suffered through this same problem given extensive campus WiFI and a requirement for laptops in the School of Communications, and instituted a Laptop and Electronic Device Policy that effectively bars all devices during classtime. It’s on our syllabi, and gives us the right to ask students to suspend their social media practices. SCI Faculy were interested in this policy, and wanted to instituted something similar. I felt quite useful sharing our cinema studies laptop policy. Big thanks to my colleague Matt Fee who popped the current version over to me.
4. International Faculty: The Real Deal. Over the last ten years, the word “international” works like a barnacle attaching itself to the boats of higher education.
It appears in so many mission statements, strategic plans, assessments, and facilitated brainstorming sessions that no one ever seems to ask how it is defined and actualized—at least in the US.
Most US faculty I know figure these incantations of "internationalism" present a contradictory moment.
On the one hand, in the shifting and increasingly volatile terrain of transnational corporate life, graduates (and institutions) no longer have the luxury of isolationism and English-only. On the other hand, with twenty years of globalization, post-colonial, cosmopolitan, critical race, and other theories of the periphery, research and teaching are much more carefully situated within global flows and power relations, so new faculty are pushing curricula away from its American-centeredness.
At NTU, I experienced a different way of considering “international.” Faculty in SCI came from 18 different countries, including England, Burma, India, Malaysia, the US, Singapore,Serbia, the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Mexico. I didn’t find one course based on a single country. Courses seemed to be structured around salient issues and important trajectories. And I rarely heard a research presentation on a single country.
Maybe it is because Singapore is so small, with only 5 million residents. Maybe it is because Singapore has always been an entrepot, a port in global flows reaching back a thousand years.
Whatever the reason, working in an environment that was this international rerouted my vectors, my teaching, my curatorial work, my writing, my ideas, my reading, my theoretical orientations, and what I read in the Singapore Straits Times and the International Herald Tribune. It was exciting. And, it was intellectually invigorating, like going to a spa for one's mind, getting the kinks kneaded out and the toxins flushed.
I looked forward to going into my SCI office everyday, wondering who I would talk to and what we would talk about. My days were filled with questions, rather than answers. And maybe, in the end, it reconnected me to why we all became academics in the first place.
Stay tuned for Part II, and more auspicious take-aways.
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival and professor of cinema, Ithaca College, Ithaca New York
So Long NTU
I’m leaving NTU and Singapore in 18 hours. Allied International Shipping just came and boxed up books, DVDs, clothes, my sheet music, an Indian lantern, some Indonesian batik, a small Tibetan prayer wheel from India. The air is cloudy from the mosquito spray the NTU gardeners just dosed our neighborhood with in the endless battle against mosquitos and dengue fever. The apartment is empty.
Sunday, July 4, 2010
Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival and professor of cinema, Ithaca College
“Gossip moves faster than the internet,” observed Gustaff Harriman Iskandar, arts, writer, curator and founder of Common Room and the Bandung Center for New Media Arts in Indonesia.
Gustaff was presenting about the new media practices of Common Room on the Open Space Panel “ The Contingent Spaces of Performance, Performativity and Soundscapes" at the International Communication Association (ICA) conference last week in Singapore.
“Gossip is important,” Gustaff observes. “It is part of oral culture, and oral culture is very important in Indonesia.”
Common Room is an initiative and a civil society practice in Bandung, Indonesia, designed to convene people, new media technologies, and conversations to make public space and interactive conversation accessible. It produces exhibitions, discussions, workshops, screenings, operating within what Gustaff called “contingent spaces and contested realities.” A central concern of Common Room is how to make networks—both virtual and real—work.
Founded in 2003, Common Room contends that conversations matter. Gustaff identified this practice as “the politics of listening": to facilitate space to recognize different situations and different realities through discussion. “In Common Room, we try to be invisible to facilitate the needs of people who enter conversations. Small interventions make everything happen by itself,” Gustaff said. As a result, Common Room floats in between institutions and communities, a forum for oral histories.
Resolutely locally situated, Common Room works in mapping practices, projects that make connections between civic empowerment, environmental sustainability, and urban ecology. The members of Common Room see themselves as artists initiating ideas and activities as political gestures based on dialogue and listening to people to facilitate their needs.
Against what Gustaff called “historical dementia,” urban distress, gentrification, and “wild capitalism” in Indonesia, Common Room advocates for open commons, smart mobs, gift economies, knowledge, creativity and freedom. Gustaff contends that “wild capitalism” is rampant in Indonesia, where transnational corporations in the oil, logging and mineral extraction businesses operate without rules and regulations.
Although the democratic reforms and social revolution of reformasi in 1998 loosened up censorship, many Indonesian activists and artists have noted the enactment of a systematic process of forgetting and state-sponsored amnesia, where the nation erases history by changing names of buildings, streets, places. For example, in 2008, 11 people were killed in a concert hall in Bandung. The building was renamed.
At ICA, Common Room created a live installation based on the web 2.0 notion of the “meet up” in the Suntec Conference Center to bring the academics assembled into a collaborative Indonesian space. With mats, computers, microphones and live streaming, their site-specific live, interactive performance functioned as a meet up in the middle of the conference. Common Room activated direct audience engagement, encouraging connections across national borders and arts/scholarly practices.
Flanked by the conference rooms and then new media art installations, Common Room put straw mats on risers in the hallway. One of the mats was white and shiny—it was woven out of recycled toothpaste tubes. Laptops adorned with stickers sat on low teak tables.
Common Room members Reina Wulansari, an arts exhibitor, Addy Handy, a writer and death metal band vocalist, and Gustaff sat cross legged on the risers throughout the conference. They interviewed the academics who ambled by to rest on the platform, and then streamed the interviews over the internet.
I asked Gustaff what the academics were chatting about with him. “Ghosts,” he said. “And a lot of introspection about spirituality.” I was struck by the contrast between these interviews and the social science-oriented, quantitative methodology, power points on media research that dominated the conference.
“Practitioners are switching from working as artists to functioning more as facilitators,” explained Gustaff. Common Room energizes public engagements. It’s not designed for personal work, but positioned as an institution that creates open platforms in real space.
“In Indonesia at the moment, arts culture is very contingent” Gustaff said. “Because there is an absence of state power in the arts and an absence of an institutional apparatus for the arts, artists and facilitators must make their own way.” Working commercially to make a living, Gustaff, Addy and Reina collaborate on Common Room initiatives to convene people around ideas. Common Room is actually located in a house in Bandung. “Creativity is a sign of poverty and not wealth,” asserted Gustaff.
During the three days of ICA, many academics—mostly from the so-called west--sat on the Common Room risers, fixated on their laptops with their presentation powerpoints, their backs facing Gustaff, Reina and Addy. The hallway offered no place to sit as conferees waited for panels to end. As a result, the academics used the risers as a sort of academic lounge.
On Thursday, I noticed that a white American woman in a brown suit (rather hot for the tropics) and a white European man in a blue sport coat and khaki pants (also heavy for the tropics) closed up their laptops and turned their bodies into the risers. Open Space interns and other Open Space artists sprawled across the risers, reclining into conversations.
Reina sat cross legged across from them, holding a microphone and recording their conversation for live streaming. I heard numerous papers on cross cultural communication and I read many power points on differences in media systems. But none of these papers stayed with me as long as this image of Common Room members from Indonesia sharing conversation with academics.
This interaction evoked the power of moving away from the professionalized solipsism of obsessive laptop usage and edging towards re- positioning new technologies as contingent public spaces and open platforms. This performative gesture of collaborative conversations across differences recalibrates new technologies like live streaming as necessary and urgent open spaces.
And for me, this image of "western" academics suited up in professional outfits that were out of sync with the climate here chatting with Reina and Gustaff materialized Common Room’s politics of listening. Gradually, the powerpoints and the netbooks are closed, and unofficial conversations open up.