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.