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Connecting across Hemispheres in Media Studies
Though our students live on different continents, Kate Bowles (University of Wollongong–Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia) and I (Northern Arizona University–Flagstaff, Arizona, United States of America) teach media studies courses together. We create opportunities for virtual exchange that enable students to share their daily lives, media experiences, and place-based perspectives with peers on the other side of the world. While international travel is invaluable for undergraduates, study abroad is not always feasible for students due to family and work commitments. Our course provides a low-cost way for our place-bound students to form international connections: while 7,800 miles and a seventeen-hour time difference separate our classrooms, our collaborative teaching requires little to no additional monetary support. Thanks to inexpensive and easily accessible online technologies, our students are able to participate in virtual exchanges that help them understand globalized media and broaden their perspectives.
Kate and I began teaching together as a result of an academic disagreement. As cinema scholars working in the field of communication who share similar research interests, Kate and I had different views of the current well-being of cinema going. To resolve our dispute, we formed an international undergraduate research group and conducted field studies at local cinemas. In 2009, students working with us as independent researchers conducted ethnographic observations at movie theaters in Wollongong and Flagstaff. They observed rituals of cinema going and how audiences interacted with one another before, during, and after the movie; reflected on their own movie-going habits; and made observations about the theaters they visited and the areas where they were located.
Our research findings confirmed both Kate’s and my suspicions. Cinema going does seem to be dying in Wollongong, but it is fairly healthy in Flagstaff. My students discovered that while commercial cinema is not entirely vital in their community, non-commercial cinema events such as the university’s various series on classic, international, and Native American film are helping to create a dynamic cinema environment. In contrast, Kate’s students discovered that there are no viable alternatives to mainstream commercial theaters in Wollongong. Our research enabled us to reflect on the ways cinema promotes social cohesion and community identity.
The success of this first collaboration led Kate and me to develop the course we now teach together: Popular Australian and US Film in Everyday Life. The course focuses on contemporary media practices, the relationship between Hollywood and the Australian film industry, and the cultural and economic implications of globalized media.
Technology and Logistics
Unsurprisingly, teaching a course across hemispheres involves logistical challenges. Scheduling is complicated, because our semesters are not synchronized: students are always surprised to discover that half the class is enjoying the last of their summer vacation on the beach while the other half is beginning a new semester in the dead of winter. The seventeen-hour time difference also requires careful scheduling so our classes can connect in real time using Skype, Ning, Facebook, and Twitter.
These inexpensive and user-friendly technologies enable Kate and me to communicate easily and effectively with one another. We do most of our planning using Skype, a free videoconferencing tool, and we also use Skype to conduct cross-class conversations several times during the semester. We use Ning, an online social networking site, for most student collaborations that take place outside of class. Kate and I guide weekly written discussions on Ning, and students post field notes, communicate research findings, and exchange ideas about what they are learning. They also share their lives: at the beginning of the course, students introduce themselves by posting photographs and videos of their hometowns and their work and media spaces.
Critiquing Global Hegemony
While media technologies enable our students to get to know and learn from one another, these technologies are also a subject of scrutiny and analysis in our classrooms. Students keep track of their media habits by maintaining a media diary for a week, and they are usually surprised to discover the number of hours they and their international peers spend looking at Facebook, playing videogames, and watching movies and television. When comparing their media diaries on Ning, the Australian and American students find that they share nearly identical media habits and practices. However, media piracy tends to be more common among the Australian students because Australia does not have Netflix or a similar service, and release dates for movies and music are months later in Australia than in the United States.
Our Ning exchanges about illegal downloading open the door for subsequent discussions about the power of Hollywood and its impact on Australian popular culture. Students are delighted and surprised to learn that they share a nearly identical cinematic canon consisting mostly of Hollywood movies. It is a compelling lesson in cultural hegemony when our students realize that Hollywood is, in effect, the national cinema of both the United States and Australia. The Wollongong students, like most Australians, watch far more American movies than Australian ones. In 2011, for example, American-made films comprised 81.8 percent of the total Australian box office, while Australian movies grossed only 3.9 percent of it (Screen Australia 2012).
These lessons in Hollywood’s global dominance are intensified when the American students confess, during their Ning exchanges, that they know little about Australian film. Their Australian counterparts tell them not to worry—they don’t know much about it, either. When our conversations turn to the struggling Australian film industry, all of our students must wrestle with the cultural, ethical, and economic implications of their beloved Hollywood’s global power. In small groups, students work for several weeks to create proposals for an Australian film festival for American audiences. They use Facebook and Twitter, their preferred modes of communication, to work together across continents on their festival proposals.
Challenging Students’ Assumptions
To help both Australian and American students understand the challenges and minor international triumphs of the Australian film industry, we watch contemporary Australian movies such as Red Dog (2011) and The Sapphires (2012). These films enable us to analyze the objectives of the Australian film industry, which avoids competing directly with Hollywood by producing movies that are uniquely Australian, particularly in their geography. For example, the Australian Outback is featured prominently in many Australian films, including Red Dog.
After watching Red Dog, our class has a Skype discussion about the film. The first time Kate and I showed the film and asked students if they identified with its geography, we were astonished to discover that none of the Wollongong students had been to the Outback. They explained that their lives were oriented toward the ocean, and they had no relationship at all to the desert. In contrast, many of the Flagstaff students grew up in the Arizona desert and identified entirely with the film’s setting, which looked just like home to them. Thus our Skype conversation about this popular Australian movie and regional identity helped all of us expand our understanding of “home and away”—core concepts that are critical for gaining international experience and perspective.
Preparing Future Professionals
Kate and I feel fortunate that we are able to provide our students with a rich virtual international experience. With the aid of inexpensive and accessible online tools, our students have the opportunity to exchange ideas, share their daily lives, and analyze the cultural and economic consequences of globalization. Our students are excited to conduct international research and collaborate with peers who live on the other side of the world. They also recognize that as soon-to-be media professionals, they are now more prepared to work in an international business environment and to critically navigate our interconnected world.
Screen Australia. 2012. “Did You Know? Australian Films on Australian Screens, a Statistical Snapshot.” http://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/news_and_events/bulletins/didyouknow/2012/01jan12.aspx.
Janna Jones is professor of communication at Northern Arizona University.