Tara Brabazon: Global address system

An African postgraduate’s vision of a ‘Radio 2.0’ that brings communities together reminds Tara Brabazon that overseas students contribute far more to the UK academy than just tuition fees

March 24, 2010

In these difficult times, the financial survival of the British university sector depends on the fees paid by international students. This reliance on foreign scholars creates an uncomfortable dialogue between learning and funding, education and profit.

When I started teaching, there was a balance between the profound benefits given to the host university through the experiences of international scholars and the revenue stream generated through their presence. My worry is that when the sector is reliant on attracting international students for economic survival, the other great gifts they give our campuses and classrooms are displaced. When students are reduced to the fees they bring, then all who work in education are cheapened. To rewrite Oscar Wilde, fee departments in our universities may know the price of every degree, but ignore the value that students bring to international scholarship.

I am lucky. I teach in vibrant classrooms where students from around the world gather to understand themselves by understanding others. I feel privileged that for nearly 10 years at Murdoch University, I taught a course investigating cultural difference as its key topic. There was something powerful about teaching colonialism, nationalism, multiculturalism and biculturalism to students who had lived through injustice, inequality, discrimination, violence and fear. But even the privilege of running that course has been extended by the joy, laughter, resilience and energy I experience every day when teaching students in the MA in creative media. Over half of our group have joined us from elsewhere: Australia and Angola, Cyprus and Cameroon, Spain and Saudi Arabia, the US and Ireland. They make it a pleasure to go to work and bring revelation and innovation to my teaching life.

It is no surprise that these students are stretching and applying the research literature in unexpected ways. Their commitment and enthusiasm makes universities feel like they should: edgy, engaged, unpredictable and fizzing with potential.

One of the most extraordinary students I have taught in this degree programme is Maggie Wouapi. She came into my life last year as a mid-year entry scholar from the Republic of Cameroon. With English as her third language, she had worked in commercial radio in her home country. When she arrived in my office for a provisional meeting about the course – something that might more formally be called an interview – she expressed hope and ambition. She believed in the capacity of radio to change Cameroon and to provide new ways of disseminating the education she was about to receive. Through her coursework, she specialised in sonic media, participatory media production, community media and city imaging. She is now completing her dissertation, and her original goal is in sight. Maggie has decided to focus on the role and possibilities of podcasting in Cameroon: not as a top-down repackaging of commercial media, but as a grass-roots opportunity for women, children, young people and rural communities to construct, express and share a voice and views.

Maggie is one of many international students enrolled in the British university system. I am proud to work in a country where such an extraordinary woman can gain a master’s degree and use that knowledge to create a new way of thinking, listening and speaking in her home nation. In this article for Times Higher Education, I thought it timely to offer a reminder of how the education of one person can build a wider learning culture.

TB: Maggie, what made you decide to complete a postgraduate degree, and why did you decide to study in the UK?

MW: My desire to be part of this learning community in the UK was motivated by the language issue. I always told myself that speaking English is the key to making a pathway through the work environment and challenging barriers. When speaking a common language, we share a common culture.

The quality of the degrees is one reason why I decided to come to the UK to study, and most of my friends too. Before I arrived in this country, I did online research about studying and living here. I obtained advice through the internet from previous UK graduates. Having done that, I learned that postgraduate degrees aim to offer expertise in particular professional areas and can provide integrated portfolios to develop research skills and career goals.

TB: What was your professional background in Cameroon?

MW: In 2003, I started working in Nostalgie Radio in Cameroon, which is a branch of the Nostalgie Radio network within the well-established NRJ group in France. To further my skills, I joined the production team and focused on learning software. I moved from understanding the use of software and recording tools to the critical recognition that particular skills and knowledge are required from stakeholders, often termed media literacy. During this period I worked closely with communication agencies as a freelance PR assistant.

In August 2007, after training provided by Radio France Internationale, I achieved one of my ambitions by assisting a group of RFI radio experts with a study of community radio in Cameroon. After having participated in this research, observing the audience, I felt well prepared for further challenges and studies in the fields of media. Unexpectedly, that experience has armed me with greater knowledge of community engagement and during my courses here at the University of Brighton, I have explored community media.

TB: What were you hoping to achieve by the end of your master’s degree?

MW: Before I decided to be part of the creative media community of learners, I was looking forward to learning how to develop innovative media strategies and how to apply these to an urban and rural environment. I also wanted to understand how different media connect to different cultures and are used in creative praxis. I wanted to gain written and spoken communication skills at an MA level. I have found the right course. I truly feel that a placement on this course has helped me to develop new media skills, and prepare me for a new challenge in the creative industries.

TB: How many of those goals have you achieved? Have there been any surprises?

MW: There were so many surprises. I had high expectations from the university. I was not just looking forward to submitting my assignments and earning a postgraduate degree. I was looking for the course that met my personal and intellectual goals for growth. However, transitional issues for international students including myself involved writing assignments, academic research and managing time limitations, all of which I was not used to. I faced a new challenge like all of those who start a new degree in a new country, in a new academic system, studying in a new language for the first time.

Students who complete a postgraduate degree have to work with the resources available, such as computers and the library. We use new digital material when we conduct research, whether we are constructing a sonic artefact or doing video. I was also surprised by the video and audio podcasts, which present the voice of our lecturers and which are also used to gather evidence in our seminar. Our seminars are recorded; some of the recordings give a sense of classroom activities as the soundscape is captured. It is also available through our online environment, where distance-learning and on-campus students can interact in a forum and listen to each other’s discussion.

Through the learning process, I have improved my English-language skills, which has helped me to feel more confident with my environment and studies. For the master’s degree, the expectations are high. I have gained experience in applying a range of research methods, which I have used to investigate how social policy can transform the urban environment. I have gained literacies in content and contexts. I have learned how to manage my time when meeting deadlines. The MA in creative media has provided me with the capacity to understand and participate in debates about media literacy, the creative industries and cultural policy.

The big issue for me now is finishing the research process. And it’s about hard work, less sleep and taking medicine to treat headaches. You will tell me if I have reached the required written and spoken communication skills to achieve the MA degree.

TB: What is the topic of your dissertation?

MW: I am working to develop Radio 2.0 [laughs]. That sounds so unusual to me. I am very passionate to write about a project in which I truly believe.

I am writing a project about the multiple uses of podcasting internationally and focusing that research on African countries, using Cameroon as an example. While some critics think that podcasting is dead, I am going to find out if the podcast is the future of radio in Cameroon. My intention is to present my research results in different ways to suit different audiences.

TB: Why did you decide on this topic?

MW: It started as an idea of producing a radio magazine and analysing whether our listening processes are different when using a computer or mobile devices such as the iPod. I was interested in testing the idea that the content is influenced by its platform and surroundings. But as I was going through the modules, I observed the use of podcasts by traditional and new media organisations here in British institutions and others countries such as the US, New Zealand and Australia. We studied how sonic media are used by different groups. Blind media – sound-only media – are powerful tools that bring people together without any prejudices. Yet in Africa, what can we make? I started wondering if podcasting has value as a communication strategy for African institutions.

TB: What do you hope to do with the findings from this research?

MW: While disseminating research is an ethical obligation, many of the findings have multiple perspectives that will benefit other individuals and institutions in the field. I hope to share initial draft results with informants and incorporate their feedback to improve the utility of this research. I also believe that the findings from my research will be a credit not only to myself but will be part of wider social change.

I don’t know yet what I am going to find out at the end of this research. Podcasting cannot replace radio or any form of media platform. But I am sure that it can empower and enable communication in a new popular-culture environment, particularly in African countries. Podcasting is (post)radio. The content has the ability to move through space and time. It can be targeted at communities that would be too small for a commercial broadcaster. We can produce more content and we can do it differently.

I hope to take podcasting into Africa. Media in Africa can be improved, but what we learn can enhance the international environment for sonic media more generally. I want to take podcasting to the next level, using writing in my field as a foundation for future research and productions. I want to take the best of podcasting and latch that on to an African experience. International podcasting will be improved by finding ways to make it operate in different situations.

TB: What will be your best memory of your degree in the UK?

MW: Being taught by a tough scholar who is such an inspiration, and being part of a learning environment where terrorism, social prejudices and digital inequalities are challenged. I have classmates from different countries. And I am looking forward to meeting my distance-education classmates in person at the graduation.

Maggie gives me too much credit. She is a joyful, innovative and courageous woman who inspires me in every meeting I hold with her. She is part of a group of students who have created a learning community that captures the best of what a multicultural society can be. In each session, we are aware that the topics of our discussion will be applied, discussed and utilised around the world in ways not yet realised in the research literature.

We need these remarkable scholars, not only to keep our universities financially viable but to keep them socially robust. In the week that I interviewed Maggie for this piece, one of my neighbours started to “redecorate” his flat late at night. The style he chose owed very little to 60 Minute Makeover. He hung an enormous St George’s cross over the wall of his lounge room and tied smaller flags to the ceiling. Unsatisfied with his creation, he then painted “England” in large letters through the horizontal red stripe of the flag, just in case his guests missed the message. As my neighbour has not yet extended his residential improvement strategy to curtains, all visitors and inhabitants in the street must share his visual (and national) enthusiasm.

There are many ways to understand this form of home decoration. In 1987, Paul Gilroy published one of the landmark texts of cultural studies, There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation. This book captured the best of what cultural studies can be. It was rigorous and interdisciplinary but filled with righteous rage, scholarly insight and political relevance. We have lost much of that agitated anger and intellectual curiosity jutting from social confusion. While there ain’t no black in the Union Jack, there is even less in the St George’s cross. Through these extraordinary African students, we reclaim the possibility of creating a different colonial history in our present.

A former secretary-general of the United Nations described the education of girls and women as “the single highest-returning social investment in the world today”. After the credit crunch and melting mortgages, it is time to revisit investments that pay dividends. When I started a history degree at the University of Western Australia, my education was dismissed as a glorified finishing school for young women waiting for marriage. Those doubters were wrong. The great gift that universities give women is the realisation that learning continues through life. Our hopes, dreams and expectations must extend beyond a wedding ring and towards intellectual exploration and social equality.

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