Getting to know… Charu Uppal
What are you currently working on?
There are a few projects I am working on, but two projects running simultaneously have grown bigger than I had anticipated. First, my foray into studying Indian diaspora in Fiji and how various media contribute to their Indo-Fijian identity now encompasses other countries. While it started because of my stay in Fiji, I have gathered data on Indian diaspora in four other countries.
Another project, which is a result of my interest in media and citizen mobilization, and started with my dissertation, has now become a larger project about expression of national and cultural identity on social media. While earlier the focus was on how mainstream media can help mobilize citizens, at present it is about citizens using social media to challenge narratives that mainstream media, both domestic and international, set. Both projects have identity and expression at the center, and both explore the connection between culture and definition of nation.
What has been your most memorable project so far, and why?
Hard to decide. But one idea that became an ongoing project for two years taught me much about the need for connecting classrooms to the real world. While using the UN model in International Communication classes, where each group had to study and represent one country throughout the semester, I realized that it would be fun to take advantage of being on the East Coast and plan a field trip to the UN headquarters in New York City. Arranging meetings and tours at the UN, followed by a talk by a UN official, transportation to the city and in the city required much work. But the change in how students viewed the course after the trip, made me stick to it for nearly four semesters.
Following the first trip, I also added an extra assignment to the class for which each group had to create a blue-print for an NGO (non-governmental organization), including how to gather funds, based on the examination of the country they represented. The submitted assignments pleasantly surprised me! A memorable one is the group representing Haiti, which created an NGO to educate, inform, and prepare citizens about natural disasters. I have many fun memories from that class. A group representing Malawi showed up in traditional Malawian outfits for their presentation, and of course the group representing the US brought apple pies from McDonald’s to the class to demonstrate how often we all participate in what we critique.
Which achievement are you most proud of, and why?
While research and publications are what we academics are mostly evaluated on, teaching is very dear to me. So when my students in Sweden nominated me this year for the best teacher award, it felt like a real honor!
What is an important question from parents and practitioners that we as academics cannot provide a good answer to yet?
How to manage media (especially screen) time and exposure for people of all age groups, but especially for children, since habits formed in formative years shape our adult lives.
What would be your work motto?
Publish and present—but do not forget that universities exist because there are students who want to learn. Their classroom experience should be enriched by our research and life experience.
Which of your publications is your favorite, and why?
I would like to say that I am still working on it! But for the sake of this question, there is an interesting story that I can share. There is this paper that resulted from a combination of teaching international communication and living in countries with varying degrees of development. It came from a truly lived experience of trying to understand how many traditional top-down approaches just ended up re-creating or worsening the problems that they intended to solve.
The paper that was written in Fiji got rejected when submitted to a journal. Disappointed that the model I suggested did not seem to work, I forgot about it. But teaching development-related courses in Sweden, a country that funds several development projects, made me revisit the paper. Conversations with two other colleagues –Paola Sartoretto from Brazil and David Cheruiyot from Kenya– helped me get to the substantive aspects of the theoretical concept that I had been working on.
The paper was then re-written with examples from Brazil and Kenya, and won a best paper award at ICA. The paper, entitled The Case for Communication Rights: A rights based approach to media development, is soon going to be published in Global Media and Communication. Never give up on ideas that you believe in, no matter how long it takes!
I also want to briefly share, since Sofie mentioned it, that the Disney project funded by Internationales Zentralinstitut für das Jugend- und Bildungsfernsehen (IZI), and conducted in collaboration with Diana Nastasia, was an eye opener. We interviewed girls between 8-15 in four countries, and found that Disney princesses were not always received without criticism, especially in non-Western countries (Fiji, India, China). Girls, though very young, were clear that they did not want to be a princess, because it “meant a lot of work and responsibility,” although some of them did express a desire to be “lighter in skin.”
If you had unlimited resources, what kind of project would you want to do and why?
There’s never one you know! I will share one of them though. My heart’s desire is to bring together rural and urban children in their understanding of environment, tradition, culture, and language. It is my belief that rural populations in most countries not only live closer to nature and tradition but also can be quite diverse compared to their urban counterparts, where trend is towards homogenization and mainstreaming.
A way of bringing rural and urban children together would mean allowing them to teach each other, while learning about diversity in their own countries. For years I have thought of starting a magazine with content created from interaction between rural and urban children on various topics. This could potentially generate many ideas on de-colonization, culture rooted in geography and ways of resisting homogenization of culture. It could also lead to longitudinal studies and reveal many interesting stories worthy of documentaries and films!
And, finally, I would really like to design and conduct a study on how technology influences our perception of social relationships. Especially how digital innocents (i.e., those who have never used computers), digital migrants, and digital natives perceive social relationships. The number of digital innocents and migrants is fast diminishing, so this is the time to do the study!
If you had to give one piece of advice to young CAM scholars, what would it be?
Best research projects lie in the questions that we ask ourselves every day. These questions return to us repeatedly and demand our attention. Those are the issues we are likely to pursue with passion, with or without funding.
Who would you like to put in the spotlight next, and why?
I would like to spotlight Yael Warshel from Penn State University, where she leads a Rock Ethics Institute initiative about children, media, and conflict. I would love to hear more about her work with children in conflict zones. I would also like to know if she incorporates her love for photography into research.
To download a copy of this edition of CAMmer in the spotlight click here.