Sneaking Into an Academic Papers Conference In Dresden

I snuck into the ICA Communications Research Conference being held in Dresden, Germany on Friday. Ok, “sneak” is probably too emotive a word — there was little security, it was an academic conference, after all (unlike the WEF where I ran past a guard and then played dumb).

I found out about the conference since the program/agenda brochure was left in an ATM I used to withdraw some cash. At first I thought it had to do networking technologies and routers but in fact it was all about “communications” the academic discipline, an area loaded with interesting stuff. Grad students and professors from all over the world were presenting papers on a range of topics from pop culture to blogging to journalism to gender and ethics.

Just my luck — there was one day left in the conference! So Friday morning I walked the 15 minutes from where I stayed in Dresden to the huge conference center (dozens and dozens of sessions/panels).

The first session I attended was titled “From Asia to the World: Globalization within and through Popular Communication.” The most interesting presenter was Tabassum Kham from Ohio State University whose paper “Self as a Social Construct: The Emergent Self in Bollywood Cinema” explored the pressure on Indians to reconcile divergent forces on their sense of self. On the one hand, Indian culture essentially provides you an identity since it’s largely blood-based. On the other hand, global cultural exports through media provide a different view of identity, one embraced by “symbolic interactionists“. This view says your identity and sense of self evolves through interactions and re-invention. Kham showed a clip of a Bollywood film (if you haven’t seen a Bollywood movie before you should, it’s a trip — think half foreign film dialogue and half MTV music video) which shows a teenager travel to London, experience the Western culture of evolving and fluid identiy, and then return to India where he struggles to adjust back to his native culture. (Btw, issues of identity are fascinating and I will post more on this after I read Appiah’s Ethics of Identity which is waiting for me at home.)

The second session I attended was titled “Preparing for the Participation Age” which covered what most of us in blogland have been writing and reading about for awhile: the tables are turning, consumers are becoming producers, etc etc. I walked out halfway through this. This is a topic the blogosophere covers better than academia!

Next I checked out “Popular Media and U.S. Ideologies of Progress, Capitalism, and Imperialism.” I caught the tail end of Michigan researcher Rossie Hutchinson present the paper “National Identity Remodeled: Being American on ‘Extreme Makeover: Home Edition’“. Though I’ve never seen the show, Hutchinson presented a fascinating critique of the show and how it evangelizes American values implicitly. It was a convincing argument. As much as we may like to dismiss many of America’s less sophisticated cultural exports as cheap, we cannot dismiss their significance as ideological containers (for better or for worse).

One other observation: although mass media tends to quote professors and students at the top few dozen universities in the country, this conference reminded me that there are hundreds and hundreds of quality state and lesser known universities worldwide which produce tons of useful scholarly output about topics which matter.

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