Are visual images a universal language?
I thought “pictures” when I was asked to teach a special topics course during my Fulbright appointment in the Czech city of Brno in fall 2018. I deliberated and decided that a visually-oriented course would likely be better for all students to engage in, no matter their native language or country. I created the course, Visual Literacy in Mass Communication, which I taught to masters-level Erasmus students from five countries: Slovenia, Belgium, Germany, Spain, and the Czech Republic. Erasmus is an exchange program among European Union countries.
I arrived on campus right before classes started (due to a required Fulbright orientation program in Prague). It was then I learned that the students are normally good listeners but very shy about speaking in class or participating in discussions. I also was advised not to assign much reading. A long night was ahead, revising my syllabus to reflect this new reality. Once class started, my students confirmed that they understood spoken words better than written. So, I then adjusted to lecturing much more than usual. Luckily, having taught visual communication for years, I had lots of material to present.
The big surprise: my visual references of U.S.-based companies, corporate and political issues, and popular culture products didn’t always register with the students. However, I discovered it wasn’t due so much to a cross-cultural disconnect, but rather a generational disconnect. My examples needed a lot of explanation for events even in the near past. This is the perpetual task of the teacher—updating, and globalizing, material. However, the students clearly understood the lessons on visual theories (rhetoric, semiotics, metaphor, gestalt, etc.), and produced work that referenced their home countries or widely-known global issues.
One culture jam, for example, from Czech student Klara (above) subverted a political poster featuring the Czech prime minister of the ANO (“YES”) party. On the right side of the image, Klara substituted a photo of the PM’s son, and changed the wording to read “I vote YES, because then our children will not be ashamed.” This references a recent report that the PM’s son had been lured to Crimea and abducted to stop him from testifying about alleged criminal fraud in his father’s business dealings.
Another culture jam from Spanish student Silvia (above) comments on the NSA’s global reach and Google’s vast collection of personal data.
What serves as “public interest” communication?
This was the question the PR division of AEJMC (Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication) asked its members recently. Some corporate social responsibility communication (CSR) can be considered public interest communication if its primary purpose is to serve the public good. However, I found my answer in a nearby neighborhood called the “Brno Bronx.” The Museum of Romani Culture is in the middle of this Roma neighborhood. Reportedly, it’s the world’s only museum dedicated to communicating the history and culture of the Roma, from their origins in ancient India and their migration through Europe to present-day life in the Czech Republic. The Roma are also referred to as “gypsies” due to the erroneous belief they were originally from Egypt.
The Roma are the largest national minority population in the Czech Republic today—about 225,000. A 2015 report found that half of the Romani people here are socially excluded, living in restricted housing in ghettos and systematically segregated in “special” schools with low academic standards.
After experiencing the Romani museum several times, doing secondary research, talking with stakeholders, and doing some exploratory analysis of its website content and media reports, I believe the museum acts as a multi-dimensional, strategic, public communications device serving public interest. Its physical space in a former Roma ghetto provides the public with emotional experiences through still and moving images, sounds, artifacts, and storytelling. It also maintains an extensive research library and online digital platforms, an ambitious event schedule, and educational programs to help community children advance into better schools.
Do all of the museum’s efforts create positive attitude and behavior change? These are some of the research questions I’ll be focusing on when I return to the U.S. in January 2019