From Oregon to Ghana and Back
Comm Program Chair Erik Palmer spent the 2019–20 academic year on sabbatical in West Africa
Just where was Erik Palmer last year? Instead of his usual gig serving as the Communication Program’s chair and teaching courses such as Strategic Social Media, Creative Industries and Design Thinking, Dr. Palmer completed a sabbatical year in Ghana, supported by a Fulbright award from the U.S. State Department.
Now back in his regular groove at SOU, Palmer reflects on his Fulbright experience with the help of recent Digital Cinema graduate Audrey Sliger, who conducted this interview.
How did you come to the decision to spend your sabbatical year in Ghana?
The original motivation was mostly personal. My wife pitched the idea that our family (including our 15-year-old daughter) should do something adventurous with my sabbatical opportunity, and that started us on the road to Ghana.
What drew you to apply for a Fulbright program?
Ghana was at the top of our list of possible destinations because I earned my Ph.D. at the University of Oregon, and the journalism school there has a long history of partnership with the University of Ghana. Two of my UO colleagues have also completed Fulbrights in Ghana (Leslie Steeves and Sung Park), and they were both extremely helpful as I connected with UG and assembled my application.
Most people interpret “sabbatical” as an easy break or recovery period, but the truth is that faculty on sabbatical are still doing scholarship and service that delivers value back to SOU. One benefit of the Fulbright Program is that it gives you a lot of structure and a lot of resources, so you don’t have to invent everything yourself, and that was really helpful for me.
The Fulbright is also very inspirational because it represents important higher values in scholarship and public service. Especially since I was working in the framework of journalism, I was honored to be able to promote values of democracy and press freedom in Ghana.
How was your experience teaching multimedia journalism at the University of Ghana?
Most overseas Fulbright scholars are assigned as lead instructors in courses at their host institutions, but I was fortunate to have co-teachers in all of my courses there. Those colleagues did a lot to help me navigate the cultural and organizational differences between UG and SOU.
As you can see in the photo, I was also able to provide a lot of one-on-one coaching for students during lab sessions, and go into the field with students and their cameras, and that really helped accelerate their learning.
How different is it teaching in Ghana compared to teaching at SOU?
Among the biggest differences, the program I taught in is a professional masters program. So all of the UG students already have their undergraduate degrees, and they have typically also completed one additional year of national service. Several of the students also have established careers, and even more years of additional experience. So it is generally an older student community, who arrive with a lot of direct focus on careers in the media.
It is also a very intensive program. The students are committed to classroom learning and lab sessions from 8:30am-5pm almost every day, and complete extensive homework and preparation outside of class. The curriculum includes a lot of skills courses such as print and broadcast journalism, and also a lot of theory and research courses. For the students, it’s very demanding and very competitive.
One important takeaway for SOU students: UG is one of the premier universities in Ghana, but SOU has far better production facilities and equipment. For example, when we teach Broadcast Journalism at SOU, we have access to a well-equipped studio, a tricaster, DSLR cameras, and other resources that are all in-line with industry standards at U.S. television stations and newspapers. Those resources are mostly not available to students in Ghana. All of our students and faculty in Ashland should feel blessed to have access to all the good stuff at the Digital Media Center.
If you can, elaborate a bit on the research you’re doing on photojournalism.
As students who have taken COMM460E — Visual Communication with me will know, one of my key research interests is doing content analysis to help understand the mix of strong photojournalism and other kinds of visual content produced by news organizations and distributed via social media.
That same interest guides my research in Ghana, but the landscape of photojournalism here is really very different from what we see in the United States. News organizations in Ghana mostly use photography to provide visibility to political leaders and other authority figures. It is much less common to see more complex forms of visual storytelling in the media there.
One might be tempted to suspect that the differences between Ghanaian and U.S. photojournalism happen because the Ghanaian media are less sophisticated or developed. But part of my learning there suggests that there are also cultural reasons for the differences, and that a contributing factor to how journalism works in Ghana is connected to different styles of communication.
In Ghana and elsewhere in Africa, a movement has recently emerged among photographers to promote an African Voice in photography. Exemplified by websites and social media channels such as @EverydayAfrica, these photographers seek to tell a more authentic version of daily life in Africa. They create images that do more than frame Africa as a continent of disease, famine, war and poverty. In addition to looking at content, I’ve been conducting interviews with Ghanaian photojournalists and documentary photographers to help better understand how they think about photojournalism, ethics, and African values.
Any other notable experiences or people you’d like to share?
It was totally unplanned, but I stumbled into a stellar subculture of comic book fandom in Ghana, especially including several fans affiliated with the online community @SquidMag. I hope to do more research on fandom in Africa, and also bring some of my insights regarding global fandom into my Winter term course COMM218 — Comics: Culture & Politics.
But my signature moment in Ghana might have been our field trip with students to visit the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, which is the national broadcaster there. The most common form of public transit in Ghana is an oversized van that seats about 25, with folding seats in the aisles, and the goal is always to fill every seat. So our trip to the GBC felt like an adventure to me, even though a raucous trotro ride is an everyday experience for most Ghanaians.
Interview by Audrey Sliger (@audreysliger), 2020 graduate in Digital Cinema at Southern Oregon University, currently a free-lance cinematographer and photographer in Southern California.