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Cosmopolitanising Journalism, Media, and Communication Education

The final ANZCA 2017 keynote is by Wanning Sun, who continues our focus on China. She begins by highlighting the challenges that journalism, media, and communication educators are now facing in teaching an increasingly international cohort of students – many of whom, in the Australian context, come from China: how should they present the global media environment and its central issues, including questions such as freedom of speech and media bias, to such a diverse group of students?

The key problem facing international students, to begin with, is a lack of English proficiency, and this is still pronounced especially for Chinese students; they often have trouble working through English-language scholarly materials as well as to express their own perspectives effectively, and their own cultural upbringing further leads them to remain quiet and refrain from participating fully in group discussions and assignments. This is alienating for Chinese students, and in turn leads to disengagement by their non-Chinese peers.

More generally, too, universities often admit overseas students without adequate research skills; this is related to language proficiency, but goes well beyond that issue. The requirements of scholarly argument and substantiation are not necessarily well understood, and students have difficulty finding the resources that would support their perspectives. Arguably, this is a great deal more pronounced for overseas students in journalism, media, and communication than for students in science and technology disciplines.

But also, how will students put these skills to practice when they return to their countries of origin? If Chinese students learn here how to read the ideological biases of media reporting, what us is this once they return to China where the processes of agenda-setting and news framing by state authorities are fairly obvious and well-understood? This is a question that seems to be on the mind of many educators around Australia as they engage with students from China. They have benefitted economically from a growing influx of Chinese students, but feel that they are not yet adequate catering to thse students' needs; the Australian paradigm of journalism taught here does not necessarily serve these students well once they return home.

This is a challenge of theory and methodology, not just language proficiency. Should western journalism theories be taught as universally applicable, or as historically and culturally contingent? Are there other, alternative theories to be added to the curriculum in order to offer a broader set of perspectives? Is the old approach of including one or two token weeks on 'Asia' or other international perspectives sufficient, or can global perspectives be incorporated more fully throughout the curriculum? Can the knowledge and opinions of international students be harnessed more effectively, too?

How do international students themselves think of this? One response from them is apathy; they take whatever is on offer simply so they can pass their exams and get their degrees. Another is quiet frustration, and this may be common especially amongst Chinese students. Third, some students do speak up, but the lack of critical language on the side of both domestic and international students makes it difficult to have any effective discussion about these issues. None of this is made easier by an understanding of university education as a vocationally oriented commercial service that ends with the award of a degree, of course, which limits students' deep engagement in the concepts and theories they encounter.

Staff might respond to the by articulating more clearly what they offer, how that body of knowledge has been constructed, and what its future benefits to the student may be; additionally, they might also encourage international students to reflect more fully on their own backgrounds (for instance in authoritarian regimes), and to think about how they might change the situation once they return home. But again, some students might just be doing their degrees out of a sense of obligation to their parents, with little commitment to the subject matter.

What might be necessary here, in the end, is a cosmopolitanisation of journalism, media, and communication studies – developing a more cosmopolitan sensibility in all students (domestic as well as international); enabling them to understand their own media studies paradigms as historically and socially specific; and developing a habit of curiosity about different paradigms and the factors that have motivated their development. But this also means that we get serious ourselves about our own cosmopolitanism; we might be more advanced here in our research than in our teaching, and it is time to bring our teaching up to speed as well. This is hard work, but the outcome is rewarding for both students and teachers.

But this also needs to work against prevailing popular stereotypes about international, and especially Chinese, students in the Australian media. Chinese students in Australia are often described as state-controlled, yet these same students are also highly adept at circumventing the Great Firewall and other communicative restrictions, at reading the hidden political messages encoded into apparently innocuous statements, and at detecting ideologically driven distortions in Chinese state media. They do also employ such skills in their reading of western media, of course, and are well versed at identifying biases in those media outlets' coverage – especially of China itself.

To simply brand these students as stooges of the Chinese regime, as some domestic students as well as teachers do, is to do them a disservice, and denies them their personal agency; it is important to work against such stereotypes and develop a better understanding of these students' personal attitudes. There is, in particular, a need to move beyond highly emotionalised debates, and teachers are especially called upon to foster more constructive dialogue within and beyond the classroom. This starts with a better recognition of the distinction between official state ideology and individual feelings of patriotism, just as Chinese and other international students need to recognise that there is no one government or media ideology, but a complex, pluralist set of competing views and attitudes.

These issues also provide a fertile ground for stimulating intellectual exchange, then; we may be facing a kind of crisis in our teaching, and need to acknowledge this, but this also enables us to plot a course forward and find constructive solutions to that crisis. This can provide all of us with a greater capacity for understanding people from different backgrounds and engaging with them more effectively.

The challenge is to build this centrally into teaching practices, and not just to reflect on it in our research: how do we design learning outcomes that cultivate a cosmopolitan sensibility; how do we foreground objects of study from outside the western context; how do we conduct diverse and welcoming classroom activities; and how do we design assessment tasks that do not privilege particular media systems and practices?