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Celebrating 20 Years of Growth: Communication and Development Studies at Ohio University
by Laura Newman

“There is a special significance in turning 20,” said first-year master’s student Lourdes Caballero in her opening remarks at the Communication and Development Studies 20th Anniversary Conference at Ohio University, in Athens on April 13, 2007. Reminiscing about her own 20th birthday, Caballero described it as an important time to reflect on one’s personal growth and maturity, on lessons learned and a renewed optimism for the future. These qualities, she said, are evident in the communication and development studies programme, which has grown in size and breadth over the years and has produced many notable practitioners and scholars.

At its inception, in 1987, the programme was meant to be highly focused, with a small, select clientele and would accept only five new students a year. “This was just one of the many miscalculations I have made over the years,” jokes one of the programme’s founders, Drew McDaniel. The program has tripled in size over the last two decades and has come to be seen as a major asset for its academic contributions to the university and for the diversity it brings to the greater Athens community.

The nature of the programme is such that it attracts students who already have worked as practitioners in the field. Some of the current students have worked for the United Nations or the World Bank, while others have led NGOs or directed community media projects. It is this range of professional skills, as well as the incredible cultural diversity, that makes the programme’s students one of the greatest assets of the program. In the words of the programme’s director, Rafael Obregon, both the tenure of the program and the conference itself were testaments to “the tremendous commitment the university has both to internationalism and to social change and development worldwide. From a small town in southeast Ohio we have been able to leave our mark in many places through our graduates and faculty.”

Silvio Waisbord also pointed to “the diversity of development communication issues and questions in the field and the great participation of students” as one of the most enjoyable aspects of the conference, which featured 13 panels with presentations from more than 50 academics and practitioners from the Africa, Asia Europe, Latin America and the United States. One of the key themes of the conference was the need for increased and improved communication between practitioners and academics in the field.

O.U. doctoral student Karen Greiner, who presented a paper titled “The Visual Rhetoric of Billionaires for Bush: Playful Satire as Protest,” spoke about the need for academics and practitioners to learn to make their work relevant to each other. The goal: Draw on each other’s experiences to improve their own work. Said Greiner, “The most frequentand, and, often, valid criticism offered to academics is that their work is tied up in the “‘Ivory Tower.” It is not grounded in the experience of the real people who experience real material, economic and social constraints.

On the other hand, one hears criticisms aimed at practitioners who are too busy in their day-to-day lives putting out fires and dealing with ‘real problems’ to be concerned with abstract theories and convoluted frameworks.”

Virginia Lacayo, an O.U. doctoral student and one of the creators of the successful Nicaraguan radio soap opera “Sexto Sentido,” largely agrees with this assessment, pointing to the irony that the NGO she once worked for didn’t learn about the concept of entertainment education until five years after they had already started using it. Herself a practitioner-turned-academic, Lacayo says that, “After having worked in the field for so many years and now understanding so much more about theories and the academic process, I can more clearly see the value of each field and how we are so dependent on each other to recognize that fact.” To this end, many attendees saw the conference as an effort to facilitate this dialogue. The first day’s events culminated in an experts panel featuring Srinivas Melkote of Bowling Green State University; Silvio Waisbord of the Academy for Educational Development; and Mandi Chikombero of O.U.

In contrast, Saturday ended with a practitioner’s panel that included Roberta Hilbrunner of United States Agency for International Aid. Speaking about some current challenges in the communication and development field, Waisbord elaborated on the need to “link theory and practice” further and to “use practice to inform research questions.”

The conference was also a unique experience in the sense that it was as participatory as the communication and development studies field itself, with numerous informal opportunities for students, practitioners, professors, and other experts to communicate and exchange ideas.

Most notable of these opportunities was an alumni dialogue session in which a diverse group of graduates discussed current challenges to the field and ways to improve the program; a breakfast meeting with the board members of the Communication for Social Change Consortium; a video conference with the University of the Philippines, Los Baños and a cultural event as students performed songs and dances from their home countries.

Melkote commented “the interest and the dedication of the students to the subject and practice of communication for social change was very heartening.” According to Rafael Obregon, “the conference contributed to projecting a sense of community for those who work in communication and development. To know that there are many people out there working on issues of common interest is quite important.”

Congratulations to Ohio University for its 20-year leadership in communication for development education.

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