Notes from the classroom: The importance of being there

The 17 UN Global Development Goals 2015 – 2030

A lecture with my international students sums up this week, for me. I teach a course in global political communication. I have about eight different nationalities in my class. And this week we were to talk about how the international media frame and cultivate the theme of “global survival issues”; like poverty, climate change, ethnic class division and locked-in despair. Does it matter how the news media report on these challenges? Europe is on fire with refugee challenges. We all sort of tend to circumvent the real issue which is simple to state and which is now staring us i the face: A growing lack of accountability in global politics. According to the political scientist David Held in his book on Cosmopolitanism from 2010, this is a major concern. We see it not only in the question of migration across borders, but also in the management of global financial crises, climate change, rising poverty and other areas. This was our theme.

2013TitleMap-GDSBut what does media coverage have to do with this? One answer is that the global media are a part of that system of accountability. It would be too easy to ridicule media coverage generally. It would be unfair. But underneath the concern raised by David Held, there is perhaps that challenge to seriously consider how a lacking global system of political accountability is also an aspect of a very fragmented global public sphere?

Notes from the classroom

Most of my Norwegian students took the week off – after all, it’s been a full month since summer vacation. So here I was, with the international group in my bachelor class, expecting we would do the full group work session only to find that 65% of my students were missing. Anyway, the students who were in fact there, had an interesting class reflection on one of this week’s most important events — the United Nations launching of the Global Development Goals 2015-2030. I won’t go into the details about the theme. Just click the link.

As always during fall semesters when my course in political communication happens, I am on the alert for international issues of relevance to our themes and lectures. This week, there were two such issues. The first of these was the actual video from the launching of the new Development Goals. Here is that link. Just click the video or watch it here in my blogpost. It is an interesting exposé on Public Relations.

My students had been asked to review it before the lecture. Only a few of them had, and it continues to baffle me how passive students are today. How do you engage them in things that matter? I work my tails off to give them the best. I never give the same lecture twice. But how can I make more of my students come to class better prepared? How do you do that? There is a distinct sense that my foreign students are much more serious on preparation than my Norwegian ones. Now, why is that?

Two videos in class

Anyway, as we watched the video again in class, I asked: How many celebrities can you spot in this 2- minute video? And what situations can you remember where non-celebrities were the voice? What about the colours? What about the statements that everyone gives – do you believe them? Is this a worthwhile video presenting the UN Sustainable Development Goals? In short: Can you provide a critique – – there in class? How should we think?

From this I learned two things:

1) My students know a lot more about contemporary celebrities than I do. They pointed out all of them, and with ease. And as they watched, I had the sense that questions started to mount: What is the purpose behind launching such an important issue with a PR-studded video? This is a 2-minute video where all the stops have been taken out: The messages is pounded in — one celebrity at a time presenting all the 17 UN Global Development Goals. It’s a “yes, we can”, video. A “feel-good” punch in the face.

It works, at some level. Yet, it creates a distance, as well. We have seen it all before. Who is behind it? How does it reflect back in the United Nations?

This is where my students began a really, really interesting discussion in class — about the PR-interests and the reasons why the UN is launching the campaign. 17 worthwhile goals, for the next 15 years. To join the world together, no one left behind — and so on.

2) However, not more than a couple of them could spot the immediate likeness between this video and another one that most of my generation would take at an instance: In 1985, we had the classic “We Are The World”. In that one, as in the current one, we’re listening to a song described by one student as “giving me goose bumps” and another as “I want to throw up”. A number of celebrity artists joined forces under the directorship of Quincy Jones to produce a song that was on everyone’s lips, for a long time.

Is this all the UN has to offer — we discussed? Then I took them to a website. This one. There are others, but this is one of the websites where they can actually study the UN Global Development Goals. All of a sudden our class was not only about books, but about a living issue unfolding in this particular week.

That is the sort of class I like to teach.

YouTube and the significance of social media

In 1985 we had no YouTube and social media, but even so “We Are The World” went viral and was played all over the world — displaying the simple fact that musicians are generally decent people, wanting to make a difference and appreciating an opportunity for PR when they see one. What political statement is it, if it is one? Students ought to be able to ask such questions. The world is full of “pseudo politics”. We are os used to it that we never stop to ask.

Here is that other video – with all the heroes from the 1980’s;

What is the relevance of all this for a course in political communication? Clearly, this is the face of globalised political communication. But where does culture end, and politics begin? We don’t go to Town Hall meetings like our grandparents did. We don’t join political parties. We may join a Facebook Group, but that’s about it for most people. So does that make us politically passive? Not so, I think. And how does it all relate to the UN Global Development Goals 2015 – 2013?

The story that we developed in class comes more into the clearing if we also include the other video that we watched – Barack Obama’s UN Address this past Monday. Here it is:

The contrast between these two videos is where politics meets culture. In everything that I do in this course, I seek to install in my students that yesterday’s classic wisdom on what is politics and what is not, no longer is sufficient to give us the complete story.

These are such momentous moments in the globalisation of political communication that we ought to take notice. I make no attempt to hide my fascination with Barack Obama: Basically, I am fascinated by the sensation that he is actually earnest. How many world political leaders can you say that about?

About David Held

For this week, we were reading the excellent political scientist and sociologist David Held, who wrote about “the Cosmopolitan Challenge” in a book from 2010. And you can find a good review of that book on this link: David Held.

Global society lacks globally accountable institutions for doing the sort of things that the UN and PR guys keep glossing over. When the US president talks like he did, we ought to listen – simply because no other nation-state on this planet is even close to being able to mount a global defence against disaster — except the US. Hard as it may be to admit for some; Obama is what we have, and for anyone to begin teaching students about the realities of global political communication dealing with “survival issues”, the question is simple:

How does one move beyond superficial rhetoric – the stuff that the media love – to very hard challenge of changing the world by actually addressing the problem: Lacking global institutions with a mandate to to fix. Politics is to a large extent an aspect of nation-states and their arenas, he says. But today’s most pressing challenges are global.

65 % of my students were on vacation.





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