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Examining the media culture of study abroad

“As a film and media studies scholar, I recognized that there were important conversations that needed to take place [about study abroad] that weren’t happening,” says Professor Kelly Hankin, shown here visiting Rome.

According to the United States Department of State, approximately one in 10 undergraduate students will study abroad during their academic career. In her new book, Documenting the American Student Abroad: The Media Cultures of International Education (Rutgers University Press, 2021), University of Redlands Professor of Film Studies Kelly Hankin explores the documentary media cultures that shape the understanding of study abroad experiences. Katie Olson of the Bulldog Blog spoke with Hankin about the importance of media literacy and productive documentary art, as well as the future of international academic travel after the COVID-19 pandemic.

BB: What made you decide to write Documenting the American Student Abroad? Did you see a need?

Hankin: In all of my work—and I think this is true for many scholars—there's a passion or a personal connection, something that drives you to study the things you do. My life as a professor at the University of Redlands was the catalyst for this project. I went to a large state institution as an undergraduate student, and I didn’t know about study abroad because it wasn’t something widely promoted at the time. But at the University of Redlands, we encourage our students to study abroad. This in turn has made study abroad discourses central to my life as an advisor, leading it to become central to my life as a scholar.

In terms of a need, I saw a large gap to fill as a media scholar. In general, contributions to the field of study abroad come from the social sciences, higher education, administration, or language study, and these contributions are often data and survey driven. We are lucky to have one such scholar on our campus—Psychology Professor Susan Goldstein—who has contributed valuable studies not only to the field but also to our campus. Still, apart from some important historical work, there is a dearth of humanities-based contributions to the field. As a film and media studies scholar, I recognized that there were important conversations that needed to take place that weren’t happening. I wanted to bring that perspective to the subject of study abroad.

I also wanted to bring a critical media study lens to the ingrained beliefs about international education. There are a lot of truisms about the practice of study abroad—that it's transformative, that it will magically turn us into global citizens, that long term cultural immersion is better than short term travel. I became interested in thinking about these concepts in relation to study abroad images and media and, in doing so, noticed the disjuncture between the rhetoric and the representation of the experience. That was the path forward for me, and it opened up so many different avenues of scholarly exploration and challenged my own thinking.

BB: In the book, you use the term "humanities-based intervention." What do you mean by that?

Hankin: Because my work looks at film and media texts—it reveals something that data-driven, interview-based studies or best practice studies aren’t necessarily focusing on, namely, the ways in which key beliefs about study abroad are shaped in contradictory ways through their representation. In particular, my film and media scholarship shows how longstanding and culturally ingrained forms of documentary media--from home movies and travelogues to reality television and docudrama—are actually defining what study abroad is and what it looks like for students. This is entirely new terrain in the field of study abroad, and I believe that it demonstrates the important role that the humanities can play in understanding, interpreting, and challenging our personal and professional practices. 

BB: What other media artifacts do you examine in the book?

Hankin: In approaching the book, I wanted to ensure that I focused on media produced by all of the stakeholders in study abroad, from students and vendors to thought leaders and the U.S. government. This led me to focus on an interesting array of media. I examine vlogs produced by students that detail experiences before, during, and after their trips—from packing, to living abroad, to what it means to “be home.” I also explore the now ubiquitous and quite dubious study abroad “video contest,” which the study abroad industry has capitalized on for self-promotion. The book also includes a chapter on an educational documentary about intercultural communication that I examine in the context of reality television discourses, as well as a chapter on an FBI documentary about the dangers of student global spycraft. And, of course, I couldn’t write about the media culture of study abroad without looking at the media around Amanda Knox, who arguably had the most infamous study abroad experience.  

BB: What stance are you taking through your research?

Hankin: I am a loyal critic. I love study abroad. I love championing study abroad. I got to experience my first study abroad experience when I was teaching in Salzburg in 2016. But while I'm an advocate, the book is really a critique on a number of levels. First, for a variety of reasons, the field lacks the ability to fully understand the ways in which its own values are often undermined by its media practices. For example, vendors hosting video contests promote visual material that is often at odds with their rhetoric. Students looking for examples of study abroad experiences online will see industry-backed award-winning videos of students in full-on holiday mode—jumping in the ocean, on speedboats, or horseback riding. That's not necessarily what study abroad is all about—or should be all about. There’s a tendency to visually promote a version of a student who has global mobility that is entitled, unchecked, and empowered for the wrong reasons. We need to help students and study abroad practitioners understand the meaning of the images they produce. Otherwise, the industry will continue to promote study abroad as if it’s a spring break holiday.  

BB: Were you able to have any of those media literacy conversations with students when you traveled with them to Salzburg in 2016?

Hankin: That trip was at the very beginning of my research. I taught a course called Travel, Tourism, and The Moving Image, which was really a beta test for my argument in the book. However, while I was teaching about the historical and ideological relationship between travel and media-making and tourism, I wasn't focused on having students create their own images. As a result, I would redesign the course because the best way for students to understand, learn, and really think about what they’re making is to go abroad and explore with a camera themselves. Hopefully, I will get a chance to teach in Salzburg again.

BB: Are there are any media that represent the study abroad experience in productive ways?

Hankin: The vlogs by students of color, particularly Black students, are really interesting and serve as what I call “necessary media.”  Study abroad is very white, female, and able-bodied, and Black students are often marginalized. Through vlogs, Black students are sharing what it means to be students of color studying abroad, providing all sorts of tips for other students without reducing themselves solely to their racial identities. In the process, they become teachers and mentors to students who hope to study abroad in the future.

BB: Has the COVID-19 pandemic influenced your thoughts on this topic?

Hankin: I would argue the evacuation of students from a country they were studying in was a truly global experience. It was a moment of realization for a lot of people that they are not citizens of the world just because we—the industry, universities, professors—say they are. This is what it means not to be entitled to the globe for the sake of entertainment and consumption. Many students left new friends and were involved in travel chaos, which is the reality of global mobility for many people. I hope that, in the future, we’ll be able to have more conversations about what it means to be able—or unable—to travel wherever we want. While it’s not a pleasant lesson to learn, it’s an incredibly important one.

BB: With the combination of a pandemic, media, and study abroad, what is your hope for the future?

Hankin: On an industry level, it's a great opportunity for the field to reset and think about what we want our students to get out of study abroad. On a personal level, I’m hopeful that I can be a part of new conversations about, and even trainings for, visual literacy in the field. Writing the book was time-consuming, and I neither had the time nor bandwidth to bring these conversations to a larger audience. But I’m excited to do that, and hopefully can do so in person soon. Like our students, I’m eager to get back into the world.

Learn more about study away or the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies.