A Window of Opportunity: Reflections from a Fulbright Visiting Scholar

Usha Raman, Associate Professor and Chair of Communications, University of Hyderabad, India
2016-2017 Fulbright Visiting Scholar to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

As I write this, I am sitting in Mumbai airport waiting to board the last flight on this long journey home after a wonderful semester at MIT, my host institution for the Fulbright-Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence (FNAPE) fellowship. It hasn’t really been long enough to review my time and to take full stock of the impact of the experience, but it’s as good a time as any to begin reflecting. Tomorrow I will jump back into the thick of teaching in my department, and sooner than I know Cambridge will recede into the background.

I applied for the FNAPE with a couple of different motivations: one, to experience teaching health communication at the graduate level in an American institution, and two, to explore what has been a long-standing interest, that of interdisciplinary communication particularly in the area of technology for social change.

My interest in teaching found expression through a set of talks not only at MIT but at other institutions in the area—Emerson College in Boston and Hartford University in Hartford, Connecticut. The discussions following my presentations at both institutions were enriching and pushed me to think of my work in the social and cultural determinants of health as it applies across contexts. Students were curious not only about the topics I dealt with (covering health in a globalized world and ideas about beauty, fitness and health and media representations) but also about the specifics of the Indian media scene as it relates to the health industry.

At MIT, I was fortunate enough to be located within the Media Lab, a space that is in many ways a Mecca for those interested in digital media and its impact on the social world. The Comparative Media Studies department collaborates with the Media Lab on a research/teaching program called the Center for Civic Media, whose focus is on building technology for social change. Projects in this Center range from tools to analyze large swathes of cross media content (Media Cloud) to collaborative platforms for community engagement (Promise Tracker). I was able to sit in on a course taught by Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the Center, and also engage in a variety of conversations with researchers and developers to understand how collaborations worked to produce socially relevant technologies and civic tools. My regular participation at Civic Media meetings and my “embedding” within the Center afforded me insights that I will be unpacking over the next few months.

In addition to the central foci of my project, I found that just being in the intellectually rich environment of Cambridge, with its concentration of colleges and research centers, allowed access to talks, seminars and performances that were intellectually stimulating, and which have opened up new ideas that I am sure to follow up on. For instance, Harvard’s Nieman Center hosted a Pulitzer Centennial event where I was able to listen to such journalism greats as Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame) and Sasha Pfeiffer (of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team), as well as young activists like Jose Antonio Vargas.

I did not get to interact with other Fulbright scholars as much as I would have liked, but those I did meet, do hold the promise of enduring connection.

I have been blogging regularly about my Fulbright experience, reflecting on many aspects of my stay in Boston/Cambridge, my interactions on and off campus, and my reactions to specific national themes that dominated during this period.

For me, the Fulbright has been a window of opportunity—to new ways of thinking, to a reflective and ruminative space, to new friendships--and above all, an infusion of energy that I am sure will find productive expression in my teaching and research in India, over the coming months.