Denby Weller: A Reflection on UCA

Date: 09 March 2020
Other languages: Русский язык |

This reflection was written by Denby Weller, Lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney (Australia), following a week-long visit to UCA in Naryn, where she conducted guest lectures for Communications and Media programme students, and held other trainings for UCA faculty and media representatives. The University of Technology Sydney is one of UCA’s academic partners, and is collaborating in curriculum development, exchange of faculty and students, sharing of teaching resources and strategies, joint conferences, seminars, and exhibitions.

Nestled in the mountains outside the city of Naryn, the UCA campus has been nicknamed the ‘yellow spaceship’ by the journalism students. The state-of-the-art facility is a surprise in such a remote setting, and when I arrived at nine-o-clock on a Sunday night, the first thing that struck me was the stunning, minimalist architecture. I remember reading once that good architects consider light to be one of their media, and it is certainly the case at UCA Naryn. Every space is bathed in warmth, with the stunning mountains around the campus framed by windows that literally stopped me in my tracks every day I was there. 

The following morning, I rose before dawn, donned some layers and went outside for my usual morning jog. The thin, cold air of the mountains thrilled me as the sky turned pink and the snow crunched under my shoes. Two kilometres from campus, I turned back, and watched as the yellow buildings grew larger and larger with each step. This was a special place, I knew. The week ahead would be nothing if not scenic. 

Sharing breakfast in the canteen with the students and faculty, I was surprised at how friendly everybody was. Students looked me in the eye, and said hello. A few asked me where I was from as we passed in the corridors, and everyone was quick to hold a door open or make way if I was in a rush. The faculty could not have been more welcoming. My stay was off to a good start.

On Monday, I team-taught a class with celebrated Australian journalist Lucy Palmer. The students surprised me with their exceptional English and deeply inquisitive minds. When I gave advice, they were quick to respond with a follow-up question, asking for further clarity or ensuring that they’d correctly understood the point. These were unusually confident and mature young people for first-year students, and I was also impressed with the journalism they were doing. A deep engagement with their respective communities in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Pakistan was evident. These students understood the essential nature of public interest journalism and its role in a healthy democracy. 

Later, I conducted a workshop for the faculty, bringing them the latest developments from Google’s global News Initiative, a programme designed to train journalists, journalism students and educators around the world in the tools of the modern journalist. From data visualisation to verification of photos and video, the workshop is a whirlwind introduction, and the faculty members proved a challenging and exciting audience to work with, interjecting with questions that kept me on my toes! The session was a great success, and was followed with a session focusing on my area of specialty, narrative multimedia journalism. 

In the TV studio, I took students through best-practice methods for field recording using UCA’s impressive array of cameras, audio recorders and top-end microphones. I was heartened to see the same equipment that is used in Australian newsrooms: these students are getting access to the exact gear they’ll be using in their professional lives. I know from my time in newsrooms how valuable it is to have experience on the gear: so often in news production, an executive producer hands you a camera and tells you to get out the door now. In this environment, getting the time to properly master the equipment is rare and valuable. 

On my return to Bishkek I had the pleasure to meet journalists from 18 news organisations, who came to another Google News Initiative workshop. It was my first time with a live translator. The facilities in Bishkek, as in Naryn, worked flawlessly, and we were able to cover a lot of ground in the 3-hour workshop. I hope the local journalists find the tools useful. The afternoon was lots of fun, and I would have loved to make half a day of it.  

The students and faculty at UCA’s Naryn campus have breathed new life into my work. As I sit on the plane on my way back to Sydney, finishing a chapter of the multimedia journalism textbook I’m writing, I think about the questions students asked during my last class. We were deep in a discussion about journalistic bias, and faces were serious with concentration. Lightbulbs were going on around the room as we looked at case studies with false equivalence, persuasive language and other telltale indicators of journalistic bias. One of the students stuck his hand up. “But so many journalists do this all the time!” he exclaimed. “Where is our place in the industry if we are upholding these higher standards?” 

At the top, I thought. I said: “You’ll work it out as you go along.”
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