Walter Benjamin Kolleg


Visualizing “Diversity” in Higher Education: Looking Beyond the Image

Short description 

This transdisciplinary, collaborative platform will bring together on two occasions a range of established and emerging scholars interested in exploring the intersection of visual regimes and gender norms in the context of universities’ institutionalized diversity discourse. We envisage this collaboration as a form of engaged or “action” research with direct and immediate application. 

Project and schedule

This platform conceives of diversity in the broadest, most inclusive terms. In particular, however, we are concerned with the representation of women, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, and people from less advantaged ethnic, national, or economic backgrounds.
We will organize two one-day exploratory workshops for mapping a larger project which examines and compares how universities visually represent matters of social-cultural diversity (aka Vielfältigkeit). The project will bring together at least three scholarly domains: discourse studies, gender studies, and media studies. Our initial focus will be on practices at the University of Bern, turning then to other Swiss, regional and international universities. At this initial, exploratory phase, we want to bring together professorial and junior scholars from two academic institutes, as well as a representative from a central-administrative division, and a leading expert in visual communication from another European university. See list of collaborators below. Then, we will organize two one-day exploratory workshops: The first workshop is timetabled for autumn 2018, then a follow-up meeting in spring 2019. Central to the success of these workshops will be the participation of our external collaborator/expert, Prof. Dr. Giorgia Aiello from the University of Leeds: 

Prof. Dr. Giorgia Aiello

PhD, U Washington, USA; MA U Bologna, Italy

Based in the School of Media and Communication, Professor Aiello’s research focuses on the politics of visual, multimodal and material communication. She is especially interested in how social, cultural and political identities are formed, how both difference and diversity are negotiated, and how inequalities are maintained or overcome through digital imagery, the urban built environment, design, branding, material culture, and everyday lifestyles. Her research privileges a critical perspective on issues of cultural production, with an interdisciplinary approach rooted in social semiotics, cultural sociology and cultural studies. From 2011 to 2015, her research project “Globalization, Visual Communication, Difference” was supported by a European Commission Marie Curie grant. 

The involvement of junior researchers has, we believe, both professional and empirical benefits; not only are we seeking to support the intellectual development of young scholars, but their insights as a primary audience (or “customers”) of the university’s institutional communications is very valuable. Besides, each of the for young scholars we identify here brings a record of their own academic and methodological experience in the area.
With a strong commitment to what is increasingly referred to as “impact” or “knowledge transfer”, we anticipate both scholarly and applied outcomes for the project – and for the workshops themselves. For all its intellectual and “global” significance, this collaborative venture will likewise have practical, local relevance. In fact, we expect the exploratory workshops themselves to be inherently and immediately productive. 

Research background 

While our starting point is local practice, using the University of Bern as both a pilot study and a case-study, the issues at stake are global in their reach and far-reaching in their cultural politics. Like corporations, universities are everywhere positioning themselves as internationalized and diversified (see, for example: Universities, UK – “Inclusion, equality and diversity”; Association of American Colleges & Universities – “Diversity, Equity, & Inclusive Excellence”). These initiatives are inevitably shaped by the fraught interplay of good intentions and commercial imperatives (see Hearn, 2015; Thurlow, 2015). Often institutional efforts to address diversity and to include marginalized groups end up being little more than tokenistic acts of containment (Ferguson, 2008). 
The University of Bern finds itself inevitably caught up or competing in these global-scale practices and cultural political agendas, although its local priorities continue to be focused on gender diversity and issues of material/representational equality for women (see, for example, Fankhauser & Anderegg, 2017). It is for this reason that we ourselves will start by focusing on the visualization of gender diversity but with a parallel attention to the representation of racial/ethnic diversity, class and economic background, disability, age, national origin and sexuality. 
            A seemingly old-fashioned focus on issues of representation is key here, because the promotion of diversity has become increasingly central to globalizing visual genres such as stock photography and logos, which are typically linked to corporate branding (Aiello & Woodhouse, 2016; Aiello, 2017). As key principles of branding such as immediacy and simplicity are recontextualized into institutional contexts like higher education or even national or supranational politics, diversity is often stylized – reduced to a limited set of distinctive yet bland if not stereotypical features (Aiello, 2012). The social and cultural differences that set apart universities’ individuals and communities are therefore a kind of symbolic currency which, however, must be managed and regulated in the service of promotional communication, and hence also ‘cleansed’ from some of its least commercially appealing traits (cf O’Halloran at al., 2015; Ledin & Machin, 2015, for recent discourse analytic and social semiotic critiques). 


In the Faculty of Humanities at UniBe 

Prof. Dr. Patricia Purtschert
Interdisciplinary Center for Gender Studies, Co-President, Equality Commission, Faculty of Humanities 
The relation between representation, power and differences have been central to Prof. Dr. Patricia Purtschert’s research right from the beginning. She has written a book on gender and cultural differences in philosophy (Purtschert 2006) and dealt extensively with the colonial history of Switzerland and its impact on the contemporary (e.g. Lüthi, Falk and Purtschert 2016; Purtschert and Fischer-Tiné 2015; Purtschert, Lüthi and Falk 2012). Hereby, she is especially interested in the formative and intersectional relationship between race, gender and sexuality in the Swiss context (see Purtschert forthcoming). 

Prof. Dr. Crispin Thurlow
Department of English (Language and Communication), Co-President, Equality Commission, Faculty of Humanities
As a scholar of language and communication, Prof. Dr. Thurlow has a long-term interest in the discursive production of difference (e.g. Thurlow 2001 and 2010). Most recently, this work has turned squarely towards questions of semiotic ideology and the particular role of visual discourse is producing and policing difference – in the context of young people, sexuality and digital media (Thurlow, 2017), and in terms of social class, privilege/inequality and elite mobilities (e.g. Thurlow & Jaworski, 2017).

External collaborator/expert (see above)

Internal collaborator at UniBe 

Lilian Fankhauser
Co-Director, Office for Gender Equality, UniBe Central Adminstration
Ms Fankhauser is Co-Director of the Office for Gender Equality of the University of Bern. She was responsible for the Project Exzellenz ist vielfältig, a collection of portraits of university researchers and employees whose experiences show how varied academic career paths can be. 

UniBe Nachwuchs 

Jovita dos Santos Pinto, lic. phil.
Doctoral candidate, Interdisciplinary Center for Gender Studies
Ms Pinto’s doctoral research project, supervised by Professor Purtschert, interrogates the gendering and racialization of Swiss public space, focusing on the subjectivation of Black women in this space since the introduction of women’s suffrage in 1971. 

Vanessa Näf, BA
MA student, Center for the Study of Language and Society and Interdisciplinary Center for Gender Studies
For her B.A. thesis V. Näf conducted a critical discourse analysis, supervised by Prof. Dr. Martin Reisigl, of Swiss media coverage about “Silvester Köln” (the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne), focusing on the discursive intersection of racism and sexism. V. Näf is an M.A. student of Sociolinguistics and Gender Studies at University of Bern. 

Lara Portmann, BA
MA student, Department of English
Ms Portman’s BA thesis, supervised by Professor Thurlow, combined social semiotics and visual content analysis in a study of stock photography and news-media images, exposing an ideological urban-rural framing of digital media. 

Joseph Comer, MA
Doctoral candidate in Language and Communication, Department of English
Mr Comer’s doctoral research project, supervised by Professor Thurlow, interrogates the production and dissemination of discourses of ‘diversity’ and ‘equality’ by transnational LGBTQ institutions such as tourism operators, advocacy groups, and advertisers.