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Professor to lead ICA

Noshir Contractor, professor in the Department of Communication Studies, will become the president of the International Communication Association in May 2022.

A prominent researcher of network science, computational social science, and web science, Contractor examines how social and knowledge networks form in business and healthcare settings, scientific communities, and space travel. He is the Jane S. & William J. White Professor of Behavioral Sciences in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of Communication, and the Kellogg School of Management and director of the Science of Networks in Communities Research Group.

As ICA president, Contractor will tap into his vast expertise in the creation and nurturing of diverse global networks.

“I consider ICA as being my perennial intellectual home since my days as a graduate student,” Contractor says. “It has given me a lot over the years, and I’ve seen it help a lot of people. And it has played a key role in conveying the significance of communication scholarship to the broader scholarly community, to policy makers, and to the public at large.”

ICA is the preeminent professional organization for communication scholars and researchers worldwide. Founded in 1950, it comprises about 4,500 members from 80 countries. While building on the organization’s past accomplishments, Contractor wants to expand opportunities for growth; as president-elect, he’s set a threefold agenda to broaden ICA’s international reach and representation, foster cross-divisional scholarship, and leverage technologies to reimagine professional and pedagogical development.

Contractor has joined the ICA executive committee and begun his role as president-elect-select; he will serve as president through 2022–23 and remain on the committee until mid-2026.

Latinx digital media center opens

The Center for Latinx Digital Media began last fall with an aim to promote and research digital media in Latin American and Latinx communities while bringing together students, scholars, and practitioners from across the world.

“If you think about the Latinx population in the US, it’s at 18 percent and growing and it contributes $2.7 trillion to the GDP. They are the fastest-growing sector as far as the economy goes,” says Pablo Boczkowski, Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor of Communication Studies and the center’s director. “Yet the Latinx community has been sometimes less visible than it deserves to be. With this center, we’re hoping to bring more visibility and more attention to important aspects of this community.”

This academic year, the center is offering weekly seminars by leading researchers and professionals in the field, a monthly newsletter, and eventually a podcast to discuss issues. It will serve as a hub for researchers and practitioners to connect with one another. Supported by the School of Communication, the Office of the Provost, and the Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, the center has faculty affiliates on the Evanston and Doha campuses. It will also collaborate with the Center for the Study of Media and Society in Argentina, founded by Northwestern University and Universidad de San Andrés.

Boczkowski says the center’s goal is “really about creating knowledge about digital media in Latinx communities across the Americas.

“And it’s not about erasing difference,” he adds. “It is about setting up a big umbrella and exploring areas of difference and areas of continuity.”

–Cara Lockwood

Study on remote data collection offers promise for research during pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has had profound effects on the research community, both in terms of who is able to participate and how data are collected.

Assistant professor Elizabeth Norton has discovered one advantage in the resulting social separation: gathering certain data via video chats can be just as effective as doing so in person. This is not only a boon to Norton’s work with children and language development—it’s a step toward increasing access and equity when researching underrepresented and underserved populations.

“This came about a couple years ago when we were talking with our colleagues at [nonprofit advocacy group] LEAP about what their founder Kate Gottfred (GC73, GC79) calls ‘language wellness’: the idea that kids who are growing up in underprivileged environments hear fewer words than kids from more advantaged homes and neighborhoods,” says Norton, who is the Jane Steiner Hoffman and Michael Hoffman Assistant Professor and leads the LEARN Lab in the Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. “They were working on designing an app for parents to learn about and be reminded to give a high quality and quantity of language to their little kiddos. We started asking whether there was a way to see if the app was working. We knew it wouldn’t be as feasible for families from low-income neighborhoods to come into the lab in Evanston, so we said, ‘Why don’t we do this over video chat?’”

During a session, the parent and child play together; Norton’s team transcribes the child’s words from the video. Norton and her colleagues discovered that these chats worked as well as gathering data from families who came to the lab in person. She says the quality of the samples was often better, as the children were in their homes, speaking freely and comfortably and not confined by the parameters of standardized language measures. And researchers could collect the data at any time, not just when a family was able to come to the lab.

While the team had already planned to write a paper on both the data from and the effectiveness of the video chats in terms of tracking child development, the pandemic made focusing on collecting video data even more pressing. Now Norton’s research focuses on how the pandemic is affecting families: closures of daycares and schools can mean children are receiving less exposure to early vocabulary. While an increase in one-on-one time with parents might be a benefit, there may also be drawbacks—including extra stress for both children and parents—which could make focusing on language development difficult. Norton says parent stress might lead to fewer meaningful word interactions with children, as patience is stretched thin and families struggle with constant disruption of routines.

Norton and her team recently received supplemental funding from the National Institutes of Health to track how the pandemic is affecting language development in a diverse group of children already in her studies. She will continue to gather data remotely and use her findings to further understanding of child development.

–Cara Lockwood and Kerry Trotter

New Center for Human-Computer Interaction + Design partners SoC with McCormick

The McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and the School of Communication have launched the Center for Human- Computer Interaction + Design (HCI+D).

The center’s vision and values build on Northwestern’s unique interdisciplinary, socially engaged, people-centered approach to interaction and design. HCI+D supports researchers in their pursuit of new interaction paradigms that will grow a collaborative, sustainable, and equitable society.

To achieve its goals, HCI+D leverages Northwestern’s history of research among diverse disciplines—including communication, computer science, design, learning sciences, medicine, psychology, and several areas of engineering.

The center’s leadership team reflects this collaborative spirit:

  • Elizabeth Gerber, associate professor of mechanical engineering in McCormick and of communication studies
  • Darren Gergle, John Searle Professor of Communication Studies with a courtesy appointment in computer science in McCormick
  • Bryan Pardo, professor of computer science in McCormick and of radio/television/film

Through its broad support for research, educational initiatives, and events, the center aims to bring together and inspire the next generation of researchers to address important, real-world problems and develop solutions with tremendous societal impact.

–Brian Sandalow

Imagine U partners with Washington’s National Theatre

Imagine U, which for the last decade has staged interactive children’s productions at the Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts, partnered with the National Theatre in Washington, DC, to provide a series of original virtual programming earlier this year.

The new series is an online edition of Saturday Morning Live! At the National Theatre, the beloved mainstay of the organization’s family programming.

“It’s an exciting partnership for us,” says Lynn Kelso, a lecturer and the founder of Imagine U. “Our series is called Life Now, and the three episodes all link to what life is like now.”

The Imagine U episodes feature original music and interactive segments created and performed by a diverse cast of Northwestern alumni and an MFA directing student.

“Our goal is to present engaging programs, working with artists to develop performances that will help young people and their parents as they attempt to negotiate these unusual times,” says David Kitto, the National Theatre’s executive director. “The programs are designed for children ages 4 to 10, and they give children and even adults strategies for how to cope. We aim to create substantive, meaningful programming that will entertain and soothe our audiences.”

The National Theatre, which mounted its first show in 1835, has offered the Saturday Morning Live! series for children for four decades. Like many theaters across the nation, it’s working to find creative ways to keep its audience engaged. The Imagine U performances aired on Facebook Live in January and February.

–Cara Lockwood

EPICS office to enhance student-alumni connections

Since its founding in 2008, the School of Communication’s Office of External Programs, Internships, and Career Services (EPICS) has been preparing students for careers in the creative arts and communication sciences through coaching, workshops, and events and outreach to employers, alumni, and friends of the University. As students adjust to the realities of virtual classes and events, the EPICS mission takes on new importance.

EPICS will be enhancing the existing School of Communication’s LinkedIn page to create a platform that allows students and alumni to build their network of professional contacts.

“EPICS helps empower students to embrace the connections of Northwestern, Evanston, and beyond,” says Michael Johnson, director of EPICS. “By utilizing the top networking platform, students can grow their connections instead of using multiple University databases to connect with relevant alumni.”

For alumni, the enhanced LinkedIn page will be a single place to search for fellow classmates and find relevant University information about careers, networking, and events. EPICS will promote the new LinkedIn page to both alumni and students.

Another phase of this effort is to find alumni who are interested in sharing their industry expertise with students.

“Students are always eager to hear how to practically apply their education and give context to classroom learning,” says Adam Joyce, executive director of transitional programs. “That transition from student to professional is always exciting, and alumni play a valuable role in mentoring students in that process.”

Alumni will receive an email in the spring to gauge interest in engaging with students and the school in industry-relevant career programming.

To learn more about EPICS, visit epics.soc.northwestern.edu. To connect with the School of Communication’s LinkedIn page, search for “Northwestern University School of Communication” on LinkedIn.

Buchholz reflects on enriching year at NU-Q

Larissa Buchholz, assistant professor of communication studies and researcher of the dynamics of global art production and movement, spent the 2019–20 academic year teaching, working on three research projects, and immersing herself in Qatari culture while on a visiting appointment at Northwestern University in Qatar.

“What was very exciting is that I taught a course on the globalization of culture, and I also learned a lot from students . . . about how they perceive [international influences] in Doha and how much they were concerned about the role of tradition and diversity,” Buchholz says. Having taught the same course in the US, she observes that “very different problems and discussions emerged here, and that was very meaningful.”

In Qatar, Buchholz worked on completing her book manuscript “The Global Rules of Art,” which traces how artists from non-Western regions achieve global success. A second project involved mapping the structures, networks, and flows in the art gallery market, explaining that these pertain to private galleries but not their nonprofit counterparts, such as museums. Buchholz notes that globalization in cultural markets is usually associated with large-scale transnational corporations, but she says it is still possible to observe what she defines as a “networked, bottom-up globalization” among smaller cultural enterprises like art galleries, which challenges the perception that they are culturally myopic.

Visitors at a gallery in Doha

Her most important research, and the reason she came to Qatar, is a project on art collectors as a window into understanding cultural consumption in a global context. It is guided by one central question: what makes art collectors in various world regions interested in and engaged with contemporary art? By shifting the spotlight from mediators and artists to consumers, the project “compares different moments in the rise of new art patrons and collectors” in emerging marketplaces like China, parts of Latin America, and the Middle East.

Buchholz highlights the need to further challenge the clichéd notions in scholarship that high-culture consumption in non-Western regions is all about status and external validation: “We need to create more nuanced theories that attend to the interplay of local and transnational meanings in the shaping of cultural tastes and practices.”

–Hazim Mohamed