Keeping My Eyes Open: Welcome Professor Jan Van den Bulck
I broke my nose imitating a scene from an American cop show when I was 11. It was a rough lesson on the distinction between the fictional and the real world. The incident stayed with me and partly explains my fascination when, as an undergraduate social sciences student at the University of Leuven in Belgium, I learned about George Gerbner’s cultivation theory and, in other courses, that our view of the world can be a social construction. I was sidetracked briefly when I did a Master’s in political science in England, but I returned to Leuven to obtain a Ph.D., where I explored a combination of both views. I have remained fascinated by the extent to which our “knowledge” about the real world is often derived from fictional representations of it, especially in areas such as law enforcement, violent crime, or emergency medicine.
After a few years as a postdoc I became a professor at the University of Leuven. I gradually became frustrated by the terrible measurement problems faced by a media effects scholar. We study behaviors that are difficult to measure and their effects on perceptions, feelings, or attitudes that are at least as difficult to measure. This is why I became interested in looking at health effects of media use; how at least body weight, sleep duration, or exercise levels can be determined a bit more accurately. Even though I was head of the department at the time, I went back to school to obtain a D.Sc. (Doctor of Science) in Epidemiology at Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Epidemiologists have a lot in common with media effects scholars: they both study the effects of exposure. Viruses and radiation are to epidemiologists as television and cell phones are to media effects scholars. What I learned from epidemiologists has helped a lot in my research on media effects on sleep.
I was happy in Leuven, so it wasn’t an easy decision to recently uproot and move my family to the US, but there are many things that attract me to the University of Michigan, other than the amazing reputation of the University and the Department of Communication and Media. I’ve known many people in the department for such a long time that it feels totally natural to become a part of that group, and everybody else has made me feel incredibly welcome. There is a really good vibe in the department. One thing in particular that attracted me is my perception that this university encourages people to look beyond their own field. There is a real willingness here to explore cooperation across disciplines. As you can probably tell from my trajectory, that is extremely appealing to a person like me!
The students I have met so far come across as exceptionally smart and dedicated. Teaching and tutoring here is going to put me on the tips of my toes. I will start teaching in the Winter term. One course I’ve been asked to look at is COMM 121, which examines research methods. If Michigan students are even remotely like their Belgian counterparts then this is likely to be a course that scares, baffles, or bores them. It doesn’t have to be. So many questions we have in real life are essential empirical, social science questions and learning to deal with the claims made by, say, those in favor or against vaccines, or advertisers hawking cosmetics, or predictions based on opinion polls, are skills students will benefit from for the rest of their lives, even if they never touch another data-analysis program again.
Another course I’ll be teaching is COMM 490: Capstone Seminar in Media Topics: Celebrity Influences. In the course, we will look at the impact celebrities have on our lives and on society, from a social science perspective. We will explore questions like does our behavior change when a celebrity announces they have a disease? Do we change our attitudes when they come out in favor of or against certain political issues? How does that work? What happens inside our heads to make that possible?
There is no discipline like communication. Our object of study changes so fast and so often that it makes little sense to define teaching as the transfer of knowledge. Knowledge is often obsolete the moment it is written down. My job as a teacher is to show students perspectives and to offer techniques that help them explore both the world and how they think about it. I like that old image of a teacher as a road sign: we’re not carrying students. We may not even go where they are going, but we are showing students where they may want to go and how they might get there.
Other than that, I am filled to the brim with plans. I want to continue studying the effects of fiction on our perceptions of reality, and I want to rekindle my interest in violence effects. I also want to delve deeper into the mechanisms that explain how media uses affects our sleep. I can’t wait to explore new ideas by cooperating with the many great and interesting people I have already found and still hope to find at the University of Michigan. At the same time I’ll be working on the International Encyclopedia of Media Psychology that I am compiling for publication with Wiley-Blackwell and the International Communication Association.
I have always been as restless in my personal life as I am in my professional life. When I was 18, the Dutch channel of the Belgian version of NPR produced my first radio play. I went on to write several for Belgian and Dutch channels. As a grad student I worked as a TV critic for an NPR channel called Studio Brussel. People often think that academics live on an “Ivory Tower”. Yet having been a certified EMT, or having been in the Army, or, on a less ambitious level, having been on ride-alongs with police officers have all helped me study how fictional representations of those worlds affect us. What I’m trying to say is: if you are a communication scholar, keep your eyes open. Notice that child who’s chasing a Pokémon on a mobile phone, or the other one who is on the third episode of a show on a tablet in a coffee shop. You won’t need to go looking for ideas for topics to study when you’re interested in the media; the ideas will find you!