Blogging About Culture

Faculty Focus: School of Journalism and Department of German and Russian Studies

An idea spawned by a jostling ride across the Mongolian steppes led 19 University of Missouri students on an equally unique trip through the cyber back streets of the European blogosphere.

“Blogging the World” grew from a conversation between Monika Fischer of German Studies, Nicole Monnier of Russian Studies and Clyde Bentley of Journalism while they participated in the 2008 Global Scholars trip to Mongolia. An excursion in Russian-made jeeps across hundreds of kilometers of the dry Khentii grasslands left plenty of time for the three to compare classes and students.

The two language and literature professors noted that their classes often had a high number of journalism students. Bentley pointed out that the School of Journalism encourages international coursework so journalist will have a better grasp of the globe they cover. All three lamented that there wasn’t a better way for their students to share their skills.

From that was born a class that used modern technology to explore European culture in a manner new to Mizzou. Bentley, a digital media professor, had for some time been looking for a way to teach young journalists how to use the Web and especially blogs as more than reference source. The Web is so vast, he felt, that readers need help finding and making sense of material on it.

The Department of German and Russian Studies in the meantime, was looking for new ways to explore modern European culture to students interested in global studies. Fischer took the lead in the project by gaining the blessing of German and Russian Studies Department Chair Carsten Strathausen for a trial of the class. Dean Mills, dean of the School of Journalism, also blessed the project, although the class was a non-journalism elective for J-school students. Fischer became the lead culture instructor while Bentley oversaw the technology and journalism aspects. Nicole Monnier, who was already involved in a separate project, was the on-call expert on Russian. Valerie Kaussen from Romance Languages was recruited to help with French.

The students were divided into four culture-based teams, each led by a graduate student and including at least one speaker of the language and one journalism student. There were two German teams, two French teams and one Russian team.

The teams searched the Internet for blogs and Web sites that contained items on popular culture – music, video, humor, art and edgy commentary. Fischer and Bentley chose the popular culture theme for its interest by young Americans and the fact it is infrequently reported in the traditional press.

Once information was found, the teams “double translated” it. If the original text was not in English, the team either translated it manually or ran it through translation software. However, the original story was never simply duplicated. Instead the students wrote their own post explaining its significance for American readers – a cultural translation.

The teams’ efforts were posted on the EuroKulture blog, which was formatted to display posts by several teams at once. Care was taken to use headlines, tags and keywords that attract Web attention, the process known as Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

Over the course of the semester, EuroKulture drew more than 5,600 readers. But what most impressed the students is that those readers came from 106 countries, from Antigua to Zimbabwe. “It was exciting to be part of a site like Eurokulture, and it was particularly rewarding to get feedback on the site from other students and people around the world,” says Alex Ruppenthal, a Journalism major with a German minor, of the class. One of the French teams also noted they were pleasantly surprised “at the emphasis on culture, rather than just completing blog posts that simply skimmed over cultural-related topics.”

The course has been formalized in the German and Russian Studies Department and will be taught again in the fall under course number German 4005/7005 and Russian 4005/7205. It will again be taught by Monika Fischer, Nicole Monnier, Valerie Kaussen and Clyde Bentley and will appeal to students interested in global studies as well as German, French and Russian language and culture. The class is taught in English with no foreign language requirement.