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History of the Centre: Education Philosophy

Cultural and media studies, an interdisciplinary field, which examines texts and sub-texts and their relationships to power relationship within contexts, flourished at British universities and polytechnics in the early 1980s. From there and then on the field significantly influenced social science and humanities disciplines in Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, Scandinavian, Zimbabwean and South African universities. The success of cultural and media studies at NU was facilitated between 1985 and 1990 in the first instance by:

a) an ability to reproduce cultural studies as collective work;

b) being able to work within a graduate research institute;

c) being able to put theory into practice through production (of books, articles, videos, performance, workshops, teaching situations, consultancy research, and so on)

d) being able to reconstitute itself in terms of useful knowledge both during and after Cold War/apartheid era.

The KwaZulu-Natal University (UKZN) Contemporary Cultural Studies Unit (CCSU), as it was then called, was modelled on the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, which had established cultural studies as an international field.

The section New Needs, New approaches provides some background into how CCSU set about developing the field at NU with regard to student profiles and teaching methods. While I helped to shape these approaches, it must be acknowledged that the cooperation of my colleagues and many of my students was just as important in helping me achieve these goals. In the later section Teaching Philosophy I deal with how CCSU successively restructured itself into the Centre for Cultural and Media Studies (CCMS) to address the very different needs of the post-1990 period. For a summary of the apartheid period and an analysis of developments beyond 1990 see Shepperson and Tomaselli (1998/9).

History of the Centre: Development Phase

1.  Background History 

CCMS was established in January 1985 as the Contemporary Cultural Studies Unit (CCSU), modeled on the seminal Birmingham Centre. The Unit’s mandate was to develop sites of graduate teaching and research which would:  i)  theorize the mobilization of `culture’ and `media’ in the anti-apartheid struggle;  ii)  offer a site for the development of graduate research;  iii) offer a hub for  transdisiplinary graduate teaching,    

Phase 1 (1985-1990)

1985 was devoted to developing a core theoretical approach linked to: i) curriculum design; ii) a international publication strategy; iii)  identification and enculteration of contributing academics; and iv) recruitment of the first batch of students to start in 1986. The curriculum was debated and published in a CCSU Seminar Paper Series of which 10 000 individual copies were sold across the country and internationally.  The Series was funded by grants of R100 volunteered by departments across the University.  About 23 seminars were presented and/or published between 1985 and 1987.   The seven most relevant papers were compiled into Rethinking Culture (Anthropos, 1988, 1989), which sold a further 4000 copies.  The bi-annual Critical Arts supplemented this Series, which grounded the ongoing intellectual base of the Unit.  A book series (James Currey/Anthropos/Lake View Press/IAP) edited by KG Tomaselli between 1986 and 2002 published six original titles on media research undertaken within CCMS and its external collaborators, with reprints of three titles up to 2005.  

The initial batch of modules included:  i)  Science as a Cultural Expression (taught by two Physics lecturers [one of whom was employed in Architecture], and later one from Biology);  ii) Culture and Literature and iii) Walter Benjamin and the Idea of Historical Projection were taught by lecturers from English;  iv)  Film, Video and Cultural Production (CCSU);  v)  Thanatology:  Death and Ideology; and vi) a module on Culture and Community Health, were taught by lecturers from the Medical School, and the Faculty of Social Science. 

Students worked in research teams under staff supervision. Publications over and above those already mentioned laid the groundwork for the CCMS research and publication ethos to come. From the start, CCMS has attracted mature-age students from across the world who bring a wealth of both academic and professional expertise to bear on its activities. 

Phase 2 (1990-2002) 

Following a Faculty review in 1989, the Unit was renamed as the Centre for Cultural and Media Studies (CCMS). The Centre consolidated a more directly cultural and media studies approach as lecturers from the first Phase refocused their activities back into their own departments. The Centre had secured extra academic posts and viable MA and PhD cohorts, which added necessary capacity.  Modules introduced during this phase included: i) Cultural Studies, Visual Anthropology / Documentary Film, ii) Narrative Cinema, iii) Development Communication, iv) Political Economy of the Media, etc.  The publication strategy continued with Critical Arts and the book series.   The MA in Media Studies was introduced in 1994 which attracted top students from Africa and globally. CCMS pioneered this degree format nationally and it continues to underpin programme viability.  The transdisciplinary nature of  CCMS narrowed somewhat during this second phase as contributing lecturers found that their home department workloads had increased. The funding formula also required that they reduce their inter-departmental commitments. 

Phase 3 (2003 - 2009) 

CCMS’s new research and coursework sites were consolidated into four theoretically integrated research-based themes:  i)  Media in the Global World;  ii)   Media, Culture and Development;  iii)  Communication for Social Change (CFSC, incorporating public health communication, now titled Communication for Participatory Development );  and iv) Visual Anthropology / Documentary Film.  Each module is more or less connected to global strategic research partners, research funding and scholarships.  Students are taught by CCMS lecturers, and are advised by international cohorts of cooperating professors who contribute to three of the modules in one way or another.    

2.  Structure, Resource, Staffing  

CCMS attracts a global graduate student cohort (including post-doctoral fellows) who are drawn by its international reputation.  This complement includes many lecturers on study leave from their home Universities, who have helped to build this global profile and CCMS’s very extensive publication output.   

3.  Teaching 

CCMS offers 

  • research-based conceptually integrated paradigm-specific graduate work;
  • international collaborations involving graduate students embedded in ongoing,  externally funded projects; 
  • Freirean-derived experientialist pedagogy where students take responsibility for developing their own research directions within specific research programmes;
  • sociological underpinning of textual approaches, that is the study of texts in relation to contexts;
  • senior staff hold PhDs and have extensive professional experience. They hold senior disciplinary Association office, thus providing further local and international links for students;
  • an exalting of globally competitive and significant graduate work and research, often resulting in peer-reviewed international publication; 
  • collaborative projects within the School and Faculty, especially involving social change communication (see below)..
  • Students are encouraged to participate in off-campus field research within  communities, thus gaining hands-on experience doing operation research with real people.

Quality assurance is ensured by strong external examiner appointments, who are senior local and international experts in their relative fields, and via: 

  • a sustained emphasis on publication in peer-reviewed journals and books, both local and international;
  • PhD students, who are lecturers in their home institutions, and/or NGO workers, act as tutors and mentors for MA and Honours students;
  • close interaction with post-doctoral fellows and visiting professors located in CCMS;
  • participation in local and international conferences, publication in proceedings, and publication on specialist web sites.


4.  Post-Graduate 

All students are invited to join specific CCMS research and outreach activities. Students undertake their research projects within these supporting infrastructures.  Our community-oriented strategic partners, all based at UKZN, provide students’ sites within which they are able to undertake structured field research under both CCMS and partner-supervision.  Our students at MA and PhD levels especially are experienced academics and professionals who have chosen CCMS as the place to hone their expertise within their observation that UKZN “offers a First World education in a Third World environment”. This is key to their selection of CCMS as a location at which to study. 

5.  Research 

CCMS’s academic staff and students have achieved a uniquely high publication output within the University as a whole.  In the past few years, e.g., students have published chapters in books; one MA student published a whole book drawn from her MA thesis, with another in press by a second student. Numerous chapters are currently in press. Journals in which students have published include international disciplinary flagships like Visual Anthropology and Cultural Studies ß> Critical Methodologies,  and local journals like Current Writing, Communicatio, Critical Arts, Communitas, Ecquid Novi andCommunicare.  Moreover, the two professors are also editors and board members of many of the high impact journals and book series serving the field internationally. 

6.  Community Outreach

CCMS’s Freirean critical pedagogy has always required praxis – where students apply theory to practice in the field.  This was recognized by a number of CCMS’s early funders linked to the Catholic Church, the HSRC and UNESCO between 1986 and 2000, and more recently, by organizations like Drama in AIDS Education (DramAidE) and Johns Hopkins University (JHU).  In the field of HIV/AIDS, e.g., CCMS works with JHU and UKZN initiatives as research partners (see below). Since 1996 many CCMS staff and students have focused on the region’s burgeoning HIV epidemic, providing unique insight into factors that constrain effective response. Many graduates have applied their theoretical frameworks and findings in subsequent work in the field through working for health NGOs, the Department of Health, UNAIDS, CADRE (Centre for AIDS, Development, Research and Evaluation), DramAidE, JHU, HIVAN and the tertiary sector.

These joint ventures are geared to developing the participatory action research capacity of our partners staff both at an organisational level and by improving the graduate qualifications of their employees. These organisations provide research and internship sites for students to experience ongoing field work and undertake research in established organizations with strong research track records. CCMS provides mentorship, strategic planning and programme development for DramAidE in particular. DramAidE, in turn, assists with the teaching, learning and outreach work undertaken by CCMS students at all graduate levels. Staff of The Culture and Arts Programme (a division of HIVAN) undertake applied arts projects for social change under the auspices of the Centre,  and register for higher degrees. ARROW (Art: A Resource for Reconciliation over the World), which works with secondary school children, is managed from the University College Plymouth St Mark & St John  with partners in Palestine, Kosovo, Durban, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone. ARROW was a funded operation located in CCMS between 2004-6 

CCMS is interconnected with the following networks of international researchers and projects, many of which are externally funded:   

  • Johns Hopkins Health and Education in South Africa (JHHESA) via the JHU Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Communication Programs, linked in South Africa through the Health Communication Partnership, with its funded 15 affiliates (i.e. DramAidE, CADRE,  Dance 4 Life, The Valley Trust, and SABC Education etc.).  Both DramAidE and CAP are self-sustaining, obtaining their funds through JHHESA and the UKZN Foundation respectively, amongst other sources.
  • ARROW –  Art:  A Resource for Reconciliation Over the World
  • The African Media Programme, Michigan State University, working on a video digitization project in conjunction with Southern African Communications for Development (SACOD, a video production NGO), and its 54 members in the SADC region.  CCMS has a strategic partnership link with SACOD.


KG Tomaselli

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