AIDS in communication — Professor, students receive U.N. recogition

“Believe it or not, we are a nationally recognized undergrad powerhouse in communications studies.”

Coming from some, this remark might be considered a bit haughty-but not when the speaker is John Pollock, one of the professors who has helped to revolutionize the communications studies department-and received accolades from the United Nations (U.N.) in the process.

Last fall, Pollock, who is a member of the International Communications Association (ICA), received a memo about an opportunity to work with the U.N. on a project dealing with health communication.

“I applied immediately, because I knew this was for me,” he said.

Eventually, Pollock was one of three scholars chosen by the health communications division of ICA to work on U.N. materials in the fall of 2004.

A firm believer in working side by side with his undergraduate students, Pollock immediately assigned the project to the International Communications course he was teaching that semester. His students broke into teams, with the objective of studying cross-national coverage of U.N. efforts to fight AIDS. They used a “structural approach” to their research, comparing a nation’s coverage with things like its literacy rate and Gross Domestic Product.

The class made a number of findings and realized that in many cases, a nation’s economic status influenced the way that their media outlets covered the AIDS epidemic.

“We found that industrialized countries were most concerned with funding of research,” Pollock said. “Meanwhile, access to treatment and supplies was of great interest to developing countries, especially the Sub-Sahara and African continent.”

Pollock believes that this study was important for a number of reasons, most notably for revealing disparities in the ways that various countries treat those citizens who are infected by the HIV or AIDS virus.

“A major problem in other countries is the stigma that surrounds people living with AIDS,” he said. “Here in the United States, this disease has gone from being a death sentence to a chronic illness.”

Last May, the work of Pollock and his dedicated students was rewarded when he received the first ever joint U.N./ICA “Seed Grant,” worth $2,000, at an ICA conference in New York City.

“This award had been announced a few years earlier, but none of the applications that ICA received were deemed worthy,” he said. “So I was pleasantly surprised to have my proposal chosen for this honor by a panel of some of the most distinguished scholars from around the world.”

Looking back, Pollock says that his desire to participate in this study, along with the help of his undergraduate students, stems from three things: the fact that, as an undergrad himself, his professors allowed him to work with them on various projects, his love of international politics and his love of communications studies.

“As an undergraduate at Swarthmore and while getting my Ph.D. at Stanford, I was always encouraged to work cooperatively with my professors,” he said.

When he later went on to become a professor, teaching international politics at Rutgers University, he followed suit.

“I’ve been working with undergraduates forever, beginning in the mid-70s when I was at Rutgers,” Pollock said.

In fact, his unique method of teaching and conducting research has earned a special nickname: the “Pollock model.” Raquel Cohen-Orantes, chief of the Evaluation and Communications Research Unit of the United

Nations’ Department of Public Information, coined this phrase because “she was struck and so pleased that so many students were involved. She was fascinated, and not accustomed to it,” Pollock explained.

But for him, the choice was an easy and obvious one to make.

“Working with students is much more fun than working alone,” he said. “I get my best scholarly work done during the school year because students ask obvious questions that I often overlook, and I can bounce ideas off of them. Undergraduates have a freshness and curiosity that is not often visible in graduate students, because they become jaded.”

Pollock’s deep connection with international affairs goes even further into his past. His mother grew up in China before moving to the United States and he spent time abroad as a young adult.

But it is the topic of communication-specifically, health communication-that really gets Pollock talking.

“The fastest growing field in communications is health communications,” he said. “If we in the communications field can help people lead less risky lives by eliminating things like smoking and obesity, therefore reducing cases of heart disease and cancer, we will have made quite a contribution.”

In his opinion, health communications will soon have its time to shine.

“If you think about it, economics was not taken seriously as a subject until after the Depression,” he said. “Political science was not widely recognized until after World War II. Soon, health communication will demonstrate its importance to everyone on a national and international level.”

To that end, Pollock has created a health communications concentration within the communication studies major, and is currently at work on a minor as well.

Although some might be satisfied enough with recognition from the U.N., Pollock shows no signs of slowing down.

This fall, his International Communications course is once again hard at work on a team project concerning the AIDS virus.

This time, his students will be studying the efforts by groups other than the U.N. to fight AIDS, and their paper topics will range from individual responsibility (such as practicing safe sex) to the question of whether or not government and social institutions bear some type of responsibility as well.

In his forthcoming book, “Tilted Mirrors: Media Alignment with Political and Social Change; A Community Structure Approach,” Pollock dedicates an entire chapter to nationwide media coverage of HIV and AIDS, based on research conducted by his students in the ’90s.

As if all of this wasn’t enough, Pollock, along with Brian Potter, assistant professor of political science, and Douglas Peterson, assistant professor of management and international business is attempting to set up a trip to Costa Rica next January so that students can participate in an ecological tour of a country that he thinks should be “a model for all of Central America.”

Despite his string of successes since joining the College’s faculty 13 years ago, Pollock refuses to take all of the credit for the leaps and bounds that have been made by the communications studies department during that time.

“I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I am responsible for the high quality of the students in the communications department,” he said. “We have a very strong faculty, and I am just one of the members of that faculty. I have been very fortunate to work with these people, and to see the department become what it is today.”