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Fulbright Winner’s Research is Prime Example of Geography’s Interdisciplinarity

Graduate student’s work explores how geography, language and identity are connected. She will travel to Ukraine for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship.

Date: 7/3/2012
By: Tom Robinette
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Christina Holtkamp
Beth Ciaravolo has had a few laughs studying a collection of 65 years’ worth of American political cartoons, but her research is no joke. Neither is her dedication to the interdisciplinary nature of her craft, geography.

Ciaravolo received bachelor’s degrees in linguistics and international affairs, a minor in geography and a certificate in Arabic language and culture from the University of Cincinnati. This spring she successfully defended her thesis, “The Bear, the Bomb, and Uncle Sam: The Evolving American Perception of ‘Russians’ Viewed Through Political Cartoons,” to earn her master’s degree in geography, and she recently was awarded a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Ukraine.
Beth Ciaravolo will be able to study Ukraine’s unique linguistic environment firsthand.

Thanks to the prestigious grant, this fall she’ll travel to the large Eastern European nation to teach and study throughout the upcoming academic year. She was eager to return there after having taught at the Ukrainian Catholic University English Summer School in 2010 during a break from her studies at UC.

“Teaching in Ukraine last summer was an awesome experience, and I really wanted to go back,” says Ciaravolo, a Riverside native. “As a linguist, I was extremely interested in the language situation there. This opportunity is perfect for me.”

Citizens of the former Soviet Union republic speak Ukrainian and Russian, a custom dating at least as far back as the Soviet era. During that time, the prevailing thought on language was that Russian was proper speech for the gentry and Ukrainian was peasant talk. It was a time when Ukrainian speakers faced persecution, and the language nearly vanished. Things have changed since then, especially after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and there has been a national effort to revitalize the Ukrainian language and culture.

“They’ve deliberately brought back Ukrainian from the brink of disappearing,” Ciaravolo says. “What interests me most is this question of this new state trying to find its identity and the role language plays in that.”

As an undergraduate, Ciaravolo developed an interest in studying the influence language has on identity. She says how we talk affects our perceptions of ourselves and others, and in a geopolitical context, language helps shape our world – even contributing to the formation of states. Her research on political cartoons is an outgrowth of that concept. The cartoons are a type of media, and Ciaravolo says the media create powerful narratives that can sway public perception and define geopolitical entities.

For her thesis, she analyzed nearly 250 cartoons and looked for patterns of how Russians were depicted. She discovered that through the years she could track how the cartoons’ message reflected popular American sentiment toward Russia’s leadership.

“During the Stalin era, the cartoons pitied the ‘poor’ Russian people, who suffered under their vicious leader,” Ciaravolo says. “From Khrushchev up to Gorbachev, Russia was often seen as a toothless wolf and a state of criminals. Then after Gorbachev came with his reforms and Yeltsin became president following the Soviet Union’s collapse, the cartoons showed concern of Russia crumbling. Once Putin came into power, Russia was viewed as an ally, albeit one who remained somewhat suspicious.”

Ciaravolo hopes her research will show the broad extent to which language molds society. She wants people to know how they use language to think about an issue presented in the media – like laughing at a political cartoon – and how they share those thoughts with others reveals not only their outward understanding of the topic but what they know about themselves, as well. In a time where ever-expanding access to new forms of media continues to shrink our world, Ciaravolo hopes to call attention to the need for self-awareness and a critical perspective.

“It’s important to have an awareness of the assumptions you’re making when you talk about things a certain way,” Ciaravolo says. “You look at a political cartoon and maybe it matches with something  you read in the news and you laugh, but you don’t think about what other messages and metaphors are also there that you’re picking up on that slide in under the radar. It’s creating and reinforcing both kinds of perspectives – who these other people are and who we are.”

Geographers are used to dealing with problems so broad in scope. That’s why Ciaravolo will tell you – in a more earnest than facetious way – that she wants to help put geography back on the map, so to speak. The absence of geography departments in some of the tallest of academia’s ivory towers, beginning with Harvard University’s elimination of its department in 1948, could be viewed as an erosion of the discipline’s salience.

The advent of 21st century technology in Geographic Information Systems – think Google Maps meets geospatial statistical analysis – has brought some resurgence in the popularity of geography. But to Ciaravolo, the two disciplines are not the same. Despite the somewhat higher profile GIS has brought to the discipline, she thinks geography is still looked upon as the Rodney Dangerfield of academia, and she doesn’t think it’s an apt comparison.

“Geography is deserving of more respect,” Ciaravolo says. “It’s such an important major because it’s so interdisciplinary. It’s the ability to put everything together in a spatial context.”

Ciaravolo will consider doctoral programs after finishing her work in Ukraine and plans to pursue a teaching career at the university level where she can continue her research. She remains devoted to the human science intrinsic to geography, an intellectual axis inspired by the Department of Geography faculty she’s worked with, such as assistant professor Colleen McTague and professor emeritus Roger Selya, and made possible through the vast educational resources available in the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences.

“It’s nice to have access to the other disciplines and be able to take those courses, and A&S has those opportunities,” she says.

According to the Fulbright U.S. Student Program website, Fulbright is the largest U.S. exchange program offering opportunities for students and young professionals to undertake international graduate study, advanced research, university teaching, and primary and secondary school teaching worldwide.  The program awards approximately 1,800 grants annually in all fields of study and operates in more than 155 countries.

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