CENTER VALLEY, Pa. — Marijana Grbeša Zenzerovic is spending the fall semester as the first visiting professor at Penn State Lehigh Valley. She is teaching two courses — Propaganda and Persuasion, and Political Communication and Digital Technology — at the Lehigh Valley campus, while immersing herself in American life and observing the current political discourse.
Grbeša is an associate professor at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Zagreb, in Croatia. She earned a doctorate in communication science from Ljubljana University, Slovenia, and a master of science degree in media and communications from London School of Economics and Political Science, London, U.K. She has been teaching courses in Media and Public, Political Marketing, Political Communication, Methods of Mass Media Research, Pop Politics, Communication Management in Politics, and Public Diplomacy, among others.
Penn State operates a global program at University of Zagreb, but Grbeša was first connected to Penn State Lehigh Valley through Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences Nikki Gutgold. Gutgold completed a visiting professorship at the University of Zagreb last fall, where Grbeša served as her host. Grbeša was instrumental in planning a meeting on Nov. 9, 2017, where Gutgold interviewed Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic and discussed her views on gendered media coverage.
“Marijana is a leading scholar in political communications,” Gutgold said. “I knew it would be great for our students to learn from her. Fortunately, our campus leadership was on board and everyone was motivated to bring her here and make our first visiting professorship happen at the Lehigh Valley campus!”
Grbeša first came to study in the U.S. through a government program in 1997 at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
“My first experience in the U.S. showed me that it is very different than Europe but I immediately loved that diversity,” Grbeša said. “This experience at PSU-LV has been wonderful. Everyone has been so nice and supportive. I want to give my children a broad perspective; to be aware that there are other cultures and other countries besides Croatia. This semester here is giving them that.”
While teaching at Penn State Lehigh Valley, Grbeša is living in Emmaus with her husband, Bernard, and their 7-year-old son, Diego. They have enjoyed visits from her mother, Anka, and Diego’s sister Hannah.
“The students here are very nice, very open and engaged. They aren’t afraid to speak up. Croatian students are much more reserved,” Grbeša said. “All students know social media. It isn’t theory to them; they live it every day,”
Her courses are exploring how candidates set the political agenda on social media in a fast-paced world, as well as the increasing polarization.
“This discourse of ‘us versus them’ is becoming more popular across Western democracies. The rise of populism across the world is an obvious sign of the crises of liberal democracies,” Grbeša said. “Americans used to discuss policies rationally, but now it is becoming more personal, more emotional. Now when someone supports the other candidate, they are viewed as threatening your way of life. I always felt freedom of speech is sacrosanct in the United States but now I have the feeling that people are afraid to speak up. That is dangerous.’”
Grbeša described how people are living in Filter Bubbles or “echo chambers” where they only engage in discussions with like-minded people and only consume news from outlets that will reinforce their beliefs.
“Marijana’s courses have been very well received by our students. We hope to continue a partnership with her university and hopefully take students over to Croatia soon. It’s so important to expose our students to professors from other countries because it breaks down any fear, anxiety or confusion about another place that is unknown to them,” Gutgold said. “We all need global competency in today’s world and today’s workplace.”
To connect with the campus community, Grbeša presented two talks during common hour at the Lehigh Valley campus. The first talk, “Croatia: The Story of the European Phoenix” on Oct. 16, focused on the politics, education and attractions of contemporary Croatia. The second talk, “How ‘Filter Bubbles’ Ruin Public Sphere and Polarize the Electorate” on Nov. 1, focused on Grbeša’s research which examined the concept of filter bubbles in the U.S. and European context and addressed the important issue of its perils and consequences.
Up next for Grbeša and her family, spending their first Thanksgiving holiday at the Gutgold household in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
To watch Grbeša’s full research spotlight talk from Nov. 1 visit, Penn State Lehigh Valley YouTube page.