In Conversation with Visiting Professor Jeff Peterson

By Trudy Chua, Year 4, FASS

Visiting Professor Jeffery Peterson taught NM2104 in Semester 1 of AY2013/2014. A proponent of community-based participatory research, Jeff involved students in photovoice projects that turned out to be fulfilling for both students and teachers in that class. He shares with us his background, his experience in CNM, and some words of wisdom for students.

Tell us a little about yourself – where you come from, what you do and where your interests lie. 

Visiting Professor Jeffery Peterson hopes that NM students will find a good balance between studies and other aspects of life

I was born in Thailand during the Vietnam War at the end of 1968. My mother is Thai and my father is American. I lived in Thailand till I was four. I grew up mostly in the United States, but I had also lived in Italy for three years, and grew up being very conscious of culture and ethnicity, being a person of mixed heritage and race in the United States, so that was always at the forefront of my mind, and is why I decided to make that my specialty. I also taught English in Japan for three years.

Right now, I am a Visiting Associate Professor from Washington State University and I do qualitative research. My interests have to do with culture, communication and social change. Usually, it’s around health, access to health and healthy living, but also health, in relation to social issues. Issues of access usually brings me in contact with marginalised groups, or groups that, for some reason, aren’t part of the dominant groups. In the United States, these issues coincide with being an ethnic minority. In my research, I look into and question how all these  marginalised groups view their health, why they are not healthy and what could be done to improve their lives. My research is community-based and participatory. In this kind of research, I ask, “what if we thought of the people themselves as the experts, what if we asked them? Who’s more of an expert on their lives than they are?” In other words, I tend to privilege the point of view of the community I am working with. They define the problem and suggest the solutions.  The expertise lies with the people in the community, not the social scientists examining their lives.

Could you tell us more about NM2104, Qualitative Communication Research Methods, the class you taught? How has that class been for you?

That class has been awesome. Although for the first several weeks, I had to admit, it was very hard! It was tough because in the US, my biggest classes have 30 to 35 students. My graduate classes have about seven students. So when I came here and they said, “You have 133 students, and it’s in a lecture hall”, I thought, “I haven’t taught that way in a long time”. Plus, it’s a difficult subject, which I used to teach only to graduates,  because it really requires that you do things, and you learn by doing.

The help I got in turning the course into one of my most satisfactory classes though, had been amazing. I was blessed to have two very able and dedicated assistants. Together, we encouraged our students to go and do things in the field, to learn by doing. At the start, and even into the middle of the term, I wasn’t sure if the students could take the challenge because I didn’t teach the tutorials. It was my TAs, Pauline and Shobha, who received feedback from the students directly because they ran the tutorials. The TAs received so many questions, from 133 different projects. It was very difficult then to manage everyone’s questions. Now that everybody has been turning in their assignments and many of them are fantastic and really, really impressive, I know that the course has run well. Yes, I have had a very rewarding experience,  and would love to have a chance to do it again.

You recently conducted a workshop on “photovoice”. Tell us more about it.

Photovoice is a method, a way of approaching a research question. And it is a way of doing research that fits with my kind of approach for doing community-based work. People love taking photos. Having people take photos of the aspects of their lives eases them to open up and talking about their lives. I’ve done it with lots of populations – with the homeless, with minority students, migrant farm workers from Mexico and Central America, with local people in the state of Washington on issues related to water.

What motivates you to do what you do?

I think my background motivates me, how I grew up, the things that I’ve seen, the people I’ve seen, and just the idea that I want to do some good in the world. I am motivated to do what I do because I think it makes a difference to some lives, to get a listen-to and have a voice at the same time. Money doesn’t motivate me as much as not always letting the most powerful guy win. I’m the guy who says, “Hey, wait a minute! It hurts people”, or “That’s not the best way to do that”.

Any final words for NUS students?

Maybe a million words, but just at the top of my mind now, especially after looking at the photovoice project that you guys (in NM2104) were doing, are, “You can find a balance.” A lot of the images we got from the photovoice project got to do with pressure, feeling stressed in wanting to do well. I see stress to be is like a rubber band. If a rubber band has no stress on it, then it’s useless, it just sits there. But if it has too much stress on it, it snaps. For a rubber band to best serve its purpose, it has to have the right amount of pressure. In our lives, we have to find the right amount of pressure. To have enough pressure to motivate us to do even better work, but also to make space for fun every day. Start by just enjoying the moment, and the balance will come.

Some examples of the photovoice project taken on by students of NM2104 this semester:

By Sherilyn Tan
Primary school girl on the bus in the morning. Later, the bus fills up with more school-going children, all sleepily commuting to school. It is a reminder of how tiring schooling in Singapore can be, even from a young age. The exhaustion escalates to university. Life on campus is a constant struggle of lessons, deadlines and fatigue. In this education system, it is difficult to separate learning from competing. And our lives as students, from primary school to university, are marked more by exhaustion and competition than by how we have grown as persons.

By Suah Jing Yu
This is a view of the College of Alice and Peter Tan at three-thirty in the morning. From where I stand, I can see that most of the students in the residential college, are studying. The scene is a source of motivation for me when I get tired in the night. I take heart in knowing that many other students are in the same plight as me. Their perseverance gives me the encouragement to go on and succeed in achieving what I want.


By Rachel Phua
This is Humble Origins, the only café in FASS. While it doesn’t often get crowded here, it enjoys a steady stream of customers from staff and students alike. The people who come here, come mostly to study. I think it’s because the environment is calming and there’s a variety of caffeinated drinks to choose from. I like to come here on Fridays after my last class to finish up my assignments. It is a quiet place, where I can be alone and treat myself to an expensive cup of coffee or tea. This place helps me to recharge before I head full force into studying again.

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About Gulizar Haciyakupoglu

A PhD Candidate at Communications & New Media Programme, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences
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