SCHOOL OF COMMUNICATION Conversation with the Dean
An international outlook
A Chinese native, Hong Cheng is an expert in the rapidly shifting field of cross-cultural communication. At Loyola University Chicago's School of Communication, where he was appointed dean earlier this year, Cheng will keep students on the cutting edge.
We spoke to Cheng about advertising in China and
What have you been up to since July 1?
Largely, I’m learning about the school, about the University, about the community. I’ve tried to meet with people, basically. The people within the school, the faculty and staff, whoever is available during the summer. But on Day One, I sent a greeting email to everybody and also gave everyone an open invitation: if you are available and interested, I’m willing to meet and chat and learn about you and the wonderful things you’re doing and also about the school and our aspirations.
How much time have you spent in Chicago before?
This is, in some ways, a half-homecoming, if there’s a way to say that, [Laughs] because I started my career in Chicago. Twenty-five years ago, in the summer of 1994, when I finished my dissertation at Penn State University, I got my first job at Bradley University in Peoria. Before I started to teach, I did a faculty internship with WMAQ, Channel 5 in Chicago, in the Loop.
Where did you grow up? How did you get involved in communications in the first place?
I was born and grew up in China. I went to school over there and worked over there. I majored in international journalism, back in Shanghai. In the beginning of the 1990s, that’s when I came to the States as a doctoral student at Penn State’s College of Communications, where I pursued and finished my PhD in mass communications. Before that, I was teaching in Shanghai; I was already on the faculty for international journalism. With a PhD, I got new opportunities here, so that’s why I continued my career in the U.S.
What appealed to you about international journalism in those days?
My undergraduate studies were in English. At that time, international journalism was something very new in my native country. In the entire country, there were only five universities that offered an international journalism degree. My former university happened to be one of them. Almost all of the classes were taught in English rather than Chinese. Most of the typical journalism programs over there at that time, and even today, they are all taught in Chinese. Understandable, right? But to meet the needs of a country that’s opening to the outside world, they need to train journalists who are able to write or cover stories in English. That’s why they started to establish these programs.
One of the reasons that I was interested was because it was a brand-new area. At the same time, I wanted to learn contemporary English—how people who really use English write and speak. Of course, I respect Shakespeare, that type of English. But I know that’s not the English that people in the English-speaking countries really use. [Laughs]. And I was always interested in different cultures and people who are from different parts of the world. International journalism was a career path that could give me the opportunity to explore.
Did you focus on a certain type of journalism?
At that time, I was mainly focused on how to report China to the outside world. That program trained students as foreign correspondents or how to report on China to the outside world, if they are based in China. A lot of new Chinese media were launching at that time, like China Daily in the 1980s. That was started as a national English-language newspaper. I worked with the student newspaper, which was called the Shanghai Student Post. That was run by my university, circulated nationwide. At that time, it was only the second English-language newspaper in the entire country.
That had to have been exciting, to be on the ground floor.
Yes, exactly. Absolutely.
Then you moved into the world of the academy?
I wanted to pursue a PhD; that was my professional and personal dream. Mass communication was an emerging field, at least in China. To be honest, at that time, China was still so isolated from the outside world. Not like today; if you are interested in pursuing an advanced degree or studying overseas, you have so much information. You can find information about any university in the world, literally, by just doing some web surfing.
Back then, it was similar to the rise of digital media or the Internet more recently: even as a discipline, it was not available in any Chinese university at that time. I wanted the latest, the newest. That’s why I decided to pursue a degree outside the country. I applied for some universities in this country and also in Canada, and I got a scholarship at Penn State. Later on, I learned they had a great football team, too! [Laughs]
Why did you decide to stay in the academy after you earned your doctorate? What do you like about working in universities?
I like teaching. I like doing research. To work in academia gives me the best opportunity to do both.
What’s your specialty?
My specialty is international communications, and cross-cultural communication. And on a personal level, I was interested in studying how China is opening to the outside world and adopting a market economy.
When I was in my formative years, I didn’t see any commercial advertising. Before the Cultural Revolution, China did have commercial advertising. It started early last century, in the 1920s and 1930s. I did some studies about that. There were even foreign advertising companies in China at that time. It was growing quite fast. But then, for some reason, it was gone. Political reasons, maybe.
But since the late-1970s, all of the sudden commercial advertising came into being. There was an advertising renaissance in the country, when China reopened to the outside world. Today, it’s become the second-largest advertising industry in the world, after the United States.
So in that sense, when I started my doctorate program, advertising was just in that early phase, coming back to China. It was a new phenomenon. And the United States is regarded as the world capital of advertising. Why not take advantage of both? I happened to have some very good professors at Penn State who were very interested in international cross-culture advertising, they were experts in that. So I focused my dissertation on advertising, basically with a focus on international cross-cultural aspects.