Getting to Know Your CMNS Faculty: Sarah Ganter

July 04, 2023

Sarah Ganter has recently received tenure at the School of Communication! She is an expert in the areas of media governance and media policy in the digital era, content industries, comparative and cross-border research. Her expertise includes analyzing media and digital policy transformations from a theoretical perspective that focuses on the dynamics and interactions shaping institutional fields.

We sat down with Sarah to learn all about her journey.

You just receieved news of your tenure. Congratulations! How do you feel?

It’s interesting because the exhaustion that comes with tenure is real, but of course there is also a lot of feeling grateful and excited about what lies ahead. It will for sure take some time to understand what tenure means in real professional live and for me personally. There are many myths around tenure, I am sure it will be interesting to see what holds true for me and what not.

Tell us about your academic journey.

It’s a long story! When I started studying in Germany, the financial side was a problem for me and that is in a system where you pay no to very little money for being enrolled in university and where you can get BAföG, a student credit provided by the state and you only have to repay a portion of it. I lived of just under 300 Euro per month at the beginning. Looking back at that time, it was hard, but doing it, I thought it was normal. I worked all sorts of jobs to gain some extra money, and it was difficult to focus on my studies. In my second year, a friend convinced me to apply to the Friedrich Ebert Foundation Scholarship, which would provide me with a stable monthly income and some extra money for books, plus access to training programs with other students across Germany and access to networks with people working in professions I aspired to. Getting that scholarship was a key turning point for me. I could focus on my studies and be part of an inspiring network. This gave me a different perspective about studying altogether. It embedded what I was being exposed to in the coursework into a wider context. The scholarship would also help me to do my degrees and research in Argentina and the UK – I could have never done that without the scholarship!

Scholarly, my first degree was very interdisciplinary; I would take classes in political sciences, linguistics, history, macro- and micro economics, international relations, Spanish literature, Latin American civilization. Until today, this variety of exposure has a deep impact on how I approach research projects and life in general. I turned to media and communication studies after my first time in Argentina. There I had witnessed the emerging media reform movement. People were out on the streets, protesting for a reform of the media system, newspapers were writing about the reform project. The fact that people were discussing actively a reform of the media system was something totally new for me. It blew my mind. I really wanted to understand why this reform project – to say it with Guillermo Mastrini – was ‘making so much noise’ and people seemed to put so much hope into it. Back in Germany, I spent a lot of time in the library and more or less stumbled over two books that have triggered my early interest into media governance: Manuel Puppis' Medienpolitik: Grundlagen für Wissenschaft und Praxis and Nancy Morris’ and Silvio Waisbord’s Media and Globalization: Why the State Matters. I went back to Argentina and did qualitative interviews there and ended up writing my first thesis on the Entanglements between Argentinean Media and Politics during Nestor Kirchner’s tenure. That’s all so long ago, but it was critical for everything that happened afterwards, including deciding to do an MA in international communication at the University of Leeds and even only entertaining the thought of doing a PhD, which I ended up doing at the Department of Journalism and Communication at the University of Vienna. I had a couple of options choosing both the MA and the PhD programs and then later when going for a Post-Doc/Assistant Professorship. Deciding where to go and what to do next was always informed by (1) can I afford it? (2) is it sustainable in a long-term perspective when taking into account my personal background and situation? (3) what type of work would I get to develop? (4) Will I have a chance to learn about working in academia? It’s also important to say that during all this time, I did a row of internships in the journalism/ political consultancy/ political PR sector, and it was always fun. Regardless, I still decided to go for a PhD and then to apply for postdocs and faculty positions. However, having had that practical exposure was and still is really important for me. It’s important to know how work outside of academia looks like and also to know there are other options you would enjoy.

Why did you choose this profession? Did you always know you wanted to be in academia?

Very few people would always have known they wanted to be in academia. Typically, these are people who grew up with academics in their families or inner circles. Otherwise, there is no choosing academia because of how difficult it is to really come to terms with what being an academic means in everyday life. For me personally, when I first started university in Germany, I had no idea what I was getting into. My parents did not have the opportunity to get higher education and there were many myths around studying running in my family. I also remember attending lectures at the Universität Passau with 300 to 400 other people, and 97% of the time the person standing in front of us was a male. Once after a lecture a fellow student said: “One day it’s going to be us in front,” and I really could not understand why he would say that. I first thought he meant sitting in front (we were often sitting on the stairs, as the lecture hall was just so extremely crowded), but no, he meant lecturing in front. I just could not imagine why or how I could get there.

Four degrees later, and I finally felt equipped and knew that I would like being in academia. But I always had a plan B. I just had understood early enough how uncertain this career is and that nothing is granted, and it was also really difficult to get that full picture of what working in academia means on an everyday basis. However, I must say that when I tell my childhood or university friends that I am a professor now, funnily enough, the response is often: “I saw it coming.” But by how they say it I am not sure if they mean that in a positive way or not. If you think about it, I moved continents to be tenured at this stage in my life. It’s a massive sacrifice.

Tell us about your current areas of research.

My area of specialization is media, communication and cultural policies. In my work in this area, I offer global perspectives toward understanding institutional change, platforms and agency. Often working with and aiming at enhancing neo-institutionalism and governance theories. Topically a lot of my work has dealt with the rise of big platforms and their impact on the media ecology. In that I combine different subfields within media and communication studies, including policy, media industries and journalism studies. I do, for example, look at how political and economic conditions in different countries affect journalistic organizations and what strategies they use to protect themselves against attacks. When it comes to the rise of platforms a lot of my work focuses on the dynamic relationships between journalistic organizations, states and platforms and its impacts on the media ecology. Some of my emerging research also deals with the impact Covid-19 has had on the cultural industries, there I look at patterns of cultural consumption in everyday life, and the dynamics of the (lack of) digital adaptations both within organizations and on the side of the audiences. Overall, in my work, I bring in ideas from journalism studies, political sciences, sociology and economics to better understand how dynamics in institutional fields play out and what they mean at all individual, organizational and socio-political level.

What is the proudest achievement of your career so far?

The biggest achievement are definitely the meaningful connections and friendships with people that I have been meeting along the way so far. It was, for example, very joyful being at the ICA in Toronto this year and seeing many of my academic friends that I had not seen in such a long time because of the pandemic. Catching up with them just showed me that it’s those meaningful connections that will stick over time and that matter.

What is your favourite thing about teaching?

Having the privilege to witness how students develop and articulate their ideas and how they learn from setbacks and progress over time.

What strategies did you use to succeed in grad school?

There is no recipe for success. My situation was very different from the one graduate students at SFU encounter. In Vienna I was employed by the university as a pre-doctoral researcher on a 75% contract that was set out for four years and paid me just under 1300 Euro after tax. In exchange, I had to teach up to two classes independently per term and provide all sorts of research assistantship while also working on my thesis. In general, it’s important to understand what grad school is for. It’s studying, researching, writing, learning how to publish, networking, understanding academia better so one can make an informed decision about whether it’s for oneself. It’s important to have a personal live, people who support you and hobbies. I would recommend to put your head down and do your work and to not worry too much about how and why other graduate students are doing what they are doing. Everyone has their own trajectory, different conditions, challenges and skills.

What has been your favourite SFU memory so far?

I appreciate the Dallas Smythe Lectures our school holds. This year’s edition with Paula Chakravartty was fantastic, but it was also a great honor to be invited to moderate the lecture with Sara Bannerman a few years back, that was a lot of fun. Many people from outside SFU and even outside of Canada still mention it to me.

What is the best aspect of your profession?

There are a few things, but my top two are that there are frequently opportunities to hang out with smart people and to learn from them. Second that I’m allowed to be curious and explore questions that others would not have the time nor resources to think about.

What project are you working on?

I always have a few projects on my table. At the moment I’m running a super interesting round of qualitative interviews to understand what shapes the evolving platform policies in Canada. I do that with support of Marie Sophie Reichhardt, who is the research assistant on the project. I am very excited about seeing that develop. It’s not always easy to get access to good data but we are on an excellent way. I look forward to start analyzing the data soon!

What motivates you every morning?

With a toddler at home, no motivation is needed!

What book do you have on your nightstand?

Minnie Driver’s autobiography Managing Expectations. It’s all hilarious, sad, inspiring, surreal and beautifully written.

What advice do you have for students?

I recommend to align your studies with your personal interests and experiences and everything will flow easier.