Changemaker - Dr Rob Cover BA UWA

Discipline Chair / Associate Professor, Media and Communication Studies, UWA

Rob Cover

About Rob

Originally educated at UWA in English and History, Rob completed his PhD in media theory and queer theory at Monash University (Melbourne) and subsequently taught media studies and cultural studies at Monash and the University of Melbourne, before returning to UWA as an academic in 2012.

He also taught at Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand; 2003-2005) and The University of Adelaide (2008-2011). He worked professionally as a freelance journalist in the late 1990s and early 2000s and as a communication strategist and consultant for the Queensland Government 2006-2007. This was a deliberate interruption to his academic work, to gain practical knowledge, skill and familiarity with the key graduate destinations in his areas of teaching.

Rob has written for a range of publications and online sites, in addition to publishing creative fiction.

In 1998 he was a Writer-in-Residence at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers' Centre (Western Australia). He is Visiting Teaching Fellow at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, and has been leading innovations in collaborative teaching with partner institutions in India and East Asia, particularly through real-time video-conferencing of classes.

Research focus

My research focuses on the relationship between contemporary media cultures (including digital communication), identity and belonging, with a particular emphasis on minorities and vulnerable youth. I have published over fifty journal articles and chapters on these topics, and recent books include Queer Youth Suicide, Culture and Identity: Unliveable Lives? (Ashgate, 2012) and Vulnerability & Exposure: Footballer Scandals, Masculine Identity and Ethics (UWAP, 2015) and Digital Identity: Creating and Communicating the Online Self (Elsevier, forthcoming). I’m a chief investigator on an ARC Discovery research project with a team from across Australia exploring the forms of support, both historical and current, utilised by LGBTI young persons across Australia.

I’ve been UWA discipline chair for eight months, a role I was invited to take on to reform and build the Media and Communication discipline to its next level. The disciplinary area is relatively new, both at UWA and at Go8 institutions across Australia, meaning it does not always have the strength, stability and clarity of purpose of many of the older disciplines such as history or sociology.

My mission is to build on existing strengths and create some additional clarity in the undergraduate program by bringing together media theory, history, analysis and practical/production work. At many institutions these are separate: a student picks up some production or practical writing skills and is exposed to theory as a sort of ‘add on’. The strength of our program is a clear understanding that the best media practitioners—whether journalists, creative media producers, public relations professionals or communication strategists—are those who make real and genuine use of knowledge, theory, history, and cultural understanding to create media that are innovative and engaging. We are also building a strong research culture for our growing cohort of research postgraduates, particularly in collaboration with other WA universities.

Care for one another

One thing I am trying to do in my work is promote understanding of the ubiquity of vulnerability; something human beings share from our very beginning of life—before we can speak, before we are social beings and before we even have identities we are wholly dependent on belonging. And this does not change throughout life. Vulnerability is something we share, and we need to recognise the vulnerability of each other in order to treat each other ethically and with care. Some groups, individuals, identities and lives are more precarious than others.

Part of my work is finding ways to make genuine and effective use of online, digital communication to foster resilience for those who are more vulnerable. This is something that has to occur carefully. Because digital communication is cheap, it is sometimes used to marginalise those who need support. It can have real benefits, too, particularly by providing a space to share ideas that foster inclusiveness and develop resilience and the ability to adapt and respond to adversity.

Vulnerability is a key to understanding how we can promote ethical behaviours. In my recent book Vulnerability and Exposure, I address the ways in which media scandals involving male sport celebrities‘ abuse of women, including group abuse, have opened up a space to re-frame the cultural problems that cause unethical behaviour.

By focusing on footballers’ own vulnerability — to match losses, to public exposure, to bodily injury — we can help them appreciate the vulnerability of those around them, including those who are harmed by unethical behaviour, whether that is violence, sexual assault, homophobia, racism, bullying or other scandalous actions.

For research to produce genuine social and cultural change in identified areas where it is needed most – which, for me, often relates to the non-belonging of minorities and marginalised groups – work needs to happen at multiple levels. Research, public policy, open discussion and action must all come together in leading more complex, critical and nuanced ways of addressing social issues like suicide, masculinity and gender/sexuality.

All of this needs to filter through to the next generation. We do this by involving students at all levels, whether first-year undergraduates, coursework masters students or PhD candidates. I’m very fortunate that many of my students go on to become media practitioners and creative producers, meaning that the ideas they have been exposed to while studying here inform some of their own. These ideas circulate in new ways among new audiences.

Understanding vulnerability

Since my 2012 book Unliveable Lives, I’ve been looking at how we can better respond to suicide by understanding the social complexities shared among different groups, including Indigenous, detained asylum seeker and LGBTI people. While very different, these groups all have a higher rate of suicide than the general population and are notable for being among the few groups thought to be suicidal as the result of social rather than individual psychological factors. Media representation likewise tends to portray the suicides of marginalised identities as a response to non-belonging, rather than internal factors.

This is important, not only because it helps prevention and intervention service providers to target social factors, but also because it drives social policy change. Marginalisation - particularly when felt through a lack of connection with ‘the future’ — can be understood as, quite literally, causing death.

There are some dangers in media representation of suicides among marginalised groups, given that many people stereotype and self-stereotype. Marginalised identities become linked in public dialogue to an idea of suicidality, and that, can set the conditions for further suicides as a kind of ‘social logic’ or ‘expectation’.

Digital media opens up a greater range of tools for understanding identity and social issues and can, at times, be instrumental in combatting stereotypes, and my even prevent suicides. Marginalised groups need good access but have very limited among many remote communities and immigration detention centres. This is a communications infrastructure problem: accessibility, digital skills and the digital divide. The lack of access increases vulnerability, and can be seen, here, as an unethical act of ‘making vulnerable’, particularly when it relates to liveability.