Associate Professor Riyad Shahjahan extends the scholarly debates on global university rankings (GUR) through visual analysis of GUR websites.

In his latest project, Associate Professor Riyad Shahjahan extends the scholarly debates on global university rankings (GUR) through visual analysis of GUR websites. This project follows one of his recently published works in the Comparative Education Review, “Attempting to imagine the unimaginable: A decolonial reading of global university rankings,” in which he and co-authors Gerardo Blanco Ramirez and Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti (2017) explored what GURs would look like, and whether they would exist, from decolonial perspectives. Subsequently, he was inspired to do further work examining global rankings and found few scholars had examined how GUR websites construct meaning and values of higher education in their visual imagery. Given the expansive viewerships of such websites and the power of visuals in shaping cultural meanings and motivating behavior, Shahjahan recognized this as a significant gap that made critical analysis all the more important. He embarked on the present project alongside his research assistant, Annabelle Estera.

Visual methods were a new venture for both Shahjahan and Estera. To begin, they collected images from the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and US News and World Report Global University Rankings websites, which mostly consisted of images found in news, blogs, and advice articles. They focused their analysis on “students,” given their primacy in the images. 

To analyze the images, they drew upon Stuart Hall’s (1997a, 1997b) concepts of representation and Kress and van Leeuwen’s (2006) visual grammars. Hall prompts the consideration of how meanings become stable and fixed within webs of power relations, and how actors like GURs with diverse investments in representations work to ‘fix’ meanings. On the other hand, Kress and van Leeuwen’s (2006) visual grammars provides tools to interpret how different elements conveyed messages about the relationships (a) between the viewer and objects in the image and (b) these relationships between elements in the given image. Such interpretations can be made through noting features such as the angle from where the image is taken and where attention is drawn to in the image. Based on this conceptual framework, Shahjahan and Estera asked: 

How do GURs websites constitute and normalize race, gender, and other social markers through visualization of students in higher education?

Overall, Shahjahan and Estera found student representations were informed by Whiteness (i.e., referring to a global racial discourse, supported by material practices and institutions that benefits and privileges White people (Leonardo, 2002)). They found multiple ways in which Whiteness was operating. In regards to representations, White students were afforded a range of representations, while people of Color were limited in contrast. For instance, Arab visual imagery consistently included social markers of particular clothing styles and backdrops, despite the region’s diversity, and Asians were tied to STEM fields. “Whitewashing” was also present in a number of images, wherein images showed White students even though the corresponding article focused on a person of Color (Gabriel, 1998). An analysis of visual grammars operating revealed that even when racial and gender diversity were present within an image, visual grammars overwhelmingly still positioned White people and men as central to the image, which was made clear in numerous instances. For example, White people and men would be performing an action in the image, while others would be passive observers.