By Sydney Hauer
In her time at UNI, Bettina Fabos, a professor in the Communication Studies department and founder of the Interactive Digital Studies program, has served as an agent of change, innovation, and connections on campus.
After growing up in Amherst, Massachusetts, a college town that is home to five universities, Fabos said she is happy to have found herself settled in Iowa, especially because of the unpretentiousness of Iowans.
“I really like Iowa because of it. It makes me think, it makes me breathe, it makes me creative in a way that I don’t feel pressure and judgment. I really love teaching Iowa students because they’re incredibly gifted and they lack arrogance and they tend to be really good people. It’s just a really big privilege to be at UNI.”
Fabos attended Oberlin College in Ohio for her undergraduate education and studied English literature. Then she moved back to Massachusetts and worked as a fact-checker and art assistant for New England Monthly magazine and as a reporter for the Daily Hampshire Gazettte newspaper. After experiencing some uncertainty, she moved to Switzerland for a year. It was there that she became involved with videography and documentary filmmaking.
Upon returning from Switzerland, Fabos attended the University of Michigan to earn a master’s degree in telecommunication arts. There, she met her husband, Chris Martin, another graduate student in the department. As Fabos finished up her master’s degree (and Martin was still in his Ph.D. program), she started teaching. She was hired as an adjunct instructor at the university and really enjoyed the work.
In 1995, Fabos and Martin moved to Cedar Falls together after Martin accepted a job at UNI.
After two years of teaching as an adjunct instructor, Fabos decided to pursue her own Ph.D in language, literacy, and culture at the University of Iowa.
“I wanted something marketable and broad that combined communication and education,” Fabos said.
After receiving her doctorate, she was hired full-time at UNI in 2002.
In 2005, Fabos and Martin relocated to Oxford, Ohio, after accepting teaching jobs at Miami University of Ohio.
“We were at Miami of Ohio for two years. It was supposed to be this big, huge, positive change, but it turned out that we really missed what we had at UNI."
Two new positions opened in Communication Studies at UNI in 2007. Martin and Fabos interviewed and were selected, enabling them to return.
“So we came back here, and we decided to recreate ourselves.”
Fabos took what she learned during her time teaching in Ohio and applied it by developing a new interdisciplinary program, Interactive Digital Studies (IDS), with the help of John Fritch, the department head at the time and now the dean of the College of Humanities, Arts and Sciences. The development of IDS began in 2007, and the program launched in 2012.
“I just planted one seed, and a lot of other people planted with me,” she said.
The IDS program allows students to take courses in different departments across campus and hand-select focus areas from eight different bundles that match their specific interests. Examples include digital visualization, digital imaging, digital music and digital writing.
Fabos said that she loves working with her IDS colleagues that she has gotten to know all over campus.
“It spreads you. I love that,” Fabos said. “People sometimes call me a connector. My big talent apparently is that I’m really good at connecting people. I’m really good at connecting students, I’m really good at connecting faculty; I love finding people who don’t know each other that are both magical people and who can make things happen. It’s like a matchmaker, but with skills.”
She claims that her love for connecting people together stems from her love of community building and the satisfaction of watching it unfold.
In addition to founding the IDS program, Fabos is heavily involved in a couple of other projects, one being “Proud and Torn,” a digital timeline and visual memoir of her family’s history in Hungary, mainly focused on her father and aunt.
Fabos spent six months in Hungary beginning the project. One third of the project's images come from Fortepan (fortepan.hu), a digital photo archive comprised of images contributed by Hungarian citizens that account their family history. All of the images are available for common use and are free to download.
“We wanted to tell a complicated story in a very visual way,” Fabos said. “My father was ultimately stuck in the middle of this communist regime and his family got labeled enemies of the state. Their family farm was taken away at gunpoint by an authoritarian government. I like to tell the story because it’s an important study of how fragile and important democracy is.”
After being inspired by the Fortepan archive and the images it offered to the creative collective, Fabos, with the help of colleagues Noah Doely, Sergey Golitsynskiy, and Leisl Carr-Childers decided to launch an Iowa version, Fortepan Iowa, comprised of photographs that capture the history of the everyday people of Iowa.
“Iowa history is about everybody,” Fabos said. “We are acknowledging that the history of everyday people is just as legitimate as any official history.”
Fabos encourages anyone to have their family photos scanned to become a part of the collection.
“You can tell the story of your family through these photos. I’m just saying, this archive is out there to be used by anyone, too.”