© Brooke E. Duffy and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Duffy was interviewed by Justin Dowdall on August 22nd, 2012
Dr. Brooke Duffy is an Assistant Professor in Temple University’s Department of Advertising and a faculty member in the School of Media and Communication’s Mass Media & Communication doctoral program. Her research interests include media industry convergence, advertising and cultural production, gender/feminist studies of media, and online consumer culture. In addition to co-editing Key Readings in Media Today: Mass Communication in Contexts (Routledge, 2008), she has published several journal articles and book chapters and presented more than a dozen peer-reviewed conference papers. Dr. Duffy is currently working on two book projects. The first peels back the curtain on the women’s magazine industry to show how producers are redefining their industries, their roles, their audiences, and their products in an era of media convergence. She is also co-authoring a book on Media Industries with Joseph Turow as part of Routledge’s “Key Ideas in Media and Cultural Studies” series. Dr. Duffy completed her Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication in 2011.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
Let me answer the second part of that question first: the decision to become a professor was much more of an organic process rather than a conscious choice. As an undergrad, I developed an interest research, and I was particularly fascinated by what was going on in the media world at that time. I had to do an independent research project for my senior thesis, and this sparked a curiosity about some of the very same issues I study today: media and advertising relations, gender roles, and popular culture. After graduating, I worked in media relations and external affairs at two research universities; one of my responsibilities was to report on and promote faculty research projects—groundbreaking scholarship, very fascinating stuff. At the same time that I was working, I was also taking courses toward a master’s degree. So that gave me the chance to resume some of the topics that inspired me as an undergrad. Together, these experiences crystallized my interest in research, and so I decided to apply to a Ph.D. program in communication. Back then, I imagined I would pursue a career in media policy—perhaps be involved in the FCC in some way.
I didn’t really consider the idea of teaching until my third year of graduate school, when I was serving as a teaching assistant for a professor who asked each of us to prepare and deliver a full lecture. The course was held in a huge lecture hall with about one hundred and thirty students, and I recall being completely terrified at the time! I was so relieved when it was over, and it ended up going quite well—at least from my perspective. That experience ended up being a game-changer, so to speak. It was so rewarding to go in there, provide students with new information, and get them engaged with these issues…it ignited an interest in teaching that I didn’t expect. The next summer, I taught my own course—media and society—and loved it. It made me realize that while I wanted to work at a research institution, I also wanted to be at a place where I could enjoy the rewards of teaching. So you can see I made this career decision in a sort of round about way. I think that’s often how these things go.
Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what were some of the important lessons you learned from them?
In grad school, I was fortunate enough to learn from some truly brilliant scholars—people who literally shaped the communication field. Yet by far the most influential was my academic advisor, Joe Turow, who I worked with for several semesters. I think one of the most useful things that he encouraged me to do was. Well, there are many things in fact. One was to always think about the “so what” question of a research project. When you’re doing research on this niche subject, it can be difficult to think about the larger issues embedded in the project. For instance, how is your work engaging with or helping to address these larger concepts in the field? What does this mean to people outside your narrow subject interest? What is the big picture of why this matters? Again, what is the “so what” of all of this? By asking me these questions, he forced me to think more broadly about how I approached research.
Yet, more importantly, he showed me the value of media/ad industries research—and he is certainly a leading scholar in this area. If you think about the traditional way of dividing media research into industry, audience, and text analyses, the former often gets put on the back burner. Maybe it’s just overlooked or maybe because of the perception that it is harder to collect data—to find media producers who are willing to talk with you and share their work practices. And, indeed, it’s much more intimidating to study media executives and creators than to look at the content of a magazine or a TV show. But he helped me to understand why research on media production and the producers themselves is so valuable—decisions about the creation of media materials undeniably impact our understanding of our social world. Yes, he’s been a huge influence.
Katherine Sender also shaped how I think about and study the creative industries, specifically producers’ assumptions about audiences. It was also because of her that I began to think more critically about the gender dynamics embedded in media producer/audience hierarchies. This truly impacted the direction of my own work. She was also very open and reflective about her research experiences—I learned a lot from that. On a personal level, she encouraged me, and I hate this term, but to think outside the box. I came in and had a particular idea of what I wanted to research, and I think working with her pushed me in a different direction. You can’t just do the same things over and over, “so you’re comfortable studying XYZ and that’s great, but what are you not comfortable with?” And inevitably, that forces you into new and exciting territory. I think having someone challenge you in that kind of way, not letting you take the easy route, helps you end up with a more productive, interesting and well rounded project.
Inside the classroom, how do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by fractured attention and information overload?
Keeping students’ attention is absolutely a challenge. Knowing that you are not just competing with traditional factors for their attention (whatever else is going on in their minds at that moment), but also with personal technologies brought into the classroom—smartphones and laptops, texting and Facebook—is incredibility difficult. And there seems to be a mentality shift accompanying these technologies. A few years ago, Nicholas Carr wrote this article, “Is Google making us stupid?” that contemplates if our brains are being rewired because we are increasingly accessing huge amounts to data that we consume in short bits. Our attention span may actually be getting shorter, and information overload is central to this. Although there are different debates about this issue, I do think it’s something to be aware of in the classroom. The best approach, or at least the one I’ve tried to utilize, is to work with this mentality of fractured attention rather than try to work against it.
When I’m teaching, I try to move fluidly between lectures, discussions, and examples, and if students are not engaged, I try to bring attention back by doing something that takes advantage of these different multimedia capabilities—showing a clip from YouTube or pulling up an online article or image. These can all be a huge asset in the classroom as long as they complement, not supplant the lectures. At the same time, I think the instructor’s attitude plays a key role in the success of the classroom experience. I’ve had a lot of fun teaching this past year at Temple, and I think that makes a big difference to students—they can tell that you want to be there. The feedback I’ve gotten from students is they appreciate the anecdotes, jokes, and so forth. Of course, it’s a balance because you need to make sure you are communicating the information. But if they can tell you’re having fun, they are more likely to enjoy the classroom experience, too.
In 2009, Francis Fukuyama wrote a controversial article for the Washington Post entitled “What are your arguments for or against tenure track?” In it, Fukuyama argues that the tenure system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country, making younger untenured professors fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow sub-discipline. In short, Fukuyama believes the freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious, but thinks it’s time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually. Since then, there has been a considerable amount of debate about this sensitive issue, both inside and outside the university. Do you agree with the author? What are your arguments for and/or against academic tenure?
I only have one year behind me as a tenure-track faculty member, so I surely don’t have the insight of some of the other Figure/Ground collaborators. But I do believe Fukuyama overlooks the variances in the tenure system—across and even within different institutions. There are certainly different expectations about tenure based upon the university and discipline, so it’s problematic to talk about it as a unified system. Beyond this, I disagree with his argument that tenure is making the academy more conservative—the stability afforded by the tenure system allows scholars to take more intellectual risks. He seems to assume this won’t happen with senior scholars, but I don’t see evidence of this. Like anything, I’m sure the system could be improved, but I can’t see how abolishing tenure would be a positive thing. I think the real upshot of the scenario Fukuyama suggests would hurt the academy and increase the reliance on flexible and contingent labor pools.
In January, 2011 Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa published Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, sparking a debate of the apparent loss of value of college education. As a professor what role do you believe the student plays in maximizing his or her college experience vs. the role of educators and administrators play in creating a productive learning environment?
Let me preface this by saying while I am aware of some of the authors’ findings, I haven’t yet read the full book. So I hope I’m not overlooking any of the core arguments. But I think it’s hard to argue with the claim that the American higher education system has changed drastically in recent years—and not for the better. It’s in a very fragile state, and a great deal has circulated in the press about the “crisis in higher education.” We now have the unprecedented growth of these for-profit institutions, and more professionally oriented programs are pushing out, for instance, liberal arts curricula. It’s really hard for people to find academic jobs too—there are really smart people with Ph.D.’s who are forced to take adjunct positions to make ends meet. Lots of budget cuts, too. What I think we can take away from this situation is that the devaluing of higher education is an institutional problem—bound up with larger, political-economic issues. So I don’t think you can really blame educators OR students. It obviously becomes more difficult to create a productive learning environment under these constraints. So what can be done? Well the institutional problem is certainly way too complex for a simple answer. But here is where it falls on students and educators to think more fundamentally about the college experience—and expectations. Sure, you need to think practically about career placement and job preparation—you have to adapt. But I don’t think we educators should let go of some of the fundamental skills that go beyond a specific career—writing, critical thinking, and the learning process. For students, this means not taking the easy way out. Of course, all of this is a lot easier said than done.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors, and who are the thinkers today that you believe young scholars should be reading?
The advice I would give is to take advantage of the opportunities you are afforded as a graduate student—being part of an intellectual community, learning from leaders in the field, networking, receiving support from your fellow grad students, even traveling. It’s easy to take these things for granted, but they are designed to foster more well-rounded, educated, and creative scholars. In terms of practical advice, I think you need to be strategic about your selection of a dissertation topic. Even though I don’t believe a dissertation is something that should define you, it is the project you take with you when embark on the job search. So make sure it’s marketable for whatever type of position you want—whether academic, policy, consulting, whatever.
The issue of “important thinkers” is an interesting one. In graduate school, there was a lot of discussion about whether there should be a set of canonic texts for the field of communication; Elihu Katz even co-edited a book on the topic, and led a seminar on the topic. While I do think that graduate students should be exposed to some of the foundational thinkers in their discipline, they should also work to develop their own set of “canonic texts” in their chosen sub-field. A lot of great stuff has been published on the topics of convergence culture and cultural production in recent years. I recommend the work of Mark Andrejevic, Mark Deuze, Joe Turow, Henry Jenkins, Laura Grindstaff, David Hesmondhalgh as well as recent coedited volumes by Vicki Mayer, Miranda J. Banks, John T Caldwell and by Jennifer Holt and Alissa Perren. I found it really helpful to bring these works into conversation with earlier writings-by Bourdieu of course but also Dallas Smythe. Also, Aymar Jean Christian has put together a fantastic list located on his blog.
How do you see the field of mass communication changing?
The field is relatively young compared to something like philosophy or sociology or history; most people trace the founding of the communication field to the post World War II era. For this reason alone, it’s an exciting discipline because so much remains to be discovered. Yet the last few years have witnessed a fundamental transformation in the nature of mass communication: technologies are being developed, introduced, and improved at a dizzying rate. These social and technological shifts are unraveling common assumptions about what a media producer is versus what a media consumer is—and they are casting up many other questions along the way. So the field will be shaped by the ways in which scholars approach new technologies—but also the way they bring these together with original concepts that defined the field—power and influence, identity, and culture.
From your perspective, what issues should young female students – specifically women communication scholars – be concerned about in this media moment. And where do you believe feminist media scholarship should be heading?
Like media scholarship in general, feminist media scholarship needs to be and, to a certain extent, is being updated to take account of the explosion of digital media practices. There is a general assumption that technology is fostering flexible work patterns and online communities, both of which are seen as beneficial to women. The internet has been heralded as this great equalizing force. However, I think it’s important for feminist media scholars to study and challenge these assumptions. Are women truly being empowered by the shift to digital media and contingent labor—or are these technologies and tools reaffirming traditional gender hierarchies? How might these be used for other forms of political progress?
What are you currently working on?
I study media and cultural production with a particular emphasis on the women’s magazine, advertising, and digital media industries. I’m interested in how the individuals that work in these industries are responding to the shifting economies and technologies of media in the early twenty-first century—and what this means for us; by “us,” I mean the consumers of media and promotional messages.
I’m currently finishing up a book that explores how the women’s magazine industry is evolving under the logic of media convergence, where the boundaries between producers and consumers and between different media are blurring. Specifically, it chronicles this shift in print culture and technology from the magazine as object to the magazine as brand. It’s tentatively titled Remake, Remodel: Women’s Magazines in the Digital Age, and it draws upon in-depth interviews with women’s magazine producers, an examination of hundreds of trade press reports, and attendance at industry summits.
I also started a new project this summer on the culture of fashion blogging. While much has been written on the ways in which these blogs are impacting—or “democratizing”—the business of fashion, they are also impacting relations between advertisers and publishers and between (mostly female) producers and consumers. I’ve been looking at the ways in which fashion bloggers talk about their identities as individuals, professionals, and members of a community, and I’m finding that both internal and external discourse on bloggers relies upon mythical notions of authenticity, amateurism, and editorial independence. This coming year, I’ll be looking at how audience feedback impacts bloggers’ and media professionals’ creative products; I’ll be doing this as a member of a newly formed working group on “Evaluating Creative Production in Digital Environments.”
I was wondering if you could talk a bit more about the process of writing and submitting your book? Do you have any advice for future authors?
The manuscript I am finishing up began as my dissertation—and this seems to be a common trajectory for newly minted Ph.Ds. However, I think the most important thing to realize is that a book and a dissertation are two very different things. That is, the process of going from a dissertation into a ready-to-review manuscript requires substantial rethinking and revising: you need to make broader claims, you need to rely less on what others say and work to establish your own voice. There is this great book that several senior scholars recommended to me by William Germano, called From Dissertation to Book. It encourages you to push your ideas beyond the specific context—so what are the larger issues and how can you make this relevant to an audience beyond your dissertation committee? It also has some very practical tips—such as renaming chapter titles, condensing the literature review (again, emphasize your own contributions), and even deciding what format (book vs. article) is the best fit for your project.
One useful piece of advice I received was to see your dissertation as a resource that helps you write a new book, rather than just trying to tweak the existing project. So you need to be prepared to undertake revisions, including letting go of some parts you might be really attached to. However, it’s also crucial to set a goal for completion because you can keep revising, revising, revising—and never get it circulated to a larger audience. So that raises the question of, when should you start the revision process? I’ve heard some people say that after you finish your dissertation, take a long break and come back to it with a new perspective; others say just keep working. I took the second route because I think that once you take a break, it can be hard to resume that particular mindset. I find it productive to pursue a project while it’s still fresh in your mind–especially if you’re writing on any kind of topic that has to do with digital media. Things change so rapidly and go out of date so quickly that it seems useful to push though get it done–and then move on to your next project!
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