© Bruce Gronbeck and Figure/Ground Communication.
Dr. Gronbeck was interviewed via Skype by Laureano Ralon on February 23rd, 2012.
Dr. Bruce Gronbeck is A. Craig Baird Distinguished Professor (Emeritus) of Public Address, Television and Politics, Rhetoric and Media Studies at the University of Iowa. He works primarily in the area of rhetorical and media studies, with particular interests in contemporary television and politics. He teaches and writes about American cultural studies and the evolution of rhetorical thought, especially from the 18th century to the present.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
Yes, I decided to become a professor on purpose. I certainly considered other careers: I had a West Point appointment and thought of getting a free Engineering degree from the government, although that was the Vietnam era and it wouldn’t have been a good choice ultimately; I thought of Theological studies – I liked debating those kinds of issues –, and I had a nice fellowship to work in Theater to go to the University of Minnesota and work part-time at the Guthrie Theater. However, by the end of my undergraduate years I was strongly attracted to teaching. I liked the idea of an intellectual life combined with helping young people understand and learn how to act effectively in the world, and that became a conscious choice.
Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?
I picked the University of Iowa for my graduate work because of the range of kinds of minds I could work with in pursuing studies in rhetorical and communication theory and practice. One was Donald C. Bryant, an eminent historian of British political rhetoric – one of the top two or three in the United States, who spent a lot of time working in British libraries. He taught me an awful lot about analyzing communication in situ, in process; about how to understand what we learned to call later the rhetorical situation, as well as the demands upon and expectations of communicators in ways of analyzing their messages.
A second important mentor was a man named Douglas Ehninger; he was a theorist of rhetoric and argumentation, and he is the one who really pushed me hard into systematic theorization. He didn’t think I was very good at it, but thought that that should be an important part of my life. He is also the one who introduced me to Marshall McLuhan. As a matter of fact, my first publication was a small essay on McLuhan I had done in one of his classes in the mid 60s, and he ultimately got me hired back from the University of Michigan to the University of Iowa to work with him.
The third was a man who just turned 90 now, Samuel Becker, an intellectual who knows how to ask and pursue interesting questions. If a question isn’t interesting; if it isn’t relevant to how we live in the work, he wouldn’t go after it – and that has left a great impression on me.
Joshua Meyrowitz’ thesis in No Sense of Place is that when media change, situations and roles change. In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
I think it evolved almost cataclysmically, and it’s been a phenomenal period in American higher education to be a university professor. I thought when I was going into the professoriate that I’d live this nice, detached, intellectually dense, independent, free-thinking professional life. I started in 18th century British political studies, where you could almost live that way very nicely (enjoy your time doing that kind of work); but then I started teaching at the University of Michigan in the late sixties, which was one of those campuses that threatened to burn down almost every week because of the amount of political activity. The students there really challenged you constantly to make what you are teaching relevant to their lives; for you as a faculty member to live an examined life – that if you aren’t committed to understanding, in those times, racism, the power of government to wage war and so on, if you weren’t ready to take a position and live it out, they weren’t going to take classes from you – and they were would to boycott you for good measure.
So that drive in Michigan in the late 60s and early 70s of seeking reform and revolution really began to put an awful lot of pressure for me personally, even as the university was changing with the cry in the late 60s for relevance. At the time there was a President of what was then the Speech Communication of America who travelled the country lecturing on the tyranny of relevance. And I understood what she meant, and yet, it rang hallow given the life that I was living. I think where I kind of ended up in that period was understanding that intellectuals better know how to articulate relationships between what they study and how that affected the life of not only the mind but the body in social environments. And right through that period then I too began to devote little of my research life to 18th century British political studies, but swung into American political studies and contemporary media studies – that’s where the action was for me; and my role became primarily that of pushing students to wrestle with the evolution of their own culture, which was changing at alarming speeds, and hope that I could give them tools for understanding and evaluating and actively responding to those cultural changes.
And that’s of course where the university and the professoriate went: we became less the constructors of human beings intellectually, socially, morally and so on, and more their guide to their own worlds to operate in more knowledgeable and effective ways. And we are called upon now to do that! There has to be a payout in what we do: we have to evaluate students at the end of their careers to prove to them that they have learned something; we have to show them through our advising at the end how they can go get a job and become rich and famous and contributing adults through the alumni association. We have clients now, more than students – and that has changed the professoriate immensely!
Putting this evolution into perspective then, what makes a good teacher today?
Well, I think that what most faculty have had to learn is how to engage their students wherever they are. Can we spot their interests in larger questions about what’s important in their lives, and how they can learn to operate competently within those life parameters? Can we help them figure out how to articulate important goals and then make them operative in their lives? And if you think about it, for me, I am really happy that I lived my life in a Communication Studies department, because there are so many things that are the objects of study that precisely fit that kind of orientation – dealing with your own mind and your own body in life situations, and then learning how to both understand yourself and strategically pursue life socially, politically, economically, and so on. That puts a pressure on many, many parts of the humanities where I live, and yet, if you look at a humanities catalogue now, you will find the kinds of courses in that curriculum that are showing that the lessons of the Greeks and the Romans are important even today. So our entire curriculum, in many ways, has really shifted in response to that demand that a good teacher knows how to make the life of his or her students better and more productive after having gone through a university education.
Inside the classroom, how do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by fractured attention and information overload?
Well, I think you do that in ways that the best teachers (go back and read Plato) have worked for a couple of millennia in the West, which is: start with questions that are aimed at that student and his or her life. So, when Socrates finds a young student excited about a speech he gave, Socrates opens him up by asking: What was the speech? Why did you like it? And then begins to take it apart, rebuild it, and drawing out of the student’s experience begins to remake him as much as he can. I think the good teacher always works from inside the student outward. You have to get inside that student, open up the places in his or her mind where what I am teaching and what I think is important for them to know are going to find a home. A good teacher is not, as we once thought it was, an authority who will bring wisdom and light to the uninformed and the ignorant; if you work with that model, you are dead – you have to work, as I said, from the inside out.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
Well, we deal with an awful lot of bright students who are good at many things in graduate school, and at the doctoral level in particular. I think that many of the multi-talented graduate students we have need to learn what I always tell my undergraduates they need to learn: what you are good at and what you like; if you manage to put those two things together, you might have something worth pursuing. And, in addition, we now demand that they think whether there is a place in this world to do that after school. I think that you have to become broadly enough educated into numerous academic contexts. We live in an age of specialization; we have spent now about half a century learning to break up the world into smaller pieces and specialize in parts of it. Well, if you do that to the exclusion of having breadth, you either have to be very lucky or be able to tell what the new wave will be. Ideally, you have to stay broad and be able to move in several different directions to survive, especially as a beginner.
I always tell them to pick their first job on the basis of how easy it will be to get out of that institution; to get to someplace else because almost nobody stays at that first place, and therefore, to find a job that some other Dean will not have to say “where is that school?” See if you can find a place that will give you a decent credential if you move on. Teach fairly broadly at first, again, to find out what you are going to be particularly good at and effective at as a teacher, knowing that most likely you are going to be moving on. Know that you will likely teach at several places before you finally settle down. And then the final piece of advice is: be ready for the one great job that may finally come your way.
Let’s move on. In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared, in reference to the university environment that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim can be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information and digital interactive media?
I generally believe that the university per se is not in crisis, or if it is it’s because it hasn’t looked very carefully at the world around it. I think McLuhan was trying to understand, back in ’64, the kind of breakup of the classic discipline – the notion that within a particular kind of department you identify a corner of the universe that you are going to teach and study and develop a logic for teaching and studying that corner of the universe, whether it was politics of the past or chemical compositions or economic flow or anything else. And then you had a logic or a set of methods that you used to study it, so that good Germanic model of intellectual inquiry defined the university then as a series of departments or units devoted to those particular aspects of the universe and those particular logics. That certainly has blown apart in a lot of ways, and McLuhan was right, interdisciplinary studies connecting two or three or four ways of looking at the world and seeing what happens when you rub them against each other – that is part of the reason that department sovereignty kind of melted away.
But personally I think it melted away for some other, much more important reasons, such as financial pressures. Universities became terribly expensive; they started paying professors real salaries, which was just amazing because you didn’t have only people coming from a privileged class to take those kinds of jobs. Technology became immensely important, not only in the sciences, but in the humanities as well; humanities professors demanded more than a nice note pad and some pencils to do their work, so we became expensive. And as the technology revolutions rolled on, those expensive parts of our work had to be replaced with great rapidity, so there were phenomenal financial pressures.
There were also intellectual pressures: that the university should not be an ivory tower; as a result, the states were demanding more of them. And as the states were called upon to look across their budgets and to begin to evaluate what they were getting for the money they spent on education, they began to make a series of other demands; that we have not simply intellectual accountability, but product accountability as well for the students we were producing – how good are they? What can they do with what you gave them? What can you do to help the state, as a matter of fact, in jobs it has to do? That became a whole different set of pressures. And so there were as well, then, institutional shifts: the university model, where you stack up a series of degrees together in one place and move students in a through those a click at a time, some bailing out after the BA, some after the MA, some after the PhD and the post-doc as well; that sort of unified package also began to break up. Community colleges roared in and said: “we can do some parts of those foundational educational activities much, much better and cheaper than you can.” Specialized institutes began to spin off: we had not just departments now, but associated institutes attached that took on part of the burden almost in a semi-autonomous way. And so, the four-year liberal arts college remade itself so that most of its majors now are in useful sorts of activities: business and communication majors tend to enrol the most students even in four-year colleges. In short, we began to remake universities at the institutional level in very, very different ways.
None of this – the financial, the intellectual, the institutional changes – it seems to me has much to do with what McLuhan was worried about: the breakup of departmental sovereignty and the protection of the so called “discipline.” Yes, that’s gone because of interdisciplinary studies, because universities think that if they can combine a bunch of resources they already have to create something new, it saves them a lot of money – and of course they can get outside financing often as well. So yes, the pressures to change the university environment have been absolutely amazing in the period from when I was a graduate student until now. We lost our prestigious position of privilege and we are right where Eisenhower, in his farewell address, was afraid we would be. Everybody knows that Eisenhower warned in that speech about the military industrial complex, but he also worried about another complex – the government-university complex; that the government was using the universities to get research done. So the relationship between educational institutions and the places that financed them have become phenomenally more complicated and changed our missions tremendously.
This leads nicely into the following question. 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 subdiscipline. In a 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 or against academic tenure?
Yes, it is attached to the other question. McLuhan was worried about the discipline; Fukuyama seems to be worried about what we used to call “faculty governance” – that a faculty ultimately is in charge of education and how a university works and what it does, and it is the faculty then that should be making all kinds of decisions, and tenure became hooked to that. Now, of course it was hooked to a much more important set of political issues as well, such as who has the right to control or censor what is said, taught and learned. But I think that Fukuyama, for me, took the easy way out by making the charge of intellectual conservatism. In thinking about it as intellectual conservatism rather than looking at a series of other factors that affect the place of intellectuals on a campus, I think he made his job too easy. We are in an age of specialization, and you do worry about whether a particular specialization will continue for one, two, three or four decades; we worry about questions of relevance, and there is also a question of return on investment that gets asked regularly when it comes to tenure: if we put forty years of salary into a professor, will we get a decent return on that investment in terms of the number and kinds of students that are produced?
Those are a different set of questions. And what they have led to, I think, at many, many universities across at least the United States, is that tenure isn’t revoked so much as it is subjected to periodic review. I was on the committee that built this policy for the University of Iowa about twenty or twenty five years ago, where we said: “What kind of questions can we ask every five, six or seven years of our tenured associate and full professors and the work they produce? What kinds of questions make sense to ask about the importance of them and their place in this university? And further, what kinds of remedies are we to be considering if we find that they are not in our estimation being maximally effective, productive and useful to our students?” This has led then to a system of periodic reviews where one’s work and productivity is looked at; where if you find that somebody could be more productive or useful you give them advice; where you begin to do things like shift their load – so if a person is not engaged heavily or maybe even at all in research, we can say “alright, what else useful then can we be asking them to do?” So it makes sense to attempt to re-evaluate the tenured professor regularly and look for solutions – and one of those solutions can be to remove that person from the faculty; it is a hard call to make, and it is not made too often, but I know instances where it has been made, so that tenure then becomes a good deal more flexible, responding to ways that I think the university itself has changed over the last half century.
Let’s talk about your work. Your main area of specialization is Rhetoric – also McLuhan’s chief area of expertise. What is, in your view, the most important points of contact between Rhetoric, the media ecology tradition, and media studies generally? What common areas still remain unexplored?
I think that those three things come together largely around the idea of power; of culture being constructed discursively (the social constructionist view of how we build culture), and at the center of culture always, to a greater or lesser extent, lie questions of power – where rhetoric, in this kind of analysis, is understood as the discourse of power. It is through rhetorical exercises and discourses of various kinds and in various channels that the social, the economic, the political, the theological, and so on, are constructed; that we construct our institutions and our institutions control corners of our lives discursively, and materially of course, but discursively because that is how we can talk about them. And those institutions become then, in many ways, governing parts of our lives. To be sure, our experience is individuated and will cause us to question often the relevance of what institutions say; but in the main, they still command attention and it is through rhetorical discourse and its various manifestations that those institutions are constructed and maintained to respond to all sorts of pressures in the world – a view that really is reflecting the impact of communication upon culture that James Carey laid out so clearly. So rhetoric then becomes the discursive part of that.
I think that the place of media ecology is that it has helped us understand the distribution and the operation of communication media in the background of our lives; that to think about communication media in general doesn’t do us nearly as much good as thinking about our ecological relationships within our situational background or culture environments, as it occurs in different parts of our lives. Because those different institutions change, the impact or the operation of, say, American or Canadian politics today is phenomenally different than it was even 10 or 15 years ago. The operation of the electronic Church was very different from the operation of the Church that sat inside a series of very well constructed buildings. There are social relationships that are being redefined in amazingly different ways, which are consonant not only with the coming of social media but even with a shift in attitudes toward gender relationships, racial relationships and on and on. So those different aspects of our institutional life move and change at different rates, in different ways, and put different kinds of demands on communication media. What I think are the best aspects of media ecology and what they do is not simply make generalizations about the coming of digital or electronic culture, but again, to ask questions about how those changes have affected the way we live our lives socially, economically, politically, religiously and so on. And you can begin, I hope, to see the rhetorician at work, because the rhetorician is always conscious of the way discourse operates in situ. The fact is that rhetorical discourse is historically and radically specific – it changes in particular places and particular times as meaning in particular places and particular times have to be understood locally in that situation.
So I think that correspondence between the rhetorical understanding and the mapping of our cultural world ecologically fit together very nicely, and then, of course, media studies themselves have moved in response to these kinds of questions in very important ways. The classic question of how you make radio, TV or even public speaking more effective has now been replaced with much more sophisticated questions about the ways in which media are put to different kinds of uses in different kinds of situations, times and places; about the differential operations of media, which not only affect my social relationships with people, but my understanding of myself as it is affected by the institutional pressures on society. We have learned that we can’t have very smooth, large generalizations about rhetoric in general, or media studies in general, or media ecology in general. We certainly can have definitions, but we have to put important aspects of flexibility into those definitions so that we in turn can see the operation of specific media inside specific contexts or environments – always with an understanding that the bottom line “who is doing what to whom” under the terms of power.
You have also written about Walter Ong, also in connection with Rhetoric. As you know, there has been much debate amongst media ecologists recently about the similarities and differences between McLuhan and Ong. In what ways is their work similar and different, particularly with regards to rhetoric, orality and language?
Well, as I said, my very first article was about McLuhan, and the only award for an article that I ever got was also about a piece on McLuhan, which was published in a special issue of the Journal of Communication after he died. And yet, as I met Walter Ong in the 80s and began to work with him, I became more deeply immersed in his work. And I found two things that began for me to distinguish him: one was that Ong’s background, as a man who, yes, like McLuhan, had a PhD in English, yet went into different places than McLuhan did. McLuhan, I think, never had too much time for a kind of traditional, textual analysis as practised in that field, whereas Walter Ong did; he believed that, ultimately, you theorize from the inside out – from the operation of practical discourse, to a greater or lesser extent, and then you move on to the interpretative questions of what can we see in this text and what forces are at work in this text. And for Ong that led very, very often – probably thanks to his close work with Perry Miller on his PhD – to questions about what does that tell us about the shape of a culture?
Though that’s not for me still the primary difference; the primary difference between McLuhan and Ong – and I think it becomes Ong’s, in many ways, unique contribution – is his returning time and again to questions of consciousness. McLuhan certainly did some of that, but an awful lot of that talking about large shifts in culture with shifts in dominant media and media practices. Ong, while doing that, almost always ends up tunnelling back into matters of consciousness, that is, how does a medium affect the way we think in general? As I built the anthology for Ong, the three words of “media, consciousness and culture” became the central themes for me; that shifts in media, yes, affect ultimately our cultural organizations, the institutions that comprise them produce a different society as a result of that interplay; but also, as Ong constantly comes back to, affect the way in which we think, see ourselves and the world – that, it seemed to me, is where he put his greatest scholarly effort. It drove him crazy that he couldn’t quite get the history of consciousness right, and wrote and re-wrote parts of that regularly.
What are you currently working on?
Well, during election years I spend most of my time talking about presidential campaigns, and I may write something about that; I tend to do that most elections. But my main project is in the area of visual rhetoric and visual communication. I was trained as an historian, and I’m doing a cultural historical study right now about a Danish immigrant, Jacob Riis, who came to the U.S. and became a journalist, a photographer, a reformer, a public moralist, over the turn into the 20th century. He was an important figure from 1890 to his death in 1914. I am doing a study of his pictures. He was a newspaper man in the slums of N.Y. and realized that, until people really understood how the immigrants were living in lower Manhattan, they probably wouldn’t want to do something about it. So he started taking pictures and buying pictures and so on, and he did a very famous book, called How The Other Half Lives, which became one of the foundational American texts on poverty and the need to take steps to repair those relationships. What I am doing is a book on those pictures and what happened to him: how those pictures moved out of the 19th century, into and across the 20th century, until today.
It’s really a study of what happens when photographs are moved from context to context, are rematerialized literally, redone from one kind of medium into another as they move along, and so it’s a study of the rhetorical power of pictures and how it varies radically from place to place in their viewing. So Riis’ pictures were first used as magic lantern slides when he would go out into a church and give a lecture on why Christians had to do something about the immigrants; the lectures were then turned into his book, The printing process in the 1890s couldn’t handle pictures well, so they really couldn’t carry much of the rhetorical load at all. But after World War II they were rediscovered and processed professionally. When archivists got a hold of them, corrected them, straightened them, changed the contrast, reframed them, reprinted them, made them into beautiful objects, and threw them onto a museum wall, he became celebrated as the first night time photographer, even though he knew he wasn’t a very good photographer at all. And then after they had become objects of art, the cultural historians came along and, as they re-wrote the history of the period, Jacob RIIs now becomes a member of the overclass who is exploiting the underclass, who is practising a politics of surveillance of the poor and keeping them in check. So the project is a study of how the visual is never stable and changes its functions in shifting contexts and passing times.
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