© Christine M. Tracy and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Tracy was interviewed by Gina Conley on June 5th, 2012
Christine M. Tracy is a media ecologist, journalism professor, and a former reporter. She holds a Ph.D. from Rensselaer in Troy, NY, where she studied the evolution of media and worked as a founding editor of Computer-Mediated Communication, one of the Web’s first e-zines. Tracy wrote The Newsphere: Understanding the News and Information Environment (Peter Lang 2012) to combat disillusionment with news. She coined the word “newsphere” to depict a more dynamic, interactive, and responsible news environment that builds on the integral theories of scientist and phenomenologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Reviewers describe The Newsphere as “one of the very few truly practical and professional texts in media ecology, and one of the very few truly philosophical, ecological and sociological journalism news texts.” Tracy’s work has focused on technological changes to news creation and dissemination. She is currently building a news incubator in southeast Michigan and working with scholars from Georgetown’s Woodstock Theological Center to extend the work of Teilhard de Chardin. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
I finished my master’s work in rhetoric and communication at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY in 1995 – the very early days of the Internet. It was a very heady and exciting time. I fondly recall working in Rensselaer’s beautiful Voorhees computing center using Unix’s vi editor to hand code html pages. At Rensselaer, I worked with and learned from John December, a doctoral student who was one of the Internet’s early pioneers. Together with other students we published Computer Mediated Communication Magazine, one of the Web’s first ezines for about three years. After I graduated, I applied for the Webmaster’s job at Time Warner, which was just launching its new Internet service, Road Runner. I was a finalist but I did not get the job. That proved to be a karoitic moment for me (as we rhetoricians say). A few weeks later I was offered a faculty position at The Sage Colleges in Troy and Albany, NY. The Communications Department needed someone to fill in unexpectedly for a visiting distinguished professor, who could not come to Troy that academic year.
The curiosity and engagement of the young women at Russell Sage’s Women’s College and the exciting research work being done at Renssealer prompted me to put those two things together and become a professor. In 1999 I returned to Rensselaer and began the doctoral program there. That was when I made the conscious choice to become a professor.
Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?
Dr. S. Michael Halloran, a distinguished rhetorical scholar and stellar human being, was my most important mentor. Michael elegantly, kindly, and consistently guided and encouraged me to do my best work. I was working on edits to the final draft of my dissertation one evening when it dawned on me exactly how hard I worked to produce work that met with Michael’s approval. I try to model Michael’s mentorship when I work with students. I truly believe in my students’ potential, and I communicate my confidence in them in the specific and objective direction I give to them for moving their work forward. It is unbelievably rewarding to watch a student over come obstacles, meet their goals, and excels in way they did not believe were possible.
Dr. David Porush, who is now the CEO of MentorNet, directed my master’s research in the fall of 1994 and spring of 1995. Professor Porush suggested I write a scholarly paper, and he asked me if I wanted to create new knowledge. I quickly responded, “No. I want to learn HTML and build a Web site.” In true Rensselaer style, I ultimately did both and much more! I learned HTML, created an early prototype of the Times Union newspaper in Albany, N.Y., wrote a business plan for the development of the site, and the scholarly thesis Dr. Porush suggested. The scholarly piece of my master’s research, my paper “The Evolution of the Newspaper of the Future” was first published in CMC Magazine, cited by other scholars, and then published in two early online journalism texts. When I applied to the doctoral program at Rensselaer in 1998, these credentials helped me win a teaching assistantship and full scholarship. It also showed me that good mentors anticipate a future one cannot yet imagine but are capable of realizing.
In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
I recall being reprimanded by a professor at Villanova University for not waiting longer for him. We were called back into the classroom and severely lectured about respecting the position of faculty. I do not see much evidence of the respect this professor expected today. I want to be clear: I am not advocating unconscious or undeserved deference. However, I wonder if the casualness of many students (ie: calling me Christine instead of Professor or Dr. Tracy without my invitation) is a reflection of the devaluation of the teaching profession and the academy by the society at large? I believe the higher educational experience would be improved if today’s students appreciated the sacrifice, hard work, tenacity and intelligence advanced degrees, such as the Ph.D. truly require. Recognizing and honoring this process will help student develop the necessary “grittiness” required to succeed and excel.
Inside the classroom, how do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by fractured attention and information overload?
I ask students a lot of questions and I listen to closely to their answers. I require students in all my classes—even and especially writing classes—to give formal oral presentations to their classmates. In addition to practicing public speaking skills, they get to see and feel inattention first-hand. In computer labs, I walk around the class and look at screens. I call on students by name, and encourage small group work (where possible). In my news writing class, students briefly journal at the beginning of class: it helps them focus and leave their mental distractions on paper.
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 believe that every crisis is an opportunity, and the emergence of the digital interactive media you mention—especially Internet-based teaching tools—is challenging everyone in higher education to think anew about what we do and how and why we do it. Ideally, (and this is a pure media ecology theory, in my opinion) we will work to understand how these new tools are changing learning systems, structures, and institutions. With this awareness, we are able to then work carefully and consciously to best adapt these tools to our needs.
I do not believe it is useful to broadly generalize about all academic institutions. Some are more responsive and enlightened regarding change than others. I believe open-source educational trends, such as the formation of Udacity.com by former Stanford Professor Sebastian Thurn, will energize what we now know as higher education.
The university crisis I see is one of intention and focus. It takes a lot of time, energy, discipline, failure, feedback, compassion, courage, commitment, motivation and tenacity to truly teach and truly learn. I believe a lot of American students enter baccalaureate programs without honestly and realistic understanding the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual commitment required to excel. Many students go to college simply because they think they should—it’s the natural next step after high school. They are afraid not to be there, but they’re not sure they want to be there. When professors push them, they rebel. Is it possible for under motivated, undisciplined students to truly learn? I honestly don’t think so (given the current structures and systems.) Instead of looking at the challenges academia faces from digital media, I would like to see the societal metaphor of the “promise of a college education” deconstructed, and young men and women guided into the development of a life-long suite of skills, knowledge, and abilities which may or may not included earning a bachelor’s degree.
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 and/or against academic tenure?
I am grateful that you ask this question of the scholars you interview and your post their varied responses on the blog. I am beginning my eighth year as a tenured associate professor at a large, public university in Michigan. Our faculty is unionized so the tenure process is different for us: Our tenure portfolios are evaluated according to criteria outlined in a department evaluation document so the process is generally less stressful and less competitive.
I have mixed feelings about tenure. Tenure is an important milestone for new PhDs. It is something to aspire to and it affords a certain amount of security and support to pursue novel research that might not immediately produce results (but may prove groundbreaking in the long run.) Ideally, tenured professors bring their teaching into their classrooms and keep the educational environment vibrant and exciting.
After tenure, dedicated professors work for promotion, which means that they continue working on their research and other service activities. However, tenure can be the place where many professors stop or slow down their productivity and historically assign departmental service and committee work to assistant professors. While post-tenure review is in place at many institutions, I do not believe it has the clout of the first tenure hurdle. We have also all heard horror stories about the destruction to personal lives and careers from failed tenure applications.
I agree with Fukuyama that tenure is contributing to the inability of many colleges and universities to stay current and responsive to the intellectual, technological, and cultural needs of society. However, it is just one part of the overall structure of the academy, which is straining, to remain vibrant and relevant along with many other institutions. There are many other reasons why academic institutions struggle, and there are many tenured faculty within even stogy institutions who are change agents.
I suggest your readers look at the March 7, 2012 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Marc Perry titled “Could Many Universities Follow Borders Into Oblivion?” I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the home of the first Borders store. It is indeed sobering to walked by the large, empty storefront across the street from the famous Michigan Theatre. In his article, Perry interviews Georgia Institute of Technology’s Richard DeMilo, the director of Center for 21st Century Universities. DeMilo says, “The higher-education market is reinventing what a university is, what a course is, what a student is, what the value is.” I believe this can be one of the most exciting, innovative, and revolutionary times for professors if we embrace innovation and change and work together with our students to vision new goals and new ways to achieve them.
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?
I just heard Carne Ross, a former British diplomat and founder of the Independent Diplomat, interviewed by Bill Moyers on his Moyers & Company show. I recommend young, progressive thinkers read Ross’s The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century. I just ordered the book and I’m looking forward to better understanding his methodology for change.
I also recommend the work of Ken Wilbur. I recently finished The Integral Vision: A Very Short Introduction to the Revolutionary Integral Approach to Life, God, the Universe, and Everything. I will be looking at his A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality next. Integral theory is, as it sounds, a way to integrate our thinking and ideas into our lives.
Finally, I highly recommend that young graduate students and aspiring professors reader writers, thinkers, and philosophers who not only talk the talk, but those who walk the walk, such as Ross, Wilber, and John Lewis, who’s new book is Across That Bridge: Life Lessons And A Vision For Change. The integral theorist and Jesuit mystic, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, was the inspiration for my new book, The Newsphere: Understanding the News and Information Environment (Peter Lang 2012) in large part because Teilhard’s lived his beliefs.
Let’s talk about your work. What attracted you to media ecology?
I first learned about and was attracted to media ecology while reading Walter Ong’s work—specifically Romance, Rhetoric, and Technology. My doctoral dissertation focused on emergent media. I used an ethnographic study of the development of the Albany Times Union’s Web site in Albany, NY to test theories of emergent media. Media ecologists are asking many of the same questions and looking for answers in many of the same places as I am. I consider media ecology my intellectual home because it is a more flexible and progressive framework for understanding how media work and how we can better use media. Media ecologists are an inclusive not an exclusive intellectual community: I like that.
In The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communication, Paul Starr asks, “If the origins of modern communication have been, in critical respects, liberal and democratic, how then had the media developed along lines that were so deeply in tension with those ideas?” If media are structurally flawed, as Starr outlines, how are we to reconcile this tension?
It is important to make the distinction between mass media—particularly those supported by large media conglomerates, such as Rupert Murdoch’s empire—and social media, which was an integral part of the Arab Spring. I believe that Starr is talking about mass media here and not about networked digital media that deliver messages in a peer-to-peer way, as Axel Bruns describes in his Gatewatching.
The dangers and dire consequences of abuses of power in modern communication systems, such as the cell phone hacking scandal of Rupert Murdoch’s former newspaper, The World, is a good example of the “misdevelopment” and misuse of communication systems that Starr references.
I believe the first place to begin a reconciliation of this tension is within each one of us: this is the key premise of my new book, The Newsphere. We must all become change agents now.
Peter Lang recently published your book The Newsphere: Understanding the News and Information Environment. The book creates a theoretical, historical, and practical framework for news as ecology by examining how stories evolve across digital networks and complex systems. How does this new understanding of the news and information environment change the way people might consume information from the media?
I wrote this book for many reasons. I wanted to help all the frustrated news readers understand that their engagement is now more important than ever: news stories are the fabric of our lives and they can help unite and uplift us or they can act as a destructive force: we will choose. We are not passive victims!!! Each one of us—no one else—is responsible for what comes into our minds and hearts. We must now filter the news that comes to us—design our own news network so that over time, we will receive a regular flow of relevant, meaningful, and above all, truthful news and information.
As I wrote in The Newsphere, “…while a story can be fair and accurate, real truth evolves over time in large part based on the demands placed on it by the people who consume and use it: It is the value we bring to journalistic fare–our own individual and collective demands for relevance, and yes, truth–that will ultimately result in the quality we deserve.”
What are you currently working on?
It is a very productive and creative time for me. I am working on a novel about the life of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Another new project is the development of a news incubator to experiment with new forms of news in southeast Michigan. I am very interested in the relationship between perception (how we see and perceive) and the news: I am asking, “Will what we consider to be ‘news’ as we have historically known it (and taught in journalism classes) change to reflect the perceptual development of reporters? Can we teach student reporters to ‘see’ in more evolved and enlightened ways and so produce more relevant and engaging stories?” I hope so.
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