Dr. Altheide was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on August 1st, 2011
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
I enjoyed studying sociology and I admired several of my undergraduate professors. It seemed like a very good calling to be able to understand the social world and to teach students. I became more interested in research later.
Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what were some of the most important you learned from them?
My major mentor as an undergraduate was Dr. Virgil J. Olson; my significant mentors in graduate school were Dr. Jack D. Douglas, Dr. Stanford M. Lyman, but I also benefited from work with Drs. Joseph Gusfield, Aaron Cicourel, and Arthur Vidich.
In your experience, how did the role of university professor “evolve” since you were an undergraduate student?
Popular culture and an entertainment oriented “media logic”—which we systematically developed and analyzed in the late 1970s—affected student life and culture. Keep in mind that my comments are perhaps most relevant for the major large universities. Students were accustomed to narratives and brought these expectations to classrooms, so ‘effective’ instructors had to adjust lecture/presentation styles to these expectations. Years later the university became oriented to students-as-customers (consumers), so presentation of material and evaluation of student work fundamentally changed. With exceptions, grading became easier since instructors would be responsible for student attrition or failing or dropping out. Also, in major state universities, more students work 20-40 hours a week, so their expectations changed in terms of course demands. One student told me that my standards were unfair for a student who had a family, worked 40 hours a week, and was taking 18 units (a very full load!). Again, with exceptions, today the university has moved toward being a commodified business guided by metrics and ‘outcome’ measures, including student credit hours, completion rates, etc.
What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by fractured attention and information overload?
A good teacher today must be able to hold the students’ interest. In our mediated age, this seems to involve relating subject matter to students’ experience and lives. I try to do this with readings, PPT, as well as internet course pages, along with supplementary segments of videos. However, with exceptions, students do not expect to spend much time reading. I also connect to students with email and list serves.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
For graduate students, attend as many lectures and colloquia by outside speakers as you can work into your busy schedules; stay open to new ideas. Also, select a dissertation topic that really interests you, rather than just something to get through, or because your chair has a grant to pursue a topic. It is an advantage to have some teaching experience, including online courses. Try to publish some of your work early.
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 doubt that McLuhan envisioned the current university environment. Surely, disciplinary boundaries have been weakened, but strong disciplinary background still seems to be preferred by university hiring committees. Universities are increasingly corporate oriented, with presidents more like CEOs, and department heads like managers. Many universities have become more centrally controlled and are governed by bottom-line thinking with respect to enrollments, etc. The departments—whatever they’re called—that provide strong enrollments are likely to be supported. This has opened the door for business and corporate interests to ‘partner’ with universities. Hustling external grants and money sources at all levels is standard operating procedure. Defense department funding has skyrocketed in not just engineering (physics, etc.) but also the social sciences and even humanities.
Your principal area of expertise is mass media, which you classify as major influences in the process of defining situations. How might this process relate to Meyrowitz’ thesis in No Sense of Place?
“No Sense…” is fine book, but it is just one. There are many works that delineate the nature, process, and impact of the mass media—and mediation more broadly—in social life. A terrific book on the role of media in history is Carl Couch’s Constructing Civilizations (1984). My modest efforts, with my colleague Bob Snow, have focused on a comprehensive theory of how the mass media influence everyday life as well as institutional orders. One critical difference is that we have done extensive research in numerous settings and on various topics to connect organizations with media. An important concept that mediates information technology is format and the role it plays in affecting social life.A number of other books have set forth the nature and impact of ‘media logic’, e.g., Richard Ericson’s books are terrific on the nature and logic of media logic and formats for institutional control.
To build up on the previous question: given that one of the major concepts discussed in many of your publications is that of “Ecology of Communication,” I wonder how your own approach to the study of ecology might be similar or different from that of media ecologists…
I think that there is a parallel, but clear differences. I made some modest developments in studying “media ecology,” but I prefer to identify as a student of the communication order rather than ‘media ecology’ per se. My approach is focused on mediation (or as some European scholars prefer, ‘mediatization’) as a feature of social interaction and power, culture, and organizations: Ecology of communication refers to the structure, organization and accessibility of information technology, various forums, media and channels of information. It provides a conceptualization and perspective that joins information technology and communication (media) formats with the time and place of activities. My focus has been on how information technology and communications formats informs the nature and process of social action and social activities.
You also specialize is qualitative research, most notably Ethnographic Content Analysis. Interestingly enough, in his 1978 PhD dissertation, “McLuhan on Media,” J. F. Striegel – a former student of Marshall McLuhan and research assistant at the Center for Culture and Technology – first linked McLuhan’s general media theory with ethnomethodology:“Ethnomethodologists reassert the investigatory primacy of perception over conception and effect over causation in the examination of dynamic processes…these emphases on subjective perception and interpretation over objectification, effect over cause, and process over product are important elements of McLuhan’s general theory…the objective of this discussion is simply to indicate that mutually shared ground…” (Striegel, 1978, p. 20). How does ethnographic content analysis relate to ethnomethodology generally and what do you make of Striegel’s connection?
I won’t comment on Professor Striegel’s statement because I have not read the dissertation, but I do think it is a stretch to try to read ethnomethodology into McLuhan’s broad conceptualization. Somehow, as academics, we have to free ourselves of sacred texts in order to capture emergent technologies, perspectives and meanings. ECA relates to ethnomethodology very indirectly; more directly through phenomenological bracketing and existential confusion and coming to grips with new situations. The key thing is to examine what documents may reveal about artful constructions of motive, meaning and identity in order to find patterns of presentation. After all, documents are accounts of reality, and we want to understand the properties of sense-making and journalistic coherence. Of course, people use the approach in different ways; this can be seen by consulting the numerous dissertations, articles, and books that have employed it.
What are you currently working on?
I can mention a few things. First, I am working on the logic and representation of risk communication and how this pertains to an underlying discourse and politics of fear and social control. Second, this is part of an ongoing project on mediated social reality. Third, with a former student, Chris Schneider, I am revising Qualitative Media Analysis.
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