© Donna Flayhan and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Flayhan was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on August 3rd, 2012; edits by Katharine Armstrong.
Donna Flayhan is a media ecologist and a former student of Joshua Meyrowitz. She received her Ph.D. in Communication Studies from the University of Iowa in 1997, and currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Media at State University of New York at New Paltz, where she specializes in Cultural Studies (American Cultural Studies, British Cultural Studies, and the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory), Mass Communication and Social Theory (the American effects tradition and Chicago School Sociology), Communication Technology and Society (history of media, media ecology, medium theory), and Public Policy & Public Health Communication (NIH Grant Research. Team research with scholars from Communication Studies, Sociology, and the College of Medicine). She is also the Founder and Director of The Lower Manhattan Public Health Project, which was aimed at getting the rescue, recovery, and cleanup workers, and residents of Lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn the answers, benefits, and treatments that they deserve after 9/11.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
This question leads to an interesting story. I had intended to become a broadcast journalist when I entered the University of New Hampshire as an undergraduate back in 1986.
I double majored in communication and political science, and I had a real desire then, as I still do today, to research and spread truthful and useful information to those in need of that information. As I learned more about constraints on journalists, I began to lean more towards law and public policy and was contemplating law school by the beginning of my sophomore year.
I was an outstanding undergraduate student, but because of my working class background, I often felt that I knew nothing compared to these amazing professors, and becoming a professor was not on my radar at all. However, my outstanding work placed me on the radar of my professors.
During my first semester sophomore year at the University of New Hampshire, I took a senior-level communication research methods seminar; my professor for the course was a notoriously difficult grader and assigned many readings and original research projects. He had just published a book that was being translated into more than a dozen languages around the world, and I had been warned by students to avoid his classes because they were so much work, but I loved his classes.
One day early in the semester of that senior-level seminar, that notoriously difficult and brilliant professor handed back papers with lots of comments and on mine he had written in pencil, as he always did with grading, “This is an outstanding study Have you ever thought about going on for a Ph.D. and becoming a professor?”
That professor was Joshua Meyrowitz, the book he had just published was No Sense of Place, and I was too excited and embarrassed to ask him what “Ph.D.” stood for.
I went back to my apartment to figure out what “Ph.D.” stood for, but the books on hand had no definitions of degrees. So off to the library I went to figure out what “Ph.D.” stood for, still too embarrassed to ask the librarian, I read a few descriptions of degrees in this massive leather bound book and there it was, Doctor of Philosophy.
I knew my professors where Ph.D.s, and that we called them “Dr.,” but I honestly had no idea what the Ph.D. stood for before that moment. “Doctor of Philosophy”…hmmm…that sounded very interesting. So I set out to achieve a 4.0 GPA with my double major in political science and communication studies and began looking for the best Ph.D. programs in the country that would allow me to progress quickly toward the Ph.D. I graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 1990 with a 3.92 GPA – summa cum laude, – went straight to graduate school at the University of Iowa, worked with amazing people, learned lots, and earned the title Doctor of Philosophy in 1997.
Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?
I am forever grateful that I had the good fortune to be mentored by these amazing professors. John Durham Petersdirected my dissertation, and Bruce Gronbeck was my second reader. Also on my committee for qualifying exams were Bruce Gronbeck, Samuel Becker, Hanno Hardt, the late great Carl Couch, and Barbara Welch-Breder.
John Durham Peters taught me to have a deep love and respect for philosophy, theory, and James W. Carey. He also taught me that no matter how learned or brilliant I become, there is someone who knows much more than I, in many more languages, and knows how to be humble about it and how to use humor and wit in life in ways that make things exciting and interesting. On a pragmatic level, John Peters was to me as Will Strunk was to E.B. White—he made my writing more succinct, and therefore, much better. When my paper, “Meyrowitz’s Medium Theory and Carey’s Cultural Studies” earned an NCA top paper award and James W. Carey (who I would later work with in New York in 2004 and came to call “Jim”) was the respondent back in the late 1990s, I could not have been happier and the paper was better philosophically and pragmatically thanks to the influence of John Durham Peters.
Bruce Gronbeck got my media ecological excitement for Father Walter Ong, S.J., going strong with more attention to the acoustic nature of electrified communication technologies than I had had before. Bruce is also a great networker, and so he inspired this get together conference in St. Louis with Fr. Walter Ong, Joshua Meyrowitz, Bruce Gronbeck, and Carl Couch – kind of a media ecology in the Midwest gathering before the term was fashionable and before New York became the center with the great work of Lance Strate and the Media Ecology Association. Bruce Groncbeck also taught me how to not be quite so combative in academic setting. At that Midwest conference, my critique of Walter Ong’s gender blind spot on orality and literacy in Ancient Greece was a little heavy handed. A week later back at the University of Iowa, Bruce introduced my Ph.D. seminar presentation and noted that I was “recently back from beating up on an 80-year-old man in St. Louis” – point taken for life.
Sam Becker introduced me to what is now called health communication and at first I had no idea what my media studies and political science mind was doing on this grant project. I will be forever grateful for this knowledge. You see, Sam Becker had been working with Communication, Sociology, and the Medical College on a 10-year, multi-million dollar National Institutes of Health grant in an area that we now all call Public Health, but had not yet been institutionalized at that point. So Sam, in his subtle way, by placing me on that grant work, opened a whole field of study and knowledge to me, and it resulted in my first peer-reviewed publication NOT being in media studies, but in the Annals of Behavioural Medicine. It was in those inter-disciplinary grant meetings, writings, and research that I learned to translate medical jargon into everyday language, and to read, understand, and to dissect literature on toxins, toxic synergy, and public health. That research would not only impact my future scholarly work on toxins and public health – from carbon monoxide awareness, to Gulf War Syndrome, to the toxic aftermath of 9/11 – it also gave me the tools to research my own health problems in the late 1990s and to recover from Lupus and a myriad of other toxin induced illnesses with knowledge and understanding of toxins, toxic synergy, the body and how to recover from toxic injuries.
Barbara Welch-Breder has a depth of knowledge of the cultural history of advertising and she taught me much about the transition of the United States from a culture of production to a culture of consumption, and how advertising and branding had changed the world with the marketing of mass consumption. From her, I always think about, and teach about, the cumulative and unconscious impact of advertising and public relations in everyday life. While my passion is for work in public health and media ecology (and the study of media forms more than content), Barbara’s influence is always there regarding our culture of consumption and where those desires for “more, new, and shiny” come from. “They became a new religion for the masses” rings truer every decade as the planetary crisis of over-consumption results in sea levels rising, storm surges, etc. and yet we still want our new shiny stuff! On Sundays, Americans may claim to be religious, but the pilgrimages are to Walmart and Target; just watch the flow of cars and people. I understand why thanks to the depth of research and knowledge of Barbara Welch-Breder. We have been preached at to worship consumption for over 130 years now – it was no accident and it was no conspiracy. It was the birth of the modern global religion to worship consumption and consumer goods.
Hanno Hardt lived and breathed critical theory, and he introduced all of us graduate students to the heavy critiques of the Frankfurt School, British Cultural Studies, the French structuralists and post-structuralists, and to the critiques of administrative research that acted – in that “banality of evil” kind of way – to get the great minds to become lost in the details of corporate and grant-funded administrative research at the expense of necessary cultural criticism and buffer against the rise of fascism. Hanno was the man for critical theory, and from him I learned to always be alert for the rise of fascism and to not allow my own work to be in the service of the banality of evil. When I was offered a job at very high pay that would have taken me out of academia and away from my work (on toxins and public health and the role of public intellectual on behalf of the sick and dying rescue, recovery, and clean-up workers from 9/11, and into the world of pharmaceutical promotion), it was fear that I would become a cog in the machine pushing the Military-Industrial-Pharmaceutical Complex on its one-dimensional path toward human annihilation that helped me turn that money and comfort down for my own and the greater good. I tend to think of Hanna Arendt and Hanno Hardt at the same time whenever I see the banality of evil creeping in to take over.Hanno was from Slovenia and had that thick accent and the crazy haired Einstein-like look of genius. (I just realized in looking up what he is up to nowadays that he passed on October 11, 2011. I did not know that—like all greats he will live on and on in the lives and minds of those he touched.In some American Indian belief systems, you don’t die until the last living soul that you touched while alive passes, so Hanno lives on in all of us students and Hanno and Hanna – we’ll keep fighting the good fight against the rise of fascism.) I often critique critical theory as not accounting for social change and social upheavals; hence my love of the dialectic of new media, and of the theoretical framework of media ecology, that allows for rupture, break, and change away from Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, yet not getting too lost in the possibilities for change ushered in by the changing relationships of social media is always tempered by the reality check that the banality of evil of one dimensional human and society is hissing at the gates.
Carl Couch was a great sociologist and symbolic interactionist from the University of Iowa. Unfortunately, he passed way in 1994, and his posthumous book, Constructing Civilizations didn’t quite fully capture the essence of his ideas. I wrote a little piece for In Medias Res
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?
The role of university professor has transformed dramatically in the 22 years that I have been teaching at universities and in the 23+ years since I was an undergraduate student. First, let me use some generalized example snapshots to muse over, then a more theoretical answer will follow.
Evolution of missed class questions from student to Professor, generalized, 1986-2012:
In 1986, the handwritten notes on the door read, “Professor Stern, I stopped by to discuss the material that I missed in class. I got the notes from a peer but have a couple of questions. I will stop back during your office hours. Sincerely, Full Name of Student”
In 1996, the emails read, “Professor, I am so sorry I missed class yesterday. I got the notes from my roommate but I still have a couple of questions. Should I ask you after class or stop by during office hours? First Name of Student”
In 2006, the emails read, “hey donna, sorry i missed class today. Did we cover anything important? (no name) ”
In 2012, the emails read, “traffic, missed class, lemme no if missed anything. sent from my iphone (no name)” followed by, “hey, do u text? hard to text to email. sent from my iphone (no name)”
Now for the more theoretical answer – and appropriate that you use Meyrowitz in the question, because it is from Meyrowitz’s Introduction to Mass Communication class in Spring 1987, and some anthropology classes, that I learned the following. In hunter-gatherer societies, and even in pre-industrial agricultural societies (Ferdinand Tonnies’s Gemeinschaf), leaders could not be mystified, they played overlapping roles, and had to constantly earn and re-earn the respect of those who followed them.
In the modern Gesellschaft – let’s say from the late 1800s right up until the early 1990s – college professors and the role that they occupied were treated with great distance, respect, and admiration. But as the Gesellshaft morphed into the No Sense of Place, electrified, constant-contact world ushered in first by the tornados of email and cell phones, and then completely blown away by the Derecho storm of social media, – professors, judges, doctors, etc. were (are) in a new role where respect must be constantly earned by the individual and is rarely granted via respect for the role.
Thus the post-social media professor, like the tribal chief, is granted a leadership in society based upon her or his wisdom and knowledge, but if ever he or she seems out of touch, they may be ignored, shunned, and ridiculed at any moment. The abstract role – professor – means less and less due to transformations in dominant forms of everyday communication, and the actual ability to teach, engage, lead and inspire in context of classroom and professor-student interactions matters more and more.
Inside the classroom, how do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by fractured attention and information overload?
Not too long ago, I received a standing ovation from my students in Media Research Methods as I handed out the student evaluation forms. One student started clapping, and then they all started clapping and standing. I was shocked and touched, and they were touched too. During the semester we covered difficult material. The studentshad to work in groups and individually, and they had to create original research, had to write up findings, transcribe tapes, and analyze data. I congratulated them on their accomplishments in that class, and they then thanked me in a very spontaneous and human connection kind of way. We – teacher and class – inspired one another and we respected one another.
Good teachers respect their students’ intellect and potential and teach at a high level. They never dumb it down and conversely they never use jargon to distance themselves from their students. Good teachers connect with students where they are at and then challenge the students and themselves to bring it to a higher level.
In addition to respect, good professors keep up with current scholarship in their field, current forms of communication technologies (doesn’t mean a professor has to embrace the technologies, but needs to keep up with understanding them), and use visual, audio, text, and old fashioned dialogue to “teach to multiple learning styles.” I almost never use PowerPoint – it is a distancing technology and it will NOT command attention. I like to pull up images and clips as I go, so that the lively interaction commands attention and cuts through the noise of modern cultural life. I am also really big on project based learning or service learning when the content of the course fits that style. Keep it real, bring it to a higher level.
Also, on the pragmatic note of how to compete with the wireless devices in students’ hands, I have, in a very media ecologically minded way, been working to weave the technology into the classroom. So, instead of saying, “turn off all devices during my class” (which is unworkable unless you plan on becoming the media police enforcer which I never set out to do), I say, “Turn devices onto silent, if you get a message that you MUST answer due to some type of emergency, step out of the classroom to answer it, if it is an emergency the rest of us should now about, stick your head back in and tell us to duck or run!” They laugh and get what I mean. Then I say, “Only use the device to look up information relevant to this class and then share it in discussion.” This worked very well during the breaking of the Penn State Sandusky abuse case. We were discussing how the primary document, the Grand Jury Indictment of 2011, was in a pdf file for all to see and that this case could no longer be swept away by the very powerful board and football program—thus discussing how the same public information (Grand Jury Indictment) electrified and digitized, puts the courthouse records in everyone’s house and transforms power by bypassing traditional gatekeepers. Several students began looking things up to discuss the role of the students, social media, etc. They were on their Facebook accounts, but not in a narcissistic kind of way, but in a “my friend who plays football at Penn State posted X…,” “my friend who goes to Penn State posted X,” and thus we were able to have a very high level, sophisticated, and important discussion of time, media, information flow, traditional media, and social media in context. That is the type of teaching, and weaving of technology into classroom, that I work to use. That said, like the leader in a tribal society, it is an enormous amount of work and you can’t rest on what you know and teach it, but how to analyze together and, again, take it to a higher level.
Also, I am a bit of a comedian in the classroom—of the Bill Hick’s variety. I don’t try to be funny, but I get a lot of laughs and laughter is very good for learning. “Information infused with emotion makes for maximum retention,” said Walter Ong, and also, laughter opens the mind and boosts the immune system. So, that’s how I keep students’ engaged, and ultimately I do respect them and they respect me and appreciate the things they learn. The excitement and emotion of the communication in the classroom trumps the fragmentation and isolation of most modern interactions.
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?
Because of my love of Innis over McLuhan, and my agreement with Jim Carey that the arch that runs from Innis to McLuhan, would, as Oscar Wilde quipped when looking at Niagara Falls, “be more impressive if it ran the other way,” I will use empirical Innisian “dirt research” to answer this question on a couple of levels. First, departmental sovereignties have not melted away, but are in fact more specialized than ever. Even though we have the broad terms of “cultural studies” as umbrellas, look at actual departments and you see increased fragmentation and specialization, from medical schools to media studies to psychology. Psychology and sociology departments are fragmenting even further into the “evolutionary biology” nature camps, versus the “cultural studies” nurture camps. Medical schools study nutrition separate from hydration (as hunter-
I do think the university as an institution in the United States is in crisis, but that is a product of the rise of fascist tendencies in the United States since 9/11 which have chilled our international collaborations and blocked wonderful scholars from even being allowed to enter the United States and to the concerted effort of the right and its deep coffers of money. In the fall of 1991 I debated former Secretary of Education William Bennett at the University of Iowa on whether “political correctness” was threatening academic freedom. He was of course citing the drivel created by the Heritage Foundation and its minions of Dinesh D’Souza, William Kimball, Francis Fukuyama, etc
The vacuum of federal money to these for-profit universities and the impending student debt crisis collapse are also a threat – the for-profit universities “college in your PJ’s” that are not really teaching anything but are enrolling hundreds of thousands of students and cashing in on the government funded student loans and then abandoning the students.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
If you have a passion for ideas, teaching, and research then go for it. The rhythm of the semester life is a wonderful way to work, with intense spurts of interaction and classroom activities and then the breaks in which you become a recluse to research, write, think, and spend quality time with nature, family, art and animals.
However, if you are aspiring to be a university professor and a Ph.D. because you will be given respect and a great salary, then you may want to read the answer regarding the changing role of university professors (above) and switch tracks.
Also, if you are from a working class background, expect some mockery from friends and family who do not have advanced degrees. The only time my family members refer to me as “Dr.” is when I burn something on the stove (which is pretty much anytime I cook) or do the classic absent
Also, be sure to live a well-rounded life. All of the mentors I mentioned above from the University of Iowa had significant others, pets or children – or both – interest in music, sports, cooking or nature, and were physically active. It is the sedentary, one-dimensional academics who become mean and spiteful and tear down others’ reputations and lives rather than enjoy this amazing profession and the students and ideas before them.
One of your areas of specialization is media ecology. What attracted you to the work of Marshall McLuhan in particular and how did your background in critical theory inform your interpretation of their work and thought?
Well, having Joshua Meyrowitz as a professor in 1986 at the University of New Hampshire for Introduction to Mass Communication “rewired my hard drive.” One of my students at Goucher College in Baltimore in 1997, Matthew Fordyce, used that phrase after Meyrowitz’s visiting lecture. I remember Matt saying something to the effect of “he pretty much rewired my hard drive a decade ago.” I learned to think like a media ecologist from Meyrowtiz, just like McLuhan learned how to think like a media ecologist from reading Innis. Once you see the invisible environments that new media create, you can’t not see them when analyzing any aspect of society and culture and human interaction.
As far as your specific question, I was not so much attracted to Marshall McLuhan as I was to Harold Adams Innis and Elizabeth Eisenstein. I felt like they did the work, and McLuhan just kind of spoke in nuggets gleaned from their work. It is kind of the same way I feel about the work of Neil Postman, and please don’t get me wrong. He, like McLuhan, made the ideas much more popular than they would have otherwise been, but they both had a tendency to oversimplify and make these assertions (some correct, many overly deterministic) that didn’t really get at the dialectical and historical nature of understanding media as environments and didn’t help others to think like media ecologists. At least McLuhan cited Innis Postman’s Disappearance of Childhood really should have been full of citations to then NYU doctoral student Joshua Meyrowitz, but contained not one. So even though my many good friends and colleagues in media ecology are big McLuhan and Postman fans and I understand why, I am more of an Innis, Eisenstein, Mumford, Ong, and Benjamin kind of gal! This also explains why I was so embraced by James Carey and Lance Strate and others when I moved to New York in 2004, but Gary Gumpert and Neil Postman had a tendency to treat me a bit like a bastard grandchild -“uh oh, she’s here.” Lance Strate helped heal the old wound within media ecology a bit with his 1998 tribute to McLuhan that Meyrowitz and Postman both attended. Anyway, there is always a bit of a Greek drama behind every academic idea and interaction, eh? I can see why my mere presence made some people uncomfortable, but this is the first time I have ever talked publicly about it.
As a researcher, you are involved in the Lower Manhattan Public Health Project. What can you tell us about it?
In 2004 the Department of Defense finally declared Gulf War Syndrome (from 1990-91 Gulf War) an organic illness caused by toxic exposures in the Gulf, so I wrapped up my public health work on Gulf War Syndrome in Baltimore. That was as good as it was going to get for those veterans made sick from BP pills, depleted uranium, smoke from oil well fires, and other toxins. So for that reason and others, I moved to New York to take this position at the State University of New York at New Paltz – to work with others to help the sick and dyingrescue, recovery, and clean-up workers from 9/11 get the answers, benefits, and treatment that they deserve.
The name of the project, “The Lower Manhattan Public Health Project,” was the title of my grant application, and was not meant to be a public name. But when I had the first conference in 2006 titled, “The Toxic Aftermath of 9/11: An Emerging Health Crisis” it took off with 60 Minutes II sending a camera crew and so I stuck with the name. The project ran from 2004 up through 2011 and involved conferences, films, interviews, media appearances, etc. to help to change the understanding, in the vernacular, of what used to be referred to as the World Trade Center Cough. I organized two conferences, one in 2006 and then one in 2007 at Fordham University
I wrapped up in early 2011 because, like with Gulf War Syndrome 2004, we got it as good as it gets in an imperfect system. In late December 2010 the Senate finally passed and in early January 2011 President Obama signed the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act (the Zadroga Act) that put billions of dollars into a fund to help the sick and dying rescue, recovery, and clean up workers pay medical bills, stop homes from being foreclosed, etc. There is still wrangling not to cover cancer, but it is almost a done deal that cancer will be covered now. On 11/9/11 the big lawsuit representing nearly 10,000 sick rescue, recovery, and clean-up workers got the 95% approval and finally got access to the one billion dollar fund that had been set up in 2001 just for such needs, but until that point had paid out only to lawyers fighting the claims of the sick.
What are some of the illnesses that emerged after 9/11? Are all of these illnesses recognized as such by the Federal Government and society at large?
COPD, a myriad of chemical sensitivities and respiratory problems, migraines, skin diseases, and accelerated cancers are some of the illnesses. Here are two little clips from the 2007 A&E documentary 911’s Toxic Dust,wherein I state the cancer connection and the accelerated disease connection.
These illnesses that emerged after 9/11are now, as of 2012 recognized by the federal government and society at large. Many hundreds of people and institutions worked together to change the tide. I am proud that The Lower Manhattan Public Health Project played a part in that.
What are you currently working on?
In the media ecology area I am currently working with a fellow researcher at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, Rebecca Leung, on a series of interviews with major players in the first stage of the Egyptian Revolution during the Arab Spring and analyzing the role of social media and human agency in that revolution and in the ongoing struggle for the heart of the revolution. This is the question about human agency and new forms of communication technology in social change that I began working on in the late 1980s regarding the Solidarity movement in Poland and the smuggling in and out and around of videotapes to counter the lies of the empire. Social media and social change – it’s everywhere. And thanks to Rebecca Leung’s field work in the interviews and her multi-lingual abilities, and to my background in media ecology, we are pulling together an Innis/Eisenstein-worthy analysis of the Arab Spring.
In the public health area I am turning my attention to two projects: an information clearing house for articles and information related to treatment options after toxic injuries (coming in 2013). In this area I am also working with many other public health experts to get public policy makers to understand that hydraulic fracturing for natural gas is, at this point, a preventable public health disaster. But if they just “drill baby drill” throughout New York (and the world for that matter), there are going to be toxic synergistic illnesses that make Gulf War Syndrome and the Toxic Aftermath of 9/11 look like a nice old memory of times when at least we could get to clean air and water. If you have not yet seen Josh Fox’s film Gasland, take a look. I am also, in a mix of media ecology and public health, analyzing the roles that that film and the movement against hydraulic fracturing have using social media and public protest in their battle against Goliath.
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