© Jim Curtis and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Curtis was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on December 12th, 2011
Jim Curtis received his BA in German from Vanderbilt University, and his MA and Ph.D. from Columbia University. He is now Professor Emeritus of Russian from the University of Missouri, where he taught for 31 years, and where he received numerous teaching awards. Jim grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, and that may have something to do with the fact that his interests are split between American popular culture, and Russian high culture. He addressed both of those topics in Culture as Polyphony, the first general explanation and defense of McLuhan’s theories. He returned to Russian studies with Solzhenitsyn’s Traditional Imagination, and then returned to popular culture with Rock Eras. Interpretations of Music and Society, 1953-1983. Rock Eras was the first book to apply McLuhan’s ideas to popular culture in a systemic way. He continued this alternation with Boris Eichenbaum: His Family, His Country, and the Literature of His County, about a major Russian formalist critic, and with his as yet unpublished book on Bob Dylan, which discusses — among other things — McLuhan’s influence on Dylan. He is now working on A Perfect Storm of Violence: How the Word and the Wall Created Stalinism, a book that will apply linguistics, anthropology and media theory to an interpretation of Stalinism.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
Some people know that they’re going to b e accountants; some people know that they’re going to be musicians. I just knew that I was going to be a professor. It’ the only thing I ever wanted to do.
Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?
I’m sorry to say that I had negative mentors in graduate school. My professors conducted themselves in unprofessional — not to say — irresponsible ways. What I learned from them, mostly, was what I didn’t want to be as a teacher. And their lessons stuck with me. When I started teaching, I was more committed to it than ever, and it remained a source of lasting satisfaction for 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?
If anyone ever writes a serious history of academic life in America during the seventies and eighties, it will show that the professors changed faster than the students. By and large students at large public schools, where most American undergraduates go to school, were sufficiently confused about their identities, and sufficiently worried about money, that they couldn’t muster the commitment that serious teachers wanted from them.
A majority of the students, and a sizable minority of the professors, were very content with the LAF system that has prevailed throughout American life since the fifties. There are and were simply too many students, and too few professors, anybody who keeps up with the news knows that that situation is not going to change. Hence the need for a quick and easy grading system that will allow professors to — and I use this word deliberately — process students efficiently. As a practical matter this means giving multiple choice exams, for which the LAF model holds. Oh? I didn’t define LAF? It stands for Learn And Forget. Students and professors collude on the LAF system, and that isn’t going to change because both sides are content with it.
However, Meyrowitz is right to say that cognitive relationships change with media change. I haven‘t taught in a while, but I sense that student now have a broader sense of the world than they did. What’s happened is that their non-classroom experience online has become so much more intense and meaningful that professors can’t hope to compete. The extreme examples of Harvard dropouts Bill Gates and Gary Zuckerberg show dramatically the difficulties that the classroom experience faces in competing with mesmerizing world of online experience.
Overall I would say that the one thing that hasn’t changed is that professors care way more about education than their students do. They are after all a pre-selected group.
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 understands what is called in educational theory “constructivism.” That is to say, it assumes that students construct their own meanings and therefore teaching is an interaction between teachers and students. Note that this does not mean that teachers present material, and students write in down. Applied constructivism means that teachers understand that the first and most important task of a teacher to engage the students in the subject. Such a teacher will not do what virtually all teachers do on the first day —hand out a syllabus and start presenting the material. Such a teacher will understand the necessity of engaging the students in the subject.
Thus, if I were teaching a history course, I would have on a screen as the students walked in the first day the following: “Who cares about history? The only thing that matters is what’s happening right now.” And I would devote the first week — maybe more — to debating this topic. Then, and only then, after the students had clarified to themselves their attitude toward history, would I begin the material of the course.
Constructivism applies even more dramatically to language learning. Foreign languages are taught so badly in America today that they successfully convince students that they can’t learn foreign languages. It would take time, money, and the willingness to rethink the conceptual processes of language learning to change this situation. We have none of those three things, and we aren’t going to have them. Hence America’s irreversible political and economic decline in the new global village.
Yes, of course, you can use grade coercion to make students study, but that’s not what I call education, and I would not want to be a part of it.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
I would advise them to find a different field of endeavour. It may well be that the academic life in America will adequately re-define itself so that it can offer young people a rewarding career, but that re-definition will take quite a while.
Departments of English and History that continue to award the Ph. D. Are acting immortally, not to mention unprofessionally.
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?
Yes, of course the university is in crisis. In even more of a crisis is the small liberal arts college. And I want to take this opportunity to point out the culprits — administrators, Deans and provosts. Even the good ones have so much committed to protecting their turf, and the current organizational structure, that they block efforts at academic innovation. And that’s not to mention the widespread problems that the current economic downturn causes.
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?
As I said before, I have reason to believe that the primary culprits who prevent — sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously — educational reform are the administrators. But senior faculty members bear part of the responsibility, too. Administrators have an emotional commitment to protecting the current organizational structure, and senior faculty members have an emotional commitment to protecting the current configuration of their field.
I’ve given very little thought to tenure one way or another, since I think that there are so many much more urgent problems in American academic life. Still, I do believe that there’s a middle way between abolishing tenure and maintaining. Maybe long-term contracts that would stipulate continued employment if faculty members maintain their teaching effectiveness and research productivity.
I want restate my belief that in the big scheme of things tenure is a relatively minor issue.
In Culture and Polyphony: An Essay on the Nature of Paradigms, you write: “One does not usually associate Hegel with technology, but he did in fact first state the principle with which McLuhan shocked people a hundred and fifty years later: the interpretation of technology as the extensions of man” (p. 34-35). Would you elaborate on this point a little?
I quote Hegel as saying in his Germanic way “The organism is a coming together with itself in itself external process.” It takes a little generosity, and a good deal of comfort with Germanic philosophical discourse, to connect Hegel and McLuhan here, but what it comes to is that when Hegel says “organism” he really means “any entity.” When an organism “comes together with itsel” it creates a closed loop of the kind McLuhan understood as an extension.
You are a Professor Emeritus of Russian at the University of Missouri-Columbia, but also a media ecologist in your own right. What attracted you to the work of Marshall McLuhan, and what is, in your view, his most important contribution to the field of linguistics?
I’m sorry to say — to repeat that phrase — that the members of the Media Ecology Association that I have met had no expertise in foreign languages and/or foreign cultures. If they had, they would have realized that what McLuhan did had significant precedents.
What is at issue is binary logic — a logic that admits a possibility of “both/and” and not “either/or. “ If and only if the validity of binary logic is admitted is the use of figure/ground relationships admissible. For that is the point of figure/ground relationships; they rely on the interaction between two entities (ideas, works of art, societies) to create meaning. Such binary logic appears in the principle that created modern linguistics in 1914: “In language there are only differences.” That is to say, our ability to recognize the difference between “cat” and “cats” makes language possible. (There’s a lot more to it than this, but that’s the key principle.) Each of these words exists in a figure/ground relationship to the other. People who don’t know anything about linguistics, people who speak only English, people who don’t have — and don’t know that they don’t have — a thorough grounding in modern literary theory don’t understand this. That’s why they go on and on about the importance of McLuhan’s Catholicism, rather than relating him to the conceptual revolution of binary logic from which he benefitted. It so happened that McLuhan was a genius at the manipulation of figure/ground relationships, but he didn’t invent them.
As far as I’m concerned — and this is as much of a minority opinion as Culture as Polyphony was in its day (which is why it was ignored) — the field of Media Ecology is more — much more — indebted to the American social sciences than its practitioners allow. And believe me when I tell you that I do not mean that as a compliment.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on A Perfect Storm of Violence. How the Wall and the Word Created Stalinism. I’m sure that I can write this thing, but getting it published in what’s called “the current climate” is another matter.
In the book I propose to apply to Stalinism the principles of linguistics, anthropology and media studies. A key implication of these fields, both taken separately and together, is that it is valid to ignore the public statements of governmental officials when interpreting their actions. Thus, to believe that Marxism-Leninism was relevant to Soviet society, that slogans such as “the dictatorship of the proletariat” had any meaning, is to deny that the medium is the message and to believe in content.
Since I do believe that the medium is the message, and I don’t believe in content, I also don’t believe that Marxism-Leninism has any relevance at all in interpreting Soviet society. In the words of the theme song of the movie Casablanca, I believe that “the fundamental things apply.” Those fundamental things in human existence are sex, power, and money. More specifically, the lust for sex, the lust for power, and the lust for money. Since—for reasons that I can and will explain—Soviet leaders made sex and money irrelevant, that left power.
The Soviet system—and Stalinism its purest form—was all about power. How that power was configured and exercised relates to the long-term developmental processes of Russian history.
Just as I would like to overcome the provincialism of media studies, I would like to overcome the Amerocentric nature of historical studies in general. As a first step in doing that I will propose that Stalin was the most important politician of the twentieth century. Nobody else is even close. And the fact that that’s a controversial opinion simply speaks to the Amerocentric nature of current discourse.
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