© Leslie Regan Shade and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Shade was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on January 21st, 2012
Dr. Leslie Shade is an Associate Professor at Concordia University’s Department of Communication Studies. Her research and teaching focuses on social, policy, and ethical aspects of ICTs, political economy of the media, feminism/gender issues and media in Canada. Professor Shade has been active in conducting research on the social and policy aspects of the Internet since the mid-1990s, and her research contributions straddle the line between academic and non-academic audiences, including policymakers and non-profit groups. She’s currently engaged in several research projects – most notably Young Canadians, Participatory Digital Culture and Policy Literacy, funded by SSHRC (2010-13) and Mapping Media Justice Policy Activism in the United States & Canada, funded by Concordia’s General Research Fund. Her latest writings include work under review on social media and activism (with Normand Landry), privacy discourses in Canada (with Tamara Shepherd), and young people and mobile phone regulation/perceptions (with Tamara Shepherd).
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
Not a conscious choice at all! I didn’t follow a straight trajectory from BA to MA to PhD. There were years between each degree where I was working and learning how to make a living, playing, doing the myriad things you do in your 20s, and then having a family. Entering a PhD program was not so deliberate per se; I applied to do a PhD a month or so with after our second child was born (“now what else to do???!?”). I remember waiting in a Canada Post outlet that had notoriously long line-ups (this was on Spadina Ave. in Toronto) with full winter weather regalia on and a hot baby strapped to me to send my app off to McGill. And when I graduated, I positioned myself to be able to enter ‘the academy’ or go into public service of some fashion…
Who were some of your mentors?
I started to be engaged in the public interest policy space in Canada in the early 1990s, with concerns regarding universal access to the internet, community networking, etc. So I would say I found this early involvement with these many groups (now defunct), concerned citizens, and community activists to be great mentors.
In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
When I was an undergraduate student we sat around in class smoking and talking. And some students brought their dogs to class. So it was the ‘70s! I went to the University of California, San Diego and it was a very exciting time to be a student. And it wasn’t until much later that I really appreciated its informal yet often heady ambiance. I was a Communications/Visual Arts major and was exposed to amazing artists and a politically engaged group of profs that were leaders in establishing critical communication studies. Classes were small, full of dialogue and debate and reciprocity between professors and students. I have to say that spirit has stuck with me today, and that’s what I try to infuse in my classes. But it is the case that there’s much more emphasis now on ‘impacts’, measuring ‘effectiveness’ in the classroom, and perhaps in many instances, a culture of risk avoidance amongst students – they’re a generation subjected to regime-based testing, groomed to expect good grades, and sometimes afraid to colour outside of the lines.
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?
Teaching young people to colour outside of the lines, to take intellectual risks, to ask all sorts of questions, to read widely. I learn from my students and ask them all sorts of questions. We have conversations in the classrooms. Teaching media studies classes, we also look at different types of media. I keep a blog for each course where I post news items, YouTube clips, and other tid-bits of interesting information to accompany the weekly themes. I improvise in class too, depending on the tenor and mood of the students. Too tired to be lectured at? Let’s try a different strategy…
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
Be passionate about what you’re researching. Make jumping through the hoops entertaining. Remember that you can be creative and dutiful at the same time. Publish. Develop social networks, make new friends. Yes, it’s competitive for academic tenure track positions now, so considering going to parts of the world you never anticipated, and think beyond ‘the academy’ for jobs – policy positions, civil society, industry…you can always try to keep a foot in the ivory tower.
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?
The public university is certainly facing serious challenges with respect to funding and there are more demands from various governance bodies demanding accountability at multiple levels. It’s a strange beast – and hard for faculty members to understand the inner workings of administration. One of the challenges universities face is what sorts of policies to create regarding social media – whether and how to integrate social media into pedagogy, how to deal with privacy and copyright issues in particular. A conversation needs to happen between students, faculty and administrators about these issues.
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?
Tenuring differs of course across universities according to criteria of collective agreements or other policy docs. So one size does not fit all re tenure. Tenure is vitally important for safeguarding intellectual freedom and allowing professors to take intellectual risks, and in turn, risk controversies. Tenured profs also build fields – we spend a significant amount of time mentoring junior colleagues, serving on various peer-reviewed committees, assessing tenure & promotion dossiers, and serving in administrative capacities within and outside of our departments and universities.
One of your areas of expertise is feminist media studies. During a speech you gave in Vancouver on the 2008 Media Democracy Day, you began your presentation by pointing out that you were struck by the very masculine metaphors used to talk about media reform and media democracy and ICT policy – words like “fight, battle, war, struggle, resistance, lock down – and you called for rethinking these metaphors. Would you elaborate on this point a little? Have any improvements been made on this front in the past few years?
No, if anything these metaphors have become more entrenched, especially as various global campaigns for securing the public interest in digital policy continues. Public support and interest in digital policy issues is quite prevalent, a very exciting development – just look at this week’s activism against SOPA, or Canadian mobilization against UBB, citizen’s involvement in CRTC hearings on net neutrality, etc. So while these ‘fighting words’ galvanize action in a strategic fashion, it’s also important to provide a nuanced critique of the issues and provide policy alternatives and solutions.
Another of your areas of specialization is Canadian communication studies. Do you think there is a difference in the way people like Harold Innis or Marshall McLuhan are interpreted in the US, as opposed to here in Canada? What is, in your view, the main distinguishing feature of Canadian communication theory?
I wrote a piece for Josh Greenberg and Charlene Elliot’s book, Communication in Question where I argued that Canadian communication studies scholarship has been influenced by and can be characterized by its emphasis on communication technologies and cultural and media policies.
Discourses on nationhood and identity have been key, alongside an emphasis on political economy and cultural studies. Geography, language, multiculturalism, gender, race and representation, and social inclusion are also common concerns. Many, but not all of course, communication studies programs in the US are more administrative in orientation; frankly, I’m not sure how and if Innis or McLuhan are taken up in US programs, but I would like us as Canadian communication scholars to think of other scholars that can comprise a ‘Canadian school’ for the 21st century…
An upcoming chapter is entitled Mobilizing for Development: Promises, Perils, and Policy Implications of M4D in Mobilities, Knowledge and Social Justice, edited by Suzan Ilcan (McGill-Queen’s University Press). Would you give us a sneak peek?
In this chapter I examine discourses surrounding the use of mobile phones for development – some of it, I critique, is techno-determinist and techno-optimistic – similar to the hype with IT4D, especially surrounding WSIS. I also survey a large body of exciting research that examines how the mobile is being used in innovative ways for social justice: for political advocacy, by women for economic and social empowerment, and for human rights. I also question the environmental consequences of our dependence on mobiles – human rights abuses of young people who mine coltan and cobalt in repressive regimes, the dumping of e-waste in developing countries…and remind us that we must be vigilant about new mobile divides.
What are you currently working on?
Lots of things! I have a SSHRC project called Young Canadians, Participatory Digital Culture, and Policy Literacy. This research program has a dual focus: through interviews and focus groups with young Canadians (aged 15-20s) it will examine their use of digital technologies for play, education, work, and civic participation, as well as assess their knowledge of digital policy issues, such as copyright and privacy. It also aims to co-create with students digital policy literacy toolkits. Then I’m working on two manuscripts; one on internet access policy and activism in Canada, and the other updating my earlier book on women and the internet.
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