© Paul Heyer and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Heyer was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on August 26th, 2010
After pursuing an undergraduate degree in geography at Concordia University, Paul Heyer went on to do graduate work in sociology and anthropology at The New School For Social Research in New York, and Rutgers University in New Jersey where he earned his doctorate. His mentor was Ted Carpenter. Prior to becoming a faculty member at Wilfrid Laurier University, he taught communication studies at Simon Fraser, Concordia, and McGill. On several occasions he has been a visiting faculty member at the University of Western Sydney in Australia. His primary research interests are media history (film, radio, and television) and nonverbal communication. He is the author of Titanic Legacy: Disaster as Media Event and Myth, and co-editor (with David Crowley) of Communication in History: Technology, Culture, Society. A lifelong fascination with radio has led to his latest book, The Medium and the Magician, which deals with the radio legacy of Orson Welles and how Welles’s use of sound in radio influenced his motion pictures. Most recently, he has begun research on a project that assess media representations of island survivor stories, from Robinson Crusoe to television’s Lost.
When and how did you know that you wanted to become a university professor?
I went to graduate school with no intention of becoming a professional academic. At the time, I was simply interested in learning as much as I could about anthropology, although I guess in the back of my mind I harboured a thought or two that I might wind up teaching in some capacity. As my work progressed and I published a few minor things, and as graduation loomed, I simply said, why not? Still, I knew my chances for employment in a traditional anthropology department were slim. Fortunately, my interdisciplinary background, interest in McLuhan and Carpenter, and Innis, and work on the evolution of art and symbolic behaviour, made me a good fit for the relatively new program in communication studies at Simon Fraser University.
What makes a good teacher these days? How do you manage to command attention inside the classroom in an “age of interruption” characterized by information overload?
No amount of technological razzle dazzle can reach students like the human voice. A clear, lively lecture with a few visuals to serve as points of reference will beat a power point laden commentary every time. I also use film clips when relevant, being careful to show them toward the end of class, having learned from McLuhan not to follow such media, since they can have a tendency to overwhelm you.
What advice would you give to young and aspiring university professors?
That’s a killer question. Let’s face it: it’s a jungle out there. Academe has become like Hollywood, in that there are many qualified performers waiting to audition for very few full-time spots…and you may have to wait on tables (read, teach as a low paid sessional), hoping for a break that might never come. If you don’t love what you do, but merely think it’s a career option, try something else. Academe, like life, is not fair. Being good helps, but it is no guarantee—I was once turned down for a position at a very undistinguished school at the same time that I was an alternate on the shortlist for one of the most prestigious universities in the U.S.. Be open to alternatives, academic and otherwise. On the positive side, some of my communication graduates have gotten jobs in sociology, fine arts, film studies, and comparative literature. Presenting at conferences helps, but having a few publications is better. And please, do not apply for a tenure-track position (and pester your profs for references) if you are ABD, and without publications or a reasonable amount of teaching experience. Those days are over.
After pursuing an undergraduate degree in geography at Concordia University, you went on to do graduate work in sociology and anthropology at The New School for Social Research in New York, and Rutgers University in New Jersey, where you earned your doctorate. Well, McLuhan once said that specialization no longer holds in the age of information; that the more one studies one subject the more that subject relates to another subject. What do geography, sociology and anthropology have in common – or what don’t they have in common?
Well, in my undergraduate days I was interested in anthropology, but Concordia (Sir George Williams University back then) had no program, so I tried for the next best thing, which has human geography, plus some courses in sociology. I wanted to major in biology as well, but the university screwed me in that regard. When I registered in first year, I was told that only science students where guaranteed the introductory biology course. The other available spaces had been taken by upper level arts students who had already registered for it as an elective. I tried again in year two, but they changed the registration sequence to one in which first year students registered first, then fourth, third, and second. Last again and the course was full. I finally got the course in third year, looked at the registration card (no computer registration back then), and knew I could not do the required major in two years, since the ecology and evolution courses that interested me were third and fourth year. I handed the card back.
Geography, anthropology, and sociology relate well to one another, and to communication studies. I have benefited greatly from my eclectic background and this is reflected in my work. However, I seem to be a vanishing species—very few people today do degrees in three different disciplines at three different universities. Specialism has become the norm, even at the undergraduate level. Here at Laurier, which is a great school, my communication courses, sadly, have only communication students in them. The major must be declared upon entry. Gone, or so it seems, are the days where you could take courses from all over the map for two years before declaring a major before entering third year…the situation at Simon Fraser was headed that way before I left.
What memories do you have from the time you spent as a graduate student in the United States, why didn’t you stay in the US, and how was your overall graduate experience there?
It was amazing. What luck to wind up studying with mentors who were brilliant in ways that I had never imagined, and yet completely different from one another: Stanley Diamond and Ted Carpenter at the New School, and Robin Fox at Rutgers. Nothing in my previous academic experience had prepared me for such originality. The genius (and I do not use this term lightly) in their writing was reflected in their lectures and all three had a poetic approach–Diamond and Fox were published poets, and everything Ted writes is poetry. During Diamond’s lectures, the way he linked concept to word, would occasionally elicit orgasmic moans from some of the female students. I felt the same way.
The New School was a great place to be, but I was intimidated by the students. They were very friendly, but most were from New York, older, more worldly than me, and more knowledgeable in fields that, to all intents and purposes, I was just beginning to seriously study. I maintained a low profile, worked my ass off, was invited into the doctoral program, but opted to go to Rutgers because of my interest in biosocial anthropology and the evolution of symbolic behaviour. It was also a historical turning point of sorts. The radicalism I had absorbed at the New School enriched my work with a Montreal group called the Insurrection Art Company. Then came Kent State, and the War Measures act in Quebec, and I knew that the dream of the sixties was over. Still, I was not averse to remaining I the United States after earning my doctorate and came close to landing few positions; however, I preferred Canada and made a concerted effort to apply for positions there. Incidentally, before getting the job at Simon Fraser, I was short-listed at various places for positions in anthropology and sociology. Interdisciplinarity again.
One of your mentors was none other than Ted Carpenter. What was it like working under his wing and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from him?
I came to Carpenter through reading McLuhan while at university in the sixties. As students, just intuitive kids in retrospect, we were fascinated by McLuhan’s work, sensing there was something extraordinary in it. Our teachers at university, save for a few “weirdoes” in fine arts, dismissed him – if they even knew who he was – as the academic antichrist. Then, because of my interest in anthropology, I glommed onto the influence of Carpenter on McLuhan and set out to read everything by Ted I could lay my hands on. He became my idol, along with Miles Davis, although I had long since abandoned my aspirations to become a jazz trumpet player. I also realized that Ted was a kind of anti-academic, leading a mysterious gypsy-like life that might take him anywhere, except to a full-time university position. Not in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine meeting him
Then, in my second year at the New School I took a course called anthropology, art, and modern life (there was no post-modernism in those days), with the instructor listed as TBA, always an iffy sign. The instructor walks in and says, “My name is Ted Carpenter.” I assumed it was a coincidence. Carpenter is not an uncommon name and I didn’t know an “Edmund” could be a “Ted.” Within a minute of hearing him lecture, however, I realized who he was. He had been hired as a sessional by Diamond! I was ecstatic, and puzzled by the fact that none of the other students had heard of him. OK, I thought, more of him for me, and I audited his other course. Unlike McLuhan, Ted is warm, accessible, and open to being challenged. Like McLuhan, he has a mesmerizing eloquence. Ted influenced the way I think and write, synthetically rather than analytically; pattern recognition and clarity of exposition over jargon-laden academic B.S. It was an absolute thrill to be on the panel presenting a tribute to him at the Media Ecology Association meetings a few years ago, and then seeing him again after 30 plus years, although we had corresponded occasionally.
Media Ecology, Canadian Communication Studies, Medium Theory, the Toronto School of Communication. Is there a difference among these terms in your view?
They all have the right to be called as they are—although I know a few people who freak out over the term “Toronto School.” All are interdisciplinary, and there is, if you understand the term, focal overlap. Think of each as a circle partially overlapping each of the others. Certainly all have in common, the Innis/McLuhan legacy, and a humanities and social science orientation. Media ecology might be the most inclusive in that it seems amenable to input from the biological sciences.
Do you consider yourself an Innisian or a McLuhanite?
I use both but my own work is so eclectic it defies such identification—publishers never seem to know how it should be categorized, and neither do I.
What are you currently working on these days and when is your next book coming out?
I have three book projects on the go. The first is a new edition of my 1995 book, Titanic Legacy: Disaster as Media Event and Myth. My publisher wants to release an updated version in 2012 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the event. New additions will include a discussion of the Cameron film, the salvage controversy, and the sinking in light of our post-911, post-Katrina, post-Gulf Spill era.
The second, is collaboration with Bill Buxton at Concordia and Michael Cheney at Illinois. We are bringing out in two volumes Innis’ hitherto unpublished “History of Communications” manuscript. The first volume will include his autobiographical memoir. Much editing is involved, Innis being Innis, but we’re hoping volume one will be available sometime in 2011.
The Third is rather unusual. A book-length manuscript tentatively titled. “Imaginary Islands: From Robinson Crusoe to Lost.” This is not as far removed from communication studies as it might seem, since I’m looking at how the island survivor narrative has been elaborated in a variety of media, from oral traditions and poetry, to literature, film, and television.
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