© Peter Haratonik and Figure/Ground Communication
Professor Haratonik was interviewed via Skype by Laureano Ralon on February 11th, 2012
Peter Haratonik is Media Studies Chair and Associate Professor at The New School for General Studies, where he specializes in Media education, media and children, social effects of technology, media and urban issues. He began his career as an educator with the New York City Board of Education where he taught Social Studies and served as a media coordinator. As a student and eventual colleague of media theorist Neal Postman, he has continually addressed the issue of the need to understand media in relation to education in its broadest terms. He created one of the earliest programs in video production for middle school-students and wrote curricular materials on media education. He has lectured and consulted at a number of universities both in the United States and in Ireland, Turkey, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and China. Having served as department chair at three major universities, Haratonik’s expertise and interests are broad. He seeks to explore the relationships among academic research, media practice, and media management. He has also conducted extensive research on the life and work of social theorist, critic, and philosopher Lewis Mumford.
What attracted you to academia? Was it a conscious career choice?
No, it was not a conscious choice. As an undergraduate, I studied History and Philosophy – primarily American History and American Philosophy. I was very much influenced by people like William James and John Dewey. I was introduced to Pragmatism through one of my professor, who is still teaching, John McDermott. He is one of the great scholars of American Philosophy and a philosopher in his own right. At the same time, I had also a strong interest in Architecture, Urban Planning and the concept of the city. I mention this up front because it is what would eventually bring me to the work of Lewis Mumford.
After I graduated from college, I did a year with VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), which is now called AmeriCorps. I returned to New York and became a social studies teacher. In November of my first year of teaching, the first draft lottery came along, but I got number three hundred and sixty six, which meant that I was not likely to get drafted. I was enjoying teaching at that point, although it was probably one of the most exhausting years of my life: five classes a day and about a hundred and fifty or so kids in a New York City middle school. However, I realized that I was now free to do what I wanted in the classroom to a great extent. I had already read much about the contemporary alternative schools movement: Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity, James Heandon’s and The Way It’s Spozed to Be, and John Holt ‘s How Children Learn – all of that generation that emerged in the mid- to late-sixties and who were rethinking public education.
It turned out that there was a vacancy for the school’s audio-visual coordinator. I had already been doing work with my students, slideshows and the like. I had also studied Photography at the school of Visual Arts while I was a student at Queen’s College; I had taken Film and Television Production courses at Queens Collge but I had never made the connection between and among these various interests. When I began teaching in Junior High School, I saw that my students lack of “a voice” and the ability to communicate their ideaseffectively, so media became the mechanism by which I sought to give them their voice – initially with Photography, and then the by having them write scripts . So that was my entry into using and integrating media, which I always had seen as an avocation: I was a photographer for the school’s newspaper; I volunteered in the 60s as crew on various independent film projects, but I never wanted to be a filmmaker or director. At this point, I was not quite sure what I wanted to do…
To make this story short: in 1971, I was a Political Science graduate student at the New School, and another media educator named Kit Laybourne was teaching a course through this organization called the Center for Understanding Media It was a graduate level course, and even though it didn’t tie in with my degree, I took the course anyway. Kit and I became friends, and he loaned me a Sony Portapak – an early battery powered self-contained video tape recording system. I started doing some work with my kids, and was eventually able to get a $12,000 grant – which in 1971 was not insignificant – to buy equipment for my school and set up one of the first video programs for middle school kids as part of their social science curriculum. At the same time, I realized that I didn’t want to be a Political Science major, and I had come across the fact that Neil Postman – whom I hadn’t really associated with media – was running this program called Media Ecology at NYU. I went down there just to pick up some information, and the first person I ran into was Neil Postman. He asked me if he could help me; I told him what my interests were, and I started the Master’s program shortly after.
We are now in the Spring of 1972: I am working to try and get this course I had taken in the New School accepted for graduate credit, but because it was not offered in their graduate division NYU was giving me a hard time. So I went over to the Center for Understanding Media on West 25th street to get a letter from them; I was sitting there, waiting. Kit was supposed to teach a Video Production workshop for teachers. Given everything that he had to do he suggested that I do it and was hired on the spot by Bob Geller, one of the great leaders in film education who would later become a producer:
- “Do you know John Culkin?”
- “No, I know of him but have never met him.”
- “Well, I have to run, but let me tell him you’re here and he’ll stop by”
So I am sitting there by myself, and a few minutes later a six-foot-five, ruddy faced force of nature walsk up and says: “Hi, I’m John Culkin.” I introduced myself and we chatted for about fifteen or twenty minutes. We got to talk about my own teaching, modes of education, changes in education becaisu o fmedia, and at some point John asks: “How much money are you making right now?” At the time I was making about $10,000 a year. He looks at me and says: “Work for me for $11,000?” I said: “Sure!” He goes: “Great! I’ll see you.”
I don’t hear anything back from John. I get a letter from Bob confirming my teaching for the Summer, so I go in about a month later and I talk to Bob: “Do you know anything about me working here?” He says: “No, but talk to John.” So I walk into John’s office, knock on the side of the door, and he goes:
- “Oh, Peter, how are you?”
- “Good, good. John, we spoke briefly about the possibility of me working here, remember?”
- “Oh, sure.”
- “Well, do I get a contract or anything?”
- “Sure, you want a letter?”
He goes to his secretary, dictates a letter, and hands it over to me. So that’s how I started working for the Center for Understanding Media: teaching graduate courses for teachers, and also coordinating a major program funded by the Nation Endowment for the Arts called “Film/Video Artists in the Schools.” Here we trained the teachers in media activities and we sent out professional film and video makers to work with them in the schools.
That was the year also that the Center for Understanding Media affiliated with Antioch College and started on of the first graduate programs in Media Stuise. I became a part-time faculty member in that program, teaching video production courses and other courses related to teaching and learning and classroom activities. That same Fall I also started the graduate program in Media Ecology. So for the next three years I worked my way through the MA program; I started the Doctoral program; I did more and more teaching; I began to teach more theory-related courses; incorporated a lot of the things that I was learning from Neil – what you would call a Media Ecology perspective. I also got more passionate about my study of Lewis Mumford, whom I’d first come across in high school (We both went to the same high school fifty years apart or so). Then in 1975, we merged the program with the New School. We were already quite successful in terms of our enrollments; Antioch was going through some restructuring and fiscal concerns due to overgrowth. And we were New York based. John had offered courses at the New School in the past, it was fairly easy for the New School just to adopt us. For the first year it was a joint program, and then on July 1, 1976 – the bicentennial year – we merged the graduate program completely with the New School.
There was a point in my life where I had thouhgt about going back to school and getting advanced degrees in American Studies or even Urban Palnning. but I actually got into higher education through public education. So beginning in 1969 in the New York City Public Schools and continuing to this day, I have considered myself more of a teacher, an educator, an administrator and a program developer than an “scholar”..
What exactly is the difference between a media educator and a media scholar?
Well, my concern is about students and their learning. Most scholars certainly care about their teaching but their work is primarily about their own research. What I consider my research is really working with students and teachers to try and make things happen in classrooms at all level: I’ve worked at every level from kindergarden through graduate school, trying to figure out how we make things happen. For me, Media Studies was always a set of active processes, not only the academic study of it. So once we learn a theory and if we accept an approach as having consequences (McLuhan or Marxism or whatever it is), how does that play out in the world of education? And here I agree with Neil completely, and Dewey from that matter, in that education takes place everywhere. But at the same time my commitment has always been with schools and institutions, and how they can come to understand the impact that technological change has on them, and at the same time to use technology proactively in school environment. I’ve always felt that education is understanding what I semergeg in the culture around us. Schools are a place to organize the chaos of the world around us in some sort of organized way and to give voice to the voiceless. I’m not a scholar in that I don’t have a long-term research agenda as such, although I do research and I’ve written about the things that I care about for me is about how do we make things happen in these places we call schools? And how do we effect change? I’m a great believer to some extent that, even if it is not broken, let’s fix it anyway; let’s try and improve it anyway. And technology affords us all sorts of opportunities to do that – not, as Neil reminds us, without its consequences. However, I think that that has been the history of technology since day one: it’s reflected in the Pre-Platonic era; it’s reflected in Plato, , so this concern is not new. Yet the way that Neil and Media Ecology re-orientd these concerns in the later part of the twentieth century was a very important defining movement within the broader field that I we call Media Studies.
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?
One of the things about universities and college professors, in general, is that they are strong advocates for change, except for themselves. There is a lot of talk about the changing nature of the classroom, but in my experience, schools are remarkably the same – colleges in particular. If you look at the structure of most colleges, the requirements and the additive nature of American higher education: with 120 credits the system will give you a degree, no questions asked. Graduate school is a little better in that regard. If technologies were all that powerful, they would have changed all the institutions around. But, to great extent. Are kids different today? Yes, they are. Are they as different as want have might imagined? I don’t see it.
Do you think their expectations might have changed? What about student-professor relations?
Well, there’s been this talk that – because of media and because of TV – professors have to be much more of entertainers. Again, I think all the best teachers have always been entertainers and engaging. When I think back to the college professors I had, they cared; they cared about what happened in the classroom. . One of the things that still happens, unfortunately, is that we do little or nothing or to prepare graduate students in how to be teachers. At best they are thrown into a teaching assistantship or some sort of class situation where they tend to model, which is difficult for most people, their behaviour on what they have seen before; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t work. Most universities still don’t give the respect to teaching that publications have. So you can be a great scholar and a terrible teacher, and probably in many places get tenure or become a full professor or continue your job. You can be a great teacher, but not be a scholar, and even in mundane, minor institutions, they don’t want to give you tenure – unless you have the book, three published papers and so on. Now, there are exceptions to that: there are institutions that are more teacher oriented. The goal of being a top scholar is to basically get out of teaching; relieve yourself from teaching, do your scholarship, and we’ll hire adjuncts or graduate assistants to do the teaching. .As recently as twenty years ago only 20% of cours wer taugh by adjuncts. Today that figure, depending on what data you use, can be well over 50%.
There are studies that show thatundergraduate education is not working and people are coming out uneducated and so on. I am not convinced that that is actually the case. Colleges, first of all, is not just about what happens in the classroom. The American university, in particular, is about a four-year period of maturity and growth – hopefully maturity – that can happen because we don’t need workers at factories at 16, 17 and 18. I think colleges have abdicated a great deal of responsibility in that role, partially as a function of my generation in the 60s. I’m not suggesting that schools should be monitoring your dorm behaviour, classroom behaviour, dress behaviour, all of these things but seeing themselves as places that look at the live so their students five, ten, twenty years into the future and not as simply as vehicles to the accumulate 120 credits. How to educate someone for a future that you can’t predict; that’s a challenge that can be approached in many different ways.
Interesting. I believe Albert Einstein who once said that education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school. Do you agree with that?
Yes, and one could argue that it is a function of a speeded up society. And this is nothing new: T.S. Eliot in the Choruses from The Rock (1934) says: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Wisdom and knowledge don’t come from the Internet or from information sources. Jacques Barzun who turned 104 last November, said: “learning is not something that happens in a day; we often don’t know what we’ve learned until twenty years later.” I think that there are some things that people do need to learn sooner rather than later, but the real mission of the university and the Liberal Arts is really something else; John Culkin called Media Studies the Arts and Humanities in a new key, borrowing the term “new key” from Susan Langer, and for me, it is really about the things that have both worked historically, and New things that are worth trying. It could be argued that the nature of media – instantaneous media, instantaneous results, every fact at your finger tips – means that information is replaces knowledge and wisdom; but I think young people to some extent understand this, and I am far less pessimistic about the behaviours of young people than a lot of the anecdotal evidence and characterizations in the media would present. Plus, we are still new at a lot of this: higher education for the masses is still at best three generations old.
What makes a good teacher today? What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
Well, I would like for people to go into higher education because they care about teaching, their field and their service to the field as much as their scholarship. There are those who want to teach as liitle as possible and devote all their time to their writing and to their scholarship.I can understand that there is a passion for that, and for some people, maybe universities can support this activity. But I think we have to respect teaching as a profession. We’ve come a long way in publicly demonizing teachers. When I hear the kinds of things that happen in Wisconsin or other places around the country, where school teachers are accused of not working very hard and getting a lot of time off, I say: “Just try it”. I often think that everybody that wants to be a teacher, before they teach at the university level should go into an elementary or middle school for a while to learn what teaching is really all about – the process of teaching – because by the time you get into high school, and certainly on the college level, you are there to teach content, not process. I have always been concerned with the process as much as the content. As my friend Kid Laybourne was always very fond of saying, “how you teach is what you teach,” meaning that you can’t divorce the process of how you teach things from what you are teaching. So what I recommend to graduate students is find as many opportunities as possible to teach; confront yourself in environments that are uncomfortable; find your level of what works for you in the classroom. We don’t do a lot of that in graduate school; we don’t spend any time teaching potential college professors how to teach, so you have to do it on your own. And you do it on your own by finding a variety of teaching opportunities: for example, you can go to a local community college, teach something and see what those students are like, see what their struggles are about, see what brings them to college. If you are working in the private system, go and do something in a public institution so that you can think about the process of getting ideas across. I fortunate in that I was working full time and going to school full time . I was teaching graduate students while going to graduate school, and so I could take ideas that I learned from Neil Postman Chris Nystrom and Terry Moran in the Media Ecology program. There were many great faculty members at NYU to learn about about teaching from, such as Henry Perkinson, who I never took a course with, but one learned by just talking with him and having him around as a mentor. Film scholar Joy Boyum and philosopher Stephanie Edgerton., two very different teachers, were also influence on my own teaching
As a media educator, what do you think is the most effective way to manage attention inside the classroom in an “age of interruption” characterized by fractured attention and information overload?
I am not convinced that we have such a lack of attention span. If you go back to the 19th century , how is it that kids pay attention? Well, in some cases it was through corporal punishment – they would just beat you to stay inline( By the way 21 states still allow for corporeal punishment in certain cases) . The nature of being a kid is that you don’t have a lot of attention span; the nature of being a kid is that you are perpetually multitasking, and the role of schools was to take that out of you. And it succeeded for some people, but it didn’t succeed for everybody – it didn’t work for Huckleberry Finn. Huckleberry Finn represnets the shift from a frontier, primary oral culture , to a “civilized’, prinmarily literate culture. We are naturally multitaskers; we are naturally multisensory human beings; we are naturally using all of our senses, : the idea of turning us over to one sense is what literacy did to us. So what one can argue is that the past couple of hundred years of book literacy was the interruption: the privatizing of learning, the monopolization of knowledge in the hands of those who wrote the books – this was the interruption in a couple of billion years in the evolution of our species.
Now, I know there are faculty that don’t allow cell phones or computers in the classroom, because they are convinced that students are doing something else. Well, I remember very full well when I was not engaged in a class, I could come up with all sorts of distractions in my head: making up songs, making up anything to not to have to engage. If you are not engaging students, taking away their I-pad is not going to make them engage And can you engage everyone? No; you are not going to get to everyone, and not everyone is necessarily meant for every particular kind of learning environment. The whole idea of trying to capture everyone in a seminar or in a lecture is naïve to begin with. So what is the most effective way to manage attention inside the classroom? Be passionate about what you are teaching, and be realistic about your expectations. A lot of the syllabi I see now are overburdened, and this is a direct media function. Back in the day before photocopies and every article was available online or by course pack, professors could assign comparatively few books. Now I see syllabi that are quite daunting: week 1 – four articles; week 2 – five articles. Give me a break! I always preferred fewer readings really focused upon, and then recommended readings. Unfortunately, a lot of what teaching has become is almost an immunization: process expose them to a whole bunch of things, and hopefully some things will catch – and this I think is a cope out on the part of some professors, who should say: “No, here are the four books I really think we should focus on this term.” Or one can imagine that there is an entire semester course on Understanding Media along, or on Technics and Civilization alone. Now, would students want to take these courses? Well, you have to convince them that they want to take those courses – you have to engage them. Lewis Mumford, in a letter he wrote back to me in 1977 said: “give my regards to your students, and tell them not to shy away from books – not too many books, just a few books to be digested and reflected upon.” That’s another thing: no wonder students are coming out of college not knowing a lot about anything; it’s because they are giving these course packs, these essays, these anthologies.Perhaps if you did attend one class that read on one novel, you’d be so much better off than a class that tries to cover ten novels in the course of a semester. I’m not sure that students have changed all that much in terms of attention span; it’s just that there is a lot more information and a lot of students who wouldn’t have gone to college 50 or 60 years ago. We are still dealing with first-generation college students; we are dealing with students who grew up in primarily oral households.
Okay, so you obviously don’t buy into this thesis of The Dumbest Generation – do you?
No. I was part of the first TV generation when television was supposed to make us all dumb. Maybe it did, I don’t know, but it didn’t seem to happen. I started teaching to a great extent the first generation when people were saying that video games would destroy society. Video gamers are in their middle age now and they are perfectly fine. And the really big problems in the society aren’t about media; it’s about politics, it’s about banks, it’s about greed, it’s about Wall Street – all the things that have been affecting this economy for hundreds of years. Do you want to blame the crash on Wall Street on media determinism? I don’t think so. There is a basic greed in human nature that needs to be corrected through government and through laws. I am a liberal, leftist, progressive, whatever. Republicans don’t feel that way, right? Young people are not not getting jobs because they are dumb; they are not getting jobs because the economy has tanked – and there are a lot of smart people out there.
Let’s move on. 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?
No. I don’t see that manifested in terms of people wanting to go to schools. Where the crisis is in education right is primarily in funding: people are wanting to go to schools and can’t go. We have a crisis in how schools are funded; we have a crisis in adult learning; we see State governments cutting back more and more on what they are contributing; we see a much greater elitism in who can afford education and who can’t.
Let’s change the subject. 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?
Well, I had opportunities to apply for tenure at various places, but I always chose to do so. I was not a classic scholar. I figured there would always be a place I could teach and be an education. But that’s me. I think there is a compelling case for tenure, less grounded in the academic freedom argument than in the fact that, as a profession, teaching and scholarship do require a certain amount of stability. If you are a salesman and you are good at sales, you can probably go from selling Toyotas to selling something else. If you are a good Doctor, you can be Doctor in a variety of places. The same is true for Lawyers. The academic and the scholarly life does require a commitment on the part of an institution, to say: “we are going to allow you to do this as part of your work.” Now, that is what universities were set up to do. Remember that the original universities were guilds – they were like Law or Accounting firms; what tenure meant before the 20th century was that you became a partner in the operation. So from that point of view, just like when you spend six years in a Law firm doing a lot of hard work and then they say: “okay, we think we are going to make you a partner.” With that comes a whole set of expectations about how much you are going to work, how hard you are going to work, how much you are compensated for that. So, ideally, if we had this kind of environment, then tenure would be justified. Tenure, as it evolved in the 20th century came out of real issues over academic freedom argument. It grew out of the Columbia faculty who were fired because of their opposition to World War I. So there are academic freedom issues involved. I would like to see a better system, where tenured faculty, feel the partnership responsibility. True collegiality. So if a colleague isn’t producing any longer or the teaching is suffering, there should be conversations among peers about what is going on. Also, because of the economics of higher education and the costs that we have created – which didn’t exist a generation or two ago –, there are those who achieve tenure and those who are perpetual adjuncts. I think the principal faculty need to be much more actively involved in those discussions about how part-time labour is used in institutions, and what that means for the institution. Lastly, it seems to me that tenure is a double edge sword: one the one hand, tenure is a mechanism to attract quality faculty; on the other hand, for some people tenure becomes a life-time sentence, because they become tenured in institutions where they are not happy in – and they don’t want to give it up because they might not be offered tenure anywhere else. . Hopefully there could be better matches: I would like to see a lot more collaboration and exchanges between and among universities, where people can go and teach somewhere else for a term or a year – to formalize systems where we all can benefit from our own strengths. So I don’t see tenure disappearing and I think there are all sorts of ways to think about how we use the professionalism of our field much more effectively.
Did you ever meet McLuhan?
I did know and meet McLuhan (I always called him Dr. McLuhan), and remain in touch with one of his children – his daughter Teri McLuhan. He was quite a but I didn’t have too many one on one meetings with him. Neil always described Marshall as being the world’s worst listener: at worst he would just dismiss you because you asked a question he didn’t like; at best, you would ask him a question and he’d give you an answer to a completely different one, I can’t claim to know him well, although he did once ask me to explain why Lewis Mumford disliked him so much. McLuhan was a great admirer of Mumford so when Mumford began to attack him in his later works, particularly in The Myth of the Machine Vol. II, McLuhan didn’t quite understand. Mumford actually thought that The Gutenberg Galaxy was a particularly good book. Mumford and McLuhan never met, although they corresponded about Mumford possibly visiting visit Toronto in 1949 or 1950. After McLuhan’ s death Mumford would say that he was perhaps bit to hard on McLuhan.
What are you currently working on?
Well, I’ve been working with colleagues on creating a new Media Management program, separate from the Media Studies MA program. I have also been working on an essay I began writing years ago when Neil died on McLuhan’s influence on four educators: Neil Postman, John Culkin, Louis Forsdale, and Gerald O’Grady. I’ve also been with working with another former undergraduate professor of mine, Gary Gumpert on developing the Urban Communication Foundation. Gary, now emeritus at Queens College is from Neil’s generation and is one of the most influential scholars and teachers of his generation. It’s been a privilege working with him again.
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