© Read Mercer Schuchardt and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Schuchardt was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on July 21th, 2011
Read Mercer Schuchardt is an Associate Professor of Communication at Wheaton College, where he teaches courses in public speaking, media ecology, media effects, media and composition and journalism. Dr. Schuchardt’s interests include media ecology, international travel, soccer, reading, writing, aeronautics, film, cooking, kayaking, and scale model building. He is the founder of Metaphilm and his most recent book is entitled You Do Not Talk About Fight Club: I Am Jack’s Completely Unauthorized Essay Collection.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
I was twenty-seven years old and had just completed my Master’s Thesis at NYU, which I went to exclusively to study under Neil Postman. Postman’s books Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly were absolutely life-changing for me, and gave me, for the first time in higher education, the idea that university professors had things to say that were relevant to real life as we lived it now. I read Amusing Ourselves to Death when my mother sent me the book, and she heard about it from a sermon preached by Terry Johnson at the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, GA. Johnson was quoting from page nine, where Postman discusses the 2nd commandment of the Decalogue as “a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of communication and the quality of a culture.” I had never in my whole life, which included a pagan childhood in the Carribean until age nine, and a deep-Southern religious childhood in Georgia from age 12 or 13 on, heard anyone discuss the old religion in anything but the old terminology. To hear it discussed, and discussed intelligently, intellectually, and winsomely, in new terminology (which is to say, language I could follow, understand, comprehend, and “get”), was nothing less than earth-shattering for me at the time. To put it Biblically, it was new wineskins for the old wine. McLuhan said once that most people receive religion by tasting the shell but never tasting the nut, and so they reject it. This was thrilling because it finally helped me to understand why something that was so old, so revered, and yet so utterly meaningless to me could be understood, not as necessarily believable, but as at least comprehensible. Prior to that, I was fairly convinced that religion (of any type) was really just a crutch for the old-fashioned and weak-minded. So to discover Postman was my entry into media ecology, and to discover that (as the song goes) “media ecology almost is theology” was life-changing. So long story short, I lapped up my 18 months of grad school, and then thought, “Now what?” My M.A. advisor strongly advised me against applying for the Ph.D. program since, as she put it, “You won’t get in” so I thought I’d have to return to the corporate world, where in fact I’d been full time all along in order to support my wife and (then) three kids. But two things happened a few weeks later: 1.) Neil Postman personally invited me to join his program, an honor which is to this day perhaps the highest honor I’ve ever received and, 2.) my wife and I began discussing whether or not we wanted more children. We did, and that meant something very significant for me, since I was raised by my mother after my parents divorced – to me it meant that in order to be a good father, I’d actually want to be there for them, and that meant having more time than money, so the idea of becoming a university professor was suddenly very appealing, and even if it didn’t work out, I knew I should try since the chance to study at the Ph.D. level with Postman was not something to take lightly. Given that my wife homeschooled our kids, it took another eight years for me to finish my Ph.D., which was finally done in May 2005. By that point we were priced out of the housing market, and even though I was working a great university job at Marymount Manhattan College (where rock star David Linton, also a Media Ecology Ph.D., was my chair), I could no longer afford to live in either Brooklyn or Jersey City, so we moved to Switzerland, and after a year left because the canton of Ticino in southern, Italian-speaking Switzerland would not let us homeschool our kids. So we moved back to the states, I did a year’s writing fellowship at a start-up non-profit tree-hugging institute (seeing nature as a healthy antidote to the technological environment) in Maine, and a year later found a job at Wheaton College outside of Chicago, where I’ve been ever since.
Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what were some of the most important you learned from them?
Neil Postman was far and away the most significant mentor I had – he taught me almost everything I know about teaching, about public speaking, and about the life of a university professor. I also owe a huge intellectual debt to Christine Nystrom, whose dissertation really should be published in book form at some point, and who was instrumental in helping me find my dissertation topic – I knew I wanted to study and analyze the world of contemporary corporate icons and logos, but didn’t know how to go about it. She was the one who suggested a comparison to the medieval Catholic symbol system, and suddenly everything clicked. Even though I took eight years to finish the degree, I wrote the dissertation in about 9 months. The other two significant people for me were Sal Fallica and Jonathan Zimmerman. Dr. Fallica was very gracious, friendly, and genuinely honored to have students ask good questions in his class – he was also the first professor to invite me for coffee and conversation, and that made a huge impression on me. Dr. Zimmerman was in history, but his classes were very engaging, and he got so animated in class that I remember sensing in his classes that learning could be genuinely “exciting” – which it never had been for me prior to the media ecology program.
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?
Yes, quite a bit. When I was a student, my undergraduate school instituted a “Take Your Professor to Lunch” program which we all thought was square and ridiculous and only for the “brown-nosers.” I think what we really felt was fear, which was an interpretation that professors were not there to be our friends, but to intimidate us with their intelligence and scare us into not being so stupid. We didn’t like them but we respected their minds and lived in a combination of awe and fear of them. Today the professor plays a much more therapeutic and a much more entertaining role, and students don’t feel as much of a barrier. Our school’s “Dine With A Mind” program is a huge hit, and the administration usually runs out of tickets before the last month of spring semester. So now I’m typically eating with students once or twice a week, and they really do want to do so for personal more than intellectual reasons – sometimes we’ll talk about class, but more often they’ll want to ask my opinion about a personal problem they’re having, or get relationship advice, or ask me what it’s like being a professor as they approach graduation and start thinking about what they want to do for a career.
What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by information overload?
I think the answer to that question is precisely how Marshall McLuhan became both a.) a good teacher and b.) a media prof instead of an English prof. He told an awful lot of jokes (some really corny) and talked an awful lot about current events, about what was on the radio or TV or newspaper of that particular day. So I think that’s part of it, to engage the student where they are, which is immersed in the daily wash and flow of that day’s media. The challenge now is that it’s harder since being “current” no longer means knowing the news of that week, or even that day, but rather being up to the very minute with the latest “breaking news feed” and the Twitterstream and the like. So I don’t compete with that, even though I check the Drudge Report and other blogs daily for news of the day before entering the classroom. I assume an aggressive distractedness and deploy an A.D.D. method of “Now…this” bullet point delivery while delivering my lectures in what I call a “stand-up tragedy” mode. More than anything, I let them know that things weren’t always this way, that they don’t have to be this way, and that they have a choice about how they engage their world, their media, and their life. I try to teach from McLuhan’s dictum about somnambulism, that nothing is inevitable if we are willing to pay attention, but that if we continue in our self-induced trance, we will become enslaved. Those who get it find it refreshing and encouraging, and those who don’t find it really good theatre.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
I always give the same advice – find a person, not a program, that you want to study under. Graduate school is an endurance test – a marathon, not a sprint. And I tell them the two most useful things I heard at that age – the first was from Neil Postman, who said that 66% of students who get accepted into a Ph.D. program never get the degree, and the second is what a friend of mine said after I thought about quitting a few years in: “Look, let’s take the worst case scenario: in ten years you’re going to be ten years older anyway – why not have something to show for it?” So the idea of “not becoming a statistic” and the idea of “having something to show” for time/energy/money invested kept me going. And it helped to have a Neil Postman, who was a great inspiration to be in the presence of even if you weren’t currently enrolled in a class.
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, look at Naomi Schaeffer Riley’s book The Faculty Lounges, and look at the disappearing act of tenure-track jobs. I think, perhaps as a good media ecologist should, that the melting of departmental sovereignties has only accelerated under digital conditions, and that the professors of the future are like the bands of the future – the ones who can generate an audience. So I think this requires an inter-and-meta disciplinarity that media ecologists will be especially well-suited for, regardless of their official discipline. I don’t think that the university will go away however; the digital threat to the bricks and mortar school is not the same as the refrigerator’s threat to the iceman: there will always be a place for offline learning, as we discover that the vast majority of human communication is non-verbal. Taken to its ultimate end, theology, this points to the fundamental conflict between digitally discarnate man and the message of the incarnate church. You can’t believe in the word-made-flesh if you spend all your time engaging in flesh-made-word activities, or worse still, flesh-made-image, or flesh-made-pixel activities. So I agree with McLuhan who thought the future would be both more violent and more religious as a result of these shifts. But religious institutions have a lot to learn in this area, or else they will go the way of the Dodo bird. McLuhan said much the same about the future of the Catholic church as an institutional structure.
Let’s move on. McLuhan once said that he considered himself a generalist, “not a specialist who has staked out a tiny plot of study as his intellectual turf and is oblivious to everything else.” Well, you have such varied interests as media ecology, international travel, soccer, reading, writing, aeronautics, film, cooking, kayaking, and scale model building. Do you consider yourself a generalist also? How do all these facets of your career and personality reinforce one another?
Yes, I am indeed a generalist. Walter Ong once said in an interview that the human person was his chief interest. Neil Postman told me, returning from lunch one day, that he named his program “the Department of Culture and Communication – what does that leave out? It’s like naming it the Department of Man and Woman.” And I agree with Ellul who said you should try to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of everything. So one of the happy coincidences in my life is that my mother named me “read” which is a verb with very specific meanings, and I’ve never owned a television, so I have an extra 35 hours in my week (compared to the average American) to consume all that I’m ignorant of, which is an awful lot. One of the key commonalities among almost all of my interests is that they help me develop and maintain the “outsider’s perspective” that McLuhan and Ellul and Postman valued so much. Seeing the world as others see it is greatly aided by travel, by trying new cuisine, by reading, by flying, by film, even kayaking helps you see the shore from a perspective not available to deep-water boats. McLuhan was fond of quoting John Culkin, “We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t a fish.” – and I am similarly of the opinion that outsiders have a better vantage point to see the “inside” of a situation, so I try to cultivate the habits of mind and experience that encourage me to be what Postman called (in Technopoly) a “loving resistance fighter” which he said was someone who “maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural.” (p 185) Even something silly like my guilty pleasure of building plastic models is something that I find helps me to “see” the world differently – where most people see wooden coffee stirrers at Starbucks, a model builder sees planks for 1/48th scale bridges to use in a diorama.
What attracted you to communication studies in the first place? How would you define “communication”?
Neil Postman alone attracted me to the field – my undergraduate institution did not have a Communication major, so I had no idea one could study it until graduate school. I define communication as the art of making many one, and believe it shares the same roots as communism, community, and communion. This is why, broadly speaking, media, culture, and religion are my areas of specialty.
Do you think communication studies should be a discipline, concerned as it is with the environmental (e.g., the invisible “effects” of technology) – a sort of nothingness which is something yet not a thing?
Yes, and I think it will become increasingly obvious in the coming years. Just as it took natural ecology from 1962 with Silent Spring until 2005 with An Inconvenient Truth to reach the “mainstream”, so too do I think media ecology will become increasingly obvious in its ability to analyze, assess, and improve the human communities chances for survival.
What are you currently working on?
Marshall McLuhan’s birthday and Jacques Ellul’s birthday. As you know, today is Marshall’s 100th birthday, and Ellul turns 100 next January 6th. I’m writing several pieces on McLuhan for various conferences and publications, and co-authoring a book on Jacques Ellul that will either be called Why Ellul Matters or possibly Understanding Ellul. I’m writing the chapters on Technology and Propaganda. With 58 books and thousands of articles, it’s a tough thing to claim one is an “Ellul scholar” so two of my colleagues and I said, “I think I’m one-third of an Ellul scholar – can you supply the other two thirds?” and the book idea was born. It will be published by Cascade, the same press that did Terlizesse’s, Hope In the Thought of Jacques Ellul, which is a book whose title alone should grab the media ecologist who has only read his secular sociology. At NYU, we only read The Technological Society and Propaganda – and by reading only one side of his arguments, many have mistakenly concluded that Ellul was a pessimist, a technological determinist, and almost utterly despairing of the human future. But he was actually a really happy and optimistic guy, and may even have been the one who coined the term, “Think globally, act locally.” His faith (which he distinguishes from religion) is what gave him such hope, of course, and even if one does not value or believe in this faith, it is interesting to note that he claimed it is what gives one an outsider’s perspective, which he saw as crucial to being objective in one’s sociological analyses. So believing in something that he said was “utterly unverifiable” might have been key to his becoming one of the most trusted, respected, and authoritative sociologists of the 20th century.
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