© Shannon Mattern and Figure/Ground Communication.
Dr. Mattern was interviewed by Gina Conley on August 12th, 2012
Shannon Mattern is an Associate Professor in the School of Media Studies at The New School in New York. Her research and teaching address relationships between the forms and materialities of media and the spaces (architectural, urban, conceptual) they create and inhabit. She’s written about libraries and archives, media companies’ headquarters, place branding, public design projects, urban media art, media acoustics, media infrastructures, and material texts.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
I entered a doctoral program directly out of undergrad not with the intention of becoming a professor, but with a desire to continue learning – particularly to follow up on a few interesting ideas (e.g., it was only in my senior year that I discovered the concept of “capital T” Theory) and explore some fields of study (e.g., cultural geography, design studies, urban history) that I had been exposed to only at the very end of my undergrad years. Even as I was applying to graduate school, I was also considering other career opportunities (many of which I’m embarrassed to mention now!) – but when the fellowship and funding were offered from NYU, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to continue learning, in a new and exciting environment, for at least a few years.
No one in my family is an academic: my dad owns a hardware store and is a wonderful cabinetmaker, my mom is a special education teacher (although she retired a few years ago) and is very active in our small community, my brother is a pilot, and my grandfathers were both engineers – and if you extend a bit farther out into the family tree, you’ll find more teachers, engineers, and builders, along with nurses and physicians’ assistants. Very early on I came to appreciate the myriad intelligences and ways of knowing represented by these disparate pursuits: the way my dad seemed to empathize with various kinds of wood and know how they’d respond to particular tools; my brother’s intimate knowledge of both mechanics and meteorology, and how the two together are what allow a plane to fly; my mom’s ability to communicate with students who were so severely mentally and physically handicapped that they could neither speak nor sign.
When I ultimately found myself, as a postdoctoral fellow, interviewing for academic jobs, even then I was considering alternative careers in design and design-related not-for-profits – not as “backups,” but as viable, and no less noble, career options. I never wanted to “be a professor”; I wanted to pursue things that were interesting to me, to live an ethical life and do things that had the potential to positively impact others, and to cultivate a way of working that suited me. It just so happened that academia met those criteria…for the most part.
Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?
I’ll go in reverse-chronological order: From architectural historian David Brownlee, my mentor during my postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania, I learned the value of intellectual generosity and civic engagement – using your intellect and all the other skills one cultivates as an academic to serve your community. From sociologist (although that title hardly seems sufficient) Andrew Ross, a member of my dissertation committee, I learned to be a daring and creative scholar. From architectural historian Jean-Louis Cohen, another member of my dissertation committee, I learned the value of deep disciplinary knowledge, and with him I discovered the challenges and rewards of interdisciplinary scholarship: how to hold myself to the standards of my own “home” field, as well as those of a discipline, architectural history, in which I often felt like a bit of a poseur. Through my primary advisor, the late Neil Postman, I discovered the joys of public scholarship and clear writing, and the incredible, incalculable importance of teaching. Another advisor, Mark Crispin Miller, wowed and intimidated me with his razor-sharp intellect – and when he threw me into a leadership position in a research organization very early in my career, he taught me not to underestimate my abilities. And there are myriad faculty from my undergraduate years – Rich Doyle and Marie Secor in English, Peirce Lewis in Geography, Susan Strohm in Communication, John Lowe in Chemistry – who exposed me to provocative new ideas and helped me to have confidence in my own ability to “have ideas.” But it goes ever farther back: there are so many high school, middle school, and elementary school teachers – Mr. Cree, Mrs. Sager, Mrs. Mills, Mr. Feldman, even my fourth grade primary teacher Mrs. Irvin and Enrichment teachers Mrs. Yonkovich and Mrs. Cescini – who had a profound impact on my life. They taught me why and how to learn – and without them, I never would’ve been receptive to the lessons offered from other mentors in more recent years.
In short, it’s tremendously important to recognize the longue durée of one’s intellectual development – and, if possible, to acknowledge those who’vehelped to shape you into who you are. As a teacher, I can tell you that there’s no greater honor than to hear from a student from long ago, who writes out of the blue to thank you for helping her see the world differently.
In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
My exposure to the world of higher education spans nearly two decades, and in that period of time I’ve seen both dramatic changes, for the better and for the worse, and reassuring continuity. In regard to the latter: all the best teachers – regardless of their field, of whether their strategies are high- or low-tech, of whether they lecture or use highly interactive teaching strategies, etc. – promote meta-cognition and, in the process, help students become conscious of their own learning and prepare them to be life-long learners. Many of the best teachers I had the pleasure of studying with as an undergraduate were already using all the pedagogical strategies that are regarded as so “innovative” today: their classes were “student-centered,” they smartly managed problem-based group-work, they integrated field-work and “civic learning,” they used the “new media” of their day (which, in my college days, meant email and Gopher) in meaningful ways.
That said, there have been some system-wide changes over that period of time. Professors today have an obligation to function less as “content providers” and more as navigators, which is an extremely positive development. They aim to help students find the value – ideally, the intrinsic value – in learning, rather than motivating through testing. Teachers also have greater desire to connect the work in the classroom to programs and problems in the outside world – whether civic projects, or large social or environmental problems, or small but politically significant practices in everyday life.
We see similar shifts in the “research side” of professors’ professional obligations: Many academics are called upon to justify the value of their work, to be able to articulate what they do to a broader public. And many faculty are recognizing that there is great potential in reaching out to other audiences, involving other collaborators, including those from outside the academy. And with the expanded reach comes an expanded view of what counts as scholarship, which I find very refreshing. Rather than having to translate all knowledge into the book form, scholar-practitioners are making films, writing programs, doing performances – all of which can “count” as scholarship if held to some collectively-agreed upon standards of evaluation.
Amidst all these promising changes, there is one side-effect that concerns me a bit, and I see it occasionally in the classroom and very frequently in my role as a former administrator. The celebration of collective intelligence and crowdsourcing and social [fill_in_the_blank], it seems to me, has weakened our respect for expertise and experience. I don’t wish to give credence to the arguments laid out in all the “social media doomsday” books, but I do think we need to reassert the value of these two qualities.
Inside the classroom, how do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by fractured attention and information overload?
Teaching matters a great deal to me, so it’s something I think about frequently. I write a lot about pedagogy on my website.
My biggest “weapon” in keeping students engaged is my own enthusiasm for the material and the learning process itself. Good, old-fashioned charisma works best, as nearly 12 years’ worth of students have assured me. That said, I also try to vary the activities in my classroom. I offer short lectures with plenty of support media; I’m always really well prepared for these, and I try to present the material as dynamically as possible. I also frequently let the students take the stage to do short “application” presentations, where they explain how the concepts we’re addressing in class can be applied in cases that are meaningful to them, that represent their own areas of expertise and interest. We do pecha kuchas – short, fast-paced presentations – of student work, to allow them to get feedback at various points in the semester. I also plan field trips; we’ve done “walking tours of the Internet,” visits to exhibitions, behind-the-scenes tours of various buildings (for my architecture classes). I also invite guest speakers and organize panel discussions. And I always manage a class blog where I post dozens of events happening around the city, new online projects, etc., that pertain to our course interests; these lists help to demonstrate to students that the ideas we’re addressing matter to other people, too – that our class content has relevance and resonance in various communities outside our classroom.
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?
I teach a class called “Archives, Libraries, and Databases,” in which we look at the various intellectual and physical systems and institutions we’ve created, across a broad stretch of history, to organize and store and control and permit access to all of our knowledge (…or media, or information, or data). As we discuss the history of things like library subject departments and classification systems and database development, it becomes very apparent how historically and culturally specific “subjects” and “disciplines” are, although we tend to reify them. Those who study the history of the university know this well. The “order of things” is the product of history and politics and cultural policy and a host of other human factors. The way we organize our knowledge, or our university departments, is by no means “natural.”
There have been calls in recent years to reorganize colleges around “problems” – like “housing” or “violence” or “the environment” – and to bring various disciplinary knowledges to bear in engaging these problems. Such a model implies that there still is some value to deep knowledge in a discipline – but that some of the most innovative work happens in the space in-between those disciplines. Universities are set up to make this kind of collaboration difficult, so we have to find ways to make our institutional infrastructures more nimble in order to support these dynamic, problem-based learning units.
But the question you pose above is bigger than one of disciplinarity: it’s about the viability of the university as an institution. There’s much too much debate on this issue for me to summarize, and my own thoughts are a bit too scattered, so I can’t offer a thorough response here. I will say, however, that those who challenge and those who defend the value of the contemporary university often have very different understandings of what a “university” is and does. In the case of the former group, universities often seem to be framed as “content providers” or “credentialing units. Sure, you could watch a thousand Khan Academy videos, home-school yourself, or take a commercial credentialing class to “learn” mechanical engineering or get “certified” in systems administration. But I know a university is much more than this.
How to convince other of this? With the rising cost of education, the growth of student debt, the problems inherent in the increasing corporatization of education, etc., we do need to reassess – and to clearly articulate – just what a university is and can be, and what value it has for the greater public.
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 and/or against academic tenure?
Of course historically tenure was intended to ensure academic freedom, as my colleague Peter Haratonik describes in his interview for Figure/Ground. I think Jussi Parikka hit the nail on the head (even though he teaches in a system where there is no tenure!) when, in his own Figure/Ground interview, he suggests that tenure offers some protection against challenges to the “autonomy of education systems in relation to economic and security interests.” As a former director of a really large graduate program, I often found myself having to negotiate between the integrity of the curriculum and security of the faculty (particularly our numerous adjunct faculty), and numbers-driven direction from upper-level administration. Tenured faculty in a department can say to the administration, “No, we’re not cutting [Upper-Level Seminar] because only eight students enrolled this semester; those eight students need that class to graduate. And besides, any self-respecting X Department has a course in X. It’s central to the field.” Or they can say, “No, we’re not turning our Philosophy Department into a ‘Big Ideas for Effective Management’ Department.” (I should note that I was at one time “the administration,” so I’m not at all advocating that we sustain the old “us” vs. “them,” faculty vs. admin, battle. Ideally, we’re all in this together.)
I think it’s also important to point out that, contrary to popular media portrayals, tenure doesn’t give one a license to slack off for the remainder of one’s career. People still have to go through post-tenure reviews. And at my institution, tenure often means that you’re ever more obligated to engage in university governance, to serve on high-level committees and reviews for other faculty, etc. Tenure is, in a sense, a bi-directional commitment: the university commits to you, and you commit to serving the university.
One downside of the traditional tenure track is that junior faculty are typically “protected” from service so they can focus on their scholarship, first and foremost, and develop themselves as teachers. “Protection” sounds like a good thing – but it ultimately means that they miss out on valuable opportunities to learn about how a university works, who does what in the institution, how decisions are made, etc. I just went through my own tenure review, and I made clear in my dossier that I was very much engaged in university service – from the department through the “provostial” level – during the early years of my career. I can’t say that I advocate that all junior faculty take on the volume of service that I performed; but I will say that my service offered tremendous opportunities for professional development and gave me an opportunity to inform some key decisions – e.g., the hiring of deans, the development of new divisions and programs – that will profoundly shape the institution that I’m now committed to.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors, and who are the thinkers today that you believe young scholars should be reading?
Well, you might take a look at the manifesto I created for the students in my “into to grad studies” class! Many of the other Figure/Ground interviewees have also offered fantastic advice, which I echo.
And particularly for those students who are beginning PhD programs: Remember that becoming a “university professor” means that you are becoming a scholar (or, in these more encompassing times, a scholar-practitioner) and a teacher and a university citizen. Sure, there are plenty of people who focus on the first and do whatever they can do to get out of the latter two. But at my institution, if you’re a candidate looking for a job, and you make clear that research is your pleasure and the other two are simply obligations – ones you’ll likely try to avoid – we simply won’t hire you. We hire scholar-teacher-advisor-university citizens who also promise to be good colleagues.
Furthermore, it’s important to recognize that a PhD prepares you for so much more than “becoming a professor.” Yes, that’s one potential outcome, and it’s a pretty good one. But there are myriad other viable and attractive – and no less honorable – ends to which a PhD can be put: you can be a librarian, a curator, a public intellectual, a leader in the not-for-profit world, a documentarian, a museum director, a consultant, a leader of a research institute. There’s a lot of recent interest – particularly within the big academic professional organizations, the digital humanities, and the arts research circles – in “alt-ac” (alternative academic careers); I’d encourage students to catch up on some of these conversations so they know, when they enter a PhD programs, what options are open to them.
Let’s talk about your work. Your research addresses the relationships between forms and of media and the spaces — architectural, urban, and conceptual — they create and inhabit. What attracted you to this area of study?
Since I recently had to answer this question for the purposes of my tenure dossier, I hope you won’t mind if I simply copy my intro here:
Netscape was born in 1994, just months before I started college. It wasn’t until years later that I realized how much the browser’s birth, and all that its name evoked – the plotting out of new informational and physical geographies – would shape my intellectual development and frame the questions that inspire me to this day. I began college as a chemistry major, medical school-bound, then after two years came to the difficult though liberating realization that my heart was not in the lab, but in books – which had dual significance for me, as both literature and material objects. I double-majored in English and Communication and dedicated my studies to exploring their intersection: how media were represented in literature and popular media, and how new technologies transformed writing, reading, print design, etc. Enthralled with post-humanist theory and artificial intelligence, I completed an honors thesis on the rhetoric of Microsoft consumer advertisements – specifically, how ads framed the relationships between the computer and the human user. My curiosity about the ways in which these new tools – and the new virtual spaces and intellectual infrastructures they were creating – interfaced with the material world, is what drove me to graduate school.
It was there, at NYU, where I recognized that the questions I was asking weren’t new at all. “New” media have long – perhaps since the dawn of humanity – altered the relationships between our conceptual and physical worlds. Early in my graduate career I drew inspiration from “medium theorists’” (e.g., Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, and Walter Ong’s) interest in media form, and their concern with how media have historically constructed information and cultural “environments” and occupied physical space. Yet as I began my search for a dissertation topic, I discovered a robust literature within architectural and urban studies on the impact of historical and contemporary media forms – from writing to film to AutoCAD – on the design of built space (e.g., the work of Mario Carpo and Beatriz Colomina, to name just two among many), but very little work within media studies exploring similar topics. Douglas Gomery and others were studying the design of movie theaters, and Lynn Spigel and Anna McCarthy were examining how television has informed the design of domestic and public spaces, but most media studies work on “space” seemed to adopt reductive, McLuhanesque references to “auditory space” or “literate space.” I wondered why architecture should be contributing more thoughtfully and concretely than media studies to these discussions about the past, present, and future of our mediated spaces. Since then, I’ve intended for my work to speak on behalf of media studies and in conversation with design studies. I’ve set out to demonstrate that media studies’ understanding of media form, and how that form influences the way people make and use media, can reveal media history’s pertinence to architectural and urban history – and can demonstrate media studies’ potential contributions to the conceptualization and design of future material worlds.
My timing was particularly auspicious. I started my dissertation just as the ideal case study presented itself. Rem Koolhaas had been commissioned to design the new Seattle Public Library, later celebrated as one of the most innovative library designs – in fact, one of the most innovative architectural designs, period – of the turn of the 21st century. Libraries, during those salad days of the tech boom, were variously pronounced dead – killed by the Internet – or “resurrected,” thanks to a concurrent building boom. And this library proved to be an ideal site through which to explore the convergence of debates and interests that intrigued me and proved so pressing: the tension between old and new media and between physical and virtual space; the suburbanization of our urban spaces and the commercialization of our public spaces; the evolution of our cultural and educational institutions; and the social, political, and epistemological consequences of those changes.
I started with libraries, but my work has evolved over the past 14 years to encompass other “media spaces,” like archives, educational buildings, media company headquarters and production facilities; and to address such topics as place branding, public design projects, urban media art, media acoustics, media infrastructures, and material texts (i.e., the “architectures” of media objects).
In “The City is a Medium” Friedrich Kittler states, “A city…is not a flattenable graph. In a city, networks overlap upon other networks.” How can we become more aware of this sometimes invisible world? Why is this awareness important? (Shannon – feel free to rephrase this question to better showcase your previous research)
Coincidentally, I just had to articulate answers to these questions – particularly in regard to how we can become aware of hidden infrastructures – in a book chapter for an edited volume. Why is it important to be aware of the existence of these invisible networks, or infrastructures? There are lots of answers to this question, but I’ll offer only four here. For one thing, because it helps us understand media’s evolution, to rethink media history: rather than simply eradicating their predecessors, “new” media often follow the paths their ancestors laid – and these “paths” can be physical and virtual. Some folks in infrastructural studies call this “path dependency.” What’s more, recognizing that much of contemporary media culture is invisible – among the few aspects of “wirelessness” or “cellular connectedness” we can see are the router tucked behind our couch, and the cell phone antennas along the highway and on our rooftops – breaks us out of our ocularcentrism. We start to seek out media through other sensory registers, and in the process, realize that there’s a lot more to these networks than meets the eye – literally. In addition, looking or listening behind the scenes, or under the streets, for these hidden networks show us that they have a real geography – and that, despite our presumption that we live in an age of ubiquity and universal access, that geography is often one of uneven distribution. And finally, being aware of how these technologies work can empower us to be more engaged “user-citizens,” as Lisa Park puts it.
I hinted above at one of the ways we can become more aware of these hidden media: we can use our other senses. We can also “follow the actors,” as Actor-Network Theory recommends, and map out, for instance, how your email reaches a friend on another continent; or how you can call your mom at home in Illinois when you’re driving down the interstate in Texas; or how your newspaper arrives on your doorstep every morning. We can also literally tour these systems, visiting the nodes in the network where important exchanges happen.
We address a lot of these issues in my Media and Materiality class, where the students create online exhibitions of media objects or systems, and my Urban Media Archaeology class, where we collaboratively map historical urban media networks.
What are you currently working on?
I just finished two summer fellowships. The first was at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, where I looked at “hearing infrastructure,” by which I mean both listening to infrastructure, and infrastructure that’s meant to undergird systems and practices of hearing. The second was in South Korea, where I studied Paju Bookcity, an ex-urban development, which opened a few years ago and is undergoing further development, dedicated primarily to book publishing; I wanted to understand how such a seemingly anachronistic place fits into South Korea’s progressive high tech agenda. This latter project relates to my earlier work on libraries and other “media spaces,” but looks at the urban scale, and it also examines the city as an “infrastructure” for publishing.
All of this work will feed into my second book, Urban Media Archaeology, which is about historical urban media networks – or the long history (and future) of the “media city,” which we typically think of as a modern, and visual, construct.
I’m also working with the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School on some programming and publications related to their current theme of “thingness.” And because I’ve done some critical work on exhibition design, I was asked to write a chapter on multisensory exhibitions, and to organize a panel on that theme for a conference at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I have lots of other writing projects and invited lectures coming up, but these – in addition to prepping for my fall classes – will keep me busy for the next few months!
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