© Thom Gencarelli and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Gencarelli was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on April 12th, 2012
Dr. Thom Gencarelli is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Communication Department at Manhattan College. He has taught for most of his career in the broadcasting/telecommunications area, but also taught mass communication/mass media and media theory, with specialization in children and media, popular culture (especially popular music), media education/media literacy, and media ecology. Dr. Gencarelli is presently the Vice President of the Media Ecology Association, and will serve as Coordinator of their 13th annual convention at Manhattan College, June 7-10, 2012. He is also a Past President of both the New York State Communication Association and the New Jersey Communication Association, and is on the Board of Trustees of the Institute of General Semantics. In addition, he is a member of the International Communication Association, the National Communication Association, and the Eastern Communication Association.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
It seems like a contradiction to say that I did, at a certain point, make the conscious decision to become a professor while, at the same time, it was a path I just gradually took; as though I was destined to do this. It was certainly never the case wherein “I always wanted to be this when I grew up” – that it was my childhood dream or anything like that. In fact, if you asked me when I was completing my undergraduate studies at age 21 what I would be doing now, this was not my answer. It wasn’t even on my list of possibilities at the time. And so I guess I just figured it out as I went along, as so many of us do. You know…once you’re in your twenties, you start to think about really, really growing up and what you’re going to make out of your life. That’s when the process – the figuring it out and making the choice – really began for me.
I was always a bookish kid. But I don’t think I was so in any exceptional way. It’s more like the people around me weren’t feeling the tug of post-literate culture yet, and the kids I gravitated toward and hung out with read and recommended books to one another and shared them and borrowed them. (And borrowed them and never gave them back!) Interestingly enough, my parents were a somewhat odd set of role models in this regard. We didn’t have bookcases full of books in the house. We didn’t have a library. What I remember quite vividly, though, is that my mother read all the time, but that she read best sellers, mysteries, romance novels, that kind of thing. My father read the newspaper every day. But he was one of those men, and it was one of those papers, wherein he would start from the back: with the sports pages. And by sometime before the day’s end he would read the rest.
I was also greatly influenced by a group of guys I went to high school with, who were a grade ahead of me. They were all intellectuals and over-achievers. They were also irreverent and a bit eccentric. In other words, I thought they were cool. In a graduating class of some 600 students, they all ranked among the top 20. I am still in touch with some of them. And it’s interesting what they’ve turned out to be. None of them are academics. Not by profession, anyway.
Another part of my path and my choice is that, when I’m asked to explain why I do what I do, the first two things that always come to mind are that I am a curious person and a creative thinker. The first part has always helped me greatly, in that I always want to figure things out and understand them. The latter, on the other hand, has always been something of a blessing and a curse. As an academic, I always feel I could do a better job of Newton’s “standing on the shoulders of giants” part rather than the sitting around and thinking and having fun trying to write, and write well, and put thoughts to the screen (like I’m doing now).
Finally, the real, conscious decision came down to the following. I have always been involved with music – ever since my father began teaching me to play the trumpet when I was five years old, and I brought my horn into school for “show-and-tell” in the second grade. I spent a dozen years learning the orchestral and symphonic repertoire. I picked up a few other instruments on the side. And I began composing pop songs when I was just a teenager. However, I didn’t go on to study music in college. I wasn’t interested to end up teaching music in a middle school and playing weddings and bar mitzvahs on weekends – which is what most of my friends who went that route ended up doing. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that! It just wasn’t for me.) I also ended up more interested in contemporary music than the stuff I had spent most of my life playing up until that point.
As the result of all of this, I became consumed by a singular and simple question, but one with an extraordinarily complex and elusive answer: “What does music communicate to people who are never schooled in this strange and unique human symbolic system, and who therefore don’t understand or appreciate it in the way a person with musical training does?” Or to put it another way: “How and what does music mean?”
Everything I have done and pursued since grew out of this question and my attempts to answer it.
Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?
I have four mentors from my years with training wheels: They are, in order, Gary Gumpert, James Chesebro, Neil Postman, and Christine Nystrom.
Gary was the first media ecologist I ever met. I took his “Introduction to Media” class during my second semester in the M.A. program in Media Studies at Queens College of the City University of New York. He introduced me to Innis and McLuhan. I had read McLuhan’s Understanding Media in undergraduate school. However, reading it for this second time, with Gary and our seminar discussions as my guide, was my real introduction to the book, as well as to McLuhan’s influence. (Plus Gary had actually worked with McLuhan!) We also read all of Denis McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory.
It was also always fun to be around when the peripatetic, fast-talking, and easily excitable Gary would argue and debate with Bob Cathcart, his laidback Midwestern foil, colleague, and co-editor of Inter/Media: Interpersonal Communication in a Media World. Finally, it was Gary’s statement, during one of our passing conversations, that he is a creative thinker that helped me to realize what it is I am and do.
Jim Chesebro was my mentor for my M.A, thesis, and is my role model as one of the hardest-working men in the academic business. I believe he still stands as one of the most prolific scholars in communication and media studies in the United States, at least in terms of the number of refereed journal articles and book chapters he published during his career. (He is retiring this year.) I remember one day when he was showing off his new personal computer to a colleague and actually accidentally erased two of his manuscripts. (This was in the early days of the PC.) By midday the next day, he had completely re-written one manuscript and re-drafted the other. From memory.
Jim was an incredibly involved, helpful, thorough, and exceedingly efficient thesis advisor. I would meet with him every Friday morning for about two or three hours and for the greater part of the Spring semester. I believe it was about eight weeks of meetings altogether. It was in these sessions that he, more than anyone else, taught me how to be a scholar. He taught me about research, and about how to present my work. He spared no effort…nor did he spare my feelings. But it was O.K. I could take it. I needed to learn to do so, anyway.
My favorite memory from my work with Jim came when we sat down for our last meeting prior to my thesis defense. He came up with a list of 20 questions that he anticipated the committee would ask. During the defense, I was asked a dozen questions. Every one of them had been on that list. Thus, I was wholly rehearsed and prepared. And the most important question was this: “Every work of scholarship has its ‘hole,’ which we try to cover up so that no one notices. That is to say, each of our efforts to make a contribution to the ‘great conversation’ has a flaw. What is the flaw in this research?”
Neil Postman was and still is my role model as a writer and as someone who taught us that academics can, and perhaps should be, public intellectuals. That we should not be merely writing and talking to one another or to ourselves, but that we should write to have an impact and to try to bring about change for the better. I have no better example for all of this than the fact that, for a Christmas present one year, I gave my mother his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business. I told her: “This is so you’ll understand what I do for a living.” The woman who read best sellers all her life absolutely loved his book, and read it over the course of a few nights.
I have also always been marked by, and found the following remarkable about Neil. First, observing him while he wrote was an exercise in understanding media. He would sit – with his yellow legal pad and black felt-tip pen – and you could see his lips move. Seriously. And if you knew him, you’d realize that his writer’s “voice” – the voice on the page – was almost exactly the same as how he spoke. This is remarkable exactly because while we are supposed to think before we speak, we of course don’t. We speak as we think, in real time, and everything we say is ephemeral. But when we write, we take time to reflect on the words we commit to the page or the screen. We work them, belabor them, in recognition of the fact that they will become something much closer to permanent. I am not saying Neil didn’t extensively revise and edit his writing. Of course he did. What I am saying is that the relationship between the man you knew in the real world and the man on the page was “closer” than it is for anyone else I have ever known.
Second, I always marvelled at the sheer brilliance of Neil’s wit and humor, and the ease with which it came to him. And I was envious. Because it’s something I wish I had, but will never have. No matter how hard I try. I think it’s genetic. You know? Some people can tell jokes. Some people just…can’t.
In sum, every time I sit down to write, my endgame is to write as well as Neil did. I don’t know that I’ll ever even get close, even in a single piece of my writing. And I need to work really hard to revise and edit to the point of being pleased with my own prose. Not my ideas, but my prose. Still, this is Neil’s lasting and powerful influence on me.
Finally, Christine Nystrom… I have to say two things about Christine, and two things only. The first is that she had the most supremely linear mind of any person I have ever known. She was not a person for the electronic or hypertextual media world. She was the ideal product, the Überfrau of a print-literate culture. Second, she was always the unsung brains behind media ecology – behind Neil as the public face and public intellectual (and the academic who sold a lot of very readable, accessible books). She was the one who took Neil’s ideas – and Neil was, in a way, himself really just channeling and clarifying McLuhan – and turned media ecology into a fully developed and deeply grounded conceptual framework. I recommend that anyone with an interest in media ecology read her doctoral dissertation.
I chose Christine to serve as my Ph.D. dissertation advisor. Rather, I should say I asked her. And I am forever honored that she said yes and agreed to work with me. I don’t think she ever regretted the decision. I, on the other hand, would not have had it any other way.
I also really need to give credit to Terence Moran. Unfortunately, it took me awhile to establish a relationship with Terry. In his role as coordinator of the Media Ecology Ph.D. program at NYU, and during my first semester there, Terry – at least as I always saw it – advised me into a course he needed to fill. Two things happened: The class was a waste as far as I was concerned, and all of my new friends were taking all of these other cool classes with Neil, Christine, and Terry himself. As a result, I didn’t really get to know Terry until the end of the program – until he taught the second semester of our required fourth-year seminar. After that, I came to have the utmost respect for him. He is one of the most gifted teachers I’ve ever had. He is also the only surviving member of the great troika who ran that program during the two decades of its heyday.
I am incredibly fortunate to have been there during that time.
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?
First, I’ll tell you that I’ve tried to teach distance-learning courses. I’ve tried to teach “hybrid” courses. I tried them out of my own curiosity. I tried them because they are a matter of experiencing and learning about media while you are teaching about media. I tried them because I understand all of the imperatives with which higher education is faced: the need to find ways to cut costs in an age of dwindling resources and support, as well as to negotiate the frontiers of media. (Teaching is, after all, and first and foremost, about communication.) This said, I’m now in recovery. I’m in a self-imposed 12-step program. Because they did not work for me. And I emphasize “for me.” I discovered that no matter how hard I tried, I could not compartmentalize the time I put into teaching these classes. They became the “ever-expanding class.” And I’ve had discussions with people about things I did wrong, things I might have done differently, ways to make it work. But call me a dinosaur in this regard. I’ll admit to being one. I’m just more comfortable with and more fulfilled by being in the presence of young people in what we have come to call the “brick and mortar” world. In addition, I certainly don’t think we need to pursue technologically-driven modes of delivery in education just because we can; just because we have them.
The role of the university professor has effectively evolved since the development of electronic mass media. Before that, it was pretty much the same all the way back to the University of Bologna and the 11th Century. (Except for the assigning of grades.) In fact, when you think about it, many of our present-day practices are residual of medieval practices if not downright medieval. But once radio comes along during the 1920s – and Margaret Cassidy writes about this wonderfully in her book, Bookends: The Changing Media Environment of American Classrooms – educationists get all giddy about the potentials of electronic media to reach people – and many people – in engaging and immediate ways. And it’s at that point that the genie of educational media and classroom technology is out of the bottle. We went off on a jag that has never abated.
There’s so much to say about this. There is the sense in which this is Jacques Ellul’s concept of la technique brought to its logical conclusion in education. In this view, we had to technologize education. All the way. This also dovetails with the emphasis on testing in primary and secondary education and assessment in higher education. We could also talk about the ways in which contemporary education is so obviously a big business – caught up in doing business with other businesses, and adopting the latest technologies because they become part of the “wow factor” to woo clients (i.e., prospective students and their parents). Following from this is the assumption that since our students live in an overpoweringly mediated world they themselves expect this of us as part of their educational package. And following from this is the notion that our job is to prepare students for careers, and that all future careers will be based on what they know about and can do with digital media. Finally, there’s the underlying assumption no one ever seems to want to talk about – save perhaps Peggy Cassidy – because it’s such an obvious fallacy: the idea that educational media are going to help students learn better and learn more than they would learn, and learned in the past, without them.
I could say more. I could add how expectations with respect to publishing have expanded and promotion become more competitive; how in some places it is a condition for tenure that one attract enough grant money to offset (read: “pay”) one’s salary; how the privatized, corporate model brought to education has brought us, among other things, layers of administrators who we need to pay handsomely in order to – in those now-immortal words – “attract and retain talent”; how we can’t see the endgame with respect to the changes the publishing industry is undergoing even though we know this change is vital to our mission and our practice. Etcetera.
Inside the classroom, how do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by fractured attention and information overload?
I just gave a talk yesterday, after which I was asked a question similar to this one. And the answer I gave to the point about fractured attention, off the top o’ my head, was this: I believe young people now live their every conscious moment with a constant, nagging assumption that something is going on, somewhere else, with someone they know or with other people, that is better, and cooler, and more interesting than where they are and what they are doing right now. That they don’t want to “miss out.” And this experience grows out of the very fact that they are always and instantly connected – that they have this tether-less tether to their friends on Facebook, their Twitter feed, the whole of the Internet. That is to say, simply because it’s so readily available to them, so right there at their fingertips – simply because they can – they now feel the need, the impulse to constantly monitor this field of the possible. And so they do.
With respect to information overload…well, in my classroom I’m part of the problem with respect to that overload, right? Particularly given that I am a print-literate guy living doing my print-literate oriented work in a post-literate world – which has also become a world of sound-byte thinking. You know? Wherein people can speak or hear (or sometimes even read!) a sentence like “Social media have radically impacted social communication.” and assume all of the rest of what this statement infers – and yet all the while believe they really, fully know and understand all that it infers. That there’s nothing more that’s necessary to say or think. Then someone like me comes along and spends an entire class session taking this statement apart and really trying to understand the ways it holds true and does not hold true and why. And whoa…this guy can jabber away, can’t he? It may sound impressive, it may even be interesting. But it’s really over the top. It’s really overkill, isn’t it? To quote George Harrison: “It’s all too much.” (Sorry for the musical reference!)
Meantime, we obviously live in a world of information overload the likes of which human beings have never before known, and which may continue on a trajectory wherein it gets more and more intense (albeit this is hard to imagine). However, let me frame the matter in another way: Information denotes content. But as a media ecologist, I am also – I am perhaps more – concerned that my students live in a world of media overload. They have more media, more devices, more accoutrements, more tethers, more things that weigh them down. They have more choices and distractions in this regard alone before we ever begin to consider the stuff people typically consider first, which is content: what we go to and use these media for. As a result, the tug of that ever-present gizmo in one’s pocket, or in one’s bag, or on one’s desk in the classroom – and not the supposed reasons we have and use these things in the first place – is the new overload. It doesn’t matter why we use them. It is the impulse to use them that has become all-encompassing and overwhelming.
Think about it: Before the mid-1970s, people’s media choices consisted of books, newspapers, magazines, a few channels of television, radio, records, the telephone, the ability to write letters to one another, one another, and the occasional movie on the weekend. From the 1970s through the 1980s, we witnessed the birth of cable/pay television, the diffusion of the personal computer, and the rise of home video recording and video games. Then, in less than two decades since Andreessen’s invention of Mosaic led to the creation of Netscape in 1994 or so we’ve added the World Wide Web, social media (formerly Web 2.0), and blogging. We flew right through the age of the CD to the .mp3 and the iPod, which begat iTunes, followed by the iPhone, the iPad, and eventually, I guess, iMedia – where Apple hopes we will all go to purchase all of our music, movies, television programs, video games, magazines, and “apps.” We zoomed right from the cell phone to the smart phone with mobile Internet. We added the small message service (SMS), which begat “instant messaging” and the “tweet.” We have four video gaming systems, and a similar array of portable gaming systems. We developed the “cloud,” to allow those of us who are too lazy or disorganized to properly back up and save our own digital materials to be lazy and disorganized. Oh…and to pay for our laziness and disorganization. We have global positioning devices. And sure, we’ve left 8-track tapes, video laser discs, CD-ROMs, and other similar technologies in the dust. But look at the inventory of total accumulation here. And realize that this is not about content; not about information. It’s all about media.
But when you ask what I do in the face of all this to “command attention,” my only answer is that this has always been my job. It is and has always been the job of all educators. We are vehicles who (a) bring learning and knowledge and ideas to life and (b) bring the process of learning to life in our students. Sure, those of us who have been doing this long enough that we’ve had to negotiate the introduction of laptops and Internet connections and cell phones in our classrooms have had to figure out how to roll with the punches of these things. And no one has a lock on how to do so in all cases, with all students, and given the unique dynamic of every class at every level (and with perhaps further differences based upon subject and discipline). It is, however, my job to be better, more engaging, and more interesting than these distractions, and so successfully compete against them.
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 need to start here by saying that I disagree with McLuhan’s declaration, whether we are talking 1964 or now. Or should I say it this way? “I dismiss his prompt.” Because if he really meant this – and it’s sometimes hard to say whether McLuhan truly meant, and believed, and was fully committed to any of these propositional statements he wrote and spoke, or whether he was just offering up ideas that would spur a response – he was and remains wrong. Or perhaps he was talking from the perspective of his own career and experience. Or perhaps it was just wishful thinking.
This is, in part, the influence of my mentor Gary Gumpert talking through me – and perhaps this is something else I should have mentioned about the lessons I learned from him. But departmental sovereignties have not melted away. If anything, they suffer from just the opposite – from what Postman called, in Teaching as a Conserving Activity, a “hardening of the categories.” Surely we witness a great deal of lip service given to interdisciplinarity within the academy. Surely it is an ideal; something to which so many people working in the enterprise aspire. And surely, academic superstars and public intellectuals can be said to work across disciplinary boundaries or to not be defined by any hard-and-fast disciplinary confines. But down in the trenches, we seem to shoot ourselves in both feet over this stuff at almost every chance we get.
To truly make a complete statement about the matter…well, I could write a book. But for purposes of this forum, let me just take on a small corner of the larger issue. The discipline of communication study has long suffered from a very unfortunate reputation: that many in the academy do not consider us a legitimate discipline. For instance, students in communication are not eligible for induction to Phi Beta Kappa, unless they double major, because we do not pass muster with this oldest and most esteemed of honor societies. This is so despite the fact that our discipline arises out of the trivium and the study of rhetoric. And that it is toward the end of the 19th Century that departments of Classics in colleges and universities in the United States split into departments of literature and departments of rhetoric – oral and written. And that the study of mass communication arises out of programs in sociology in the middle of the 20th Century. Funny…the discipline of sociology itself only dates back to the latter half of the 19th Century. As do the other social sciences. Yet sociologists can look down on us and lay claim that we are not a discipline.
My point is that this is the kind of stuff – the prejudices, predispositions, posturing, and positioning – that too often rears its ugly head from under the gloss and façade of the academy and its high-minded and principled discourse.
But your real question here is whether “the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information and digital interactive media.” It is in crisis, yes. But this crisis, to my mind, and to be clear, has not been brought about by information and digital media. As I see it, colleges and universities, at least in the United States, are in crisis for two reasons. The first is that after World War II we built higher education into a huge industry; one now comprised of over 4,000 institutions. The second reason is that the model upon which we built this industry is unsustainable.
What I mean by “unsustainable” has to do with cost: with the rising price of tuition; with the amount of student debt the average student takes on; with the cost-benefit analysis of how much an education costs versus what the return will be; with what it means to be “tuition-driven” and where the rest of the money comes from; etc. Of course, we can talk all about the ideal of a liberal arts education and creating and empowering enlightened citizens of our world, and how the value of such a thing is incalculable. But to do so would mean ignoring the point at hand.
Interestingly enough, I now work for a college that was founded by the Order of Lasallian Christian Brothers. Jean-Baptiste de la Salle, their founder and namesake, is the patron saint of education. His statue is in the central nave of Saint Peter’s Basilica. But my reason for bringing de la Salle into this discussion is that he is the person responsible for shifting education, in 17th Century France, from the model by which the children of nobility and the merchant classes were instructed by private tutors to the model wherein a single teacher instructs an entire class of students. De la Salle’s calling was to provide an education to the denizens of the street in his time, in order to lift them up from their unfortunate birthright, save them, and help them find their way to meaningful work – the necessary means to having a meaningful life.
This shift is the very roots of the modern concept of egalitarian education. Now, however, we have to wonder whether this model has reached its breaking point, or is about to reach it.
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?
The primary argument for tenure – the first line of defense for such a system – is that it ensures “academic freedom.” That one cannot be dismissed for taking on unpopular, or, worse, radical or offensive stances and points-of-view, or for speaking the truth to power. That we won’t send a Galileo before the Inquisition.
We can’t argue against such a guiding principle, can we? Academics are free to seek truth; not to know it and profess it, but simply to seek it. This is part of the reason why academics are so often castigated and vilified as liberals, in another, familiar battle cry against the academy. We are liberal, or “free” thinkers. As such, our job is not to spout ideology, or to service ideology for the purpose of doing or achieving something in the world. Stanley Fish articulated this, I think, quite beautifully in a recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, where he wrote that he understands why a substantial chunk of the populace, who either pay directly for education or support it through their tax dollars, find it hard to fathom how talking – simply talking, without any goal, any call-to-action, any decision-making in the end – is itself actually doing something.
To frame it another way, it is an academic’s job is to constantly question the status quo and to inspire and instill in our students the need to question such things also. Or, again in Postman’s words, it is to serve a “thermostatic function”: wherein, when the society/culture strays too far in one direction, such questioning is intended to help orient things away from such an extreme and back toward balance.
But I’m nowhere near answering your question yet. And so, to answer it, let me use the part wherein you cite from Fukuyama writing how “it’s time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually.” I’ll start with the latter claim. Is tenure too costly intellectually? If it is, that is our problem. And it is our problem to fix. And we had better be up to the task.
I am reminded of the words of another public intellectual, Neal Gabler, who recently framed the issue this way, also in a piece in the New York Times: that academics spend too much time and energy “tending potted plants rather than planting forests.” He’s right, of course. And we do so for a whole host of reasons. Fukuyama thinks this is about a system of hierarchy wherein Ph.D. advisers nurture students who will extend their own work and interests – but not too far! Makes sense, right? We build the great conversation one small brick at a time, and the radical, paradigmatic shifts that Fleck and Kuhn pointed to do not come about often or easy. Likewise, senior academics, whose job it is to serve as mentors, want to ensure that their young faculty members succeed – and you don’t succeed by trying to change the world, but by being a good, careful scholar.
However, casting it all in this way ignores the human element and dysfunction that occurs. For example, Ph.D. advisors who aren’t particularly open-minded or easy people, or who were given such a hard time when they went through the gauntlet that they’re now going to take it out on their charges, or who use their graduate students as a “publication factory” to continue to generate articles with their name as second (or first!) author, etc. Or senior faculty with the same personality issues, or who feel threatened by young and talented junior faculty whose energy and promise lead them to look back upon their own career’s contribution and wonder to what their life’s work has amounted. Or who are simply threatened by changes to the disciplinary box as they’ve always understood it to be neatly folded and constructed.
The fact is that the academy is a workplace – and any workplace both shines and suffers based upon the contributions of the people who populate and do the work of that place from day-to-day. Or upon the lack thereof. And there is no way that all of us, across 4,000-plus institutions, are equally gifted or driven. Likewise, as creative people we are not automatons or assembly lines that produce a certain uniform and high quality of work on demand and time and again.
To put it another way, the issues of human resources with respect to faculty in the academy are not really any different from those of any other industry.
My point, then, is that you need to frame the question of tenure’s intellectual cost in light of all of these factors. And admittedly, the picture I’ve created in just a few paragraphs here is a low-resolution one.
With respect to tenure being too costly from a financial standpoint, I will simply say this: If you want to abolish tenure right now, and have someone like me work on a contractual basis, just pay me at the level of the private-sector salary I forgo in lieu of the protection of tenure. I am up to it. I can, and do, do the work.
I am not complaining about my compensation. Are educators not paid enough, or as much as they should be? Sure, one could make this argument. But go all the way back to your first question about when I made the conscious decision to go into this line of work. I accepted the trade-off that I would never get rich, but that the guarantee of tenure (if and when I earned it!) would be such that I would not have to worry and that I would be freed to concentrate on my work. I grant you that it took time before I could say my family is comfortably middle-class (particularly given the standard of living here in the New York metropolitan area!) But the argument I am making is this: Academics are, for the most part, highly intelligent and highly capable people. We could have chosen to do other things. We chose to do this. It is not a case of “those who cannot do teach.” And so, from a financial standpoint, the alternative to tenure would be even more costly – to the point of making it an impossibility.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
Talk to people who do this for a living. Talk to people who are at all stages of a career in the business. Talk to people across disciplines. Talk to administrators as well as to faculty. Talk to people who have left the academy to do other things or who changed their mind somewhere along the way.
Sorry that I don’t have a more high-minded and elaborate answer for you. Someone who wants to do this simply needs to know what they are in for; what it is they are getting themselves into. They need to know it’s not just something you do: a vocation wherein you go to work each day, do your job, and at some point go home. It is a calling. It is a lifestyle. It is, or at least it becomes, all-encompassing and all-consuming.
It’s kind of like what the screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan once said about being a writer: “It’s like having homework for the rest of your life.”
I’ll add that while I invoked, earlier, the question of the sustainability of higher education as we know it, I do not believe the whole of the enterprise is going to collapse. I don’t foresee its imminent demise or even its eventual demise. We will figure something out. We have to do so. Education is essential to the continued survival and forward motion and betterment of not only our civilization, but our species. So no one should ever be worried about being out of a job on that count.
One of your areas of specialization is media ecology. What attracted you to this area of research and what are your reflections on the McLuhan centennial just passed?
I think media ecology found me. As I noted, I met and was taught by Gary Gumpert – who has never really defined himself as a media ecologist but who certainly is one – and read McLuhan’s Understanding Media for the second time. But then, in that same master’s program, I also read Susanne Langer’s book Philosophy in a New Key for the first time, thanks to Bob Cathcart. I had a tough time with the book at first. And I know colleagues who have never really appreciated it because they find her writing style…challenging. But as someone who had set out to try to answer the question of what music means and communicates, this book flung the door wide open for me.
In all honesty, I then went from Queens College in Flushing, New York to the Media Ecology Ph.D. program at New York University in part because I wanted to stay in New York. Cathcart actually said to me: “If you’re doing what you want to do and studying what you want to study it doesn’t matter where you are.” Fair enough. But I didn’t really agree. I am a born-and-bred New Yorker. (I know, I know… I need to get out more. I try every chance I get.) I wanted to stay. And so I applied and was accepted. And everything just unfolded, almost perfectly, from there. As though it was meant to be. ’Lo and behold, I ended up doing exactly what I wanted to do and studying exactly what I wanted to study.
Three things happened: The first is that I encountered a faculty who once again indulged my interest in music – or perhaps I should say “politely tolerated” it. (Jim Chesebro had wholly indulged and supported this interest when I was at Queens.) The second is that I began reading books that simultaneously extended and expanded this primary interest while also informing it in ways I hadn’t previously hit upon. Books and ideas that stimulated questions like: “Is music a medium?” “Are form and content in music the same thing?” Etcetera. In addition, these books and authors were fascinating and inspiring in their own right; it was that cliché of a “whole new world opening up” for me.
Third, I discovered, in those questions above, that what I was really interested in was questions of media. However, let me explain this to readers who might wonder how I pursued an undergraduate degree in communication arts and a master’s in media studies but did not come to realize I was interested in media until I began my Ph.D. studies. My interest in contemporary music, as opposed to studying music as an art form, had always been a matter of understanding what goes on in the world of popular culture and popular media. Questions like: What explains the relationship between a person and his or her preferred brand of music? But when I arrived at NYU, I discovered that media ecology and what Meyrowitz calls medium studies are the only conceptual frameworks that truly focus on media. Because across the academy and across the world, much of what goes in the name and the pursuit of media studies is really the study of content, the study of audiences, and the study of the media industry. Media ecologists focus on the nature of media themselves, or what McLuhan taught us are the “invisible” part of the equation. They are invisible because we use media first and foremost as a conduit for content, and, as a result, this is what people tend to be preoccupied with and fixate upon first.
With regard to the McLuhan centenary, I feel a sense of regret that I did not take part in any of the celebrations around the world. It just wasn’t in the cards for me. I did not even make it to last June’s Media Ecology Association convention in Edmonton. And I’m the MEA’s Vice President.
However, with respect to my reflections about these celebrations, I will say this. It is McLuhan who put us on the map. It is McLuhan who is credited with first putting the words “media” and “ecology” together. It was Neil Postman, as a graduate student in education at Columbia Teacher’s College, under the mentorship of Louis Forsdale, who discovered McLuhan and his work – at the same time television was first exploding into American culture and also becoming the harbinger of post-literacy, with all this would portend for English-language education – and “grounded” McLuhan on his way to defining and establishing media ecology as a framework for understanding media. Finally, while the very name McLuhan is a hot button for scholars within the discipline of communication and media studies – while he is often dismissed, and those who give credence to his work and cite it are also often vehemently and sometimes venomously dismissed – this says more about his detractors than it says about him. Or than it says about us. You really have to ask what purpose such negative criticism and dismissiveness serves, given that the very point of criticism in the first place is simply to make things better.
McLuhan helped make us better. He added, rather than to detract. He added to what we know and think about, to the ways in which we know and think about things, and to the ways we would go on to pursue further knowledge. His critics might better serve us by simply seeking some way to do the same.
What are, in your view, the most relevant aspects of McLuhan’s thought in this age of digital interactive media?
I have a singular answer to this question, and it’s a pretty succinct one compared to the rest of my answers here: If the core of McLuhan’s project was to guide us, or urge us, or simply get us to think about and understand media, I have spent the last few years trying to fully understand digital interactive media. I’ve tried to answer the fundamental question of whether digitization constitutes a revolution in the history of our media of human communication in the same way the inventions of speech, writing, the mechanical, movable-type printing press, and the electric telegraph were revolutionary innovations that transformed both our species and our civilization. I’ve been asking whether digital media are merely an extension of the electronic revolution in communication, given that they are just another means of storing, retrieving, and distributing text, images, moving images, and sound, or whether there is something radically new going on that we can discern and articulate in the same way we point to electronic media having allowed our communication to transcend the previous boundaries of space and time.
I am wholly aware of some of the radical changes that have come about, such as hypertextuality. I am of course cognizant of the ways in which day-to-day life has been irreversibly altered – for instance, in the breaking down of the divide between work and life outside and away from work. I am aware of the vast array of inventions and innovations of the past few decades, and our attempts to chase after and keep up with them and use them for all of the reasons we do – including the fact that many of them are simply consumer technologies we pursue as part of our acquisitive, status-mongering lifestyle. And because we think they’re cool.
But what I’ve hit upon – and I thank McLuhan for inspiring and guiding me on this quest – is that I don’t think digital, interactive media constitute the revolution. I think mobility and mobile media do. And I’ll explain it in this very simple way: The baseline model for studying communication is what communication scholars call the “dyad” – face-to-face or point-to-point communication. Mass communication extends this model to point-to-multipoint communication. And the Internet and World Wide Web extend it to multipoint-to-multipoint communication. Right? We have literally billions of websites and webpages clamoring for the attention of billions of users. But this is just too unwieldy; it’s a morass. And that even seems like understatement. Sure, it opens up some real forms of and possibilities for interactivity, as well as a lot that is just the façade of interactivity. It also allows users to generate content and seek an audience for, recognition of that content. We are now “produsers”; “prosumers.”
But I think the key, now, is that we are both receivers and transmitters of media, and all kinds of media – text, images, moving images, and sound – wherever we are and at all times. Or at least whenever we’re awake. We are always connected, and can’t escape this connection. In fact, we wholly desire and embrace it. Any young person who doesn’t yet have a smartphone and mobile Internet service believes they are missing out on something they must have or are supposed to have – that it is a necessary part of their personhood in the 21st Century. No one ever thinks in terms of the old adage: “Be careful what you wish for.”
This, then, is the ultimate achievement in bringing about Marshall’s vision of the global village.
You are the program planner of the 2012 Media Ecology Association’s Convention, which will take place this coming June at Manhattan College. Would you give us a sneak peek of what you have in store for us?
The theme of the convention is “The Crossroads of the Word.” This theme speaks to our contemporary moment as a media culture: a time of post literacy, infotainment, and the screen world. In addition, it references New York’s Times Square as the “crossroads of the world.” And it invokes the 21st Century’s constant and fluid movement of peoples and cultures across all of the previous boundaries of our global village. In light of this latter extension of the theme, it also bears noting we have a program with approximately 200 presenters representing some 24 countries around the world.
Our featured speakers will include: Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and author of The Second Self, Life on the Screen, and her most recent book, Alone Together; Jaron Lanier, computer scientist, composer, visual artist, author of You are Not a Gadget, and one of Time magazine’s “100 People” for 2010; Doug Rushkoff, winner of the MEA’s first Neil Postman award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity, author of some ten books including the recent Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, and producer of three Frontline documentaries including “Merchants of Cool,” “The Persuaders,” and “Digital Nation”; and Terence P. Moran, Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, one of the three founding members of NYU’s Media Ecology doctoral program, and author of Selling War to America: From the Spanish American War to the Global War on Terror and Introduction to The History of Communication: Evolutions and Revolutions.
The convention will also include plenary sessions in celebration of the centenary of the births of media ecologists Walter J. Ong, S. J. and Jacques Ellul.
And, of course, we are bringing the convention back to New York – where it all began. And where we hope people will have a wonderful all-around experience, not just an academic one. I also have to publicly thank my home institution, Manhattan College, for all of their support in hosting the convention. It is a grand undertaking.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on three things.
I have been working for a few years now on a book about Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development and its parallels with the acquisition of language – not just spoken language but learning to read and write. The original idea for the book was inspired by my classes in children and media. But it really took off when I read a quote from Piaget in which he said that language has nothing whatsoever to do with cognitive development, and then read a quote from later in his career where he acknowledged that language has something to do with it, but that its role is secondary at best. My half-in-jest working title is “Jean Piaget as Reluctant Communication Theorist.”
I am also working on an edited collection with my colleague and friend, Brian Cogan – author of, among his other works, The Encyclopedia of Punk Rock. The book, in two-volumes, is about the culture and impact of the baby boomer generation, and is entitled Baby Boomers and Popular Culture: An Inquiry into America’s Most Powerful Generation. It is due out from ABC-Clio, on their Praeger imprint, in 2014.
Finally, I am working with my musical ensemble bluerace on the follow-up to our first CD, World is Ready. The new CD is entitled Beautiful Sky, and is set to be released sometime this summer.
Certainly, it will be out before the two books come out!
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