Interview with Barry Wellman

© Barry Wellman and Figure/Ground
Dr. Wellman was interviewed by Andrew Iliadis. October 30th, 2012.

Professor Barry Wellman is based at the Faculty of Information (“iSchool” of the University of Toronto where he directs NetLab. He has been the S.D. Clark Professor at the Department of Sociology, a member of the Cities Centre, and the Knowledge Media Design Institute. Wellman is the co-author of the prize-winning Networked: The New Social Operating System (with Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project) published by MIT Press in Spring 2012. Prof. Wellman is a member of the Royal Society of Canada. He founded the International Network for Social Network Analysis in 1976. He is the Chair-Emeritus of both the Community and Information Technologies section and the Community and Urban Sociology section of the American Sociological Association. He is a Fellow of IBM Toronto’s Centre for Advanced Studies. He has worked with IBM’s Institute of Knowledge Management, Mitel Networks, Advanced Micro Devices’ Global Consumer Advisory Board, and Intel’s People and Practices research unit. Wellman has been a keynoter at conferences ranging from computer science to theology. He is the (co-)author of more than 200 articles that have been co-authored with more than 80 scholars, and is the (co-)editor of three books.

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

 It certainly was a conscious choice. In the late 1950s and the early 1960s when I was in graduate school there was massive anti-Semitism in the U.S. and, frankly, in Canada too. If you watch Mad Men, the show actually represents that pretty well. The corporate world was closed to me. I knew that I didn’t want to be a doctor or a dentist because I’m not very good with my hands or with blood. I knew that I was smart, but as I’m not too conflict oriented,  I didn’t want to be a lawyer. So the question was: what kind of academic would I be.

I was a history major at Lafayette College. (In those days we didn’t have sociology in many colleges.) One day I was talking to one of my best friends, Jack Marchalonis, when he said “Look, Barry, you really like modern current events – you ought to think about going into sociology.” And a light-bulb went off in my head. I took the only sociology course my college had. And I got lucky. I got into Harvard grad school, and it was a wonderful place to be. I was a quiz kid as an undergraduate and participated in something called the “College Bowl” on CBS-TV, and that probably helped get me into Harvard.

Who were some of your mentors in university and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?

Both Lafayette and Harvard had the norm of taking their students seriously. It had a club mentality: Once they took you in, they basically took care of you. As a student, you didn’t know all the gossip, but you were treated as a colleague. I had three mentors at Harvard: Chad Gordon was my thesis adviser, but I was also very close to Charles Tilly who was an urban sociologist and social historian. I was his teaching assistant. My third mentor was Harrison White, who also became famous as a theorist of social network analysis; I was also his teaching assistant. All three were great role models. They encouraged me to integrate a wide range of interests into my work. They took their students seriously. Following their example,  I’ve been doing a lot of paying-it-forward, taking my graduate students seriously. And I see my former students now taking their own students seriously: I’m proud of my intellectual children and grandchildren

In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?

The changes are for the worse. The biggest change is much less money, and that means we have very large classes. Neither I nor my teaching assistants can now take the time to really get to know many students and to counsel them. The only time that our students learn anything on a one-to-one basis is in their senior year when they take a small seminar with me. At the same time, the University of Toronto keeps warning us not to get to know students.

What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by attention deficit and information overload?

The statements about “attention deficit” and “information overload” assumptions you are making; not me. In my undergraduate course, I walk around. Although the students’ laptops are open, by walking around I can see if the laptops are for note taking and not for talking to friends. I don’t allow using cell phones, and I do a lot of question asking. Although some students say I do too much question asking, I like the Socratic Method, although I remember what happened to Socrates. So, one, a lot of Q and A; two, keep it humorous but serious; three, complement everything I say with PowerPoint; four, don’t put my PowerPoint slides online to encourage students to come to class and pay attention if they want to get the information.

What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors and what are some of the texts that young scholars should be reading in this day and age?

This is a life I love. And you have to love it. One of the saddest things we see are students who go into grad school because they don’t know what to do with the rest of their lives. They turn out to be miserable, they make their peers miserable, and they make the faculty miserable. So if you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. Or, realize after a year, or even half a year, to get out as soon as possible. One thing that people really need to do is peer-to-peer learning, and that only happens with smart, motivated graduate students. And a good thing, of course, is to make alliances with faculty who you not only like, but who are really topnotch, can open doors, and also tell you what’s going on.

What texts to read? I think you ought to start with my book, Networked: The New Social Operating System! It’s a great intro to the field. We wrote it as a high-end trade book, which means that it has endnotes but is also readable. We worked very hard, both my co-author Lee Rainie, who used to be a journalist, and myself. We also worked with a copy editor who gave us thousands of edits and we pretty much did everything she said.

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 could 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?

Universities are always in crisis. My university has said “We are in big financial trouble” for the 45 years I’ve been here.  First of all, Marshall, who was at the University of Toronto where I am, didn’t know what he was talking about. He talked only to his acolytes. Departments are strong here in Toronto; they’re strong just about everywhere. In a few places like Irvine where they’ve tried not to have traditional departments, they’ve actually been forced back to having them. The forces of conservatism – of disciplinary boundaries – are strong. Different universities get more involved in interdisciplinarity than others. Right now at my university it’s rather weak, while at Duke it’s strong. I think these are faddish trends.

The interdisciplinary stuff works great, but only when you get the right people with a broad range of knowledge and are selective in getting only the best people involved. But there are complications. For example, one of the things I discovered working with computer scientists, is that you have to spend a lot of time building a common language. For example, the word “culture” or “community” means very different things to computer scientists than to sociologists such as myself.

In a 2009 article, Francis Fukuyama argues that the tenure system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country. Fukuyama believes the freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious, but thinks it’s time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly. What do you make of Fukuyama’s assertion and, in a nutshell, what is your own position about the academic tenure system?

Fukuyama generally doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He wrote a book about the end of history which was one of the most foolish books that I ever read – but that’s an ad hominem argument. With regard to his present assertion, I would disagree. First, tenure is better than the alternatives. Second, if we didn’t have tenure, we would have the following situation: We would have administrators, who tend not to be the cream of the crop, making decisions about people. From my own experience they tend to want to get rid of faculty members who make trouble, or rock the boat, or do anything else. Third, the problem of tenure, of course is dead wood. That can be alleviated with wise leadership. Fourth, how are you going to convince someone to go into a field and sacrifice ten years of their life getting a PhD when they’re not going to have some sort of guarantee that they have some certainty of a career?

How do you see the individual actor in contemporary society? Your theory of “networked individualism” implies something different from actors working within groups. Is it the information in the network that comprises the individual? Can you say something briefly about this concept?

In our Networked book, we’re mostly playing off against groups. Groups are really tightly bounded and densely knit networks where everybody knows each other, such as villages or work groups. Something that a lot of evidence points out is that people live in multiple communities. I remember when we did our first study in East York in 1968-69 (which is in Toronto by the way), we were surprised to find out how few people lived in the same neighborhood.  We always thought of communities as neighborhoods.

Now we’re studying work groups and we’re finding the same thing. Scholars especially move around from team to team. So, yes, that’s an issue, and networked individualism says, “look, there are individuals, they are centers of their own personal networks, and then they move around between one team and another.” And we can’t analyze them as super-individuals because people are connected. We couldn’t solve the New York City Hurricane Sandy flood situation by giving everybody a little shovel. We have to have something that is comprised of building-block networks.

Another concept – “glocalization” – is becoming widely used and this is in part due to your own research on the subject. What is glocalization, and how is it different from the older model of globalization?

Glocalization is a multiply invented term. Keith Hampton, who was once my student and is now a faculty member at Rutgers, and I jointly invented the term for Sociology. We later found that four or five other scholars invented it for other disciplines. It’s a neologism in which we put together global and local. What we keep finding is that people use social media such as the internet to be widely connected, but at the same time the local situations turn out to be very important, both online and of course in real life. As computer scientists keep forgetting, people have bodies, so “glocalization” in our sense means interaction that is both global and local and of course everything in-between happening more or less simultaneously. But, for many people, the local is more important because the people they usually speak with on the internet, are the same people they also see in their physical interactions. There is no separation between the two.

What do you think of the idea that too much communication can lead to a decrease in action? The political scientist Navid Hassanpour at Yale studies media disruption in the context of political exacerbation, particularly in the Middle East. What he found was that when there is a disruption in connectivity then that produces more action. What is your stance on this?

I haven’t read Hassanpour’s articles, but it would be interesting to see his evidence. This is the first I’ve heard of it. By contrast, Chuck Tilly has shown that connectivity is a reinforcing thing that actually has helped people to get mobilized.

We discuss this issue a little bit in our Networked book, and also in an article we wrote for Peace Magazine. Most people in Cairo were not connected to the internet: only about 20% had internet access. Yet, Cairo internet users were using it to connect with the outside world, and with each other, although they had to be careful that surveillance forces weren’t involved.

In conclusion, there is a punditry belief that the internet takes people away from interactions. Yet, hardly any evidence supports that. Any study that I know of – and I can think of a half- dozen by Jeff Boase, Keith Hampton, Hua Wang, etc. – shows that the more you’re online, the more you’re offline and the more you’re interacting,  So, online and in-person interactions are reinforcing rather than countervailing phenomena.

©  Excerpts and links may be used provided that full and clear credit is given to Barry Wellman
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Iliadis, A. (2012). “A Conversation with Barry Wellman,” Figure/Ground. October 30th.
< http://figureground.org/interview-with-barry-wellman/ >

Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at ralonlaureano@gmail.com




Interview with Jodi Dean

© Jodi Dean and Figure/Ground
Dr. Dean was interviewed by Andrew Iliadis. October 26th, 2012.

Jodi Dean teaches political theory at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. She received her Ph.D. in Political Science in 1992 from Columbia University. Her research and writing focus on the contemporary space and possibility of politics. Her books include: Solidarity of Strangers (1996), Aliens in America(1998), Publicity’s Secret (2002), Zizek’s Politics (2006),Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies (2009), Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive (2010), and most recently, The Communist Horizon (2012). She has edited Feminism and the New Democracy (1997),Cultural Studies and Political Theory (2000), with Paul A. Passavant, Empire’s New Clothes: Reading Hardt and Negri (2004), with Jon Anderson and Geert Lovink, Reformatting Politics: Information Technology and Global Civil Society(2006). She is a co-editor of the journal Theory & Event. You can read more about her and her work on her blog, I cite.

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

I didn’t really decide. When I was an undergraduate at Princeton I thought it would be horrible to spend months or years writing articles no one would ever read. I went to graduate school in Political Science and Soviet Studies at Columbia. When I got there, I wanted to be a teaching assistant. So I did that. Then, I learned that theorists could teach in the core curriculum sequence called Contemporary Civilization, so I wanted to do that. By that point, continuing as a professor just seemed natural.

Who were some of your mentors in university and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?

As an undergraduate, it was Stephen F. Cohen. He was a total rock star — not hating the USSR in the 80s. He taught us to take Marxism-Leninism seriously. He also made me feel like I had something to contribute, something to say. Also, my thesis advisor, Richard Chambers. He made me cut 30 pages of my thesis about two weeks before it was due. That gave me a sense that nothing I write is sacred and that I should be ready to revise. Similarly, Andrea Maihoffer in Frankfurt taught me to revise. She told me that Luhmann treated every book he wrote as “what I’m thinking right now,” never one’s last word. And, finally, but most importantly my dissertation director Jean L. Cohen. She was always completely supportive in every public setting — but would cut to the critical chase one-on-one. That taught me about differences between criticism and critique. With critique, you have to be mindful of context.

How did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?

It seems to me that students tend to treat faculty more like purveyors of a consumer experience. So, they don’t seem overly concerned about missing appointments; they expect that they will not be held accountable for late assignments. Students also seem more likely to adopt an attitude of informality than was typical when I went to school. But this might be related more to the fact that I teach in an undergraduate institution than to any real changes in the role of professor.

What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an “age of interruption” characterized by fractured attention and information overload?

A good teacher needs to believe in what she is doing. I congratulate my students for taking a class in political theory because it’s the most important thing they can do — and I believe this. I went in to political theory because it was so interesting and challenging that I knew I would never know it all, never be bored, always be learning. Students respond to that sort of passion. They don’t see it many places these days, but it still moves them. They want to believe.

A good teacher also needs to find something in her students that she likes, admires, and respects. She might do this vis a vis individual students or students as a group, that doesn’t matter. But students pick up on the vibes we give out. No one wants to be lectured to by someone who doesn’t respect them. I also think it’s important to be prepared (very prepared) and being willing to mix things up, change what happens in the classroom. I command attention by being authoritarian and intolerant at the beginning — no phones, no laptops, no side-conversations. A day or so of this and then expectations are clear and everyone can relax and get to work. Really, the attention deficit problem is mine! If students come in and out of the room or speak to their neighbor or something like that I quickly lose focus. On information overload — I don’t believe this. Contemporary students — like everybody else– are woefully uninformed, little knowledge of history, little memory for anything that happened more than 3 months ago. This doesn’t bother me too much, though. It gives me a chance to make the version of political theory that I want to teach into the one that is dominant for them.

What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors and what are some of the texts that young scholars should be reading in this day and age?

Advice? Only go to graduate school if you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else. Don’t linger over anything you write, especially the dissertation. Get it done and move on. Pick things to study that matter to you. Never pick something just because others think it’s important — you will get depressed and bored working on it and by the time you are done the trend that made it topical in the first place will have passed and you are stuck. For aspiring university professors — you are not their mother or their therapist (this was good advice I got from my dissertation director and I’ve followed it religiously). Don’t overdo it on committee work and service. Instead, do your writing and research — that’s what matters.

For reading: read Feed by MT Anderson; it’s about teenagers in a dystopic future. Anderson researched it by sitting in malls listening in on teenagers’ conversations. My students said it wasn’t the future; it’s Facebook. At the same time, young scholars should read things that completely inspire them so that they can be inspiring to their students (whether or not they are teaching the specific texts). Students want to believe that their teachers believe in what they are doing.

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 could 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?

The threat to the university is capitalism. The one percent have determined that they no longer need an educated middle class to look after their needs, so they are cutting education budgets across the board. As far as they are concerned, a few elite universities are all they need so the rest of us need to be content with accessing content online. This is a terrible threat to skills and competencies liberal democrats associate with citizenship.

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 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. What do you make of Fukuyama’s assertion and, in a nutshell, what is your own position about the academic tenure system?

This is the biggest bunch of garbage I’ve ever read. I can’t believe anyone takes this seriously. Fukyama has it backwards: tenure doesn’t threaten academic freedom; it protects it. Can you imagine what a system would look like if people lived in perpetual fear of losing their jobs? How would their anxiety impact their students much less their ability to carry out research? In fact, it would look like the hideous financial sector with everyone thinking in totally self-centered ways and in the shortest possible terms. Much good academic work takes a long time –historians have to find collections in archives and then do their research; scientists have to design and carry out experiments. Scholars have to share their work with colleagues, subjecting it to critique and revising it accordingly.

The whole attack on jargon is barely masked anti-intellectualism. No one worries about the jargon of particle physics, neuroscience, or custody law. In fact, we recognize that knowledge takes multiple forms and speaks to multiple audiences. Not every audience needs to be (or wants to be) addressed the same way — and, again, it’s thinly veiled anti-intellectualism to imply that everything should be accessible to everyone. For example, I can’t read and understand a paper in theoretical physics, but I can read and follow a popular book on, say, black holes. That popular book would be worthless, however, without the real science backing it up. And, again, we shouldn’t expect that the same people who carry out the experiments, make the observations, and do the equations will necessarily be the ones to write the popular books.

You know, the real problem is this language of ‘costly’ — it points to what I already mentioned, namely, that the one percent has decided that it no longer wants to fund higher education for the majority. Why is it that tenure is costly but Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon are not? Their salaries in a single year –alone –would more than cover the salary of the entire faculty where I teach. Let’s not pretend that there is some kind of objective analysis of education going on here. It’s class war, plain and simple.

What does “collective” mean today? Is it a multitude, or a group, or even a community?

Collective means a commitment to the good of working people, the oppressed, the ninety-nine percent rather than to either one’s own private interest or the interests of the propertied and privileged. It’s a commitment to be on the side of the oppressed, as Marx and Engels emphasize in The Communist Manifesto. Multitude isn’t the best term because it eliminates the antagonism to privilege and self-interest. Community proceeds as if communities are not split by class interest. Group is too generic and could mean any group. I use the term collective because of its resonance with histories of class struggle.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jodi Dean and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Iliadis, A. (2012). “Interview with Jodi Dean,” Figure/Ground. October 26th.
<  http://figureground.org/interview-with-jodi-dean/  >


Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at ralonlaureano@gmail.com




Interview with Ian Woodward

© Ian Woodward and Figure/Ground
Dr. Woodward was interviewed by Daniel Hourigan. October 26th, 2012.

Ian Woodward is Senior Lecturer in Sociology in the School of Humanities, Griffith University, Australia, and Deputy Director of the Centre for Cultural Research at Griffith University. He is the author of Understanding Material Culture, The Sociology of Cosmopolitanism, Cultural Sociology: An Introduction and Cosmopolitanism: Uses of the Idea. His recent papers have appeared in Journal of Consumer Culture, The Handbook of Cosmopolitanism Studies and The Oxford Handbook of Cultural Sociology. He is a board member on the new journal outlet, the American Journal of Cultural Sociology, and an Editor of The Journal of Sociology. In 2010-2011 he was a Fellow of the Kulturwissenschaftliches Kolleg, University of Konstanz, Germany.

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

There was certainly nothing that felt like conscious choice, but there was an experience of being drawn to the intellectual and artistic production that is entailed in doing academic work. Along with this affinity for writing and thinking creatively, for me becoming a professor was never inevitable or guaranteed as these pathways are never clear or easy. And, I was always aware that I may need to pursue other options. Nevertheless, with hard work, productivity, the right personal circumstances and some luck, the job ended up choosing me.

Who were some of your mentors in university and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?

I have two sets of mentors. My most important mentors remain my dissertation supervisors, Mike Emmison and Philip Smith. I have co-published with both guys and they instructed me on important aspects of writing for publication. Both are very productive scholars with international reputations in their respective fields, so this has been crucial building my skills. Phil Smith now teaches at Yale and has been imperative in promoting my work and introducing me into his networks. This guy completely understands the field of academic production. But, a supervisor can’t support or promote all of their students and shouldn’t be expected to – there simply isn’t enough time and resources – so having a great mentor means sharing common intellectual interests and goals, to some degree. Second, I was lucky enough to form a very productive research partnership with two other scholars, Zlatko Skrbis and Gavin Kendall, who employed me to do some RA work after submission of my Ph.D. This work was in a different, but somewhat related, field to my Ph.D. As it worked out, we have published together for the best part of 10 years, including many articles and a few books. This started out as research assistance with mentoring as a side benefit, but blossomed into a genuine research partnership.

In your experience, how did the role of university professor “evolve” since you were an undergraduate student?

This is hard to answer, because as an undergraduate you are obviously crucial to the university’s productivity, but necessarily outside and unable to fathom – for the most part – the work and conditions of the professors who teach you. To complicate this, the place where I now teach is not the place where I completed my dissertation, so the local conditions are unique to some degree. I guess the main difference these days is that professors are subject to stronger regimes of accountability and performance evaluation across all their tasks.

What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by attention deficit and information overflow?

Well, there are many types of good teachers, I think, and we shouldn’t feel the need to conform to one type. Good teaching evolves from a rendering of effective and productive teaching practices in and through one’s personality, one’s unique approach to their discipline and also one’s personal identity and style. What I’m saying here is that while there are some bottom lines that help with being a successful, admired and respected teacher – things such as expertise and knowledge – being an effective group manager and interpersonal communicator, liking your field of research, and being able to help students see the relevance of their learning, I also think students are able to accommodate and enjoy a range of teaching styles. Have at your fingertips both examples from current media, music and politics, and the intellectual capacity and breadth to give students ways of understanding and explaining what’s going on outside.

What advice would you give to aspiring university professors and what are some of the texts young scholars should be reading today?

I’m afraid it must begin and largely end with the old story – publish. In today’s job market, you also need some patience, commitment and flexibility. The euphemistic relation of this so-called flexibility to the exemplary neo-liberal subject is not lost on me! Nevertheless, my feeling is that you must aim to have a mix of papers in the best generalist and specialist international journals you can possibly aim for. Your Ph.D. should deliver a small handful of these, along with other things like a book. No matter how specialist your work, always try to relate it to important field and possibly discipline-wide questions.  Be brave with your research, pursue ideas you are passionate about and understand the unique things your research contributes to your area and related areas. Build coherence amongst your diverse publications and understand them as having a narrative trajectory that builds a story about your research contributions. This helps for job and funding applications. Trade off only some quality for quantity in terms of your early career outputs, but make sure you put quality of outputs first, overall. Be realistic: research recognition, especially in the social sciences and humanities, is generally a medium to long-term game based on continuous investments.

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 could 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?

I’m not sure departmental sovereignties have melted away – the department or school is both the administrative unit and institutional disciplinary target. It can also encapsulate and embody vital collective research identities and communities. And, as a scholar of cosmopolitanism, I also know that national sovereignties have not entirely dissipated, but reassert themselves under various conditions. McLuhan was right, though, to give some weight to the medium, materiality and technics of these processes.

Others often discuss your area of expertise as ‘cultural’ sociology. What does this mean for your work and how your inquiries are situated under the broader disciplinary umbrella of sociology?

Cultural sociology has performed an important role in the last few decades by bringing culture to the centre of sociological analysis, but in a particular way. It inverts the classical paradigm in sociology by demonstrating that culture is an autonomous thing – an independent variable – that shapes social action, interpretation and meaning. For me, cultural sociology has been important because, in its foundational version, it promises to fuse structural and hermeneutic approaches to social analysis. That is, it shows the way in which interpretation, meaning and emotion are embedded in structured patterns of codes, narratives and genres. Cultural sociology was also something of a revelation to me as it brought classical anthropological texts, from the likes of Geertz, Levi-Strauss and Mary Douglas into the frame of sociological analysis. For me, this was enormously valuable as a productive counterpoint and complement to mainstream sociological approaches. In recent years, the benefits of this meaning-centred, hermeneutic approach has been realised across disciplines in the social sciences and humanities.

 In recent decades cultural sociology has enjoyed a turn to ‘material culture’. Why do you think this shift has occurred? What challenges and/or problems can you foresee for the future studies of material culture?

The turn to material culture is somewhat akin to the case made for a cultural sociology. To some degree, sociologists have always written about objects, materials and things, but at the same time they mostly placed them as background props, scaffolding or architecture. Material culture studies looks to things as vital matter that organise, animate and orient social action. There has been a realization by some scholars that sociology has often been too concerned with values, norms and behaviours as the basis for an explanation of the social, at the expense of the hard and often mobile material things and infrastructures that we engage with and live through. While material culture studies has become known via the work of scholars in cultural and social anthropology, at the same time innovations in science and technology studies have also pushed things to centre stage and articulated a challenging material ontology. Of course, here I am referring to scholars like Bruno Latour and John Law in the social sciences, and Jane Bennett and Bill Brown in the humanities. In cultural sociology, Jeffrey Alexander’s work on iconic engagement usefully fuses material approaches with attention to emotional depth and meaning. I think that this larger question of how we may continue along the path of developing a material ontology, making use of ideas of technics and haptics, while at the same time paying attention to the ways in which material engagements connect such practices to emotion, identity and psychological transitioning, should be an area of priority in the cross disciplinary field of materiality studies.

What advice would you give to newcomers to the sociology of material culture?  Are there any other emerging areas that you feel offer important opportunities for sociology as a whole?

In general my advice is to undertake fine-grained empirical work in order to let discoveries guide your explanation and development of theory. Engage with materiality – or indeed any study of social phenomena – through thick description and close engagement with practices in particular contexts. Also, pay attention to methodological innovations in the field by incorporating complementary non-discursive, visual and ethnographic material in your work.

How would you characterise the connections, if any, between material culture studies and a socio-political phenomenon such as cosmopolitanism?

Interestingly, there are some connections between these fields that require development, in my view. One of the potential problems with cosmopolitanism studies is its basis in idealised forms of sociality, reflexive ethical responses, and forms of cultural openness founded in sets of attitudes and behavioural repertoires. What this traditional approach to the topic overlooks of course is the way cosmopolitan cultures and cultivated, sustained and arranged by material engagements, spatial forms and material networks. And, at a finer level, particular object engagements can be constitutive of cosmopolitan reflexivities or be the basis of closures of such engagements. Reframing cosmopolitan studies through materiality studies presents an interesting possibility for innovations.

What are you currently working on?

I’m working on the copyediting corrections to a book on cosmopolitanism written with my colleague Zlatko Skrbis that will be available in the first quarter of next year. Also, I’m at the beginning stages of empirical research for a book on the vinyl record with a colleague from Germany. The vinyl record has made something of a comeback in recent years and represents an interesting case study for developing my work on material culture. As well, I am planning a symposium to run next year with colleagues in my department that addresses the links between materiality, emotion and psychoanalytic approaches to understanding material culture.

©  Excerpts and links may be used provided that full and clear credit is given to Ian Woodward
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Hourigan, D. (2012). “A Conversation with Ian Woodward,” Figure/Ground. October 26th.
< http://figureground.org/interview-with-ian-woodward/ >

Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at ralonlaureano@gmail.com




Interview with Terrence P. Moran

© Terence P. Moran and Figure/Ground
Dr. Moran was interviewed by Angela Cirucci. October 12th, 2012.

Terence P. Moran is Professor of Media,Culture, and Communication at New York University, where he has taught since 1967. In 1970, he co-founded the graduate programs in Media and Communication, which he directed for over thirty years. In 1985, he was the founding director of the undergraduate program. The co-editor (with Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner) of Language in America (1969),the co-author (with Eugene Secunda) of Selling War to America: From the Spanish American War the the Global War on Terror (2007), and the author of Introduction to The History of Communication: Evolutions and Revolutions (2010), he is the author of numerous articles on language, media, and propaganda in both academic and popular publications.He is also a writer and/or producer of documentaries on such diverse subjects as career women in New York City (City Originals: Women Making It Work, 1994), the conflict in Northern Ireland (Sons of Derry, 1993), and the cultural history of McSorley’s Old Ale House (McSorley’s New York, 1987), for which he shared a New York Area Emmy Award for Outstanding Arts/Cultural/Historical Programming. He has received a Teaching Excellence Award from the Steinhardt School, a Louis Forsdale Award for Outstanding Educator in the Field of Media Ecology from the Media Ecology Association, and a special Founder of Media Ecology Award from the New York State Communication Association.

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

I’m not sure that I decided to do it; it was an evolutionary process. I served four years in the Marine Corps and when I came out I went to NYU. At that time I was intending to be a writer. I thought if I got a degree in English, I could get a job as a teacher and then I could have summers off to write. So I became an English major. I graduated and went to teach in the New York City public school system. At the time, in order to get the license and to get more money, you had to have a master’s degree; so I stayed on and got a master’s degree in English. During that time Neil Postman had been my professor and then we’d become sort of friendly, and he trained me a bit. He encouraged me to go into the doctoral program. So I went into the Ph.D.. I went for a year part-time while I was teaching, still in the public school system. And then Neil said to me: “We’ve got an opening for a teaching fellow. Would you like to do that?” So I said “Sure.” One year after that there was a special opening – somebody left immediately because he was just promoted to assistant professor, and they asked me if I would like to take the position as an instructor. So I got the job as an instructor. I was never interviewed by anybody; I never turned in a resume or anything. That was 1967 and at that time I was teaching here at NYU, and Neil and I were working together on designing a graduate program in language and communication, which eventually morphed into the Media Ecology Program in 1970. We finished and I graduated with my degree in ’71, and then I was appointed assistant professor. And two years later I was named associate professor. So I sort of slid into it – I didn’t set out to be a university professor.

Who were some of your mentors in university and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?

Well, I was really fortunate that I learned a great deal from a number of people and Neil was in English education in those days. Neil helped me tremendously to think about communication and language and those sorts of things, and to think critically. But I had about a half dozen fabulous professors here: Floyd Buckingham was one, Roger Cayer was a tremendously good guy, and there were just a bunch of really, really good people. Neil became my mentor and my guide and my dissertation Chair, so I was mostly influenced by him. He had a great friend who wasn’t here but was teaching in Queens – Charlie Winegardner – who became a great mentor to me. And then outside of that, I had taken courses in communication, both undergraduate and graduate, in what was in those days called the Communication and Education department. It was established by Charles Siepman, and was one of the first such departments in the United States, started in the late ‘40s, if I remember the history of it. I had classes with both Siepman and George Gordon, who was a fantastic professor of communication who wrote roughly ten books on the discipline of communication and moved around a number of places. He and I stayed friends for many, many years. And he was just an exceptionally good teacher.

I would have to say, though, that Neil was my major influence. It wasn’t in just the content of what he taught me, but he taught me how to think and how to teach.

In your experience, how did the role of university professor “evolve” since you were an undergraduate student?

I can only speak from my own experience. The university has moved from what the sociologists call a “social system” to a “bureaucratic system.” It used to be a much more collegial kind of place where a lot of the decisions and a lot of the structures were quite informal. And now they’ve become highly technical, highly rigid, very formal. Not just simply formalized but very, very technical. I mean no one could be hired the way I was. Sometimes it astonishes my young colleagues who are just joining us that I never went through anything that they are. It was an evolutionary process because the people who hired me knew me as a student; they knew what my qualities were, and what my work was so there wasn’t a big debate about it. And that process was done a lot in those days. It was good and bad: It was good because it was informal, but it was bad in the sense that it really was there for networking. We didn’t use those terms, but if you knew somebody, you were there. You were hired more on whim than anything else.

The communication environment here changed. So the medium of the university changed and it became much more bureaucratic, much more hierarchical. And that wasn’t done because there was a change in the structure of technology. It was done because there was a change in the people who were running the place. They moved to another kind of model. There was nothing to say that you couldn’t run it the other way, but it’s become much more corporate. And I am told by colleagues that this is the norm around America, that the universities are becoming more like business corporations. Decisions are being made more along those business lines of profit and loss, rather than more socialized lines of what’s worth knowing and what’s the best way people learn.

Off the record, Dr. Peter Fallon commented that, “when you wrote a reaction paper or a critical analysis for Terry, pretty much every square inch of remaining white space on each page was filled with his comments, questions, objections, and encouragements.” He pointed out that he integrated this approach into his own pedagogy and tried to teach his students that what they were learning was a process, not a product. What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by attention deficit and information overflow?

I still think that the foundation of good teaching is the same as it always was – which is that you practice critical thinking and you facilitate your students into becoming critical thinkers. Peter’s very kind comments have to do with what I write on student’s papers, which are always questions. I almost never, ever write a declarative sentence. I learned that from Postman – that you should ask questions. And so it’s always a question of how it works with the general theory: I don’t know what the truth is but I can ask questions about what you think. We can identify weaknesses. I try to do that, try to help the students. But it’s a process. It’s very hard, and good teachers try to teach people to do that. They teach me to help others think for themselves, and you provide students with ways of learning and ways of thinking, and you hope it works out. I just came from a lecture of 110 students, trying to teach them the history of communication. And it’s a hard thing to do, to try to get them to think in a kind of a critical way over a long period of time. There’s not much chance for feedback. It’s the environment too. Talk about a communication environment – I’ve taught seventh, eighth, and ninth grades in middle school and high school, and I’ve taught everything from freshman to Doctoral students in university. It makes a difference how many people you’ve got in a room, and it makes a difference how committed they are. By and large, graduate students are easier to teach because they want to learn and you are trying to help them think critically. There’s a real difference between them and a lot of undergraduate students these days. You didn’t ask the question, but there is a real difference. When I started teaching here in the late ‘60s, the students that were here, almost every one of them, were paying his or her own way, or the parents were. And these were people who were committed to going to school. Many of the students now – almost all them – are full-time students. They are getting all kinds of scholarships and benefits and loans. And a lot of them are here not because they want to be here, but because their families want them to be here. And they’re not as motivated, quite frankly. In the old days, if you mentioned two or three extra books, the students were out reading them. Here you can barely get them to read the assigned stuff. They are very pragmatic these days. I don’t think that it has to do with intelligence or anything like that; I think that it has to do with total commitment. And I think college has become watered down because the people going to school now wouldn’t have gone thirty years ago. So, in a sense, that self-selection made the students better, but much more independent, thinkers. And, quite frankly, it’s harder to teach now than it was thirty years ago. Students were more interesting then.

What advice would you give to aspiring university professors and what are some of the texts young scholars should be reading today?

My interests are the history of communication and propaganda. I have a bunch of books on cave art, prehistoric paintings and the like. The best one of those I know is Randall White’s Prehistoric Art, but I’ve got half a dozen others sitting over here at the moment. Daniel Everett has a book out called Language: The Cultural Tool, which I found quite good. And then James Glikes’ The Informationwas a very, very interesting book. I used it with a graduate class last year; they had a hard struggle since they found it a little harder to get through. That’s a really good book, but the problem with that one is that you actually have to know the Shannon-Weaver model really well before you can understand what he’s doing, because he doesn’t explain it to well. But I still found the book really exciting and interesting, and I thought that it was a very powerful piece of work. I used a couple of standard texts on the history of writing, including a book calledThe Story of Writing by Andrew Robinson, which is a pretty good thing and there’s another, The History of Writing by Albertine Gaur, and then there is an ancient one (but it’s still great) by I.J. Gelb called The Study of Writing. It’s one of the really first great books on writing that I find tremendously useful. Regarding the study of language, Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct – even though I don’t agree with it I like it and I use it. On Writing, by Walter Ong, Morality and Literacy, by Eric Havelock, The Origins of Western Literacy – I still think that’s one of the great, fabulous books on the topic. And then on printing, Eisenstein’s good, two-volume history of printing, The Printing Press is an Agent of Change. Steinberg’s Five Hundred Years of Printing is a great book. Those are some of the best ones I know on that.

I don’t know if there is any single great book on the other stuff. Of course, in terms of overview, Marshall McLuhan – always. Harold Innis, another excellent Canadian – I still find his work just extraordinary and provocative, and worth thinking about. It’s rather helpful for trying to get the understanding of the whole. I’m just into books that I have been using lately to teach from and to use them with the students. One guy I left out is David Crystal. He’s got a book, How Language Works,andhe’s also the editor of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, which I find very useful. Another work – recommended to me by a friend of mine, Neil Hickey – is Paul Starr’s The Creation of the Media.

One of the things that I stress in my own thinking and in my teaching is that language is the basis of all language communication. So if you don’t understand language and how that developed and then how writing developed, and how that led to printing, then you don’t understand how the electronic stuff came along. This is the core of the thing. So one of the things that I do first with my students today is I ask them what they do with their smart phones. They talk into it, they take pictures with it, they text with it, they Tweet with it – and everyone one of those activities is connected to an earlier technology, and to language. So, I keep stressing that over and over again. So I guess in that sense, I left out somebody – and that is Socrates, in the great dialogue called Phaedrus, which influenced Walter Ong so much. That is one of the key documents of the difference between writing and speech. It is the first place where somebody noted that the structure of the medium makes a difference in what is going to happen.

I would tell inspiring professors to read – a lot. I sometimes think about it and when I give students a book or two books to read on a topic. I’ll have maybe 50 books on the topic, and of them I have chosen these one or two. Read widely but deeply so that you are well-read in an area. And in communications it’s a little difficult, because so many people become specialized. I’m not per se, since I am doing the histories of propaganda and communication – these are sweeping areas. It is very much in the Innis-McLuhan tradition of trying to understand it all. It’s hard to read it all; there is so much reading that you have to do. One of my T.A.s said to me yesterday when I was giving what we were going to do in this class, “That’s an awful a lot of anthropology, isn’t it?” And it is! But you know that’s what language is about. It’s about paleontology too, and it’s about ancient civilizations. It’s not enough, for example, to know that Egyptians developed hieroglyphs. You really have to know about the history of Egypt. So I may have read 50 books on the history and culture of Egypt, and the structures that way. Unless you inform yourself deeply, then whatever you say is just whatever you have happened to have read or assigned to the students – and that’s not very helpful.

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 could 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?

He was wrong. We tried. We tried in our own department to be interdisciplinary. We tried to have these interdisciplinary connections with other parts of the university. It fails for one reason – it’s back to the bureaucratic structure again. It fails because it gets in the way of money. This is true of private and public institutions in the United States. As you may know, even the public universities in America have to fund raise now; they have to raise a lot of money on their own. So, everybody’s into making money and then each department gets pressured by the Dean into making money. And they are not going to give up anything that gets in the way of their money-making, so all corporation always fails because who is going to control the money, who is going to get the money? I’ve tried here for 35 years with many colleagues from other schools and departments. We have tried to put these multidisciplinary things together, and even though sometimes they talk about knocking down what they call this silo of departments, the departments remain there, and that’s because we are held accountable. My department chair is held accountable for how much money we turn in and how much profit we make and how much we spend. It’s just like a business. And every time you do an interdisciplinary thing you weaken your financial base. It’s that simple. We used to have a lot more cooperation, but it was easier than. Now, it’s very hard to cross lines here, very hard. I absolutely believe in the interdisciplinary approach; in fact, our department was founded on that very idea. And we do practice it as best we can, we do try to get as much of that in there, and we do try to teach it to the students. We try to always have different ways of doing things, not just one way. To do that you need to understand communication, to understand anthropology, and sociology and history and philosophy and psychology. So the books we’ve used and the people we’ve used and the thinkers that we have brought in are always reflective of trying to extend that whole way of thinking. But, as I said, I think that McLuhan was wrong. He was talking in ‘64. There may have been a moment then when we were all talking like that, and we thought we could do it. But, we ran up against the bureaucracy.

I’ll give you a hard example. Somewhere about 25-30 years ago NYU was in the reign of a man I know as the best president we have ever had in this university, John Branamus. He did tremendous things for this university, and he encouraged a group of us from all over the university – multiple schools – to be on a telecommunications committee together. And a bunch of us from Arts and Sciences in the journalism department, from the law school, from the Tisch School of the Arts in Film and Television and Cinema Studies, and a couple of guys from the business school were doing marketing communication. And about ten of us got together and wrote a proposal to create a school of communication here at NYU, putting all of our departments together into a school where we would do this interdisciplinary study of communication. And they disbanded the committee because it threatened the income and prestige of five schools. It was that simple. My own department is the biggest money-maker in our school. It’s not the largest department, but we make the most profit. The Dean is never going to give us up. She would have a real big hole in her budget. She’d be in deficit. And that’s the truth. The same is true in arts and sciences, journalism – they are very profitable. In the Tisch School of the Arts, the Film and Television Department is their most prestigious. Nobody has ever heard of any of the other departments over there. This is the Hollywood Department. And nobody wants to deal with this sort of thing. The guy from the law school got so upset over this he resigned from NYU. It was a great idea – they asked us for an idea, we had a great idea, it was feasible, we showed them how to do it, wasn’t a big deal, but you know that’s what I mean. McLuhan did not consider the money and the bureaucracy enough.

In 2009, Francis Fukuyama wrote a controversial article for theWashington 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 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. What do you make of Fukuyama’s assertion and, in a nutshell, what is your own position about the academic tenure system?

Well, I’m old-fashioned; tenure is the only thing that protects the faculty from the administration. It’s not a great protection, but it’s the only one we have. Fukuyama’s position is exactly the same position as that of all administrators in all big universities: they would like to get rid of tenure, and they would like to have everybody on contract. First of all, it would lower their costs, but on top of that, they could do it two ways. As you get older and make more money, they could let you go and hire younger people to keep the overhead down. Secondly, you would have faculty that were totally under control of the administration. Even now with tenure, most faculty do not stand up to the university. They privately will be upset with something, but they are afraid to stand up because even with tenure, you can be punished in many ways. You don’t get as big of a raise, you don’t get the grants, you don’t get any extra support, you don’t get any recognition. I have a number of colleagues who were loggerheads of the administration and they simply get punished for it. Now, they are tenured and can’t be fired, but if they could fire them they would. Every university is trying to do this, simply because tenure costs. It’s really that simple. And it allows people to speak up to the president. I can stand up in a meeting and disagree with the president and he can’t fire me and he can’t demote me. But he could certainly make my life miserable if he wanted to. Which has to do with things like housing. We get subsidized housing here at NYU, and if they like you they give you a nicer place. If you give them a hard time they just don’t have to do it. So, I think Fukuyama is making a fortune, just so he can say that. But, I think that the tenure is at the core of the university. It’s the only thing that protects faculty – and it’s not even that strong, by the way.

The public universities in most states have unions, a very rigid kind of thing. Now some of the rigidity is not good, but at the same time, they are protected. You would have a harder time doing something to somebody. It’s very hard in a private university to prove bias, like let’s say a chairman didn’t like you. It’s hard because it’s judgment, but if I write a book and there is nothing to say that the people who read this say it is a good book, they could say well this is a pretty awful book, or it’s dumb, or whatever – they can say anything they want.

Media Ecology, Medium Theory, The Toronto School of Communication, Canadian Communication Theory… Is there a difference among these terms, in your view?

Lance Strate wrote an article about ten years ago at least wherein he talked about the three schools of media ecology – the Toronto School, which of course would have been Innis and McLuhan, the St. Louis School, which would be Walter J. Ong, and then the New York School, which was Postman and the rest of us here. He sort of grouped us all that way and yes – we share the same name. There has always been some argument about who first used the term “media ecology.” McLuhan used it and liked it, but we used it for the program and liked it for a long time. I still am a professor of media ecology here even though there is no program any longer. “Media theory” is something else. I always think that that smacks of Europe – the Germans, French, and other thinkers. But the Toronto School would have been very compatible with us. I don’t know about Canadian communication theory now. If you mean the classic stuff, then yes, we are all thinking the same thoughts and working toward it in the same of way. At the moment the name of department is Media, Culture, and Communication, which is not a bad name, given the sense of what we were trying to do. Postman used to say toward the end of his life that what we were really doing was contextual analysis. We were analyzing contexts, communication contexts, environments. He was always really strong with that environmental idea.

What do you make of the fact that the doctorate program at NYU no longer carries “media ecology” as its title? What do you see media ecology evolving into in the future?

It bothers me a great deal. I think it was one of the greatest errors ever made. It wasn’t that they had anything to replace it with; they just wanted to get rid of it. Partly because they think that the people who voted on this didn’t really understand it. They never committed themselves to it. In fact, they lied when they got their jobs. But it was a deliberate thing to wipe it out after Neil died. If Neil had lived, it wouldn’t have happened, if he were there. But I was out-voted. And they just did this thing and – I say this as analytically as possible – they haven’t found a core to replace it. So we have meetings every year wherein we try to find out where we are going and what are we doing. And all of their complaints, all of what’s wrong, is exactly what they caused by destroying media ecology, which wasn’t just the program’s way of thinking. It was a way of behaving with students. It’s that kind of congenial collegiality. And we used to fortify that with conferences wherein we would talk to our students as equals. This faculty didn’t want to do that any longer because they didn’t want to associate with students. They wanted to just deal with them as professor-student, not as equal thinkers. I think they made a tremendous error. The place is making a tremendous amount of money, but it was built on media ecology. We were the ones who designed the original doctoral program; we designed the undergraduate program, which now has 750 students who support the graduate programs. All of that came from media ecology. But there is no center now, there is no core, there is no direction. Every time we have these crazy meetings it’s the same issue –  they identify all of their problems, but they don’t see what the solution is, which is putting media ecology back into the program.

One of your areas of specialization is propaganda, both political and sociological. Has your approach to propaganda been informed by the media ecology tradition in any way? How can these two areas of scholarly research/inquiry inform one another?

Oh, totally. I learned propaganda analysis from George Gordon, and one of his inspirations was Jacques Ellul, and his great book on propaganda, Technological Society. Ellul’s Technological Society was one of the basic texts of the media ecology program. He was our way of looking at technology. He has a very McLuhanesque view of it – that the medium is the message, the technology is the message. Alewell is my guide in this whole thing. Of everything I have read of the history of propaganda, from ancient time until now – and I read hundreds of books on it – Ellul is still to me the best guide, and I still use his books every year in my propaganda classes. Ellul was a modelistic sociologist, but he is all over the place – not a rigid fellow. And the two books Propaganda and The Technological Society are part of what we saw as the foundations to what we were doing. We were using Lewis Mumford as well, On Technology, but he seems a little out of date now. Essentially Ellul’s argument is the same as McLuhan’s: that the medium is the message because, he argues, the content of propaganda doesn’t matter. It’s the structure that does. And whether you are selling democracy or totalitarianism, Nazism or communism, the structure is the same; you produce the same kind of thinking and behaving person – someone who is not an independent thinker. I think he says somewhere that a person can do a lot of things with propaganda, but that person can’t make a democratic person. He also said that all you do is wind up getting a storm trooper spouting democratic slogans. And that is so clearly McLuhanesque.

What are you currently working on?

My editor thinks – and she is pushing me on this – I’m trying to write a book on analyzing propaganda. I want it to be media ecological approach. And I have been troubled by it. Because I have been teaching it for a long time, and have taught it in different ways, I just can’t figure out which way to do the book at the moment. I’m trying to break out of my historical bias, and do it in another, more thematic way. And until I can get that idea crystalized, I can’t go ahead with it/ My hope is that I will figure it out sometime this semester and get started over the holidays on the book and finally get it written within the next 6-8 months.

Any final thoughts?

Just the totality of all of it. I was very fortunate in that I was first trained as an English scholar. I learned how to read critically and I also learned about language and the structures and semantics of language. I thought that was a tremendous background for me. If you know how to decode literature, you can decode anything. You are used to looking at symbols and structure and figuring out how they work. You are taught to be analytic at all times. And especially, I was lucky enough to study in the department that was influenced by a woman named Louise Rosenblatt – she wrote a very important book back in the ‘30s calledLiterature’s Exploration. Essentially, Louis’ theory was that literature was not a text; it was an experience. What she was interested in was the relationship between the reader and the text, and why people were making meanings, what kind of meanings readers were making out of a text, and why? What influenced that, and how do you do it? Your question wasn’t what is Hamlet’s motivation, the question becomes, “well how do you react to Hamlet, what do you think his motivation is, and why do you think that?” It becomes something about you, and I have always thought that that was quite useful.

And there is one other thing, the other end of it – the writing. One of the things that Postman did was he wrote so clearly. He used to say if you can’t figure it out, then you don’t know what you are talking about. No tolerance for these very arcane, convoluted discussions, like how some of the theorists do; they twist it. I like clear writing, absolutely clear writing. Some people think that McLuhan is not writing clearly. But he is if you know what he’s read. That was the thing too. I guess we were really privileged to have had an English background because we knew what McLuhan was talking about, we knew what his references were. He didn’t like to explain where they came from, but they were there. He’d be tossing in all these things from Finnegan’s Wake. If you knew Finnegan’s Wake, then you knew what he was talking about, but if you didn’t, you thought it was gibberish. I truly treasure the quality of writing. I like writers who are very clear in what they are writing about, and get to the point. I try to teach that to my students too, to be as honest as you can, and if you understand it, tell the people what it is about.

©  Excerpts and links may be used provided that full and clear credit is given to Terrence P. Moran
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Cirucci, A. (2012). “A Conversation with Terrence P. Moran,” Figure/Ground. October 26th.
< http://figureground.org/interview-with-terrence-p-moran/ >

Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at ralonlaureano@gmail.com




Interview with Miriam Posner

© Miriam Posner and Figure/Ground
Dr. Posner was interviewed by Justin Dowdall. October 8th, 2012.

Dr. Miriam Posner coordinates and teaches in the Digital Humanities program at the University of California, Los Angeles. When she is not teaching, strategizing, or working with students, she’s writing a book on medical filmmaking about the way doctors have used film to make sense of the human body. Her Ph.D. from Yale University is in Film Studies and American Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her partner and their dog.

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

No, I never really set out to be a university professor. I went to grad school for reasons that now seem to me really naïve (but which I suspect are actually not that uncommon): I liked college, I was good at it, I had nothing else in particular to do, and it seemed glamorous to me to get paid to read and write. I imagined that being a professor would be one possible outcome, but that never seemed like the inevitable, or even most desirable, choice. I was 23; what can I say?

It didn’t take long before I saw that many of my colleagues at Yale had their sights set firmly on the tenure-track, and I came to understand that my priorities weren’t the same as everyone else’s. I loved the work I did in grad school, and I learned about beautiful, life-changing things, but I still didn’t feel that being a professor was necessarily the right choice for me. I often felt isolated. Academic protocol sometimes frustrated and confused me. I took little pleasure in the performance of scholarship at conferences and lectures. Much as I loved the ideas, I was exhausted at the jockeying for position and obsessive credential-measuring. I held a number of jobs and internships in grad school — most notably at a museum and at an instructional technology group — and was delighted to discover that I could find intellectual fulfillment in something other than traditional academic work. I wanted, then and now, to do something challenging, intellectual, fun, that made use of my Ph.D. and was basically good for the world. I never felt like “professor” was the only job that matched that description.

Nevertheless, it was personally important to me to go on the academic job market, so that I never felt I was consigned to a different path out of necessity. I ended up with a choice between two postdocs: one a more conventional academic job, and the other a sort of hybrid job, in which I’d help to build a new digital humanities center. This was a great outcome for me, because it gave me a chance to really think through what, in the long run, would make me happy. After a lot of soul-searching, I took the digital humanities postdoc, and ended up very glad that I did.

About a year ago, this job at UCLA surfaced, and it seemed right for me for a lot of reasons. I teach a course per quarter, do my own research, and am considered a member of the core faculty of UCLA’s Digital Humanities program. But I also do a lot of other stuff I find interesting: building the program, counseling students, collaborating on projects, planning events, wrangling for funding. This kind of job wouldn’t be for everyone, but I really love the combination of hands-on and intellectual work.

Who were some of your mentors in university and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them? 

I was fortunate to have two wonderful dissertation advisers: Charlie Musser, in the Film department, and John Harley Warner, in History of Medicine. They’re very different people, but they worked together beautifully, and I always felt well-supported. Charlie taught me a lot about doing one’s homework and avoiding shortcuts in historical work. The insights Charlie’s known for — about the intermediality of early film, for example — he gleaned from reading trade magazines and newspapers obsessively. It wasn’t magic; it was diligence. John Warner is really wonderful about seeing (and encouraging me to see) both the details and the larger historiographic picture. He also takes risks with sources and disciplines, and inspired me to do so as well. They both taught me a lot, too, about being both an academic and a real, decent human being.

In your experience, how did the role of university professor “evolve” since you were an undergraduate student?

That’s a difficult question to answer, because I wasn’t really privy to what was going on in my professors’ lives when I was an undergrad. Clearly, different kinds of technology have become important within the classroom, and I’ve become very involved in some of these technologies. But I don’t actually see the arrival of new technology as itself constituting a fundamental change in the role of the professor. My best professors always did what I hope technology helps us do in the classroom; that is, engage students deeply, empower them to take charge of the conversation, honor different students’ various entry points, and give them tools to continue discussion and thought outside of the classroom. There are many ways to do this, with and without technology.

In my mind, the more drastic change has been to the working conditions of many of the professors students come into contact with. (This change was underway while I was an undergrad, but I was shielded from awareness of it.) Remember that about 70% of the people who teach at universities do so off the tenure track. And many of them teach under conditions that would shock their students. This is really astounding, a sea change in the composition of academic labor. We can opine at length about the place of intellectual labor in today’s society, about the decline in popular respect for expert knowledge — but the fact is that the people who are most deeply affected by these changes often don’t have the luxury of participating in these discussions, because they’re cobbling together a livelihood from four different teaching gigs.

What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by attention deficit and information overload?

You know, when I hear arguments that young people today are drastically different from their forebears, or that millennials just can’t relate to olden-days technologies like writing and reading, I frankly tend to tune out. I think that these kinds of generalizations elide all kinds of complexity and nuance in the ways that young people think about and use technology. These students are, after all, complex human beings, with backgrounds, agendas, priorities, and feelings that are as diverse and complicated as anyone else’s. Scorched-earth proclamations about “kids today” are for TED talks, not for interacting with actual human beings.

Of course, cultures change, and we now see students who interact with technology in ways that might be unfamiliar to older people. But my guiding principle in the classroom is pretty simple: people are interested in other people; they always have been, and they always will be. A classroom is a naturally charged atmosphere. Students are interested in and want to engage with each other. They want to try out ideas on, impress, even flirt with the student sitting across from them — or the student on the message board. They enjoy working things out together. I like to be attuned to and mobilize these very human characteristics, whether it’s in person or remotely. Little things like a laugh, a gesture, a moment of grandstanding: these are absolutely key dynamics in a classroom. They create drama and excitement, the same things that interest anyone in anything.

Finally, I assume my students are curious, intelligent, empathetic people who can demonstrate respect for each other, appreciate ideas, and carry on a high-level conversation, and I treat them that way. I’ve never been disappointed.

What advice would you give to aspiring university professors and what are some of the texts young scholars should be reading today?

If you’re an aspiring university professor, you need to understand the way the academy works, and particularly the ways that it’s changing right now. We all need to be aware that what we persist in calling the “job market” is really a game of musical chairs masquerading as a meritocracy.

When you’re a grad student (or at least when I was a grad student), it can be easy to absorb the value system that prevails in much of the academy: that we mustn’t share our scholarship openly, that publishing is more important than anything else in the world, that the academy has a monopoly on wisdom, that a tenure-track professor is the only thing to aspire to be, that those of our friends who don’t hold these jobs have somehow failed. Adhering too closely to these values makes us risk-averse, short-sighted, limited. We become paranoid, anxious, and, I would argue, too fearful to speak out against the ways that the academy is failing its mission.

On the one hand, it seems cruel to tell a junior scholar to do the risky thing — to share your sources, write a crazy dissertation, do a digital project, publish your stuff somewhere nontraditional — because the onus for change should not fall upon the most professionally vulnerable scholars. On the other hand, I also worry when I encounter grad students who study job-advice manuals like scripture, because I’ve seen too many smart, hardworking, passionate people, who’ve dutifully followed all the rules, get washed up on the rocks.

So I say, do what you’re passionate about; know that you are more, and more important, than your CV; and give the Chronicle advice columns a wide berth. We should take joy in our ideas and intellect, not limit them to please a short-sighted notion of what the academy might be.

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 could 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?

Well, the university is always and has always been in crisis. “The university in crisis” has long been a way to justify profound, far-reaching, often damaging alterations in the configuration of the academy, such as the casualization of academic labor, the shuttering of academic departments, and the rising cost of tuition.

I do not lose sleep at night worrying about the effect of the “age of information” on the university. We exist to try to make sense of the world; a surfeit of information just makes our job more important. Will Wikipedia or “massive, open, online courses” like Udacity and Coursera put the university out of business? I don’t think so. Universities are, among other things, prestige-machines. For better or worse, they have a crucial function in endowing their graduates with cultural capital.

do lose sleep when I think about some of the economic forces shaping the university today, particularly the drive toward privatization, the increasing unaffordability of college education, and skyrocketing student-loan debt. These factors constitute a crisis, not for the university, which is, after all, an abstract entity, but to the people to whom the university should be accountable.

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. What do you make of Fukuyama’s assertion and, in a nutshell, what is your own position about the academic tenure system? 


I agree with Fukuyama that scholars are often too risk-averse, but I disagree that the tenure system is to blame. On the contrary, I’d blame the lack of tenure-track jobs, or at least the lack of secure, decently paid academic jobs. Scholars of my generation often live in situations of extreme financial precarity. Many of us are saddled with debt, living paycheck to paycheck, and keenly aware that achieving tenure is a rarity. In this situation, who could blame an untenured scholar for not taking audacious risks?

I confess to frustration that tenured scholars don’t speak up for their more vulnerable colleagues more often. Many do, of course, but not as many as I’d like. My guess, though, is that this reticence is a symptom of the same problem that afflicts untenured academics: people are tired, they’re strung out, they’re doing the best they can, and they’re fighting battles on a lot of different fronts. Moreover, as I’ve said, a lot of us have absorbed a value system that condemns the less fortunate, or people who’ve made different choices, as incompetent.

Nevertheless, if you look at someone like Siva Vaidhyanathan, who spoke outagain and again when Teresa Sullivan was pushed out of the University of Virginia — that’s why tenure exists, and you could argue that it’s more important in this period of academic retrenchment than ever. I just wish we saw more of that.

I’ve heard many people say that the death knell for tenure has already sounded. I don’t claim to know, but if that’s the case, it’s more important than ever that we look at the way that the majority of professors are actually working, in these poorly paid, contingent jobs, and recognize that these conditions are unconscionable.

In an age when information is coming at us in all directions (i.e. wikis, blogs and prosumer content), it seems that the line between truth and opinion is often blurred. How do you see the study and practice of Digital humanities functioning in helping us better understand collective intelligence, and furthermore, do you believe that we are moving towards a future society that has a better ability to validate and define truth?

Well, I’m a digital humanist, it’s true, but I’m also a historian, and like any historian, I’m suspicious of anything that sounds like teleology, or any straightforward notion of historical progress. Our culture is changing, our relationships with each other and with technology are changing, but we’re not evolving toward anything in particular; we’re doing our best to make sense of a complicated world, just as we always have.

So why engage in digital humanities if I don’t think it’s going to lead us to any kind of higher plane? For the same reason anyone studies anything: because it’s interesting, because there’s beauty in it, because it helps me understand the world. One mistake that people often make about digital humanities (one that I made myself when I first encountered it) is to assume that the field has a more naïve understanding of truth than, say, history or literature. When you see people getting excited about big numbers, computer analytics, and datasets, it can be easy to assume that they think they’re uncovering objective truth. Not so. The excitement that accompanies a digital humanities “discovery” comes from finding a new angle on a humanities question, a new way to think about a body of work. The seduction of digital humanities is not about ceding authority to a computer; it’s about the productive friction of a humanities question — which is inherently irresolvable — against a different kind of logic entirely. Given that both these epistemologies govern our lives, how do we begin to resolve their differences?

Ian Foster in his article “how computation changes research” states “Every field of research may be changed by computation in two distinct ways: first, computation enables broader access to both raw material and research products, and second, computation enables new research approaches based on computer modeling, data analysis, and massive collaboration”. He further suggests that, “in the case of the humanities, computation also has the potential to transform research in a third way, namely changing how humans communicate, work, and play, and thus-to some extent-what makes us human.” Do you agree or disagree with Foster analysis?  

As you can probably tell, I’m not generally one for wide-ranging forecasts about the human condition. I don’t believe in technological determinism, although I do believe that technology can have unforeseen implications in the way we live our lives. If we’re changing the way we communicate with each other, if we’re becoming different kinds of human beings, I’d ask, “What’s driving this?” Technology might be enabling these changes, but it’s not magical; it’s a tool. We’re at a cultural moment where things like iPhones and Facebook have prominence; why is this? Could it have to do with the kinds of behavior are economy rewards? With the increased value we ascribe to certain kinds of information? These kinds of explanations are more persuasive to me than imbuing technology with a mind of its own.

I was wondering if you could talk a bit about some new projects/research coming out of the nexus of technology, medicine and the arts that have recently excited you?

You know, the area you’re pointing to is, I think, still developing, but it has a lot of potential. For example, I’ve been closely following the development of FemBot, a network of feminist scholars in technology, media, art, and sciences. Feminism is what initially drew me to the history of medicine — I was fascinated to learn about all the different ways the body could be interpreted — and I’m excited to see what happens as FemBot develops. I also noted with interest that the National Endowment for the Humanities Office of Digital Humanities has begun apartnership with the National Library of Medicine, and I’m very curious to see what emerges from that. I think the Medical Museion, at the University of Copenhagen, has been doing some really interesting work that highlights and interrogates medicine’s natural kinship with technologies of display. And Barbara Maria Stafford, whose work I really admire, is up to something intriguing, looking at the connections between neuroscience, cognitive science, and the humanities.

What are you currently working on?

I’ve got a few things on my plate. I’m writing a book on medical filmmaking, in which I look at the ways that physicians have used film to make the human body legible. It turns out that filming the anatomical body is incredibly hard to do — things are too bloody, too messy, too dark — plus, how do you convey a process like circulation on a live body? Physicians have turned to this incredible array of assistive devices, like special effects, animation, and dissection, to capture what “should” be self-evident. I talk about why film helps us see how narrative plays a key role in helping us understand our bodies as coherent and manageable.

I’m also very interested in medical ways of knowing, a topic I grew interested in while I was researching the lobotomist Walter Freeman. I was fascinated to see how his clinical logic (which relied heavily on visual evidence) proceeded step by step, until it reached its logical conclusion, lobotomy. I think technology might help us explore questions of epistemology in interesting ways, and so I’ve been thinking about what might happen if we used unusual, nonlinear interfaces to explore the history of medicine. Working with photos of Freeman’s lobotomized patients also got me thinking a lot about the ethics of medical images, and about how to reclaim the individual histories of these people. So I’ve been thinking a lot about what kinds of interfaces and projects might help us to do that.

I’m writing three different articles (sort of) at the same time. One is on the place of feminism in digital humanities, which is an area that digital humanities is struggling with right now. Another is on the World War I anti-prostitution film The End of the Road, and the way that it posits various kinds of sexual commodification. And I’m also working on a piece about how libraries can support digital humanities scholarship.

And then, of course, I’m working on a lot of things here at UCLA aside from my own scholarship. We’re developing and refining our curriculum for teaching digital humanities here, and it’s been really fun to experiment with pedagogy. We have really wonderful, adventurous students, and we’ve had great success running the classroom as a studio: assigning them novel problems and watching them solve them together. I’m also really interested in administrative questions that might seem boring, but which I find really interesting: How do we sustain and scale a program like this in the long term? How do we indulge our students’ excitement and desire to learn, given our limited resources? Can we build a program in which students feel truly supported? How do we ensure that our students are truly grappling with humanities questions in their digital work?

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© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Miriam Posner
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Suggested citation:

Dowdall, J. (2012). “Interview with Miriam Posner,” Figure/Ground. October 8th.
<  http://figureground.org/interview-with-john-lysaker/  >


Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at ralonlaureano@gmail.com