Interview with Brian Cogan


© Brian Cogan and Figure/Ground
Dr. Cogan was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. December 30th, 2012.

Dr. Brian Cogan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communications at Molloy College in Long Island, New York.  He is the author, co-author and co-editor of numerous books, articles and anthologies on popular culture, music and the media.  His specific areas of research interest are media studies, music, fandom, punk rock, popular culture, comic books, graphic novels, and the intersection of politics and popular culture.  He is the author of The Punk Rock Encyclopedia (Sterling 2008), co-author with Tony Kelso of The Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, Media and Politics (Greenwood Press 2009) as well as co-editor with Tony Kelso of Mosh the Polls: Youth Voters, Popular Culture, and Democratic Engagement (Lexington 2008), which is about youth culture and political involvement.  Dr. Cogan is also the co-author, along with William Phillips, of the Encyclopedia of Heavy Metal Music (Greenwood Press 2009), and is the editor of a forthcoming collection of essays on the popular television show South Park (Lexington 2011).  He is also the co-author/editor of two forthcoming books in 2013, Baby Boomers and Popular CultureAn Inquiry into America’s Most Powerful Generation  (Co-edited with Thomas Gencarelli) 2 Volumes Praeger Books (2013) and Everything I Ever Needed to Know About _____________* I Learned from Monty Python” *Including History, Art, Poetry, Communism, Philosophy, the Media, Birth, Death, Religion, Literature, Latin, Transvestites, Botany, the French, Class Systems, Mythology, Fish Slapping, and many more! (Co-written with Jeffrey Massey) St. Martins Press (2013)

Was it a conscious choice on your part to become a university professor?

No! I could not have imagined ever teaching back then, much less at the college level. I wanted to work in film or video production and/or music and did that for a good portion of my life, and still do outside of academia even to this day. When I was in college, I imagine that I had no real idea what it was that professors didoutside of teach. I had no idea about research or service and I also wonder looking back how much preparation some of my professors had even put into coursework. It just seemed as though the best of them knew the topics, but there were always some that didn’t seem to go far beyond the textbook. Even back then, you could tell the ones that had passion for their work. They were the ones that could surprise you with their questions.

Back then I also had no idea of academic publications and while now it seems apparent in retrospect which ones had tenure, publications, etc., I didn’t know it then.  Maybe I had seen too many old “inspiring teacher” movies, but I think I had a romanticized notion that class was only the start of the learning experience and that professors would be more like mentors and take the students out after class and we would while away our hours on esoteric subjects. It rarely happened. There was a professor in the English Department that seemed to want to talk to us outside of class, but he was the only one. I hate to say it, but when they raised the drinking age to 21, it took some of the fun out of the concept of the mentoring system. Due to liability issues, professors were increasingly scared to fraternize with students, and students who wanted to drink chose (or were forced) to binge drink when they could get their hands on the stuff. In the rare occasions were we did talk to faculty in adult settings; we were too scared to get even tipsy. The ones that took interest in us and wanted to see what made us tick we desperately wanted to impress. I think something is lost now that you have to strive to recreate. The sense that now as a professor you are not there to lecture (I almost never lecture for more than a few minutes at a time), but to build some sort of intellectual curiosity in the students. To create a community where this activity is naturalized.  I still maintain that not all schools are trade schools, and that most academic subjects exist to ask students to think, as opposed to teaching them a set of specific technical skills. They can train mice to do a variety of jobs, but not to think. I actually became a grad student almost by accident. I was lucky enough to work for a school that provided tuition remission, and decided that my brain had atrophied enough and that grad school was a good idea. I loved it, the debates, the books, and the sense of history. I never looked back.

Who were some of your mentors in university and what did you learn from them?

I was very, very fortunate to be in specific place; NYU in the Media Ecology Department, at a specific time period when someone like me was considered a good match. The school and its focus have changed since then, and I’m not sure they would have wanted the scruffy bearded long haired Brian of that time period who argued that being careful about language was important. It’s funny; I had worked in film production and come from the punk scene and both of those made me a natural skeptic during the boom in technological utopianism.  I honestly feel that the whole Wired magazine mentality that permeated the early nineties is still alive and well, only now the optimistic focus is on social media. I think media is a wonderful agent for change (a lot of my work is abut that) but until I came to NYU I had never encountered a rigorous program that examined technological change with that kind of skeptical attitude. Many people will tell you that back then it was an intellectual boot camp especially under the guidance of Terence Moran, but it sparked such lively, such open and engaging debate, with a real sense of collegiality that I couldn’t help but respond. At NYU I met Neil Postman who was my Thesis and Dissertation advisor and who became one of the major influences on my life, but almost everyone there was a mentor. There was Jonathan Zimmerman, a Professor of Education and History and Director of the History of Education Program, at Steinhardt, who is not only a wonderful man, but also a top-notch person to discuss shifting notions of historiography with to this day. But even outside of the full time faculty, I was always meeting people like Lance Strate, who was teaching the class From Cave Painting to Print that really got me excited abut media history and he has been a big influence since then. Sal Fallica also was an enormous influence on my continued work in school, and he was one of the first to bring us out after class for coffee to keep the conversation going. Still a treasured friend. The big three, Postman, Moran and Nystrom, were all intimidating in their own way, but I think the reason I got along with Neil so well was his natural sense of the absurdity of the world. That’s why we relentlessly made fun of the more absurd extremes of postmodernism, it was not from ideological difference, but about careless use of language to obfusticate instead of illuminate. Neil told me that he wrote books his 99-year-old mother could understand. To this day, I think while we work on complex theoretical issues, unless there is a practical application we are just circling the wagons. Any good we do as teachers and writers is how it helps other people.

There is one other person, who I never took a class with at NYU that is probably the most influential on my career or anyone. I was privileged enough to know the wonderful, witty and wise Janet Sternberg from my days there, and I would not have continued with my studies without her encouragement. She told me I could move on to the doctoral program, and in a wave of exuberance, I agreed with her much inflated opinion of me, anything I’ve done since then is thanks to Janet in many ways. I was also really lucky to be part of a cohort that was mutually supportive, I know now that that’s not always the case, but working with Mike Grabowski, Laura Tropp, Lila Bauman, Marco Calvita and a bunch of others before and after led to a really open and inviting atmosphere where people listened to our ideas seriously. While the faculty did try and guide us, they almost never tried to remake us in their own image. I just remember such a sense of freedom and excitement about those years, also being broke and eating ramen, but that’s par for the course.

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

Where to begin? I talk to colleagues across the country and one thing I keep hearing is this sense of both sadness and anger that they are called upon to defend their discipline on a consistent basis. At national conferences and in editorials, I keep hearing the same thing, that academic freedom is under siege and it’s not just the usual political battles we’re all used to fighting, but it has turned to justifying why we teach the way we do and why we have the unusual temerity to ask people’s children to take classes that do not always have any concrete connection to a specific job path. The old view of college as a liminal space for experimentation and growth is under attack, by people (sometimes for good reason) who are worried about their kids getting work after graduation, but also from various interest groups who demand accountability. I have no problem with the idea of accountability, everyone is accountable for their actions in any profession, and there are enough professors out there who haven’t changed their lesson plans in years, but when we are told by corporate funded  groups that the only value in education is directly tied to economic value, it gets depressing. How much inherent economic value should we assign to Wordsworth? To Keats? To Kundera? To Joyce? To Plato? To McLuhan?  I’ve been trying to say this for years with little success, but we can train a cat or a monkey to do many jobs, but we can never train them to think.  At our best, we are trying to get students (and yes, I am a romantic) to live every moment of their lives in full, to not settle and to try and, like the unknown cave painters in Lascaux and elsewhere, to give some indication that they lived during a certain time period, and loved and laughed and danced and questioned every moment.

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?

I’ve recently been using a metaphor that is helpful (to me at least) in understanding the mind of a college student. Of course they are going to reach for their phones during class. To them it’s a lot more natural an activity to them than sitting in a classroom for an hour and a half or three hours.  I think even without the arguments regarding rewiring the brain in The Shallows and Proust and the Squid (which I think are pretty sound) what we are seeing is not just a desire for connection, but an ingrained habit. One that in many cases they actually do not enjoy. What many of them are doing is essentially smoking. When I say smoking I do no mean literally smoking cigarettes, but that their behavioral patterns are too reminiscent of a long time smokers to ignore. When bars and restaurants allowed smoking, the first time someone you were conversing with smoked a cigarette, they would usually ask out of courtesy of you minded if they smoked. They never did this for the second, third or fiftieth cigarette. They were no longer looking for a nicotine fix or immediate pleasure, the rest of their cigarettes were just reflexive habit, and in some ways, sad reminders that they were no longer getting pleasure out of what they were doing. They were just maintaining. I used to be annoyed by students checking their phones, now I try and call attention to their behavior, to ask them what they are doing, and why they think they are doing it.  I like to say, because I am endlessly curious, that I study the meaning making process. I like to know that kinds of pleasure or uses people are getting out of constantly checking their phones. How much of this is about connectivity or instantaneous connection or new ways of looking at the world? I’m still thinking about. But, one thing that grounds me is the fact that people use different artifacts, whether it’s music, art, ritual, culture, etc., that they use to give their lives meaning, what gets them through the day. This is consistent human symbolic behavior. What is interesting is that I keep finding how important distraction is to being a human. Not that distractions and entertainment aren’t useful, but it seems to me that the consistency of he grand narratives that used to give people’s lives meaning such as religion and ideology are consistently being replaced by distraction. It keeps coming back to Postman for me.

I’ve been at countless meetings at my school, about changing assignments, about stressing writing intensive classes, etc and those are good ideas, but they miss a fundamental point that I keep going back to in meeting, after meeting. These students are NOT miniature versions of us, whether through neural rewiring or through acculturization, they do not think like us anymore. If you start studying students as more akin to Martian teens that look a lot like us, then you get closer, but don’t expect an eighteen year old to think the way you did when you were that age. This is a completely new generation, with a radically different technological environment with a radically new mindset. To me (and most likely to many people reading this interview) our role is not longer to simply teach atthem, but then again we knew that at least since the sixties. Our role is to ask them to try and understand their environment, to even notice that they even havedifferent environments that surround them. That’s when we can start to get some real work done.

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?

As a long time member of the punk rock community, I have an inbred suspicion of seminal texts or institutions. I think some of my tendencies are to simply ask “Why?” over and over again, but despite that some things keep me going, mostly works that either challenged dominant paradigms or spoke about things that no one else was talking about before, some books, not all about media per se, that I keep coming back to are:

The Society of the Spectacle-Debord

Amusing Ourselves to Death-Postman

You are not a Gadget-Lanier

The Joke- Kundera

Subculture: The Meaning of Style– Hebdige

Dubliners– Joyce

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life –Goffman

Understanding Comics– McCloud

Our Band Could be Your Life– Azerrad

Watchmen– Moore

And almost anything by McLuhan, Innis, Ong, Carpenter, Mumford, MacDonald, Tolkien, Joyce, Thurber, but reading wildly (and widely) and reading fiction as much as critical analysis is always a good idea. I really do think there is something to be said about making lists of works you’ve read, mean to read, etc. The act of consistent reading is one thing I believe is vital. The one thing I think is vital to being a human being is the simple strange act of fetishsizing books. Walter Benjamin wrote about this and even the simple pleasure of looking at your books not because they are first editions and valuable, but because they are old and trusted friends and that each one made you a new person with every page.  I know I’m a print oriented person and I’m rather proud of that. I’ve been joking for years that my tombstone should read, “One. More. Book.” And I’m not sure if I’m even really joking at this point. I use as much social media as most of my contemporaries and my current TV is the largest I’ve ever had in my life, but I will argue until the day I need that tombstone that there is something so inherentlyuseful in print based culture that to throw it out and start over because of enthusiasm, usually created by people with a vested interest in the propagation of new technologies, seems both short-sighted and irrational.

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 sub-discipline. 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. Do you agree with the author? What are your arguments for or against academic tenure?

I’m very much against writing in jargon. I think it’s the bane of academic writing and most academic writing that chooses to use jargon over substance is bound not only to give academics a reputation as obtuse and vague, but does nothing to affect ordinary people’s lives, which is the main point of writing anything for the public.

With that in mind though, I am very much pro-tenure. I have tenure at my institution and it does not only guard against having controversial positions, but also allows us to be more effective in terms of intellectual risks. There are people who abuse the system, much as any other system can be abused, but tenure itself (which by the way, does not guarantee continued employment, only due process) is not the problem. The problem is that jargon is the norm in most fields. Has anyone read a law journal recently?  Or a business journal? Even a mechanic uses specialized knowledge when talking about why you need to pay several thousand dollars for a new part for your car that you cannot even see. But while these specialized languages can be used to maintain hierarchies (look at what Harold Innis had to say about that topic), they are also used (at their best) because a specialized language is often required for complex subjects. But that is a separate topic from tenure. As I mentioned earlier, the institution of tenure is under attack across the nation, much as unions are under attack, because certain groups of intellectuals, usually with their own agenda, believe that there is something disturbing about what I see as basic job protection. I am appalled by a national infatuation with teachers on all levels as “fat cats” who don’t work as long or as hard as other professions. Teaching is a noble and extremely difficult job to do well. Every good teacher knows how coming into work slightly sick, or distracted, or low on energy, can completely throw a class off.  To ask people who spend a lot longer than a forty hour week working in classes, grading and rewriting lesson plans, not to mention publishing potentially controversial articles to give up the basic protection against summarily being fired, is to ask the most adventurous and most controversial and inquisitive members of that profession to leave the public conversation. And if this keeps up, believe me, they will leave the conversation.

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?

When has the university not been in crisis? While that’s an easy and glib joke to make, there is some truth in it. No matter what institutions and methods we have used as humans to guide and shape the minds of the young, there have been people who questioned those methodologies and educational environments. That’s a healthy thing to do. There are no institutions that humans create that do not have inherent fallibilities and need to be reassessed. But when we spend more time defending the value of what we do, than actually doing it, it becomes difficult to continue the project. The reaction of many people is to look at a new technology and ask, how can we use this to keep the university afloat, and in many ways that’s fine. But, I also think there is a rush to use new technologies for their own sake as opposed to asking questions as to what kind of new environments and mindsets are being formed while using these new technologies. I love the idea of doing classes and programs in “New Media,” but without a sound theoretical foundation and reading skeptics (from Ellul to Lanier) you risk the same mistake a lot of companies made during the bubble. “Wow, this stuff is so cool! Wired magazine says this is the next big thing!” I think that media critics could really examine the music industry and the rise and fall of its machinery over the last few decades and apply those lessons to academia.

What attracted you to media ecology?

I think one of the things that attracted me to the school of thought wasnot just the professors and colleagues I mentioned earlier, but how different it was than other approaches.  It seemed to speak to my punk sensibility that encouraged people to create their own worldview. I know that media ecology gets some static from people who (not having read much of it usually) dismiss it as not having a specific methodology. I think a lot of the social sciences are infatuated with quantitative research and with certain exceptions I don’t buy into much of it (it gets into too much of “four out of five dentists surveyed…” field for my tastes). I think when I first read Neil Postman’s article “Social Science as Moral Theology” where he essentially said that all “social scientists” are essentially commenting on the nature of human life. I think that he was right, and like McLuhan, was enamored not of “proving” anything, but of throwing contentious ideas out there for public discussion. On the other hand, I think that the idea of the “hardening of the categories” is implicit in our field as well as almost any other today. (Try getting a reasonable answer from an insurance company over the phone!) Media Ecology, along with cultural critical studies and subcultural studies and  lot of other fields that some others and I use for our work allow us to ask the right questions.

You’ve just finished editing a collection of essays about the television show South Park (Lexington Press 2012). What attracted you to South Park and what schools of thought informed your examination of this text?

South Park was always a favorite of mine because it was unlike almost anything else on television when it came out in terms of its severely deconstructive tendencies. It was so self aware (although not as far or as intertextual as Family Guy), but also really a compelling look at what seemed to be (in some ways) very realistic little kids with real life problems living in a small town and Parker and Stone were masters at what the Irish call “Taking the piss” out of someone.  They took no prisoners and in light of today’s postmodern televisual landscape, it’s hard to recall just how revolutionary they were when they premiered. I didn’t come up with the idea for the anthology, another colleague who had to leave the project did, but I organized and edited it and shaped the vision, which was that South Park was just as open to intellectual critique as some of the great works of literary art. I wanted in particular not to just approach South Park in terms of television studies, but to have the contributors address it with all the seriousness that works of popular culture from the past are examined now. I’m a proud member of the Popular Culture Association as well, and really think that there is northing too “silly” to be studied seriously. But then again one of my next books is about Monty Python’s Flying Circus, so that’s a pretty good indicator of my mindset.

What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a variety of projects, a bunch of book chapters, some articles, some non-academic work and over the few two years I’m the co-author or co-editor of two forthcoming books in 2013, Baby Boomers and Popular CultureAn Inquiry into America’s Most Powerful Generation  (co-edited with Thomas Gencarelli) and Everything I Ever Needed to Know About _____________* I Learned from Monty Python” *Including History, Art, Poetry, Communism, Philosophy, the Media, Birth, Death, Religion, Literature, Latin, Transvestites, Botany, the French, Class Systems, Mythology, Fish Slapping, and many more!(Co-written with Jeffrey Massey, St. Martins Press) which is probably the silliest title of any of my books that are out so far. I’ve still got some ideas for more punk related work and am hoping to work on a book about superheroes soon, fingers crossed.  Part of why I write is that I’m a natural contrarian and in graduate school one of the first things I was told by a major figure at NYU was that, “you can write on any topic you want for the dissertation. Well, not something like Batman” and I spent the next few years thinking, well, why not?  I think any project I work on in the future will try and incorporate my personal ethics, which revolves around community building, mutual respect, charity, mutual reciprocity, mentoring and questioning authority for its own sake. I have a great quote by Joe Strummer that more or less sums up my worldview,  Strummer said, “Authority is supposedly grounded in wisdom. But I could see from a very early age that authority was only a system of control, and it didn’t have any inherent wisdom.” I don’t think that’s very far from Neil Postman asking “what is the problem that this (new technology) is the solution to?” Life is all about asking the right questions and not accepting the environment we live in as natural or necessarily healthy. To paraphrase Kafka, you won’t ever get an answer until you ask.

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

Suggested citation:

Ralon, L. (2012). “Interview with Brian Cogan,” Figure/Ground. December 30th.
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