Interview with Casey Lum

© Casey Man Kong Lum and Figure/Ground
Dr. Lum was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. February 16th, 2011.*

Casey Man Kong Lum is Professor and Director of the M. A. in Professional Communication Program in the Department of Communication at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, USA. He was one of the five founders of the Media Ecology Association. As the MEA’s founding vice president, Casey spearheaded the organization’s institutional development and was instrumental in advocating for and setting up MEA’s institutional affiliation status with the National Communication Association and theInternational Communication Association that gave the MEA two of the most visible international platforms for promoting media ecology scholarship (e.g., media ecology-themed panels at the two international associations’ respective annual conventions). He has been in various other leadership roles in the communication discipline, such as formerly a president of the Association for Chinese Communication Studies, chair of NCA’s International and Intercultural Communication Division, and chair of NCA’s Asian Pacific American Caucus, etc. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Urban Communication Foundation. The author-editor of Perspectives on Culture, Technology, and Communication: The Media Ecology Tradition, Casey is also the author of In Search of a Voice: Karaoke and the Construction of Identity in Chinese America, as well as numerous journal articles and book chapters on media ecology, cultural communication, and urban communication. In the past few years he has been researching the media ecology of urban food cultures. A long-time resident of New York City, Casey currently lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children.

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

I was not planning to be a professor until the decision was made, so to speak, some 20 years ago. I was a media maker before coming to the States. I started out as an actor in a radio drama program during my freshman year in college (I majored in communication with a minor in film media at Hong Kong Baptist). The weekly radio drama program for a Macau broadcast company was produced by one of its freelance producers. I later doubled as one of the program’s script writers and audio recording engineer. What struck me as personally interesting about those programs we produced was that they were sold and broadcast within the immigrant communities in the Chinese diaspora around the world, including the one in New York City; hence, my (recorded) voice came to the US ahead of my persona by several years.  Throughout my college years I worked part time in TV and did odd jobs for various media venues. Among them, I worked as a puppeteer in a mobile street theater program by the Hong Kong Government Information Services. We based all our puppet shows, which were staged on the back of a huge truck, on various social service campaigns (e.g., keep Hong Kong clear or drug free). After graduation I spent a few years working full-time as a freelance filmmaker.

The long and gradual process that led me to an academic career was pretty organic, as it were. When I decided to come to New York for my graduate studies, I essentially was thinking of rejuvenating my knowledge of the media. I was exhausted from working in the media industries for all those years while going to college full time. All I wanted at the time was to read some books and clear my mind. Getting the degree was not a major thing; it was more like getting a few years off to read before going back to Hong Kong to do my filmmaking again.

While I wasn’t consciously thinking about becoming a university professor, that option was opening up more or less “naturally” over the ensuing years. To begin with, I ran into some very interesting professors while I was in the M. A. in Media Studies Program at The New School. If I were to name only one person who was responsible for opening the door for me to the teaching profession, it would have to be Peter Haratonik, the program’s director at the time of my initial enrolment. More than a decade before then he took over that position from the founder of the program, Dr. John Culkin, the Jesuit priest-turned-media-educator. John was credited for bringing Marshall McLuhan to New York City in the mid-1960s, when he was at Fordham University. I would say, in thinking back, that it was because of my very good experience with professors in that program at the time (including Paul Levinson, himself a former graduate student of Peter’s) that I began to feel (and I do mean feel) as though I was enjoying that kind of life, the life in academia as an intellectual.

What was equally important was the fact that many of the media theories that I studied there really intrigued me. They introduced me to new perspectives on understanding the works that I did in the media industries. They also helped me better understand various aspects of my personal upbringing. For example, theories about orality and literacy led me to a better appreciation about why my mom, a pre-dominantly oral person, communicates with me in the ways she has been. “Generational gap is a media ecological phenomenon,” I remember thinking out loud to myself one day many years ago! This new-found knowledge has since helped me improve my communication with my mom. Many of these media theories or ideas are what I later spent much time researching and writing about in media ecology.

The fact that English is my second language has played a big role in my journey as an aspiring academic. One of my professors in Hong Kong always urged us to read at least three hours a day. I remember spending six hours every day during my first week at The New School on Norbert Weiner’s Human Use of Human Beings, our first weekly reading assignment from Peter. I thought I was going to fail the (Foundations of Media Theory) course; my limited use of English did not help me too well in figuring out what Weiner meant by the many ideas that he synthesized from among so many disciplines. This is why I was delightfully surprised to learn the week thereafter that I was one of the few students in the class who managed to finish a first read of the book. Even better, some of the ideas became more and more clear and increasingly interesting to me through the class discussion. I still remember to this date that it was one of the most gratifying academic experiences I have had as a grad student. Having to understand and digest so many difficult and at times obscure ideas about media, culture, and the human condition was extremely difficult. At the same time it gave me a great deal more satisfaction each time the light bulb lit up, in a manner of speech; it felt much better than making a living by doing films or TV programs to please people that I did not even know.

The fact that I had to read all these books and talk about the theories and ideas in my second language forced me to work harder. Interestingly, such a process also helped me to “visualize” more fully the “narratives” of scholarly writing or academic discourse in general. I was (and still am) very conscious about getting through the structure (or form) of the writing or language before knowing the “content” of what is being talked about. In some way this helps me to understand why I have been attracted to the “accessible” writing style of authors like Neil (Postman, who as many would agree, was a brilliant writer if only for this one reason).

As I struggled through (and enjoyed) my graduate studies at The New School, I was beginning to think about how all these ideas could have been clarified better and shared with more people. In looking back, I think I was venturing into pedagogic issues without even knowing it. I think it was about a year or so into my study that Peter and Paul (Levinson) began talking to me about studying for my doctorate in media ecology at NYU. I still don’t know how and why those conversations occurred, but one day I decided to visit Neil to find out more about his program. One thing led to another, and the rest was history, as they say.

Joshua Meyrowitz argued in his book No Sense of Place that when media change, situations and roles change. In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?

Your question touches upon many aspects of teaching and learning in general. I think I can offer only a few humble observations.

To begin with, when I was a college student, we learned about our subjects by reading print materials (such as books, articles, and “handouts”), attending to some audio visual materials (such as watching films that our professors considered to be classic), and doing media (such as making student films, TV programs, radio shows, or school-sponsored newspapers). We did not have the Internet, multimedia packages, or electronic databases the way we know them today. While we were encouraged to do some research on our own (particularly when we were more advanced in our studies), our professors were acting as the gatekeepers of much of the academic materials to which we were exposed. That is, they did the quality-control of required reading, and our duty was to read and learn the good stuff, so to speak.

To give you a cross-cultural comparative perspective, what took place in the classroom when I was going to college in Hong Kong was more or less a one-directional kind of teaching and learning process. The professors would impart information or knowledge onto the students; the students would take notes without asking a lot of questions. There was not much interactivity in the classroom. Because of the cultural context there, students did not raise issues or challenge their professors.

Nowadays, with electronic media technologies in the classroom, it makes the dynamics of teaching, or the interaction between the professors and their students, very different from the days when there were no electronic telecommunications in the classroom. With more and more access to personal electronics and telecommunications, students have more and more access to all kinds of data sources via the Internet, their cell phone service providers, and such. Everyone in the education field is aware of and faced with this sort of challenge. One of the major problems is the fact that while the professors no longer have the kind or extent of information control as did their counterparts in the (previous) age of print media, their students do not always have the critical or analytical thinking skills necessary to determine or editorialize what is worthy information from the multitude of electronic data sources available to them. As I read somewhere a long while back, some people began to argue that the job of professors today is to teach the students how to navigate the information landscape (as if the former were librarians).

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

I think I know the kind of attention management or interruption (“in the classroom”) to which you are referring, but I would like to expand upon an aspect of the question in the larger context of communication education.

A lot of what we are talking about focuses on the intellectual history, the theoretical foundations, and the education of communication scholarship (e.g., media theories, media history, media research and so on). But many of us in the trenches have to struggle with another kind of “distraction,” that is, whether or not students in communication departments are interested (or aware of the significance or relevance of) in studying communication theories, history, and research. It is getting more and more expensive to go to college. The economy does not seem to be producing sufficient job opportunities for college graduates. As a result, many students (and their parents no less) are pre-occupied with the question about whether or not their college education, degree, or specific major can land them a job upon graduation. These and other related issues form the backdrop of much debate among faculty colleagues, curriculum revision committees, college administrators, and such. How do we strike a balance between liberal arts education and pre-professional training? Is a “balance” between the two a good way to go? How do we gain consensus on these issues among faculty colleagues, as well as administrators? And how do teachers communicate to students, particularly those who are more vocationalist-minded, about the significance and relevance of a liberal arts education and, in particular, the study of (communication) theory, history, and research in their personal and long-term career development?

How do teachers manage to command attention in an “age of interruption” characterized by information overflow? That is a very important pedagogic as well as classroom management question. It has been an ongoing struggle when we have students who cannot seem to refrain from constantly texting or surfing the web on the laptop (“I take notes and read what you send us directly on my laptop”). I know of colleagues in the field banning the use of cell phone and texting in the classroom, but that often does not seem to work. Hence, an argument that is familiar to us would be for the instructors to incorporate media technologies into the classroom to engage the students. The students are savvy and use those technologies outside the classroom already; it is how students “in this generation” do things or get to know the world. Fact is, students in many high schools are proficient in using a good number of media (e.g., Blackboard, computer software applications including the like of PowerPoint, media editing applications such as Final Cut and so on). So infusing those technologies as well as Internet use into the classroom, according to this argument or approach, could make the lecture more interesting and engaging. As you know very well, many schools use the integration of technology in the classroom as one of the ways to gauge teacher effectiveness.

Often times I heard colleagues in the field talk about teaching their students “state of the art.” For that I think they mostly meant state of the art in the use of media technologies. What I see as missing quite often from this sort of discourse or thinking, unfortunately, are “state of the art” critical and analytical skills that the students need in making not only practical or technically effective solutions but also socially or morally sustainable choices and decisions. There has to be a healthy balance between the hands-on and the minds-on.

There is another way to address your question that is a media ecological approach. In Teaching as a Conserving Activity, Neil (Postman) talked about two “curricula.” One is the curriculum with which people in society in general are familiar: the TV or electronically based curriculum or way of understanding and talking about the world that is based mainly on audio visual materials or what Suzanne Langer called presentational symbols or forms. The other curriculum would be the print-based curriculum that is based upon literacy and print or discursive symbols. The job of the educators would be to help the students strike a balance between what they can get from these two ways of thinking, representing, and discoursing about the world around them or their sense-making experience. Since they are so televisioned (or electronically mediated) in their everyday life (outside the classroom), the teachers should infuse or teach the print curriculum when the students are in the classroom (to use the latter to counteract the former, as it were).

To go back to your question (and to go “back to the classroom”), I suppose a good teacher would be in part one who can effectively communicate the above to their students (as well as their professional colleagues no less) and gain the latter’s understanding to an extent that would facilitate their sense of urgency and direction in striking a healthy balance between the hands-on and the minds-on, between the electronic and the print, between the presentational and the discursive,  between the liberal art education and pre-professional training, and so on.

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

My own personal flaws and undoing notwithstanding, I have become the kind of teacher, scholar, and practitioner in the profession I am today in part because I have had the good fortune of studying under and learning from many excellent teachers and caring mentors. I do not think I have enough space to include all of them here and to give them the same amount of attention and acknowledgment that they each deserve of the many things they have taught me over the years. But since we have been talking about media ecology and media education, I think I should mention in this regard Peter Haratonik and Paul Levinson from my days as a graduate student at The New School, as well as Neil Postman, Terence Moran, Christine Nystrom, and Henry Perkinson in the doctoral media ecology program at NYU. In their own unique ways, and both directly via their teaching and advice and indirectly as per my observation and assessment of what they do (and don’t or won’t do), they have contributed much to my growth not only as a professional but also as a person.

More specifically, and I would like to reference this to the last question above, these excellent teachers have taught me the importance of a broad-based humanistic liberal arts education and the ecological perspective on understanding culture, technology, and communication. All of them have taught me how much you can contribute to your students’ growth when you care and do so with participation. Words count and yet they count even more when you back them up with your own action. These teachers also taught me the importance of asking good questions first and foremost and never let “methodology” to take precedence, that is, for example, do not look for beans to count simply because you know how to count. Another lesson that I think I might have learned from them (“might have” because I do not want them to be held accountable for this if and when I have had it wrong all along): It is okay to be playful and to have a good sense of humor, that is, think outside of the box and do not take things too seriously (to the extent that you become dogmatic) about the ideas that you are thinking about or with. And the list goes on and on.

That said, I do wish to highlight the fact that Neil was undoubtedly one of my most important mentors. He was a brilliant writer, a caring professor, and a visionary in media education. His achievements as a public intellectual in the field of media, culture, and education confirmed for me that good scholarship and good ideas can have their strongest impact and contribution when they are made accessible to not only the elites or policy makers or such but also to the general public at large. What is just as important to highlight was his humility and great sense of humor about what he did and the many roles he played. I still have this vivid image of a walk that I took with him during a break at one of the NYU media ecology conferences at Sack’s Lodge in Saugerties, New York. We were walking on this narrow dirt road in the back of Sack’s Lodge’s main building in the country when I asked him for his take on, among other things, some of his critics’ questioning of his scholarship and how he didn’t always care if “facts” were there to support some of his observations or opinions. “You know what Casey?” he responded in his somewhat raspy and yet ever so gentle voice, “They are wrong. I’m not a scholar. I’m a social critic.” I still cannot thank him enough to have graced me with such an important reminder of the socio-moral dimension of serious scholarship.

What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?

I really am not old enough to give out such advice, but since you ask. Many of the young scholars and graduate students I have met and observed at conferences over the years seem to have been more and more knowledgeable about the challenges and opportunities in their career development as aspiring university professors. I have a sense that many of them already know how crucial it is that for their long-term career development they need to build upon and keep up with a good track record of productive scholarship, effective teaching, and active service to their respective institutions, as well as to the discipline at large.

The recession and all the austerity measures on university campuses have made looking for a job in the academy more or more competitive. It is a buyer’s market. The tightening job market certainly helps to create much anxiety among job seekers especially they may not already have a substantial record. Graduate students who are aspired to become a college professor may need to begin their preparation earlier on. A high GPA, an excellent dissertation, and a few glowing references are good to have but they may not be enough anymore in part because (they should assume that) many of their competitors have more or less the same kind of “givens.” Of course, having some successful college-level teaching experiences will give them an edge. Any way you cut it, good teaching is (and should still be) our profession’s bread and butter. All self-loving faculty search committees like to see a good teacher in their candidates.

But the ability to teach classes that your employing department is in need of staffing is and can only be one of your assets. How much do you know that department in which the opening is located? How and to what extent will your academic profile and interest fit in the existing faculty and program? More importantly, in my view, how and to what extent can you be an agent of change that would help take that department to its next phase of development and why? Assuming that everything else being the same, what distinguishes you from the pact? How are you (or what you do or represent) unique and why? To borrow a concept from marketing, what is your niche as an aspiring scholar and college professor and why? What kind of research or scholarship do you do or are interested in doing that would set you apart? How and to what extent are you really interested in and passionate about the kind of research and teaching that the hiring department is expecting you to do? You stand a very good chance of doing an excellent job when you are truly passionate about and committed to what you do.

Be prepared to be a good citizen in your school and in the profession at large. All faculty handbooks will tell you that service is one of the three major criteria for retention, tenure, and promotion review. But it has also been the least valued among the three criteria particularly in places where the mandate or practice of “publish or perish” prevails. Not unlike all other trades, businesses, and industries, the teaching profession (and universities by and large) are human enterprises. Good and active services can better help you build and expand upon a network of colleagues to recognize, acknowledge, and even reward your contribution. A community (including academic community) can only be as good as its members.

Be a stern advocate in the discipline of what you believe in. This has been one of the principles that govern some of what I do and enjoy doing all these years. To give you but just one humble example: Many of my contemporaries in the media ecology program at NYU back in the “old days” were more or less indifferent to attending conferences or otherwise participating in professional associations. After all, the NYU program had its own conference. Neil was for a long time the editor of the journal Etc. and so there might have been this sense that we had access to a publication venue that is sympathetic to media ecology scholarship. But while this was all good, over time I began to think and feel that we were just talking among ourselves. True, there were many great and amazing ideas being generated and discussed at the media ecology conferences (and I still think the media ecology conference then remained one of the best conferences I have even been to). In looking back, however, media ecology was by many measures a close-knitted community and a theory group that was largely unknown to the communication discipline by and large.

My advocacy for getting my contemporaries “to go to conferences, present papers, and all that, to learn about the field and find a way to fit in,” as Lance (Strate) indicated in his Figure/Ground interview, did not arise in a vacuum. I was a volunteer and later a paid staff member for Asian CineVision (ACV), one of the oldest Asian American media art centers in the country, when I was studying at The New School and before going on to NYU for my doctorate. We were producing, showcasing, or otherwise advocating for Asian Pacific American media and culture. It was during my time at ACV when I began to see how important advocacy is to people or groups that are on the margin. I never had to think about this sort of issues while growing up in Hong Kong because I was part of the majority. I saw advocacy at work again around 1992 and 1993 at the then-Speech Communication Association (NCA’s predecessor); that was several years after my graduation from NYU. Under the leadership of Gordon Nakagawa (California State University, Northridge), a group of Asian Pacific American scholars were circulating a petition for the establishment of a caucus within NCA that would help advocate for Asian Pacific American media and communication scholarship. Asian/Pacific American Caucus was subsequently founded at the 1993 annual convention of the then-Speech Communication Association (when I was elected to be the caucus’ first vice chair); the Asian/Pacific American Communication Studies Division was established several years thereafter. In the same vein, media ecology was by many measures a minority group in the communication discipline when I was advocating for my contemporaries to reach out to the mainstream communication discipline. It was in the same spirit of advocacy that I partook in the founding of the Media Ecology Association in 1998.

As has been suggested above, a community can only be as good as its members. Good citizenship is the foundation of any good and healthy community. Embedded in advocacy is a strong sense of passion and commitment. It is also one of the ways in which young scholars may find their own voices (and places) in their chosen profession.

You were the author/editor of a great anthology entitled Perspectives on Culture, Technology and Communication: The Media Ecology Tradition, which has been translated into both Chinese and Korean. Is Media Ecology popular in Asia? Are the insights of Innis, McLuhan et al relevant to that region?

Media ecology as a whole or in the ways in which it has been articulated in, say, the former Ph.D. program in media ecology at NYU or my anthology (since you mentioned it), is a relatively new field of study in Asia. But the works by some of the individual scholars that have inspired the rise of media ecology as a theory group have been translated and published in at least some parts of Asia. I recall seeing an early Chinese translation of Understanding Media as far back as the 1970s, if not earlier, but I can no longer remember its publisher. The translator of my anthology, Professor He Daokuan of Shenzhen University, has translated for the Mainland China readers McLuhan’s Mechanical BrideUnderstanding Media,Essential McLuhanLetters of Marshall McLuhan and Understanding Me, as well as Harold Innis’ Empire and Communication and The Bias of Communication.

After publishing my anthology’s first Chinese (simplified character) edition as its introductory text, Peking University Press’ Media Ecology foreign translation book series published Professor He’s translation of Neil’s Technopoly, Elisabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, and Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy. Neil’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and The Disappearance ofChildhood were translated and published by other publishers in China. (I recommended Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization but its foreign language right in China was already sold to another publisher when I approached the Mumford estate’s executor; I’ve yet to see its Chinese edition on the market.)

In addition, many books by Paul (Levinson) have been translated by Professor He, including Digital McLuhanSoft EdgeCell PhoneReal SpaceNew New Media, and Mind at Large. And while Jim (Carey) thought he was not a media ecologist, his Communication as Culture, admired by many of us media ecologists, has been translated in Chinese and published in China.

That said, I should highlight an interesting aspect of the study of “media ecology” in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. There is a Chinese term called media ecology in Chinese (or 媒介生態學) that people talk about, but they talk about it in ways that are different from the media ecology in North America. Their term pretty much focuses on understanding media market dynamics, that is, examining the ways in which media industries or formats interact (including competing) among themselves in the ecology of the market place.

My first presentation on (North American) media ecology was a talk that I gave late in the 1990s on the theory group’s intellectual roots at the National Chengchi University’s School of Journalism in Taipei, Taiwan. My first speeches on media ecology in Mainland China took place at Peking University’s School of Journalism and Communication in January and then again in June of 2002. Around that time I was aware of that pre-existing term in Chinese. That is the reason I insisted that Professor He, the translator of my anthology’s Chinese edition, was to use my Chinese translation of the term, which is 媒介環境學; when “back-translated,” my translation means “the study of media environments.” This translation is meant to distinguish the North American media ecology from the market or industry-focused media ecology in China.

Is media ecology popular in Asia? I am under the impression that media ecology has been accepted warmly by more and more media and communication scholars in China, although I really do not have any hard statistics to substantiate my observation. Professor He has been a well-respected academic translator of communication books and a strong advocate of media ecology scholarship in China. For example, he wrote a series of five articles (in Chinese) to highlight how media ecology is the “third paradigm” in communication scholarship after the empirical school of communication and the critical school of communication. His Chinese translation edition of Understanding Media has been viewed as one of the most important works in China in the past 30 years. Media ecology has been received warmly there in part because it is a nice break from the familiar theoretical canon of the empirical school and the neo-Marxist tradition. A professor of English and comparative literature and formerly an assistant dean of his school at Shenzhen University (just north of Hong Kong), Professor He once told me that communication scholars in China receive media ecology well in part because it entails a better, long-term historical perspective on understanding media and culture and it seeks to understand communication in a larger social and ecological context.

In short, because of the publication of the books that are highlighted above, communication scholars and students in the Chinese-speaking world are becoming more and more aware of media ecology in the way we talk about it. In terms of scholars and students in Korea, I suppose the same is applicable. I would suspect that more and more people in Korea are getting to know media ecology. Dong-hoo Lee, the translator of my anthology’s Korean edition, once took a course by me at The New School, where she also studied under Peter. Dong-hoo later earned her Ph.D. in media ecology at NYU in the late 1990s and returned to Korea where she subsequently became a professor of communication. She has since been an advocate of media ecology in South Korea.

Media ecology, medium theory, Canadian communication studies, the Toronto school of communication – is there a difference between these terms?

You asked a very important and yet extremely tough question. From the perspective of my book on The Media Ecology Tradition, media ecology in general is the study of the symbiotic relationship between media technologies and culture; you will find more details about this aspect in the book. On one level, media ecology is some sort of an umbrella term, so to speak, a theoretical synthesis of the ideas that many scholars had about the relationship between media technology and culture – scholars that you and I are familiar with: Elizabeth Eisenstein, Jacque Ellul, Marshall McLuhan, Lewis Mumford, Suzanne Langer, Neil Postman, to name just a few. The sum total of media ecology, in my view, is larger than the parts of all these different various studies: McLuhan studies, Mumford studies, Ellul studies, Ong studies, Postman studies, etc. Medium theory is but one specific aspect of media ecology; it is one approach to understanding the theoretical canon of media ecology as a theory group or intellectual tradition.

As for the Toronto School, I would refer the readers to the interview that you did so well with Eric (McLuhan). I have not really thought much about this question, but I think we need to think through some issues while addressing your inquiry: What constitutes a school, as in a distinct “school of thought” (as in, say, what has been called the Frankfurt School, the Chicago School of Sociology, or such)? Well, what makes these schools so distinguishable or easily identifiable? What constitutes “Toronto school” or, for that matter, “Canadian communication studies”? I honestly do not have the answer. Eric’s answers, and I hope I am not taking his words out of context, seemed to suggest that there isn’t a Toronto School (and his interview seemed to have suggested some reasons why there isn’t one).

To give you a contrast question: Is there a New York School? Lance Strate, for example, talked about a New York School vs. a Toronto School. I personally do not even know if there is a New York School, even though I am in New York, I teach in New York, and I’m a New Yorker (by choice) and, yes, I love New York City as one of its long-time residents. Of course, on another level, one can argue that there has been a New York school (in the intellectual-institutional history of media ecology) in the sense that there has been a formally established and fully accredited Ph.D. program in media ecology at New York University that systematically or programmatically trained and produced scholars in this field of study. So, in that sense, one can make the argument that there has been a New York school.

Similarly, the same set of questions can be raised about Canadian communication studies: what makes Canadian communication studies distinguishable from any other communication studies, such as “American communication studies,” “African communication studies,” “European communication studies,” or “Asian communication studies”?  Is it a geo-political distinction? Or is it one of theoretical, methodological, or even ontological differences?

Again, while I do not have the answer that you are seeking, I think your question has touched upon issues that are very important.

You close your book on The Media Ecology Tradition with an epilogue entitled “The Next Generation(s).” Well, as you probably know, there has been quite a great deal of debate online recently over a controversial document entitled Beyond McLuhan: Your New Media Studies Syllabus – drafted by Christina Dunbar-Hester, an Assistant Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers School of Communication & Information. How do you go beyond something that you don’t fully understand? What is in your opinion the best way of advancing McLuhan and media ecology in relation to what you identify as the “Next Generation(s)”?

To begin with, I am not all that clear if or how the online syllabus in your question embodies a lack of understanding of McLuhan’s scholarship. I have not looked into it closely. Either way, it seems to me that the answer is embedded in your question. On one level, you are right to suggest that people should know McLuhan’s scholarship well enough before they go beyond or even against it. But there is another way of addressing the question via the notion of paradigmatic shift. McLuhan’s work, for example, was very controversial when it first came out, precisely because it was so “out of the box.” Many critical theorists or empiricists barked at  McLuhan’s work for years even though they may not have understood it well. Nonetheless, some would tell you that McLuhan’s scholarship has facilitated a paradigmatic shift in the field’s understanding of the relationship between media and culture – a shift from the analysis of content to the analysis of form.

So, using this idea, what would be the next paradigm shift and what would it look like if we were to have a breakthrough from McLuhan or media ecology in general? And, who may likely be the ones to facilitate a paradigmatic shift away from McLuhan’s ideas, if and when such a shift is to take place? If I am not totally misreading Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the “who” likely may be those who are not heavily vested in the existing paradigm (or McLuhan’s ideas, for example). The new paradigm’s content may be ideas that conceptualize the world (of media and culture) in ways that are drastically different from those of McLuhan’s or such.

Let me rephrase my question: how do we advance a canon in a way that is cohesive yet respectful of the past?  How do we transform while preserving, to paraphrase Heidegger? How do we move forward into the future while taking the past into account?

Thank you for rephrasing your question, because it takes us back to some of the issues that I attempted to highlight in my anthology’s epilogue, “The Next Generations.” In it, I was outlining questions of how we can nurture the next generation(s) of media ecology scholars in a coherent, cohesive manner. I raised these questions in most part because the doctoral program in media ecology at NYU was being phased out. On one level, many of us who went to grad school there were (and still are) puzzled by the turn of events: Why was such a well-established doctoral program with an illustrious tradition “let go” when there were many willing bodies and minds to pick up the torch and run with it? But I am afraid it is a question that would take more than an interview like this to adequately address. Either way, what I referred to in my anthology’s Epilogue about the education of the next generations of media ecologists was a more or less narrowly-casted question: where else can we systematically or programmatically educate and produce fully accredited Ph.D.s in media ecology? And, on another level, what would happen to the continued existence or development of media ecology as a theory group and an intellectual tradition if such an endeavour fails to materialize itself?

The Media Ecology Association and the good works that its officers and members have been doing are helping to address some of the issues relating to the above questions, such as publishing its own journal Explorations in Media Ecology, putting together its annual conference, organizing special theme panels at annual conferences by the National Communication Association, the International Communication Association, and the Eastern Communication Association, etc., facilitating a lively listserv, maintaining an extremely informative website, and so on. A good number of individual colleagues are active in publishing media ecology scholarship. Lance’s editorship of the Hampton Press’s Media Ecology book series should receive special mention in this regard. True, I’m not entirely impartial in my assessment herein in part because I was one of the MEA’s founders and have been very active in its institutional development during the organization’s crucial formative years. The colleagues being mentioned herein are my friends and professional colleagues. Nonetheless, we have many reasons to rejoice MEA’s achievements in promoting media ecology scholarship among seemingly more and more like-minded scholars and students. On occasions I  have even gone so far as to use the “Noah’s Ark” as an analogy for the MEA, as the media ecology degree program or curriculum at NYU was being drowned out by forces that were either indifferent or, worse, hostile to media ecology.

Should there be reasons for worrying about the long-term prospect or development of media ecology and its legitimacy in the academy? The answer to this question would seem to depend upon how one may view what media ecology is or what we want media ecology to be. No one owns the term media ecology. People can call themselves media ecologists as they please. So there really is no problem on this level.

On the other hand, it does not take an intellectual historian of communication to tell you how difficult it has been for communication to be recognized by the traditional disciplines, even after more than half a century of institutionalization (if you start the counting from the first Ph.D. programs in communication in the middle of the twentieth century) and thousands of communication Ph.D.s later. To use a mixed metaphor, if I may, if communication is a “minority” among the traditional disciplines (remember the debate over whether communication is a field or a discipline?), then media ecology would have to be a “double minority,” that is, a small marginalized group within a larger marginalized group (in much the same way that we Asian Americans were viewed and treated as part of the family of the “double minorities” in the US).

In short, it truly is very encouraging to see that many good works are being done in media ecology in the past several years, some of which are acknowledged above. But I think more can and ought to be done. For media ecology as a theory group and as a formal, legitimate field of academic inquiry to further develop and flourish, we need to have continued institutional support for the systematic and programmatic education of fully accredited Ph.D. holders in media ecology who can in turn nurture and produce the next, successive generation(s) of media ecologists.

What are you currently working on?

The past few years I have been researching urban food cultures as forms of communication. You can call it the media ecology of urban food cultures. I enjoy eating and I love cooking. So, I merged my passions for media ecology, food culture, and urban studies.

*This interview has been reprinted in Chinese by the Excellent Journalism Award Foundation

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

Suggested citation:

Ralon, L. (2011). “Interview with Casey Lum,” Figure/Ground. February 16th.
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Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at

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