Interview with James C. Morrison

© James C. Morrison and Figure/Ground
Dr. Morrison was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. March 29th, 2012.

James C. Morrison is a Lecturer in Business Communication in the F. W. Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. His research interests include the societal impacts of new communications media, development of hypertext and hypermedia systems in higher education and research, information management in high-tech environments, and national media policy. As a consultant, Morrison has conducted writing workshops for Darling Consulting Group, in Newburyport, Massachusetts; Logistics Management Institute, a federally funded research and development center in Alexandria, Virginia; Brown University’s Writing Center; Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, Inc., consulting engineers in Lexington, Massachusetts; and CuraGen Corporation, in Branford, Connecticut. He has also worked as a developmental editor for innovations proposals entered in the Better Government Competition of the Pioneer Institute in Boston. He is the newly elected president of the Media Ecology Association.

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

As a teenager I thought about a number of careers—journalist, musicologist, high school teacher—but once in college I decided that I wanted to be like my English professors, some of whom I almost idolized. I loved the whole ambiance of college, which to me was epitomized by Sanborn Library at Dartmouth, seat of the English Department. Lots of tweed and hiking boots, a professor’s dog or two lolling around the offices, cozy armchairs in book-lined niches, and tea and sherry on Thursday afternoons, talking with anyone and everyone in the department. I affected pipe smoking and dreamed of joining similar ranks after graduate school. For a blue-collar, full-scholarship kid who was the first on either side of his family to attend college, it was a choice both conscious and subliminal, as it involved the search for a sense of self and identity. I had visions of becoming the next Edmund Wilson. Fond dreams of youth.

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

Because my graduate school experiences were divided among three institutions, at none of which I did a dissertation, I never really had a Mentor. Although I’m sure Neil Postman didn’t consider me his Telemachus, his influence had the greatest impact on my scholarly career. As a beginning instructor in 1969, I readTeaching as a Subversive Activity, and it profoundly transformed my thinking about teaching and learning, as well as my understanding of both McLuhan and Plato, whom I had started reading in high school (extramurally, of course).

I didn’t study in the Media Ecology program at NYU, simply because I wasn’t aware of it when I was looking to complete my graduate studies after teaching at the University of Hawai’i with an M.A. Had I picked up the NYU catalogue and found the program at the Steinhardt School I would assuredly have applied, as I was looking at interdisciplinary programs, and seeing Neil’s name would have been practically all I needed. Instead, I went to Princeton in comparative literature and studied with Robert Fagles, who shared with us his early translations of theOresteia and the Aeneid. His ground-breaking translations of the Iliad and theOdyssey, and his final version of the Aeneid were to come only years later, but his most memorable and influential course for me was that featuring parallel readings of the Odyssey and Ulysses. Fifteen years later, when I was teaching at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and simultaneously pursuing a mid-career Master’s in Public Administration, Neil went there as a Visiting Adjunct Professor, and I leapt at the chance to study with him.

He was invited there by Marvin Kalb, who was then Director of what is now the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, and for whom I would do research on debates in American presidential elections. Marvin had been impressed by Amusing Ourselves to Death, and Neil taught a course titled “Television and Political Change.” At the time, Neil was writing Technopoly, and the course involved all of the former book and elements of the latter.

While Neil was very clear about his perspective on communication and culture, he always stressed the process by which he arrived at the understandings he was sharing, and he invited his students, collegially, to critique, revise, and even contradict his assertions. That is, he involved his students in his process of discovery, and in that process they learned not only about the subject, but also about themselves and their own process of thinking.

In the Prologue to his later book Teaching as a Conserving Activity, Neil wrote that during his work with Charles Weingartner, “Charlie suggested early in our collaboration that the last sentence of each of our books should be ‘Or vice versa’.” Although Neil ultimately rejected the suggestion lest it might falsely imply a lack of seriousness, his even entertaining it represents, to me, an important principle: to be sure of your own vision, but to accept that, as fallible human beings, none of us has a franchise on the absolute truth. It is our role as educators to lead students to their own earned truths.

I owe the direction of my teaching and learning career to Neil, and I have had the privilege since then to work closely with many others who had completed their graduate work with him at New York University. Neil helped me especially to understand Marshall McLuhan, whose ideas are all too easy to discount and dismiss, but whose insights into the integrating power of the ancient rhetorical tradition and its application to the contemporary media landscape are fundamental.

But just as important, if not more so, was the inclusion of many other parts of what I like to term media ecology’s “loose canon”: the work of Walter Ong, Eric Havelock, Elizabeth Eisenstein, and Jacques Ellul, as well as pointers to Daniel Boorstin, Edward Hall, Harold Innis, Julian Jaynes, Lewis Mumford, Susan Sontag, Norbert Weiner, Joseph Weizenbaum, Benjamin Lee Whorf, and Henry Perkinson. It was the media ecology program in a nutshell. Except for the work of Weiner and Mumford, I had not been exposed to any of this before, and to me it was a revelation. I have been a media ecologist ever since. To this day, I mentally kick myself for not exploring NYU’s catalogue back in 1973, but I remain continually grateful for Marvin Kalb’s overture to Neil, which made the rest of my academic career an adventure with only broadening horizons.

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

I think that the role of university professor changed from a calling to a career, starting in the 1970s. That’s when the leading edge of the baby boom wave started breaking over the academy, and all of a sudden both the demand for and supply of young academics increased, seemingly exponentially, though probably not literally. Accompanied by the knowledge explosion, this demographic tsunami seemed to turn what was once a gentlemanly and ladylike dedication to the liberating arts into an urgent need to stake one’s claim in the competition for academic placement and preferment. When I was an undergraduate, it was not uncommon, and went unremarked, for one’s tenured professor to have an M.A. as his or her highest degree, though this was not true of the younger faculty, for whom the Ph.D. was starting to be de rigueur. Still, everyone, both teacher and student, was addressed as Mr., the affectation of “Dr.” among nonmedical degree holders not yet having taken root.

But the difference was not in the level of degree so much as in the change to more of a careerist emphasis. One younger English Renaissance faculty member at Dartmouth observed to me about one of his coevals in the French department, “If I were writing an allegorical play, [the person in question] would serve as my model for the character of Ambition.” Not that such proclivities were unknown before this, but such would soon become the rule rather than the exception as the ‘70s “progressed” under the influence of deconstructionism and continental critical theory, with the consequent need for finding safe ecological niches in the increasingly Spenserian (Herbert, not Edmund) academic environment. In the process, the implicit humanism that preceded this paradigm shift was replaced by a zero sum game, in which I saw many able people squeezed out of chances for positions for which they were perfectly qualified. And I’m not talking about only top-flight liberal arts colleges and Research I universities, but those at all places in the academic spectrum.

This was one of the main reasons for my leaving a Ph.D. program and gaining experience in business to see if that path offered fresher air. After pursuing that direction for 10 years I was able to return to academia with practitioner credentials instead of a doctorate—though not to take its place. I believe I was enriched by that experience, for it gave me a pragmatic basis for teaching that no number of years staying sheltered in the academy could have provided. I actually had some basis for teaching people about communication, as opposed to just trying to lead them through an appreciation for words on paper. Of course, having made that choice, I’m sure you wouldn’t be surprised that the poem best reflecting my feelings about the matter is Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”

Inside the classroom, how do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by fractured attention and information overload?

I teach all my courses using the case method, with the emphasis on student-to-teacher and student-to-student interaction. As a result, my students not only don’t have the chance to be distracted, but they don’t have a reason, either. I got into this mode of teaching at Harvard Business School, where I returned to academia to teach management communication, and have used it ever since, even when not using purpose-written cases. The 1940 the Harvard Alumni Bulletinarticle by Charles I. Gragg titled “Because Wisdom Can’t Be Told” describes the instructional use of the case method at HBS. My exposure to this article while there was serendipitous, for its first sentence articulated a philosophy of teaching almost identical to that of Postman and Weingartner in Teaching as a Subversive Activity: “Students must be accepted as the important part of the academic picture.”

While students are obviously the focus of one’s energies, saying that students are the important element in education is a qualitatively different assertion. What Gragg promotes, and what I have consistently tried to achieve in the classroom, is “true intercommunication” among teacher and students alike. That is, I see my role as empowering the student to engage intellectual issues and problems actively and, under guidance, to learn the suasive arts of critical thinking and expression. In sum, true learning results when one teaches oneself and others how to learn. This is the measure of one’s success.

To be sure, the case method needs to be rightly managed to be effective, and poorly managed it can lead to confusion and uncertainty. And, as Gragg points out, if it becomes merely a tool for the teacher to indoctrinate students by making them guess what the teacher is thinking, it is a perversion not only of the case method but of education itself. But whatever methods are used in class, their proper aim is to foster self-reliance, independent thinking, and learning how to learn for a lifetime. It is a truism that the aim of education is not to teach studentswhat to think, but how to think, but one that is all too easy to forget in the fruitless pursuit of the absolute right answer. I’m more interested in the right question.

My students are free to have laptops open during class and use them for whatever purposes they find best, whether it’s taking notes, checking on material, finding alternative perspectives, or even finding that great bargain on an iPad on eBay. But none of that absolves them from being engaged in the conversation, and everyone is graded on class participation. If they want, or try, to zone out, they will be found out, and graduate students do quite a bit of self-policing. In one of my classes at Babson College, Corporate Communication in the Digital Age, Irequire students to use their computers and other interactive devices during specific class times to complete class work. Once you start assigning people to engage in distractions, they turn out to be distractions no longer. It also helps that I’m teaching graduate students, the vast majority of whom are adult evening MBA program students whose maturity is well established. But this strategy can work as well with undergraduates, especially if you designate open-shell and closed-shell periods, with group work, impromptu reports, role plays, and so forth, and only mini-lectures as needed. I don’t contend I’m doing anything new or original. The important thing is to keep things moving and keep students thinking and participating, whether with a partner, a group, the teacher, or the class as a whole.

Also, I make digital distraction one of the topics of my courses, so that we have opportunity to explore the issues, share experiences, exchange strategies, and propose solutions. There is a growing literature about this, and I draw from such sources as Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, William Powers’s Hamlet’s BlackBerry, Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, and a variety of articles.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared, in reference to the university environment that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim can be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information and digital interactive media?

It is assuredly under threat—it can’t help but be, just as the medieval university and Church (they were one and the same) were threatened in the age of the printing press. But universities adapted and survived, only to forge ever stronger bonds with the societies they served. I think the modern university is at least as resilient, particularly because our economic fabric is an interweave of threads comprising business, government, academia, and nongovernmental entities promoting research and social investment. For one of those strands to shred would entail the shredding of some part of all the others, and I don’t think that media alone can do that. I’m not a technological determinist, at least not in the reductionist sense that would say that media change is the only determinant of societal change.

To look back a bit, the modern university—that is, the research institution founded on the compartmentalization of knowledge reflected in separate departments and “disciplines”—was formed only in the late 1800s on the basis of the Wissenschaft model of German education. All this is splendidly laid out by Alvin Kernan in The Death of Literature. The printing press was certainly a major agent of change (to borrow from Elizabeth Eisenstein) in this process, but it was a process that only confirmed the nature of the university. This was because the new model, or paradigm, was overlaid on a pre-existing paradigm of the medieval craft guild—a self-perpetuating Gemeinschaft of scholars operating under the rules of apprenticeship, with the authority to choose its members and to exclude from its body any who did not abide by its rules. This has had its pluses and its minuses, but at least it allowed the medieval institution to adapt to changing conditions.

When printed books were introduced into universities, they didn’t undermine the educational processes going on there, but accelerated them. While, as Eisenstein points out, printed books made it possible for students to outpace their teachers, and created autodidacts, these trends only promoted new markets for higher education. Rather than replacing or displacing traditional education, these new channels of learning created new opportunities for access to institutions of higher learning. But the printing press helped to foster a burgeoning middle class, and it was this group that benefited most from the interest on the part of the state in widening opportunities for entry into the growing bureaucracies.

New information technologies don’t destroy or displace the institutions that have fostered or thrived as a consequence of the older learning technologies—they only transform them and force them to adapt. The fact that electronic means of communication are recapitulating modes of learning typical of medieval education (digital rhetoric as a recursion of the trivium; light through, as with stained glass windows and illuminated manuscripts, rather than light on, as with print) should mean that the medieval structure of institutions like the university will be reinforced, rather than undermined. It is the hierarchical corporation, theGesellschaft, which was the product of fragmentary, mechanical culture, that is under siege, along with its corollary, the nation state, at both the macro and micro levels.

The fact that tuitions have risen faster than the cost of living as of late is a valid concern, but there are steps that can be taken to adjust the effective cost of education. We now assume that everyone has the right to a higher education, whereas sixty years ago only a minority of the population had a high school education. My mother’s father, who graduated only from high school in the early twentieth century, was an insurance underwriter and an autodidact who taught me the foundations of much that I know today. When I entered college, my father was earning $5000 a year; I got there on scholarship, and 60% of my classmates, in a so-called “elite” institution, were on scholarship as well. That situation continues through this day. Unfortunately, the political situation is such that state governments have had to renege on their once-solid commitment to making public higher education affordable, owing to the power of intransigent taxophobes, calling into question our self-image as a meritocracy. Any at least some of the online diploma mills have been suspected of being mere pretexts for siphoning federal loan funds from unsuspecting students who are offered no realistic chance to graduate within a reasonable time frame. If the university is seriously threatened, it is from these quarters, and not from impersonal media.

Applications to residential colleges, especially the most “elite” institutions (who see as part of their mission to diversify their student bodies as much as possible), are rising, not falling. The modern university is not being undermined, but is learning how to amortize its fixed assets more completely by branching out into electronic ventures that complement its mission, and by broadening its reach to wider audiences. Brick-and-mortar institutions are not going away; rather, they are learning to adapt to a new environment, much as the medieval universities learned to adapt to the new environment of the printed book. While fly-by-night all-electronic vultures may get the press, it is the established “brand names” in education that will prevail, because they carry the established reputations necessary for recognition in the ephemeral electronic landscape.

I’m confident that, to borrow from Mark Twain, the news of the university’s demise has been greatly exaggerated. We may well have, now and in the future, universities without walls, but that simply means that we’ll have more-inclusive, well-established universities.

In 2009, Francis Fukuyama wrote a controversial article for the Washington Post entitled “What are your arguments for or against tenure track?” In it, Fukuyama argues that the tenure system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country, making younger untenured professors fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow subdiscipline. In a short, Fukuyama believes the freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious, but thinks it’s time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually. Since then, there has been a considerable amount of debate about this sensitive issue, both inside and outside the university. Do you agree with the author? What are your arguments for or against academic tenure?

Unfortunately, Francis Fukuyama jumped the gun in declaring the end of history twenty years ago, and in this article he shows lack of perspective once again. While he may be the prime exhibit for his own argument, that doesn’t make him right. All in all, I would have to borrow from Sir Winston Churchill’s judgment that democracy is the worst system of government, except for all the others. Unless there is some way of keeping educational administrators from instituting a downward wage spiral, the tenure system is all we have right now to keep them from creating a Hobbesian system in which the life of most educators at most colleges and universities would be nasty, brutish, and short. We may even be at that point now, but eliminating the tenure system would, I believe, only accelerate that process and put more unaccountable power in the hands of administrators, many of whom have never graced a classroom. And many of those who have done so are prime exhibits for the Peter Principle.

However, the main problem isn’t so much that people are promoted until they reach their level of incompetence, but that the administrative ranks are increasingly dominated by “professional” administrators who may have fancy degrees in academic administration but who couldn’t teach their way out of a paper bag. The explosion of cost in higher education is not due to excessive compensation given to master teachers and scholars, but to the proliferation of non-teaching and non-scholarly administrators, who burden higher education not just with their inflated salaries, but also with expensive schemes for “marketing” their institutions.

Such schemes involve not only wildly inflated administrative costs, but also building programs that put great burdens on endowment and tuition in the effort to attract students with meretricious amenities and “facilities” that facilitate little else than non-academic , and even anti-academic, distractions. I admire those institutions that resist this trend, but they are becoming fewer and farther between now that many colleges in the middle-to-lower academic ranks are seeing their route to the promised land in beefing up not their academics, but their football team. And if a food court ends up beefing up everyone else on campus, who’s going to complain at Homecoming and Reunion Week, when the administrative minions are ready and eager to solicit and accept flurries of checks? After all, that’s how their “productivity” is determined. And who cares about the graduation rate, as long as you can make it someday into the “Sweet Sixteen”? In academia these days, madness isn’t confined to March.

Now, I say this as someone who has never been on a tenure track and probably never will be (especially now!), so I have no skin in this game. But if I were to proffer an improvement in the tenure system, it would be along the following lines.

First, keep the current tenure system, but also keep the administration’s noses out of it. No administrator, even the president, gets to overrule the decision of the department and the college-wide promotion and tenure committee. If it’s an extraordinary situation, then perhaps a process to include a faculty senate would be in order. But the general principle should be complete faculty governance in academic matters. The administration takes care of the finances, while the faculty takes care of the curriculum.

Second, everyone comes up for review every six years. It would take a super-majority of votes by the department, the P&T committee, and the faculty senate to deny renewal of tenure to a senior faculty member. That would weed out any free-riders and provide sufficient protection for anyone’s free speech rights. Those rehired would get a sabbatical, and those rejected would be given a one-year extension.

Third, student evaluations would be neither ignored nor the primary or sole criterion for tenure or rehiring consideration. A menu of criteria including teaching, scholarship, pedagogical creativity, and service both on and off campus would be taken into consideration in any promotion or tenure decision. Faculty would be given three-year reviews, with the opportunity to show improvement in the following three years, if necessary. That’s the way it is where I currently teach, and I think it’s a model to emulate. One provision I would add would be that no one could be terminated before six years without due cause. But good luck with having that enforced.

Who would monitor such a process? That’s a very vexed question. Accrediting bodies visit only every so often, and if a college or university were to deviate, there’s no “tenure police” to keep them on the strait and narrow. But that’s the way it is today, so at least we wouldn’t be any worse off.

What advice would you give to graduate students and aspiring university professors, and who are the thinkers today that you believe young scholars should be reading?

My general advice to those entering the academic communication ranks is first to get as broad an education in the liberal arts and sciences as possible. By that I mean particularly languages, literature, classics, philosophy, history, Eastern and Western religion, anthropology, archaeology, psychology, economics (a branch of psychology), mathematics, physics, and biology. In the major, get as firm a grasp of real communication theory as you can, especially rhetoric and semantics. By “real” theory, I mean pragmatic theory, not tendentious, Cloud Cuckooland ideologies whose aim is to indoctrinate rather than illuminate. And don’t starve your education with courses in what I call “digitalia”: digital stuff you’re already immersed in. If you want to be a social media wizard and Web 2.0 guru, knock yourself out, but don’t pretend that that in itself will qualify you to teach communication. Any place that will hire you on that basis alone is a training ground, not an educational institution worthy of the name. Be a well-rounded person, not just a one-trick pony.

Some contemporary thinkers young scholars should be reading: Robert Albrecht, Corey Anton, Susan B. Barnes, Nicholas Carr, Peter K. Fallon, Thomas J. Farrell, Thomas Friedman, Raymond Gozzi, Jr., Paul Grosswiler, Jane Healy, Jaron Lanier, Paul Levinson, Lawrence Lessig, Robert Logan, Casey Man Kong Lum, Robert MacDougall, Joshua Meyrowitz, Steven Pinker, William Powers, Douglas Rushkoff, Paul A. Soukup, SJ, Lance Strate, Sherry Turkle, Kathleen Welch, Maryanne Wolf, Jonathan Zittrain . . . with apologies to anyone who thinks they belong here but whom I might have left out.

What attracted you to media ecology generally and the work of Marshall McLuhan specifically?

I remember when Understanding Media came out when I was a freshman, what a splash it made, and what arguments it engendered. I didn’t pick it up immediately, but in a sophomore English class I remember Chauncey Loomis, whose eighteenth-century English literature course included Ian Watt’s The Rise of the English Novel, recommending The Gutenberg Galaxy as a work whose greater value was being overshadowed by UM’s notoriety. As a result, I picked upGG first and found myself totally at sea.

I was completely unprepared for encountering McLuhan’s idiosyncratic treatment of King Lear at the beginning, often befuddled in the mid-portion, and absolutely bamboozled by the discussion towards the end of The Dunciad, which I had not yet read. Not only had I not been exposed to much of the historical material he discussed and alluded to, but also I was a callow youth who possessed only an inkling of the literary sophistication that McLuhan had achieved in his studies at Cambridge University. As a result, my marginal comments in the popular paperback copy I acquired and struggled through were remarkable only for their ordinariness. Still, those parts of the discussion relating to contemporary media and contrasts between literacy and orality resonated somewhat, and I decided to hang in there to see if I could catch up.

The following summer, I picked up Understanding Media and found much more to sink my teeth into. Looking at the notes in my popular format paperback copy, I am struck by my obtuseness. The problem wasn’t so much my callowness, as my sophomoric certitude.  The literal definition of “sophomore” is “wise fool”: i.e., one who thinks he is wise but is alone in this opinion. My objections to McLuhan’s probes were based not so much on my wisdom as on my imperception of his method: that he was probing and seeking to elicit original perceptions on seemingly familiar topics, rather than presenting a smoothly linear discourse aimed at definitive proof. My understanding of discourse analysis was some years to come, so my reactions can be placed in that context. I was both strangely attracted and wildly repelled.

As I said previously, reading Postman and Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity later on gave me a greater appreciation for McLuhan’s method over and above the references to pop culture, to which I could of course “relate,” to borrow a cliché of the period. But as my education advanced in breadth and, one hopes, depth, I think I gradually came closer to becoming the ideal type of reader for McLuhan; the Joycean elements in his work served as useful anchors, since Joyce has always been a major focus for me. When I took Neil’s course at the Kennedy School I was finally provided with the intellectual framework within which to really appreciate McLuhan and his contribution to media ecology. For I could then see the intellectual tradition informing his thinking and from which he emerged for me as a synthesizer.

What I have discovered in media ecology is a coherent narrative for the transformation of cultures that none of my prior education had provided. I had been searching for an interdisciplinary way of connecting the strands of knowledge in a coherent pattern—something the Wissenschaft model of education has made difficult, indeed. What made this possible for me was essentially McLuhan’s retrieval of the unified curriculum of the ancient trivium, which had been the basis for Western education up to the heights of the industrial age. And it was McLuhan’s mosaic method of tessellating the pattern of culture into fractals that made it possible for me to reconnect it on my own. Perhaps this is a prime example of one of McLuhan’s laws of media: a reversal achieved by pushing something to its extreme. This clearly was the method in his mod-ness.

In a recent lecture, Paul Levinson said that Fordham University is a much better place to study McLuhan and Media Ecology than Ivy League Universities such as Columbia University. McLuhan’s brief appearance in the Movie Annie Hall comes to mind. In your experience, what has been the reception of Media Ecology at places like Harvard, Columbia or MIT throughout the years?

Paul Levinson is absolutely right in saying that the last places you will see appreciation for media ecology are the elite institutions, which are so heavily invested in the status quo. I discovered this personally in 2006 when I co-coordinated the MEA convention at Boston College with Don Fishman. All of my overtures to the powerhouse institutions in the area fell on deaf ears. This shouldn’t be a mystery to anyone who has read Technopoly, or knows of the obstacles thrown in Milman Parry’s path to completing his doctorate at Harvard, or of the resistance to Eric Havelock’s work at Yale. A program director at MIT told me that he would never support an invitation to Neil Postman to speak there, because he despised much of his work.

Media ecology lives more strongly not only at Fordham but also at such places as Curry College, in Milton, Massachusetts, where Rob MacDougall is developing a new graduate program steeped in media ecology; and Manhattan College, in Riverdale, New York, where Thom Gencarelli is establishing an environment of appreciation for media ecological approaches and is hosting our upcoming convention in June. There are many other places where individual media ecologists are establishing plots of their own that they are working to establish fertile ground.

What these initiatives have in common is that they are taking root in places dedicated to the educational pragmatism exemplified in the work of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead. These are some of the intellectual foundations of media ecology, and it is ironic that those very institutions that fostered these thinkers have abandoned their principles for the aridities of logical positivism, scientism, critical “theory,” or the blandishments of direct corporate sponsorship and, hence, ownership of research.

You’ve been recently elected President of the Media Ecology Association. What goals would you like to accomplish during your mandate and where do you see the organization heading in future years?

My first goal is to guide the organization through the process of reforming its organizational structure to be more in line with those of the major communication associations with whom it is affiliated. In the MEA’s first decade, the founders developed a model of association that suited a special interest group closely resembling a family or clan. However, as the organization has grown in scope and reach, we have recognized that we are achieving, as was the intention from the beginning, an international presence and size requiring an organizational structure that both encourages and requires a wider degree of participation by its regular membership.

We can’t continue to depend upon a relatively small circle of founders and their immediate associates to keep the organization running. Quite frankly, advancing age and personal responsibilities are a factor as well. While we have been gratified by our ability to infuse the Board of Directors with new and younger blood, some of us are feeling the effects of years of dedication and assuming a variety of roles demanding time away from our professional commitments and families.

Our affiliate organizations have structures that provide for a regular and automatic line of succession from Vice President-Elect through President, and that is the model we have appointed a committee of the Board of Directors to work towards. We will be developing a proposal along these lines to present to the General Business meeting at our upcoming convention, for comment and suggested refinement. Once we have developed the final proposal, we will be putting it on the election ballot in the fall. If the proposal passes, we will have a transition year under something similar to our current constitution, to prepare for elections under a new dispensation.

Beyond this, we are continuing our efforts to broaden the reach and scope of the association, both domestically and internationally. We have made great progress along these lines, with 255 active members and associates in 21 countries, over 700 subscribers to our electronic mailing list, and over a thousand records in our database of people we consider friends. Interest in hosting our convention has been expressed from a number of institutions in not only the United States, but also Brazil, Spain, Italy, and Israel. Our last convention was in Canada, at the University of Alberta, and several years ago we were hosted by Tecnológico de Monterrey, Estado de México, near Mexico City. Next year we will be at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

This year’s convention will have as its featured speakers Jaron Lanier, author ofYou Are Not a Gadget;  Sherry Turkle, author of The Second SelfLife on the Screen, and Alone Together; Douglas Rushkoff, author of ten books, including the recent Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, and producer of three Frontline documentaries, including “Merchants of Cool,” “The Persuaders,” and “Digital Nation”; and Terence P. Moran, Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, one of the three founding members of NYU’s media ecology doctoral program, and author of Selling War to America: From the Spanish American War to the Global War on Terror, andIntroduction to the History of Communication: Evolutions and Revolutions.

What are you currently working on?

I am developing a presentation on James Joyce and media ecology for a panel at the upcoming meeting of the Eastern Communication Association in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near the end of April; and a review of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Minds, for Explorations in Media Ecology {EME}, our journal. I’ll be making a presentation at our upcoming convention of Carr’s book, which I believe is the most significant volume in media ecology since Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. It points to empirical research on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that confirms McLuhan’s claims that experience with electronic media has effects upon brain structures and functions that significantly differ from those established by other communication media, including face-to-face communication and print.

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Suggested citation:

Ralon, L. (2012). “Interview with James C. Morrison,” Figure/Ground. March 21st.
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