Interview with John Durham Peters

© John Durham Peters and Figure/Ground
Dr. Peters was interviewed by Andrew Iliadis. November 26th, 2012.

John Durham Peters is A. Craig Baird professor of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa. He received a Ph.D. in Communication Theory and Research from Stanford University in 1986 and is the author of the magisterial Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication and, more recently, Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition. He has written numerous articles on the history and philosophy of communication.

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

The idea that one could do something as drastic as becoming a university professor as anything but a conscious choice is at first an amusing thought.  On further reflection it yields a greater truth–that it is possible to become a professor as Churchill said the British acquired their empire–”in a fit of absent-mindedness.” Many of my graduate students are children of professors, as I am.  My father was a professor (of medicine).  My maternal grandfather was a professor (of political science).  My maternal grandmother’s father was a professor (of biochemistry).  (My oldest son is also a professor.)  For me, becoming a professor was the path of least resistance.  I remember walking the streets of Salt Lake City one day in Summer 1981 after having graduated from the University of Utah, trying to find a job but having no idea how to search.  I did finally get a short-term gig at UPS loading trucks.  (You had to memorize the entire route of the truck’s daily delivery and map it onto the innards of the truck, which was kind of like being inside a brain and mapping the sensorimotor system onto the environment.) I would clock in at 12:30 a.m. and labored to a magnificent sum of 7 bucks or so per hour, with the prospect of being raised eventually to a princely $10.80.  It was going fine at UPS until I did the math and figured out that I would actually sleep better, avoid back strain, and earn more money per hour being a teaching assistant, so I quickly accepted an offer to be a T.A. in first-year composition at the University of Utah, and the rest is history.

In fact, I had ferocious debates with myself about Ph.D., J.D., or M.D. options, all of which were paths taken by members of my extended family and by people I had known up close.  I have been exceedingly fortunate in having many models of how to carve a pathway in life, including several models for being a professor.  I should note that my father’s academic world was very different from the one I inhabit.  He only taught one semester-long course in his life (and hated it although he was a compelling and witty lecturer), paid his salary from grants for over four decades, and worked in a professional habitat that was much more collaborative, social, and team-worky than mine.  The problems tackled were more narrow–much of what he did was incremental science–but also much more consequential (the health effects of air pollution).  As always, I had to find my own path, but there were many before me who gave me the confidence to act and the cultural capital to know how to do it.

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

As mentioned, I have been blessed by many great teachers, starting with my parents, each of whom had a very different imprint.  My book Speaking into the Air (1999) is dedicated to four mentors and I’ll keep the discussion to them for simplicity’s sake.  Harold L. Miller, Jr. at BYU oversaw a honor’s thesis I wrote there, but his influence on me started when he was in graduate school at Harvard and I was in high school in Brookline, Massachusetts.  He was a youth leader in a congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that met in Longfellow Park in Cambridge, MA, that we both attended, and we had many associations together.  (In the 1970s there was an abundance of impressive people who attended church there, the most famous of which is Mitt Romney, who was my very entertaining seminary [Sunday School] teacher.)  Hal showed me how intellectual passion could be integrated into a whole life and that knowledge was secondary to character and that service was the highest expression of intelligence.  Leonard C. Hawes at the University of Utah directed my master’s thesis and both encouraged and enacted an interdisciplinarily voracious intellectual appetite.  Len was both the great theorist and practitioner of the art of conversation, and we had many great ones.  Donald F. Roberts directed my dissertation at Stanford.  Don gave me gifts of confidence and trust, encouraging me to do work that was far from the beaten path of what was typical in the department.  He also introduced me indirectly to Samuel L. Becker at the University of Iowa, who chaired the search committee that hired me at Iowa in 1986 and was willing to take a risk on an oddball.  Sam, who just died this month at the age of 89 after seeing the reelection of Obama (something he was passionate about), was the defining presence in communication studies at the University of Iowa for decades.  He was open-minded, experimental, pragmatic, and emphasized intellectual quality above all else.  Sam, who was devoted to democratic politics and university service in a healthy-minded way that was much more difficult for people of my generation (we struggle with cynicism), was expert at setting up habitats for people to flourish in, since he saw so well to our needs both for community and eccentricity.

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

Experience is not the same as knowledge, and I know, obviously, about the changes that have faced the university as an institution in the past four decades (I started college at BYU in 1975).  Experience is a small sample.  And students only see one side of their professors, so I am not sure if my experience as an undergraduate is a very good guide anyway.  Obviously things have changed in academic life.  Old-boys networks, which were good for getting things done without paperwork but had damning blindspots, have been systematically overturned as the default mode of doing university business.  (Sam Becker liked to tell of how he ran a department with lunches, phone calls, and handshakes in the 1960s and 1970s.)  It is a classic point from Max Weber that bureaucratization is the price of fairness, and one price of a more inclusive environment is the increasing load of documentation in academic administration—something that has diverse causes.   How the lawyers and accountants took over is an interesting question.  We could discuss other changes–in publishing expectations, in the quantification of teaching and research success via “assessment” and “impact factors,” the general corporatization of the university, the more radical questioning of the economic value of a university education since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, etc.  How, for that matter, did email take over our lives?  When did we agree to this?  When did we consent to sitting in front of screens for many of our waking hours?  They were all offers we could not refuse.

But seen humanly, the old problems are all the same.  My colleague in the Department of Classics at Iowa, Craig Gibson, is a scholar of classical rhetorical education, and when you read his work, you come away impressed at how steadily the drama of education has rotated through a few themes.  Ancient professors and students were beset by the perennial temptations of celebrity, jealousy, and money on the one hand, and booze, love affairs, and laziness on the other.  The pursuit and dissemination of truth, both now and then, involved charismatic teachers, ambitious students interested in money, influence, careers in law, politics, and business, study abroad programs, letters of recommendation, the building of professional networks, and concerns about self-discipline among students and melancholia among professors.  We know from studies of biogeography (such as the early E. O. Wilson) that island habitats push life forms to extremes, and academic life is an island habitat, full of the most extreme characters and emotions, the most exquisite absurdities and bouts of childishness along with sublime discoveries about the nature of mind and universe.  (A long line of academic novelists have mined rich material about the human circus there.)  Since 1975, academic life has changed a great deal in its corporate structure, but probably not so much in its fundamental human problems.

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?

People are cognitive misers and probably always have been.  I am not sure we can easily generalize about historical shifts in attentiveness.  Maybe fewer students read Russian novels than used to (if we believe Nicholas Carr’s thesis about the decline of “deep reading”) and maybe the average film has more cuts now than films used to, but people have long been easily bored, scanning the horizon for something else, watching for the predator or star about to appear.  I have a colleague in English here who recently told me that he can teach David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and count on his sophomores to have read it–and enjoyed and gotten much of it–in two weeks’ time.  Not everyone reads in screen-sized chunks or writes in text-message lengths.  And relatively few have been avid readers in history (there is great research on the very varied history of reading).  We do our students a disservice to hold them to a standard of concentrated attention that has never prevailed in history and rarely prevails in our own lives, if we actually track our reading habits.  There are positive possibilities in distraction as well as absorption (this was the thesis of Walter Benjamin.)  Boredom is a resource you can use for your students.  No one wants to be bored.  (Many of us chose an academic life because it was more stimulating than other options; we shouldn’t begrudge our students their thirst for stimulus.)

Actually, I think students also have a thirst for truth.  By nature all humans desire to know, said Aristotle, and this is certainly true of undergraduates, who have the world before them, so many distractions, temptations, and pathways opening up so vertiginously before them.  Evolutionarily, it seems true that the most important learning we ever do comes from another person, so in-person teaching has a deep anchor in our species.  In an age of PowerPoint and YouTube and other formats that defy the old rules of capitalization there is still nothing as riveting as a good speaker who can tell good stories, crack some jokes, pose some riddles, act out some drama, and reveal lasting principles.  There is plenty of evidence suggesting that classroom technology actually increases boredom.  The best lectures I have ever heard have been deeply basic, consisting of nothing but a good person speaking well and unfolding some part of the cosmos.  The primordial facts remain about what moves and persuades human beings.  In two undergraduate classes this semester, we have basically done nothing but talked back and forth.  Several times I have asked students if they would prefer something more structured, and they all beg me to save them from any more PowerPoints.  They are hungry for intellectual debate.  Questions, stories, and personal influence remain the fonts of teaching and learning as they have been for millennia.

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?

Truth is robust.  Though there is too much to read, many minds will light on common truths.  So instead of angsting about how to encompass it all, find an angle and start digging and you will soon discover roots and branches that connect you with other perspectives.  Dig into Weber far enough, and you’ll be able to figure out Marx and Durkheim.  This is the wormhole principle: the key thing is to figure out how to access the network.  So instead of dictating a canon of specific titles, I would encourage people to find their scripture, their text that can help interpret the world for them, and then read and reread it.  It is essential to dig into something at great length that was written before you were born, if only to refute the pervasive cognitive bias that current thinking is smarter than old.  (Why should anyone be amazed that dead thinkers were just as smart as we are?  They are often actually smarter at least in terms of their effect, since their work often laid the infrastructures for ours.)  It is a better investment of time and effort to master texts that will remain in style.  Perhaps in thirty years people will still read Foucault (I have my doubts–I think he could be the Herbert Spencer of our time, the thinker who seemed to offer the key to our perplexities about sex and power that later generations will ignore, although Foucault is a more sympathetic figure than Spencer) but you can be sure that they will read Heidegger or Marx or Freud (who Foucault read)–or Moses, Plato, Jesus or Confucius.

My most emphatic piece of advice for any intellectual outside of the STEM fields is to master (or try to master) a foreign language.  (No one ever masters anylanguage.)  The domination of world scholarship by English is an advantage to native English speakers, since they command the language, but also a major loss, since they are unable to think outside of the empire.  Learning another language remodels the mind, and provides a flexibility and confidence that opens up a key to learning.  Learning a language is absolutely humiliating and infantilizing, which is one reason most people avoid it; but on the other hand, language-learning is a small paradigm of the discovery of truth, of bumping against something recalcitrant and intellectual that you can’t boss around.  Even more, language learning is fountain of youth.  If you want to stay young, you should do what the young do: ride steep learning curves.  Forget lipo-suction and Botox: language learning will keep you fresh.

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?

Yeah, right: national sovereignties have melted away?  They have melted away to about the same degree that departments and disciplines have melted away: that is, not at all.  Yes, nations and fields have different characters today and different challenges, and their old modes have eroded in some ways, but they are still very much alive and well, for good and ill.  Departments are still resource bases, and job calls still often specify that applicants must hold a Ph.D. (i.e. citizenship) in a given field.  Though it’s easy to poke fun at McLuhan’s breathlessness, he is absolutely right to compare the fate of academic disciplines to nation-states, one of the metaphors I have often used in considering the fate of the small nation of communication studies.

Is the university in crisis?  Of course it is.  Any institution in the modern world is in crisis.  (Capitalism thrives on crisis: this is Marxism 101.)  Crisis, as Reinhart Koselleck showed in a classic work, means turning-point (as in a medical patient in “critical condition”).  In crisis, things hang in the balance, awaiting judgment.  That is certainly the state of university today, and this has been true to one degree or another since the founding of the modern research university in Berlin in 1809.  Is the university under threat?  Of course it is: from the laziness of the students, the pettiness of the professors, the hectoring of parents and legislators, the mandates of boards and donors, the pressures of the market and the state.  Flows of cultural and finance capital do change, and can threaten how the institution works.  Government funding for basic science is something that needs vigorous sustenance.  And there is lots of pressure on the humanities to show what public service they render.  (I have misgivings about the inward, professionalizing turn of much humanistic scholarship since the 1980s, as do many others.)  But people will continue to prize music, art, dance, poetry, stories in whatever medium they come; I seriously doubt that the humanities will ever be irrelevant as long as societies remain relatively free and prosperous and people have leisure.  And wise governments recognize that wealth stems ultimately from basic research; in some form, university life will live on.  It is a structural necessity in modern complex knowledge-based societies.

In 2009, Francis Fukuyama wrote a controversial article for theWashington Post entitled “What are your arguments for or against tenure track?” In it, Fukuyama argues that the tenure system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country, making younger untenured professors fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow subdiscipline. In short, Fukuyama believes the freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious, but thinks it’s time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually. Since then, there has been a considerable amount of debate about this sensitive issue, both inside and outside the university. What do you make of Fukuyama¹s assertion and, in a nutshell, what is your own position about the academic tenure system?

I haven’t read the Fukuyama piece but have a couple of thoughts.  Tenure was a contingent invention in the crucial decade of the 1910s when the First Amendment was reinterpreted as guaranteeing freedom of speech in a new way.  The American Association of University Professors argued that peer review should be the principle of academic regulation, and that the quest for professional esteem would be the moral check and balance against outrageous behavior.  Thus the AAUP sought to protect potentially dissident or subversive speech from squelching by nervous administrators or publics.  I do support peer review as a principle, and think we need a bulwark against pragmatic-political-public demands for immediate relevance; long-term basic research is a great treasure, and the secret core of free speech theory is that we never know in advance the consequences of discovery.  And the attack on jargon is cheap.  Jargon is what you call a language you haven’t learned.  Yes, professional idiolects erect walls of competence that keep laypeople out, and lawyers, doctors, and engineers do this just as vigorously as professors, and some of our colleagues are quite horrid at being able to speak a public tongue.  But languages also unite speech communities and point to salient objects.  They are always in principle learnable.  Translation is a key academic task, and curiously, it is the sciences that have recognized this sooner than the rest (with their odd coinage of “translational research”), and there is a long great tradition of popular science writing dating back to nineteenth-century giants such as Darwin and Helmholtz.  (What would popular humanities look like?  Probably like works of art themselves rather than academic research.  The sciences and the arts have a very different relation to peers and publics.  Science seeks to reveal mysteries of the nonhuman universe in  as clear a way as possible while much poetry seeks to reveal the common knowledge of the human universe in as novel a way as possible.)

Philosophically speaking I do not support the professionalization of inquiry.  (Lifetime job security–what an incredible notion.)  If professionalism means behaving with probity, honor and to highest standards, then fine, but I cannot support the notion that inquiry can ever be fully departmentalized.  Truth cannot be nationalized.  Yes, the universe is very complicated, and you can spend decades studying elementary forms of learning in sea slugs (and receive a Nobel Prize, as Eric R. Kandel did).  You have to master specific tools, and no one can master them all.  But truth is a human thing, not a professional monopoly.  (Late in life, Kandel wrote wonderfully about fin-de-siècle Viennese painting, and more power to him.)  The need for specific mastery of subject matter and method need not imply an institutional system of academic nation-states, each with part of the world as its turf.  Specialization is a fact stemming from the shortness of life, not the nature of truth.  (Would immortal scholars be experts?)

There are serious practical problems with tenure in any case.  For one thing, tenure is under fire in the most obvious way: the proliferation of academic temp jobs, which make the tenure-track an elite status.  For another, the pressures of acquiring tenure amid amped up publishing demands can wreak a certain professional deformation.  By the time you have tenure, you have so fully paid up to Mammon there can be little juice left for subversion.  Daniel Dennett has an amusing description of the sea squirt, an ocean animal that uses its rudimentary nervous system to scout a spot to settle for the rest of its life.  “When it finds its spot and takes root, it doesn’t need its brain any more so it eats it.  It’s rather like getting tenure.”  It’s a good joke, and though obviously not true in most cases, it does point to a moral hazard.    Finally, there is a possible male-bias built into the tenure system as currently practiced.  The view that the first six years after the doctorate are the best measure of one’s professional future is perhaps a good game for young men.  There is evidence that patterns of career trajectories of female scholars are on the whole different than men’s, and peak at different points.  If the aim of tenure is to assure freedom to teach and to publish, then those rights ought to be granted already as citizens, not as professors.  The task should be to strengthen free inquiry at all levels of society, not to build a professional institution.

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

Suggested citation:

Iliadis, A. (2012). “Interview with John Durham Peters,” Figure/Ground. November 26th.
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