Interview with Len Shyles


© Leonard Shyles and Figure/Ground
Dr. Shyles was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. March 31st, 2012.

Dr. Leonard Shyles has been a Professor in the Department of Communication at Villanova University since 1989. He served as the director of the video production lab until 2000. He is also a member of the speech faculty, teaching Business and Professional Speaking to the University’s undergraduate majors mainly from the Business School. His research focuses on the transition from analog to digital platforms across media and telecommunications institutions. His principal recent work includes the texts Deciphering cyberspace: making the most of digital communication technology (2003), and The Art of Video Production (2007) by Sage publications. Dr. Shyles is also an expert in both qualitative and quantitative research methods. He has taught research methodology in the Communication Department continuously since 1989, and has published widely in the fields of political communication, public communication campaigns, and military propaganda analysis.

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

I consciously decided to become a university professor based on my experience at home and in the workplace as I moved toward independence, guided by my parents, other family members, and important figures (several of them teachers) during my teens and twenties. Both my parents taught me by example to do things for myself from an early age. My dad learned a trade under the GI Bill after serving in World War II–he became a cutter, grader, pattern-maker and designer of women’s sportswear in mid-town Manhattan. He was an artisan at heart. His ethical example taught me that the most important asset you can have is to earn the trust of others based on keeping your word. My mom was a bookkeeper and, later, a union-organizer; she helped unskilled blue-collar workers improve their health benefits and overall working conditions. Both stressed the importance of education as the way to a better life. When they were at work, it was up to my sister (four years my senior) and me to take care of our household chores, do our homework, prepare our music lessons, and at times get dinner ready.

My mom’s brother was a huge influence; he was the only family member to have attended college before me. He became a lawyer, and later, a politician. His career high-point came in the early 1960s when he successfully represented a couple of mixed race who were arrested for being married; that case wound up before the US Supreme Court—it was called the Loving trial, and it ended miscegenation laws banning inter-racial marriage. He later served as a legislator in the Virginia statehouse for about twenty years. He taught me (also by example), that strong argument based on sound reasoning could bring significant social change. In other words, one can achieve desired goals without resorting to violent tactics; the implications of that for my chosen career should be self-evident.

At high school and college, several teachers motivated me to consider the value of teaching as a career option: In high school I had some language teachers, a phys ed. teacher, and a few math teachers who exuded joy at seeing my progress in their classes. In college, I had several philosophy professors, excellent teachers, who spurred my thinking about aesthetics, linguistics, rhetoric, epistemology, and logic, among other things. All of these people influenced my career decision.

The workplace also played a role. Specifically, I had acquired a teaching certificate in my last year of college that enabled me to work as a NYC public school teacher. I taught remedial reading and served as a per diem substitute in several inner-city middle and junior high schools over five years in Brooklyn, New York. During that period, I went to grad school at night to get my MS degree in Broadcasting with a specialization in Television Production. It was during this period that I learned I did not want to cope with the classroom management issues presented on a daily basis in that setting; at the same time I gained tremendous respect for the dedicated teachers in the K-12 work-world who take on that career choice; those who do it well have my undying admiration.

Ultimately I completed my Ph.D. at The Ohio State University (OSU) so that I could learn how to do sound empirical research, gain mastery in statistical thinking and methods, and qualify for a university teaching position. I have been at it since 1981.

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

My mentors in grad school included Gary Cronkhite, a teacher/scholar who started out planning to become a minister but who moved toward a university teaching in the communication field. I’m glad he did. I met him when he came to OSU as a visiting professor in the late 1970s. He was a clear, deep thinker, with a vast command of the research on credibility and ethos. His training and competency in Aristotelian rhetoric and speech theory were impressive, nearly peerless. Surprisingly, his understanding of statistical methods was equally strong. We became friends and he welcomed our intellectual association. I solved some knotty problems with his help.

My association with Gary reemphasized what I already believed: that qualitative and quantitative ways of thinking about the world should not be mutually exclusive; in fact, separately tracking majors along such lines actually harms the entire enterprise. By contrast, when properly employed, each approach can enlighten the other. Unfortunately, in cases where institutions have decided to structure their communication programs into exclusive, separate qualitative and quantitative course requirements, it is inevitable that some severe problems of are bound to develop. I think offering degrees that enable students to study one or the other approach without requiring both conveys wrongheaded views of the entire process of inquiry, and that is too bad.

Another mentor was my advisor. His most lasting lesson to me as a developing scholar was to understand that the research enterprise is ontologically a social process from start to finish, and he was a social genius at making that part of his own research practice. He also led by example. The way he did research was in every way social, from the development of questions of interest to the performing of literature reviews, gathering of data and conducting data analysis etc. He also conveyed the idea that if you engage in the research process and are not having fun, you are doing it wrong. His teaching was infectious as a result.

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 agree that media change things, but unfortunately it is not always clear how. For example, even the greatest linguist cannot predict my next utterance. However, in general terms, I think it is obvious that the authoritarian role of the university professor has softened in the wake of the digital transition; things have shifted toward being more collaborative with students. The ability to bring students into the research process is more feasible through the help of speedier and more complete distance learning resources provided by the internet, including greater access to many once-unavailable databases. At the same time, having such tools and resources in no way releases teachers from doing their jobs: namely demonstrating clear thinking, mastery of their field, teaching students how to develop questions that are truly worthy of contemplation, and doing all of that with an ethical spirit in how one treats others in the process.

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

I hold up my cell-phone on the way into the classroom and request that the students do what I do–I turn mine off and exclaim that if they can power down when they go to the movies, they can do so in class. I also request that students close their laptops when I see them becoming distracted. I mention in the syllabus that a final course grade may be significantly reduced for lack of participation. Inattention can be identified by calling on a student to answer a question, seeing that they cannot, and then asking them to repeat the question that has been asked and seeing again that they cannot. In such cases, I have resorted to the dreaded florid swirl of my arm (pen in hand) as I make a mark in the roll book. Usually that is enough to solve the problem.

As for my personal ability to command attention, I do that by asking questions, and by using appropriate presentation skills (i.e., proper use of vocal range, gesture, facial expressions) when I speak. If done correctly, such techniques increase audience involvement which helps in meaning acquisition. I also make every effort to keep vocal pauses (i.e., “um”, “uh”) to a minimum, and to keep lectures brief and clear.

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?

Much is under threat as the digital transition alters the way information is created, stored, edited, retrieved, transmitted, shared, and assessed for its veracity. In some cases, the identity of end-users must be authenticated, as when examinations are taken online. Bio-medical methods of authentication (i.e., iris-scan technology) will be used more in the future as universities realize they must provide ways to validate student achievement in order to maintain accreditation. The integrity of the educational process is at risk when bad actors take advantage of weaknesses in the system to cheat or misrepresent information or plagiarize. Everyone loses when the system is compromised. Outside the university setting, there are increased opportunities for piracy, copyright infringement, corruption of information, and a host of other issues that challenge the integrity of information, content, and authorship of works in the online world.

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 and/or against academic tenure?

I am tenured and support retaining it for my future colleagues. Why? Because it is one of the ways to safeguard academic freedom. It releases controversial professors from a significant part of the worry associated with losing a job for taking positions that may be socially unpopular or critical of the institution for which they work. Of course, lazy professors may take advantage of tenure by becoming non-performers, which detracts from the scholarly enterprise, including teaching. Of course, there are a number of ways to deal with slackers: I have seen such nonperformers get undesirable teaching schedules, unattractive committee assignments, low or no merit raises etc. Such responses encourage deadwood profs to “Shape up or ship out.” The folkways and practices of the shop one works for have many ways of conveying displeasure.

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

My advice to young grad students and aspiring university professors is to keep reading and writing, engage in dialog at conferences with respected experts, keep asking questions, and then develop methods for answering them; talk to students and colleagues from other disciplines. Watch other professors teach. Audit classes in which you have an interest. Stay away from overly burdensome service assignments before tenure. Hone your teaching and presentation skills. Pay close attention to the classic authors and writings of your field.

In my field, knowing the history of ideas is in my view essential. The classics include the works of Aristotle (especially The Rhetoric and The Poetics), and rhetorical works by several Greek and Roman classical orators and scholars (i.e., Plato, Cicero, Quintilian). In the modern period, the history of ideas continues with the British Empiricists (Hume, Mill, Locke, Russell), and the major Continental philosophers (Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, Sartre, Wittgenstein, Husserl). In the philosophy of science, I recommend the edited collections of May Brodbeck, and works by Karl Popper, A. J. Ayer, Arthur Pap, Abraham Kaplan and Israel Scheffler; a fine, brief treatise on experimental and quasi-experimental design by Campbell and Stanley will repay close attention; a good research methods text is Fred Kerlinger’s book. In digital media, try to gain some understanding of the physical nature of the infrastructures that make digital media and messages possible (computers, telecommunication, and broadcasting systems, all of which are now interwoven).

On the social science side of things, students should be familiar with the theories of Skinner, Freud, Piaget, Durkheim, Mead and Parsons; critical theorists worth one’s time in my view include works by Susanne Langer, Cassirer, Habermas, and Gregory Bateson; to learn content analysis methods, I like Holsti, Krippendorff and Berelson. Carl Hovland and Clark Hull are worth some time for seeing how others have conducted true experiments involving learning and persuasion.

Your research focuses on the transition from analog to digital platforms across media and telecommunications institution. What are some of the authors, theories and schools of thought that inform your research?

I believe that to fully understand digital media, it helps to have a basic understanding of the physical nature of radio energy, telecommunications systems (i.e., how the telephone works), and computers. One needn’t become a physicist or electronics engineer, but it helps to have some appreciation for the technical aspects of the devices that make it possible to encode and send messages around the globe at the speed of light.

Once messages are encoded and transmitted, they must be consumed by an audience to have an impact—it is therefore essential to have some understanding of how symbolic content is apprehended by audience members. At the symbolic level, we transcend the realm of the physical and we are propelled into a cultural context.

The authors that can help in understanding the technical (physical and mathematical) aspects of media systems include Shannon and Weaver, George Boole, Charles Peirce. My book, “Deciphering Cyberspace,” mentions many others who have contributed to our understanding of  this part of the field.

As for the authors whose writings inform the symbolic aspects of messages, and audience analysis concepts, I recommend speech act theorists like Austin and Searle, linguistics scholars like Korzybski and Hayakawa, and meaning theorists like Ogden and Richards, Osgood, Suci, and Tannenbaum, and Charles Morris to name a few.

For the history of American broadcasting, students should read Erik Barnouw, and similar works by Gleason Archer. I have also found the ideas presented in American Pragmatism to be helpful so I’d recommend the works of John Dewey, and Charles Peirce, once again. If students want to learn more about the persuasion process, I’d recommend overview historical writings of James L. Golden, where many other scholars are recommended.

You are also actively involved in the assessment of distance learning and the use of digital media in distance education. How have student-professor relations changed with this advent of this new media ecology we dwell in?

As I stated earlier, the education process and the relationship between teacher and student are more collaborative and symmetrical, less authoritarian, more democratic, more a shared act of co-discovery, but with guidance from the professor-as-advisor. I find my most useful work lies nowadays in helping students invent well-formed questions, those amenable to yielding answers that can make the world a better place, questions that are worthy of contemplation.

In his 1969 interview with Playboy Magazine, McLuhan made the following statement with regards to modern education: “Because education, which should be helping youth to understand and adapt to their revolutionary new environments, is instead being used merely as an instrument of cultural aggression, imposing upon retribalized youth the obsolescent visual values of the dying literate age. Our entire educational system is reactionary, oriented to past values and past technologies, and will likely continue so until the old generation relinquishes power. The generation gap is actually a chasm, separating not two age groups but two vastly divergent cultures. I can understand the ferment in our schools, because our educational system is totally rearview mirror. It’s a dying and outdated system founded on literate values and fragmented and classified data totally unsuited to the needs of the first television generation.” Obviously, much has changed in terms of educational technologies since McLuhan’s time, but it seems as though the main claim behind this argument (his notion of a “rearview mirror”) remains valid even today. Would it be fair to say that the educational establishment is reactionary in that it always seems to lag behind technological innovation?

Technology development, it seems to me, often brings with it the need to adjust our legal and policy considerations, and to revise our cognitive understanding of how old and new technologies can should be used to serve culture and society; we often adopt new uses for old technologies. There are often unforeseen developments technology brings, even to the very institutions and systems that invented them in the first place. In short, the entire process is much more virulent, if you will, than anything McLuhan said in the quote you have selected. The problem with the McLuhan quote is that he characterized the developments he was writing about as constituting only “two vastly divergent cultures.” Instead what he should have said is that as the history of technology developments has shown, there are a number of paradigm shifts much greater than two. For example, we are now experiencing internet 2.0 or 3.0; such a locution leaves room for a next iteration, namely 4.0, 5.0, etc. Of course, through it all, from oral tradition to print, from analog to digital, from presses to cold type methods of reproducing printed words and pictures, from photography using film stock and films using celluloid (in dozens of film stocks and speeds developed over decades, including both black and white and color capability), to purely digital techniques for image capture helped by marrying cameras to computers, from ribbons of tape to hard drive recording etc., the one thing that has not changed is the pre-eminence of the idea that “Content is still king.” That is, people will not want to attend to media devices if there is no message worth attending to. The storage media and the delivery systems have changed, and those changes have wrought innumerable effects on the businesses that have either successfully or unsuccessfully adapted to the demands of new infrastructures, but without the creative spirit of artists presenting ideas that are worthy of contemplation, you have no audience. Today’s audiences have many choices—it is up to those with creative talent to capture audiences with important, worthwhile, engaging messages. That has become more important than ever for creating successful messages, meaning those that actually get an audience’s  attention.

In an article written in 2001, Whither Educational Technology?, Andrew Feenberg writes: “There is something about dialogue, and the active involvement of the teacher, that is fundamental to the educational process and that must be woven into the design of any new instructional tool. Educational technologies that lack an interactive component, such as televised courses and computer-aided instruction, have never succeeded in displacing teachers from the front of the classroom.”  Do you agree with Feenberg?

Yes! Piaget’s work on child psychology underscores the importance of thinking, discovering, and hypothesis-testing about the world in social settings in the physical world where open-ended possibilities abound, and human agents get to use all of their senses and bodies-as-brains to expand their understanding and share new ideas. Let me illustrate what I mean with a concrete example. In a fancy computer game that engages players with goals like saving a princess, or escaping bad guys in a dangerous place etc., there are relatively limited possibilities for grasping the universals of human nature, or learning about relationships between antecedent conditions and consequent circumstances in human affairs. Possibilities for action in a computer game don’t really measure up when compared to the open possibilities for action that occur every day in the real social world. In short, chess programs can’t teach tennis; programs that computes taxes can’t make a tuna fish sandwich. And whereas success in a computer game can be had with a limited array of physical motions using a controller or mouse while staring at a screen, the real world may suddenly demand unforeseen shifts in the set of expectations and the actions required for solving problems that arise with respect to a desired project (i.e., a flat tire on the way to a wedding may require replacing the flat, calling for help, walking or running to the event location, or being delivered there by a good Samaritan etc.). That is, a great number of solutions not originally conceived of by the human agents involved in the project may emerge through a flight of inventive adaptation. Currently, there does not seem to be a viable substitute in the virtual world for actual social activity that teaches how to adapt to changing circumstances. That is the advantage of actual human dialog between teacher and student.

What do you see distance education evolving into in the next 10 years?

Distance learning (DL) is destined to be with us and in ever-expanding roles over the next decade—that is my belief. I say this because there are good things DL can do for many who, for one reason or another, are unable to get to a live classroom. Some folks live too far away; some lack funds to afford tuition. Some welcome DL infrastructures being made available to them because they have physical limitations that make it difficult or impossible to attend traditional college classes. As DL advances, there will be growth in the quality and quantity of the offerings. Material will be vetted for accuracy and value, and be updated more often; hybrid classes (where some meetings will take place in more traditional settings) will supplement the curriculum. DL should be embraced by teachers because it opens up possibilities for reaching people who would otherwise be unable to get any instruction. Having said that, I do not buy the idea that DL is a perfect functional alternative or replacement for the traditional model of live instruction; it will be a long time before that will happen with any consistency. So I would continue to view DL as a supplementary alternative, but not a replacement for traditional instruction.

What are you currently working on?

My latest project is a prospectus for a new book; the working title is Social Media: Digital Politics. I look at the ways in which social media infrastructures that give us such things as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have altered the way political action unfolds. The inspiration for the book idea is the similarity I have noticed among the recent political events of the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall St. Movement, and the eruption of flash mobs for both good and ill. I think it is a subject old scholars from the pre-digital world (like Innis and McLuhan) would spend some time trying to understand in light of things they have said about how the spatio-temporal aspects of communication systems change the way nations, cultures, groups, and individuals use the opportunities and changes wrought by the digital transition.

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

Suggested citation:

Ralon, L. (2012). “Interview with Len Shyles,” Figure/Ground. March 21st.
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