Interview with Marco Adria

© Marco Adria and Figure/Ground
Dr. Adria was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. August 27th, 2010.

Dr. Marco Adria is an Associate Professor of Communications and Director of the Graduate Program in Communications and Technology program at the University of Alberta. Dr. Adria teaches communications theory and the management of communications technologies. He is the author/co-author of various publications in the areas of organizational communication, popular culture, and nationalism, including three books. He has served as President of the Canadian Association of Library Trustees and as Chair of the Edmonton Public Library Board. His Ph.D. is from the Aston University Business School in Birmingham, U.K.

How did you decide to become a professor, who were some of your mentors in graduate school, and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?

I was a professional editor and writer before I began teaching. My first teaching assignment was to teach undergraduates about writing. The students in that first class were a bit older than average. They all had full lives and lots of experience. I invited them to explore writing as a means of achieving self-knowledge on the one hand and, on the other hand, expressing oneself with a distinctive voice. They went along with that sort of approach, and for me it was the richest introduction to university teaching that one could have wanted. After some 25 years, I still hear from and occasionally meet some of the students from that class. Then at Trent University I was a teaching assistant to Prof. T.H.B. Symons, who had founded Trent and who more than anyone else created Canadian Studies as a scholarly area in the 1970s. He was a wonderful academic leader, because he was always asking questions and he really listened to people, whoever he might encounter in the classroom and outside the classroom. His approach in creating Canadian Studies was that Canadians tended not to pursue knowledge of the country’s history and culture and were somehow innocent of it. The title of his influential study on the topic retrieved Plato. It was, “To know ourselves.” The phenomenon of looking without seeing comes out in Marshall McLuhan’s work, too, but McLuhan’s language is more tailored for mass consumption. He said media had made somnambulists of us all – sleep-walkers. And I think this theme comes through in the public comments of the Ontario novelist Robertson Davies. He predicted 20 years ago something of the terrorist threat we now know all about, when he said Canadians should be more watchful of our borders. Again, this idea of knowing yourself, waking up, seeing what previously was invisible – this had a great influence on me when I was a graduate student.

What makes a good teacher today? How do you command attention in the classroom in this age of interruption characterized by fractured attention and information overload?

Good teachers pause from time to time.  I mean they actually stop talking to the point that everyone begins to hear the sound of traffic outside the classroom window. It’s the only way I know that really lets students know that I’m listening and that we’re all learning together. That’s surely the great secret of teaching, which is that the teacher is a learner, too. I’ve tried, but you can’t really command attention in the university classroom. You can invite students into a collegial space and then see what might be possible. Online methods can be used in part to create a collegial space, because they allow learners to try out ideas and even new voices with limited risk to the ego.

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

The population of tenured professors in existence today is the largest in history. It’s a historical anomaly but a great one, and I think we should do what we can to exalt the scholarly enterprise. It’s often said that the university professor’s pay isn’t worth the trouble. But before potential scholars give up on the university they should check the market of both implicit rewards as well as the explicit ones. Being a professor is the last good job left. Specialization and automation have created a world in which craft and autonomy are not widely valued or even understood anymore. And yet they are the only really worthwhile implicit rewards that occupational work has to offer.

You did your PhD at Aston University Business School in Birmingham, UK. How was your transition from business to communication studies?

Studying in the U.K. was a formative experience for me, both in how I studied and what I studied. The British have a tradition in their universities of the extended conversation between tutor and pupil, which is quite different from the North American emphasis on modularity. In both Canada and the U.S., graduate students build up a suite of courses and scholarly requirements and then receive a degree. The British see the process more organically. In the U.K. university, you keep talking until you graduate, or decide you won’t finish. Also, the British haven’t yet adopted the North American idea that communication as an object of study is primarily a functional phenomenon. They still believe, as we do through the Canadian tradition of Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan, that communication is constitutive, that it must be studied reflectively and recursively, because it refers to itself and draws on itself.

What did you write your dissertation on? Being a graduate student in Birmingham, I assume you were influenced by British Cultural Studies…

My studies at Aston University examined the relationship between and among hierarchy, culture, and market, in other words communication. My dissertation examined regional identity in Canada and allowed me to continue later with my study of relationship of nationalism to media and technology. When I was at Aston, I admired a group of organizational theorists called the “Aston Group” who carried out influential studies in the 1960s and 1970s about how organizational size is related to technology choice. From them, I took away how one can initiate and develop academic work. I didn’t emulate their actual methods, which were quite quantitative. I’m interested in historical and qualitative approaches, but organizational theorists like Bob Hinings and Derek Pugh showed the value of breaking new ground. If it is really new ground, it doesn’t take long for others to follow. This is how new questions are generated.

Is there an “Edmonton School of Communication” in the making?

There could be, if people think there should be. Perhaps the Edmonton School will emerge to show a kind of return to the transportation metaphor of communication.  Paul Virilio sees speed and logistics as motivating and energizing the extension of communication networks, and we have a good sense of that in Edmonton. At one time, Edmonton was at the centre of three converging extensive railways.  We now have the Edmonton Indy, which builds on several decades of auto racing in the city. One of our airports is right in the middle of the city’s downtown. Edmonton is the staging ground for the massive oilsands industry of northern Alberta. Edmontonians love to get around.

How did you become interested in McLuhan? Did you read him systematically as a graduate student? How do McLuhan studies, Media Ecology and Canadian communication studies inform your work on communication technology and informatics?

I first encountered Marshall McLuhan’s work as a figure within Canadian Studies and then later was able to locate and respond to his work as a communication theorist. I was initially interested in how McLuhan’s contribution to knowledge and ideas could be viewed as having an affinity with the culture of life as it is lived in the northerly regions of North America. I was most interested in the intellectual framing of his ideas as coming from the “periphery,” or “hinterland” as Innis might have called it. There’s a different quality in the voice in comments that originate from outside the major centres of power. To me that quality of voice is strong in McLuhan’s work. We hear a similar voice in other world-historical figures from Canada. I’m thinking of artists such as Glenn Gould and Douglas Coupland, but also scholars like Erving Goffman and John Kenneth Galbraith. McLuhan’s sensibility as an intellectual was also shaped fully by his spirituality and faith, and that’s often missed in biographies and reassessments of his work. I want to mention that Douglas Coupland writes quite persuasively about McLuhan’s faith in his recent short biography.

A couple of years ago you told me about various projects in the making both by the University of Alberta and the City of Edmonton in preparation for the 100th anniversary of McLuhan. Could you give us a glimpse of what’s coming?

In June 2011, I will be hosting, along with my colleagues at the University of Alberta, the 12th Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association. This will be the first time the MEA is meeting in Canada, partly in recognition of the McLuhan Centenary that we’re celebrating. McLuhan was born on 21 July 1911 in Edmonton, and we want to re-examine McLuhan’s ideas in relation to our current situation. The theme of the conference is, “Space, place, and the McLuhan legacy,” which will allow scholars to consider and interrogate the contribution McLuhan made to how and why we develop urban landscapes as media-rich spaces. I hope people will visit the website at http://www.media-ecology.org/activities/index.html

What are you currently working on?

I’m between books at the moment. My Technology and nationalism was published earlier this year by McGill-Queen’s University Press. The book describes the historical origins of nationalism in parallel with the expansion of industrial economies. It argues that nationalism is a kind of “cause” of the nation-state and not an “effect” as we often assume. Nationalism is a movement and set of ideas that finds expression in political demands for rapid and seemingly endless growth and expansion. The city and urban life is a required ingredient for such growth. We’re now seeing something to which McLuhan pointed long ago, which is that the city is a “composite.” In the language of the Internet, the city is a mash-up.  Media can be understood not just as allowing us to see the city more closely and more intensively, they are also what we see. I would like to write more about how more people, and more diverse groups of people, can become involved directly in giving shape to what has been called “locative media.” I suppose if we all live with technology, we should all have something to say about how it’s been put together and where it’s likely to pop up.

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

Suggested citation:

Ralon, L. (2010). “Interview with Marco Adria,” Figure/Ground. August 27th.
<  http://figureground.org/interview-with-marco-adria/  >


Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at ralonlaureano@gmail.com