Interview with Mark Lipton


© Mark Lipton and Figure/Ground
Dr. Lipton was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. June 30th, 2013.

Mark Lipton is an Associate Professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph. He is an advocate for media literacy and is currently working with social media to advocate for Ontario public school teachers. His current work with the Media Education Project is funded by the Canadian Council on Learning and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. This research considers how Canadian teachers engage with media and information and communication technologies (ICTs) in the classroom to assess how ICTs function within a broader context of teaching and learning. His current research interests focus on media education and include work in the history of communication, semiotics, media cultures and subcultures. He teaches courses about media and communication, digital literacy and pedagogy, performance studies and research methods. He also teaches in the Media Studies program at Guelph-Humber.

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

I just try to do my work and the things that I love. When I think about doing my work I don’t think about being a university professor; I think about doing what it is that I love to do. My energy is driven by following lines of inquiry, which are inspired by my curiosity. As a child with unlimited access to television, I needed to understand how the technologies of my generation influenced my life. Living in places like Montreal and New York City, my involvement in activist performance led me to pursue graduate studies. Working full time while attending graduate school granted opportunities and access to the life of the mind. Becoming a university professor is something that happened as I moved through my journey. So yes, it was both conscious and unconscious.

Who were some of your mentors in graduate school?

I had a lot of mentors. The first time I met Neil Postman I was twenty years old. Little did I know that we would spend a great deal of time in close quarters. I had open door access to Postman and his intellectually rich department from 1991 til 2000. I cherish my relationships with some of the greatest minds: Christine Nystrom, Terrence Moran, Joy Gould Boyum and Henry Perkinson. One of the most important lessons addressed media ecology: the idea that media change is ecological. A new medium of communication influences all facets of a culture, including the self.  These lessons led me into this world where I haven’t been able to stop thinking.

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?

As an undergraduate student I was shielded from what it means to be a university professor. Following Goffman’s dramaturgical model, the front stage that I understood as an undergraduate is so different from the backstage reality of what this job means. And in that sense, I don’t think it has changed that much. I have seen significant changes that are based on economic pursuits. Universities are increasingly following a neo-liberal model, which devalues faculty. When I first started teaching, a large class was 35 students. Today I face a class of two to three hundred students. This means that my pedagogy has changed significantly. The goals of a university professor have not changed. I still seek to know the causes of things, to educate students as best I can, and to service my institution and my intellectual community.

What about student-professor relations – do you think that might have changed?

We are living through significant media changes influencing our educational institutions. The university classroom is a site of contest among students with different learning styles. In my lecture hall of 300 students many prefer the laptop, have an online identity, and spend time social networking. Others still prefer to have pen and paper. Despite today’s technological classroom, I continue to respect academic traditions. I hold office hours regularly, however many students are seeking my individual attention through virtual means. Starting in 2012, I began Skype office hours. I think students have a different set of expectations regarding the professor’s role. My challenge is to stay open to these shifting expectations.

What is your policy in class toward the use of laptops and social media?

I am not a sage on the stage professor. My pedagogy promotes interactivity and the use of social media. In fact, I’ve written about Facebook and how I use it in a 300-person lecture hall. I am interested in how Facebook functions as a critical resource and functional tool. I apply my research about education by holding lectures about Facebook’s social implications, and I use Facebook as a content management system. By projecting a live Facebook wall during lecture time, I encourage students to use social media to post questions or links. We are in the midst of a changing educational environment. I don’t believe in policing that environment or being punitive. Rather, I try to role model professional behaviour. That said, I reserve the right to change my mind.

What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by fractured attention and information overload?

I think a good teacher today has a strong point of view, and he or she seeks to help students see the world through a point of view other than their own – that is, teaching a kind of critical awareness; bringing a sense of criticism to whatever subject it is that they are teaching, and during that process, finding ways to be inspiring and to foster a love of learning. I think a good teacher today is happy!

I think I negotiate attention rather than commanding it. I actually invite disruption into the classroom. This allows me to become the leader that focuses attention and directs learning. I acknowledge that students’ attention is fractured; that they are used to multitasking, and that multitasking is good for certain things but not others. Sadly, I can’t focus their attention for them; rather, I have to adapt what and how I teach given that they have problems focusing their attention. Sometimes I feel like the captain of a ship. Each classroom is different. Each journey depends on the environment. Students are important members of the ship’s crew, and are asked to actively participate. But things change from day to day – depending on the weather.

What are some of the things that you do in class to achieve that effect?

My classes might seem very unstructured, whereas in fact they are very structured by small amounts of content and time. I sometimes refer to this as a “lecturette”.  First I talk about three or four key words or a theory that I need to explain; next I apply it to some audio-visual content; then I time it to give ten to twelve minutes of critical discourse between me and my students – the goal is to create a dialectic. I also let the room get noisy before I refocus attention and start on the next topic. As well, it is about negotiating what students are interested in versus my non-negotiable contents.

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

 Don’t pursue doctoral work because you think it will come with a job. There are no guarantees of jobs. Pursue doctoral work because you are passionate about ideas. Be generous and enjoy your work. Someone once told me when I was doing my MA that I was entering the world of ideas and walking away from other worlds, and I continue to live in that world of ideas. I have done what I am passionate about; I haven’t followed the money.  I would urge students to walk a fine line between thinking about what you do as labour and thinking about what you do as ideological work, which is part of who you are. If being a graduate student or a young professor is solely focussed on your labour – if this is just a job – you will have a hard time as your responsibilities increase.

But doesn’t that apply to just about any job?

It applies to every job! I think the beautiful thing about being a scholar is that we have an opportunity to live in this world of ideas, and even young graduate students are given an opportunity to – for a short time – live in a world of ideas. I think it is important to have people in our society who play the role of thinker. But returning to your previous question, I would advice students to walk a fine line between being multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary and having a disciplinary home. It is important to know about the disciplines within which you work. And I would also encourage young graduate students and aspiring university professors to look at what is happening in the world of digital media, and to not resist it; to play with large amounts of data; to use the tools for research methods or for social means. Finally, I urge all young people working in this profession to form strong personal allegiances; don’t work in a vacuum. Keeping in mind that research is only a part of what is required of this job; teaching and service requirements can be more fruitful and pleasurable in collaborative environments.

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 interdisciplinarity, 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?

The rise of digital tools and methods presents incredible opportunity in terms of discourse and practice about new media, the changing nature of humanity as a whole, and the overlapping natures between arts and humanities and media. There are also other overlapping challenges in such areas as leadership and management and law and health. For example, I’ve been doing work in health prevention and media literacy for a long time, so yes I do think that there are opportunities. However, I don’t read McLuhan’s words as an endorsement of interdisciplinarity.  It is less an existential trend and more a fundamental safeguard of departmental sovereignties. I don’t see departmental sovereignties melting away as quickly as McLuhan thought. Departmental sovereignties are still pretty large.

McLuhan’s words immediately address questions of nation and space. Since 1964 there have been some changes in terms of national lines, probably fewer changes in the academy. Well, things are pretty much stable. Any change in a university environment is glacial. The notion of interdisciplinarity safeguards disciplines. There is no threat, and I think electric speed reinforces sovereignties.  If anything, academic institutions are in crisis in terms of funding strategy, because ultimately universities have to pay the bills.

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 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.  Do you agree with the author?

Fukuyama is taking a very conservative position; it is a very easy position for Fukuyama to take as a tenured professor at Johns Hopkins, and as someone celebrated as a star within a system of academic stars. I understand and I agree that the rationale of academic integrity is important to protect academic freedom; however, I am more concerned with the dwindling numbers of tenured faculty and the rising numbers of administrative positions, and I get very concerned when institutions are run by dollars and not by ideas. Constantly, administrations are taking over certain responsibilities that would have been within the scope of faculty.

For example?

For example, the size and scope of a department. Even department curriculum committees can be stacked. Faculty are supposed to maintain disciplinary and intellectual authority. With the eradication of tenure, curriculum committees have fewer faculty members and more members selected by the administration, who tend to make decisions based on dollars as opposed to ideas.

In Canada, where I am working now, those dollars are very much tied to government systems of policy. This means academic institutions have to become lobbyists. This changes the entire nature of what the institution means – what it means to get an education. Increasingly the government has the power to dictate what universities can and should do. There should be a very clear distinction between government initiatives and the traditions of faculty, faculty research, and academic disciplines. I don’t want the government telling me what it is that I need to teach. I don’t want the government to shape my research agenda. I am accountable to the purpose of higher education.

I believe education is a right, not a privilege. If Fukuyama has his way, and universities focus on the bottom line, then only a select few will have access to the best education. All other students will receive a cost-effective education. Today’s faculty need to be particularly vigilant to maintain current rights and responsibilities. Fukuyama’s argument comes from his position as a privileged academic star.

What aspects of media ecology inform your work in media literacy?

I went to meet Neil Postman because I knew I wanted to work in the cross-section between media and education; this was in the late 1980s. At that time there wasn’t really anyone else that I had access to for graduate school who was writing about these topics. Postman’s work on education is what first attracted me to media ecology. Media ecology, in this sense, emerges from English Education. My understandings of the teachings of English are directly connected to how I come to the area of media literacy. Both media literacy and media ecology are interested in symbols, texts, contexts and their meanings. Both take a transactional approach to reality. Both are interested in contemporary political, social, and cultural experiences, and how these experiences produce a social identity. I could go on for hours talking about my love for media ecology, but I think I’ve given enough sense of how vital media ecology has been to my life and work.

I didn’t really know who Postman was when I went to go meet him in 1986, and I didn’t even know what media ecology was; I just said “this is what I want to do. Are you the guy for me?” And he said: “yeah!”

Before coming to Guelph, you directed the Media Ecology program at New York University. What do you make of the fact that the PhD program at NYU no longer carries the same title?

Well, it doesn’t mean that media ecology is over. Media ecology is an approach that lives on in the Media Ecology Association. I’ve also begun to see different schools of media ecology. Of course there is the New York approach; there is definitely a Toronto school; and there are certainly people writing about media ecology from a Continental perspective. As I read more contemporary theory, I see the words “media ecology” and “media environment” used across disciplines. In fact, I was just reading some engineering texts where they were writing about media environment. To me this means that media ecology has taken hold across academic discourse communities – and that was the point!

What are you currently working on?

I love dogs. I’m exploring the possibility of writing an article about memory and forgetting through my experiences with my canine companion species. I am also working on a number of articles based on my government sponsored research about barriers and obstacles elementary and secondary teachers face when confronted with media, information and communication technologies in the classroom. I am looking to build a team for a new research project where I hope to be digging up new data about learning outcomes and assessment. Oh, and I am working on a book with Professor Twyla Gibson for Oxford University Press about “the digital essay” based on experiences with students who want to intersect academic research with digital media. It’s called “Research, Write, Create: Connecting Scholarship with Digital Media.”

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

Suggested citation:

Ralon, L. (2013). “Interview with Mark Lipton,” Figure/Ground. June 30th.
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