Interview with Robert Babe

© Robert Babe and Figure/Ground
Dr. Babe was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. January 2nd, 2011.

Robert Babe is a Professor in the Faculty of Media and Information Studies at the University of Western Ontario, where he teaches courses in Research Methods, Public Opinion, and Canadian Communication Thought.  He earned his Ph.D. in Economics from  Michigan State University in 1972, and has taught both Economics and Communication studies at a number of prestigious Canadian Universities, such as Carleton, McGilll, Simon Fraser, and the University of Ottawa, where he was a faculty member for 18 years. Between 1972 and 2001, he also worked as a consultant for the Government of Canada, the Canadian Broadcasting Corportation, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, and the National Film Board of Canada, to name a few. He received numerous awards and honours, and has written several books and dozens of articles on various topics related to economics, information, and communication studies.

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

I did not plan ahead. Initially I was in pre-meds, with ambitions to be a medical doctor. Illness forced me to drop out of meds before attending a single lecture and, deciding to take it easy for the year, I concentrated on economics — my best subject. One of my economics profs suggested I enrol for a M.A., which I did, and later another suggested I should apply to a PhD program. Everything took place incrementally. I was working on my PhD thesis on the economics of the Canadian television industry when my major professor, Walter Adams, recommended me to the head of the Television and Radio Department at Michigan State University, and so I attained my first teaching position without even applying. It was on the basis of that year and a half in MSU’s TV and Radio Department that I became convinced to become a professor, although I was also strongly committed to return to Canada. I spent several years as a consultant in Ottawa, and one year as a public servant, often teaching part time, but always believed I should re-establish myself as a full time teacher and scholar. Without that time as a teacher at Michigan State, it is doubtful I would have had the resolve to pursue that role.

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

When I was an undergrad, there were no course evaluations. Professors lectured and students assimilated. Professors were seen as the fount of all knowledge and students were deemed to have little that was useful to say. Of course there were no overheads, let alone PowerPoint; lectures were delivered orally and some of us scrambled to write down as much of what the professor said as was possible. One consequence of the student protests of the late 1960s was the enlisting of student participation in academic decision-making, and an aspect of that was the routine evaluation of courses and instructors by students. Symbolically this meant that professors were no longer necessarily regarded as the fount of all wisdom and hence should be held accountable both for what they said and for how they said it. I think this new outlook combined with technological developments, both encouraging professors to make their classes more user-friendly, meaning that the oral recitation of lectures became increasingly supported by audio-visual aids. (A contributing factor to this change, of course, was the ridiculous expansion in class sizes, making some sort of visual support almost necessary). A second consequence of student power was a new willingness of professors to entertain questions, comments and opinions in class from students. Classes became more interactive, as opposed to one-way, predating analogous media developments.  On the other hand, electronic devices are now also increasingly displacing the classroom experience — distance education and course-related blogs, for example. But on the whole, at least when you get past the large-enrollment classes, there has been a nod in the direction of democratization of university learning.

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

I think what qualifies as a “good teacher” is somewhat related to the discipline, although in all cases a good teacher will encourage students to think for themselves. If you are teaching mathematics, the goal of encouraging students to think would presumably mean applying or extending the logic inhering to the field. For media and communication studies, I encourage critical thinking, which includes questioning the positions and arguments of textbook authors and other authorities. I often select as texts, books I want students to question and challenge. I would be most uncomfortable in the “old-style” lecture format described earlier where the person at the front of the class is presumed to be the fount of all wisdom.  Since my classes are interactive, always encouraging students to think critically about what others have said or positions advanced, students seem to be interested, even excited sometimes. I also stress the power implications of knowledge, that often some groups benefit if we think this way rather than that. Interestingly though, since I’ve been teaching at Western, and given the abundance of poststructuralists in the Faculty, I came to perceive poststructuralism as the established thinking and so I encourage my students to be critical of that. None of this is to suggest that I reject the idea of truth (as the poststructuralists uniformly seem to do), and indeed Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations finds its way into several of my classes.

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

Do your very best work at whatever you may be doing, irrespective of the perceived “payoff.” Don’t have too many preconceptions regarding your career trajectory. Assume what you are doing now is very important in and of itself. Appreciate the journey, rather than being fixated on the destination. Engage yourself in activities that help promote truth and justice rather than their opposite. And finally, quoting Polonius, “above all to thine own self be true,” no matter what the “norm,” others’ expectations, or the pecuniary rewards.

In my opinion, Canadian Communication Thought: Ten Foundational Writers is one of your most important books. How did you come up with the idea, and in a nutshell, what is the most fundamental underlining thread connecting all these thinkers?

I would definitely date that book back to 1968-69 when, as a PhD candidate, I took Warren Samuels’ three graduate courses at MSU on The History of Economic Thought. I found those so inspiring, challenging, enlightening and transforming; they definitely triggered my interest in intellectual history. Another root was James Carey’s seminal article, “Harold Adams Innis and Marshall McLuhan” (Antioch Review, 1967), and also Arthur Kroker’s extension of Carey to include George Grant in his book Technology and the Canadian Mind: Innis, McLuhan Grant (1984). Furthermore, having taught in the TV and Radio Department at MSU, and becoming somewhat acquainted with mainstream US media writings, I understood that there were significant differences in the mainstream scholarship in the two countries. By the late 1990s I felt I was ready to write this up.

Briefly, I would say the major factors distinguishing the Canadian theorists from their American counterparts are dialectics as opposed to functionalism, methodological collectivism rather than methodological individualism, a concern for political economy and disparities in power instead of an often implicit presumption of pluralism, and the foregrounding of mediation/ bias, which was one of Harold Innis’s remarkable insights, and one pursued  in various ways by all of the scholars treated in my book. One could say that the book sets out Innis’s media/ communication thought, and then explores the themes and variations articulated by nine other Canadian theorists.

What attracted you to Canadian communication studies generally, and how did your background in economics influence your appreciation of the field?

Again, I attribute this to time spent in the US. First, the economics I learned there was multifaceted, often quite different from the standard neoclassicism that was dispensed at the University of Western Ontario when I was an undergrad and MA student. I learned about power in economics, for instance, and of distinctly different economic approaches arising through time. This eventually all led to a strong appreciation of the work of Harold Innis. Second, my first academic job, in a media department teaching the economics of radio and television, meant I was required by my job description to integrate communication and economics — again, a foreshadowing of my later enthusiasm for the work of Innis. Third, being in the US, I grew much more appreciative of Canada, and at the same time apprehensive with regard to the survival of Canadian culture and its political/ economic independence.

I viewed at that time media industries through the lens of economics, albeit institutional as opposed to neoclassical. Later, as I grew increasingly familiar with communication studies research and approaches, I began critiquing mainline economics, being particularly critical of its understanding of information, communication, persuasion, mediation, prices, and power.

One of your more recent books is Cultural Studies and Political Economy: Towards a New Integration (2009).  What can you tell us about it?

Interestingly, I would say that my background in social science positioned me to critique the branch of cultural studies that has become aligned with poststructuralism. In 2002 Jody Berland, editor of Topia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, invited me not only to join the journal’s  Board of Directors, but also to contribute annual “political economy” columns. I did not really know much about cultural studies or poststructuralism at the time, but I learned some things over the next few years, much of which I found to be quite inane, yet this stuff was being taught, evidently in all seriousness, by members of my own faculty. After completing five columns for Topia, I was ready to gather revised versions of the columns together for a book, adding as context the histories of political economy and cultural studies, including their bifurcation with the rise of poststructuralism. In some ways I think this is my most important book. I teach from it at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, in what has essentially been a hotbed of poststructuralism — less so as time goes on, I trust.

What are you currently working on?

In the spring of 2011, Media, Structures and Power: The Robert E. Babe Collection is scheduled to appear from the University of Toronto Press. It is edited by my esteemed colleague, Edward Comor, and contains contributions from Sandra Braman, Robin Mansell, Paul Heyer, Hanno Hardt, Warren J. Samuels, and James Winter, as well as twenty or so of my pieces (all revised) covering the span of my career.

I’m also working on a book for Lexington Books entitled Meet Harold Innis, which is in essence an expansion of the final Topia column, “Poster Meets Innis: Poststructuralism and the Possibility of Political Economy.” In the new work I look at how Innis could have informed writers such as Wilbur Schramm, Kenneth Boulding, Theodor Adorno, David Harvey, and poststructuralists like Poster, as well as what he might have learned from them. I do not have a completion date in mind for this, but I am very excited.

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

Suggested citation:

Ralon, L. (2011). “Interview with Robert Babe,” Figure/Ground. January, 2nd.
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