Interview with Susan Barnes

© Susan B. Barnes and Figure/Ground
Dr. Barnes was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. November 7th, 2010.

Dr. Susan B. Barnes is a full professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Associate Director of the Lab for Social Computing at the Rochester Institute of Technology. She has received numerous grants for both applied and theoretical research on the impact of computers in society.  Her publications include Online Connections: Internet Interpersonal Relationships (2001, Hampton Press) and Computer-Mediated Communication: Human-to-Human Communication Across the Internet (2003, Allyn & Bacon), Web Research: Selecting, Evaluating & Citing with Marie Radford and Linda Barr (2002, Allyn & Bacon), Mediated interpersonal communication with E. A. Konijn, S. Utz, M. Tanis (2008, Routledge). Dr. Barnes has written articles and book chapters for Real Law @ Virtual Space, Communication and Cyberspace, Emerging Issues in Cyberculture, Communication Education, Journal of Science, Technology & Society, The IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, The New Jersey Journal of Communication, The Iowa Journal of Communication, New Media & Society, and Interpersonal Computing and Technology:  An Electronic Journal for the 21st Century (IPCT-J), the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication and First Monday. Currently, she is the Visual Communication Series editor for Peter Lang Publishing. In addition to her academic work, Dr. Barnes was a new media consultant and multimedia designer in New York City.  Professionally, she has been Co-Chair of the New York Macintosh User’s Group Multimedia Special Interest Group (SIG) and Chair of the Computer Graphics SIG for the Graphic Artist’s Guild.  Her artwork has been exhibited internationally and her design clients included: AdWeek, Apple Computer, Commodore Computer, McCann Erickson, Seagrams, Xerox, WWOR-TV, and HOT ‘97, a New York radio station.

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

Actually, there is a story behind this.  In the early 1980’s I was a graphic designer with a promising business.  It was part print and part audio visual design. Then in 1985, the IBM computer with a program called PC-Paint came on the market and began to be used.  Half my business dissolved when the machine became popular for making audio visual materials.  To make-up for the income loss, I began teaching part-time.  When I applied for better jobs, I was told that I needed a better degree. So, I had a choice: to get an MFA in graphic arts or a Ph.D. in communication.  I knew that the Ph.D. would give me more flexibility.  It was a marketing of myself decision.

When I started talking about my plans for further education, a friend named David Linton recommended the Media Ecology Program.   It made sense because attending this program meant that I didn’t have to move and I could continue with my adjunct teaching and freelance work, which then included advertising for computer companies.  I was accepted to the program and the rest is history.

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

My undergraduate work was at an art school, which is very different training than an academic subject.  My masters was in performing arts, which again did not focus on writing thesis or research papers. Our classes were much more activity focused, which is the direction that education is heading today.  It wasn’t until I entered the Ph.D. program that I started having research work to do.  The style of teaching at NYU was more discussion oriented and Neil Postman was a very engaging Professor.

But, from my own teaching experiences I can trace the introduction of computers into education. My first academic teaching job was at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), where I computerized their advertising program.  I designed courses in multimedia computing for advertising communication majors.  From FIT, I went to Marymount Manhattan College to add desktop publishing and desktop video to their communication department.  Fordham University then offered me a position to create a digital media program.  All of the courses developed were interactive classes with technology.  After Sept. 11th, I applied for a job at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) to leave the NYC area.  At RIT, my career took a new turn.  We did a Lab for Social Computing start-up and I received a National Science Foundation Grant to study the role of social networking in the classroom.

The biggest change in the role of the University Professor is the fact that student no longer revere professors because of the books they have written.  Instead, students want classes that are more interactive and fun.

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

Commanding attention in the classroom can be difficult.  My first suggestion is don’t let students use laptop computers when lecturing.  They will be looking at YouTube, IMing friends, and playing online games.  My second suggestion is to try and develop constructivist learning methods that engage students with activities instead of passively sitting in a room.  Blended learning can also help because students are engaged with the computer to discuss problems.  I have also used blended learning to ask quiz questions that will engage the students with a textbook.    My third suggestion is to make sure that the textbook is used in projects and assignments for the class.  Otherwise, some students don’t even buy the textbook. Finally, carefully examine the type of text that you use.  Books from academic publishers are often less expensive than books from textbook companies. The price of the textbook should be considered.

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

Younger professors may have an advantage over older ones because they can be more in-tune with younger generations.  But students are constantly changing.  They have no longer been groomed in high school for college work.  Decide what is the most important thing to learn about a subject and develop interactive learning exercises to teach it.  You can get students to work hard, but you have to motivate them to do so. Find ways to motivate students, such as having them research a topic they are interested in.

Who were some of your mentors as a graduate student at NYU and what did you learn from them?

Neil Postman was a wonderful mentor.  I remember several incidents where I tried to get his attention with clever ideas.  For instance, the first thesis that I wanted to do had already been done, so I had to come up with a new idea.  At the time I was doing some computer development and had four or five computers in a row in my loft.  Looking at the machines, a Mac, Amiga, and mini-computer, I realized that computer screens were becoming graphical.  I knew that if I told Neil that I wanted to research how computer screens were going form text (IBM-Dos) to graphical interfaces (Macintosh, Amiga, and Mosaic), it would capture his interest and it did.

Another time, the department was very anti computer and visual aids.  So, in a teaching class that Neil used to sit in on, I used PowerPoint slides and started my presentation with very dry media ecology information.  Then the question was asked:  “Does the Mac make you stupid?”  Neil immediately woke up and said, “I need that research.”  While the students in the class criticized me for the PowerPoints, the teacher wanted to know how to make the slides.  What I learned from Neil is that you can market yourself as an academic if you ask and answer provocative questions.

The most useful tool I learned was from Chris Nystrom.  She taught the seven sentences to organize a thesis idea.  It was going from the broad area of communication that the study was under to the specific idea you want to research. I still use the strategy with my grad students to help them organize their thinking and writing.

Did personal computers make us stupid?

That is an interesting question.  When I started my research on Graphical User Interfaces (GUI), I did not know that Neil was a friend of Alan Kay, the developer of the (GUI).  Neil invited Alan to speak at one of our conferences and I really got some insight into how the GUI was supposed to work. The original concept was to make the computer, including the programming, easy enough for a child to use. Kay believed that if the computer was going to be a primary medium of communication, then people should be able to read and write (programming) with it. But, Steve Jobs only saw the visual potential and not the programming.  As a result, the Macintosh was a visual, not a verbal machine.  So in a way the computer does make us stupid because we cannot easily program it.  The computer is a medium of communication that is beyond the understanding of most people.  The argument for this is that most of us do not understand cars either.  However, a car is a mode of transportation, not communication.  Now we have the widespread use of a communication technology that most people don’t know how to control or program.  We depend upon the software written by companies.  Therefore, embedded in computers is a commercial bias.

Is today’s generation the “dumbest generation” in your view?

Personally, I would not use the word “dumb.”  The current generation of kids have grown up with computers.  But it is not just the computers that shape them.  Today both mothers and fathers work and they program the kids time through play dates, sports and music lessons.  Kids growing up today don’t have enough time to imagine or play.  Playing a video game is not the same as making up a game to play with the neighbourhood kids.  A certain amount of creativity is missing from today’s students.  They want to know exactly what to do and you can’t give them room to be imaginative, unless it is structured into the assignment.

Also, I believe that computers have contributed to the lack of respect that kids have for adults.  As a child of the 1960s, I was aware that there were problems with adult society.  However, I also knew that I had to take responsibility for my actions.  You cannot disrespect parents and then be irresponsible with your actions.  An example of this is cyberbullying.  There is a lot of misbehaviour on the Internet because people are not being responsible for their actions.  At times many of these actions may appear dumb, but the kids don’t know how they are supposed to act.

Additionally, because the computer is a new medium, adults did not know how to respond to it and help guide their kids in its use.  Parents let the kids become the experts on the machine, which usurped parental controls. Today, people look to schools to solve all of these social problems, but it really all starts with the home and teaching appropriate and inappropriate social behaviourIt also doesn’t help when parents don’t believe their children could do anything wrong and don’t support school’s policies.

Interesting remarks about respect and responsibility, or lack thereof. What is it about anonymity and distance that seems to bring the worst out of people?

Anonymity is the one topic that I did not cover in the last question.  A key media ecological concept for the Internet is the fact that computer-mediated communication separates people in the communication process.  This relates to the concept of conditions of attendance.  Face-to-face communication requires people to be co-present as a condition of attendance and the Internet does not.  Because we don’t see each other there is sometimes a feeling of anonymity, or the feeling that we don’t have to be responsible for what we say and do online.  The separation of people from their words, enables individuals to misbehave online.  A central issue for supportive Internet communication is people need to take responsibility for their words and actions.

You mentioned off the record that you were interested in the concept of figure and ground, which is central to McLuhan’s main thesis but is also present in the works of phenomenologists and gestalt psychologists. I am curious as to where your thinking is headed with regards to this notion…

Figure ground is a concept in Gestalt theory that says you can’t see the figure and the background at the same time. The idea relates to McLuhan and media ecology because you can not focus on the content of a medium and its structural form. People need to examine one or the other, for example, the idea of conditions of attendance.  If researchers just examine the content (figure) of discussion lists, they will observe misbehaviour and not know why it occurs.  But, if you examine the structure (ground) of the different communication media, you will observe that people are separated from their actions. This separation tends to make some people believe they are anonymous and as a result can do whatever they want without being responsible for their actions.  Looking at the medium itself and not the content of the medium, will provide a greater understanding of the medium’s impact on culture.

What other projects are you currently working on, and when is your next book coming out?

Currently, I am working on two book projects.  One is a visual communication book called Visual Communication: From Cave Art to Second Life. The book provides a history of visual technologies and the theories of visual communication, information on how to become visually literate, and a description of how digital technologies have changed media—print, TV, photography, film, graphic design, and advertising.  Additionally, it has a chapter about new digital technologies, including virtual reality and Second Life (Peter Lang Publishing). This project should be published next Fall.

The other is called Socializing the Classroom and it is about using social media in classroom environments.  It is based on grant research.  A National Science Foundation grant to study the use of social networking tools in the classroom and a Provost’s Teaching and Learning grant to incorporate Second Life into an advertising course.  Using a media ecological approach, social networking is examined throughout the book (Lexington Press). I expect this to be out next Winter.

As soon as these books are completed, I hope to be working on a follow-up book to Computer-Mediated Communication that focuses more on social networking.

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

Suggested citation:

Ralón, L. (2010). “Interview with Susan Barnes,” Figure/Ground. November, 7th.
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Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at

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