Interview with Terrence P. Moran

© Terence P. Moran and Figure/Ground
Dr. Moran was interviewed by Angela Cirucci. October 12th, 2012.

Terence P. Moran is Professor of Media,Culture, and Communication at New York University, where he has taught since 1967. In 1970, he co-founded the graduate programs in Media and Communication, which he directed for over thirty years. In 1985, he was the founding director of the undergraduate program. The co-editor (with Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner) of Language in America (1969),the co-author (with Eugene Secunda) of Selling War to America: From the Spanish American War the the Global War on Terror (2007), and the author of Introduction to The History of Communication: Evolutions and Revolutions (2010), he is the author of numerous articles on language, media, and propaganda in both academic and popular publications.He is also a writer and/or producer of documentaries on such diverse subjects as career women in New York City (City Originals: Women Making It Work, 1994), the conflict in Northern Ireland (Sons of Derry, 1993), and the cultural history of McSorley’s Old Ale House (McSorley’s New York, 1987), for which he shared a New York Area Emmy Award for Outstanding Arts/Cultural/Historical Programming. He has received a Teaching Excellence Award from the Steinhardt School, a Louis Forsdale Award for Outstanding Educator in the Field of Media Ecology from the Media Ecology Association, and a special Founder of Media Ecology Award from the New York State Communication Association.

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

I’m not sure that I decided to do it; it was an evolutionary process. I served four years in the Marine Corps and when I came out I went to NYU. At that time I was intending to be a writer. I thought if I got a degree in English, I could get a job as a teacher and then I could have summers off to write. So I became an English major. I graduated and went to teach in the New York City public school system. At the time, in order to get the license and to get more money, you had to have a master’s degree; so I stayed on and got a master’s degree in English. During that time Neil Postman had been my professor and then we’d become sort of friendly, and he trained me a bit. He encouraged me to go into the doctoral program. So I went into the Ph.D.. I went for a year part-time while I was teaching, still in the public school system. And then Neil said to me: “We’ve got an opening for a teaching fellow. Would you like to do that?” So I said “Sure.” One year after that there was a special opening – somebody left immediately because he was just promoted to assistant professor, and they asked me if I would like to take the position as an instructor. So I got the job as an instructor. I was never interviewed by anybody; I never turned in a resume or anything. That was 1967 and at that time I was teaching here at NYU, and Neil and I were working together on designing a graduate program in language and communication, which eventually morphed into the Media Ecology Program in 1970. We finished and I graduated with my degree in ’71, and then I was appointed assistant professor. And two years later I was named associate professor. So I sort of slid into it – I didn’t set out to be a university professor.

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

Well, I was really fortunate that I learned a great deal from a number of people and Neil was in English education in those days. Neil helped me tremendously to think about communication and language and those sorts of things, and to think critically. But I had about a half dozen fabulous professors here: Floyd Buckingham was one, Roger Cayer was a tremendously good guy, and there were just a bunch of really, really good people. Neil became my mentor and my guide and my dissertation Chair, so I was mostly influenced by him. He had a great friend who wasn’t here but was teaching in Queens – Charlie Winegardner – who became a great mentor to me. And then outside of that, I had taken courses in communication, both undergraduate and graduate, in what was in those days called the Communication and Education department. It was established by Charles Siepman, and was one of the first such departments in the United States, started in the late ‘40s, if I remember the history of it. I had classes with both Siepman and George Gordon, who was a fantastic professor of communication who wrote roughly ten books on the discipline of communication and moved around a number of places. He and I stayed friends for many, many years. And he was just an exceptionally good teacher.

I would have to say, though, that Neil was my major influence. It wasn’t in just the content of what he taught me, but he taught me how to think and how to teach.

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

I can only speak from my own experience. The university has moved from what the sociologists call a “social system” to a “bureaucratic system.” It used to be a much more collegial kind of place where a lot of the decisions and a lot of the structures were quite informal. And now they’ve become highly technical, highly rigid, very formal. Not just simply formalized but very, very technical. I mean no one could be hired the way I was. Sometimes it astonishes my young colleagues who are just joining us that I never went through anything that they are. It was an evolutionary process because the people who hired me knew me as a student; they knew what my qualities were, and what my work was so there wasn’t a big debate about it. And that process was done a lot in those days. It was good and bad: It was good because it was informal, but it was bad in the sense that it really was there for networking. We didn’t use those terms, but if you knew somebody, you were there. You were hired more on whim than anything else.

The communication environment here changed. So the medium of the university changed and it became much more bureaucratic, much more hierarchical. And that wasn’t done because there was a change in the structure of technology. It was done because there was a change in the people who were running the place. They moved to another kind of model. There was nothing to say that you couldn’t run it the other way, but it’s become much more corporate. And I am told by colleagues that this is the norm around America, that the universities are becoming more like business corporations. Decisions are being made more along those business lines of profit and loss, rather than more socialized lines of what’s worth knowing and what’s the best way people learn.

Off the record, Dr. Peter Fallon commented that, “when you wrote a reaction paper or a critical analysis for Terry, pretty much every square inch of remaining white space on each page was filled with his comments, questions, objections, and encouragements.” He pointed out that he integrated this approach into his own pedagogy and tried to teach his students that what they were learning was a process, not a product. What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by attention deficit and information overflow?

I still think that the foundation of good teaching is the same as it always was – which is that you practice critical thinking and you facilitate your students into becoming critical thinkers. Peter’s very kind comments have to do with what I write on student’s papers, which are always questions. I almost never, ever write a declarative sentence. I learned that from Postman – that you should ask questions. And so it’s always a question of how it works with the general theory: I don’t know what the truth is but I can ask questions about what you think. We can identify weaknesses. I try to do that, try to help the students. But it’s a process. It’s very hard, and good teachers try to teach people to do that. They teach me to help others think for themselves, and you provide students with ways of learning and ways of thinking, and you hope it works out. I just came from a lecture of 110 students, trying to teach them the history of communication. And it’s a hard thing to do, to try to get them to think in a kind of a critical way over a long period of time. There’s not much chance for feedback. It’s the environment too. Talk about a communication environment – I’ve taught seventh, eighth, and ninth grades in middle school and high school, and I’ve taught everything from freshman to Doctoral students in university. It makes a difference how many people you’ve got in a room, and it makes a difference how committed they are. By and large, graduate students are easier to teach because they want to learn and you are trying to help them think critically. There’s a real difference between them and a lot of undergraduate students these days. You didn’t ask the question, but there is a real difference. When I started teaching here in the late ‘60s, the students that were here, almost every one of them, were paying his or her own way, or the parents were. And these were people who were committed to going to school. Many of the students now – almost all them – are full-time students. They are getting all kinds of scholarships and benefits and loans. And a lot of them are here not because they want to be here, but because their families want them to be here. And they’re not as motivated, quite frankly. In the old days, if you mentioned two or three extra books, the students were out reading them. Here you can barely get them to read the assigned stuff. They are very pragmatic these days. I don’t think that it has to do with intelligence or anything like that; I think that it has to do with total commitment. And I think college has become watered down because the people going to school now wouldn’t have gone thirty years ago. So, in a sense, that self-selection made the students better, but much more independent, thinkers. And, quite frankly, it’s harder to teach now than it was thirty years ago. Students were more interesting then.

What advice would you give to aspiring university professors and what are some of the texts young scholars should be reading today?

My interests are the history of communication and propaganda. I have a bunch of books on cave art, prehistoric paintings and the like. The best one of those I know is Randall White’s Prehistoric Art, but I’ve got half a dozen others sitting over here at the moment. Daniel Everett has a book out called Language: The Cultural Tool, which I found quite good. And then James Glikes’ The Informationwas a very, very interesting book. I used it with a graduate class last year; they had a hard struggle since they found it a little harder to get through. That’s a really good book, but the problem with that one is that you actually have to know the Shannon-Weaver model really well before you can understand what he’s doing, because he doesn’t explain it to well. But I still found the book really exciting and interesting, and I thought that it was a very powerful piece of work. I used a couple of standard texts on the history of writing, including a book calledThe Story of Writing by Andrew Robinson, which is a pretty good thing and there’s another, The History of Writing by Albertine Gaur, and then there is an ancient one (but it’s still great) by I.J. Gelb called The Study of Writing. It’s one of the really first great books on writing that I find tremendously useful. Regarding the study of language, Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct – even though I don’t agree with it I like it and I use it. On Writing, by Walter Ong, Morality and Literacy, by Eric Havelock, The Origins of Western Literacy – I still think that’s one of the great, fabulous books on the topic. And then on printing, Eisenstein’s good, two-volume history of printing, The Printing Press is an Agent of Change. Steinberg’s Five Hundred Years of Printing is a great book. Those are some of the best ones I know on that.

I don’t know if there is any single great book on the other stuff. Of course, in terms of overview, Marshall McLuhan – always. Harold Innis, another excellent Canadian – I still find his work just extraordinary and provocative, and worth thinking about. It’s rather helpful for trying to get the understanding of the whole. I’m just into books that I have been using lately to teach from and to use them with the students. One guy I left out is David Crystal. He’s got a book, How Language Works,andhe’s also the editor of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, which I find very useful. Another work – recommended to me by a friend of mine, Neil Hickey – is Paul Starr’s The Creation of the Media.

One of the things that I stress in my own thinking and in my teaching is that language is the basis of all language communication. So if you don’t understand language and how that developed and then how writing developed, and how that led to printing, then you don’t understand how the electronic stuff came along. This is the core of the thing. So one of the things that I do first with my students today is I ask them what they do with their smart phones. They talk into it, they take pictures with it, they text with it, they Tweet with it – and everyone one of those activities is connected to an earlier technology, and to language. So, I keep stressing that over and over again. So I guess in that sense, I left out somebody – and that is Socrates, in the great dialogue called Phaedrus, which influenced Walter Ong so much. That is one of the key documents of the difference between writing and speech. It is the first place where somebody noted that the structure of the medium makes a difference in what is going to happen.

I would tell inspiring professors to read – a lot. I sometimes think about it and when I give students a book or two books to read on a topic. I’ll have maybe 50 books on the topic, and of them I have chosen these one or two. Read widely but deeply so that you are well-read in an area. And in communications it’s a little difficult, because so many people become specialized. I’m not per se, since I am doing the histories of propaganda and communication – these are sweeping areas. It is very much in the Innis-McLuhan tradition of trying to understand it all. It’s hard to read it all; there is so much reading that you have to do. One of my T.A.s said to me yesterday when I was giving what we were going to do in this class, “That’s an awful a lot of anthropology, isn’t it?” And it is! But you know that’s what language is about. It’s about paleontology too, and it’s about ancient civilizations. It’s not enough, for example, to know that Egyptians developed hieroglyphs. You really have to know about the history of Egypt. So I may have read 50 books on the history and culture of Egypt, and the structures that way. Unless you inform yourself deeply, then whatever you say is just whatever you have happened to have read or assigned to the students – and that’s not very helpful.

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 could 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?

He was wrong. We tried. We tried in our own department to be interdisciplinary. We tried to have these interdisciplinary connections with other parts of the university. It fails for one reason – it’s back to the bureaucratic structure again. It fails because it gets in the way of money. This is true of private and public institutions in the United States. As you may know, even the public universities in America have to fund raise now; they have to raise a lot of money on their own. So, everybody’s into making money and then each department gets pressured by the Dean into making money. And they are not going to give up anything that gets in the way of their money-making, so all corporation always fails because who is going to control the money, who is going to get the money? I’ve tried here for 35 years with many colleagues from other schools and departments. We have tried to put these multidisciplinary things together, and even though sometimes they talk about knocking down what they call this silo of departments, the departments remain there, and that’s because we are held accountable. My department chair is held accountable for how much money we turn in and how much profit we make and how much we spend. It’s just like a business. And every time you do an interdisciplinary thing you weaken your financial base. It’s that simple. We used to have a lot more cooperation, but it was easier than. Now, it’s very hard to cross lines here, very hard. I absolutely believe in the interdisciplinary approach; in fact, our department was founded on that very idea. And we do practice it as best we can, we do try to get as much of that in there, and we do try to teach it to the students. We try to always have different ways of doing things, not just one way. To do that you need to understand communication, to understand anthropology, and sociology and history and philosophy and psychology. So the books we’ve used and the people we’ve used and the thinkers that we have brought in are always reflective of trying to extend that whole way of thinking. But, as I said, I think that McLuhan was wrong. He was talking in ‘64. There may have been a moment then when we were all talking like that, and we thought we could do it. But, we ran up against the bureaucracy.

I’ll give you a hard example. Somewhere about 25-30 years ago NYU was in the reign of a man I know as the best president we have ever had in this university, John Branamus. He did tremendous things for this university, and he encouraged a group of us from all over the university – multiple schools – to be on a telecommunications committee together. And a bunch of us from Arts and Sciences in the journalism department, from the law school, from the Tisch School of the Arts in Film and Television and Cinema Studies, and a couple of guys from the business school were doing marketing communication. And about ten of us got together and wrote a proposal to create a school of communication here at NYU, putting all of our departments together into a school where we would do this interdisciplinary study of communication. And they disbanded the committee because it threatened the income and prestige of five schools. It was that simple. My own department is the biggest money-maker in our school. It’s not the largest department, but we make the most profit. The Dean is never going to give us up. She would have a real big hole in her budget. She’d be in deficit. And that’s the truth. The same is true in arts and sciences, journalism – they are very profitable. In the Tisch School of the Arts, the Film and Television Department is their most prestigious. Nobody has ever heard of any of the other departments over there. This is the Hollywood Department. And nobody wants to deal with this sort of thing. The guy from the law school got so upset over this he resigned from NYU. It was a great idea – they asked us for an idea, we had a great idea, it was feasible, we showed them how to do it, wasn’t a big deal, but you know that’s what I mean. McLuhan did not consider the money and the bureaucracy enough.

In 2009, Francis Fukuyama wrote a controversial article for theWashington 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 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. What do you make of Fukuyama’s assertion and, in a nutshell, what is your own position about the academic tenure system?

Well, I’m old-fashioned; tenure is the only thing that protects the faculty from the administration. It’s not a great protection, but it’s the only one we have. Fukuyama’s position is exactly the same position as that of all administrators in all big universities: they would like to get rid of tenure, and they would like to have everybody on contract. First of all, it would lower their costs, but on top of that, they could do it two ways. As you get older and make more money, they could let you go and hire younger people to keep the overhead down. Secondly, you would have faculty that were totally under control of the administration. Even now with tenure, most faculty do not stand up to the university. They privately will be upset with something, but they are afraid to stand up because even with tenure, you can be punished in many ways. You don’t get as big of a raise, you don’t get the grants, you don’t get any extra support, you don’t get any recognition. I have a number of colleagues who were loggerheads of the administration and they simply get punished for it. Now, they are tenured and can’t be fired, but if they could fire them they would. Every university is trying to do this, simply because tenure costs. It’s really that simple. And it allows people to speak up to the president. I can stand up in a meeting and disagree with the president and he can’t fire me and he can’t demote me. But he could certainly make my life miserable if he wanted to. Which has to do with things like housing. We get subsidized housing here at NYU, and if they like you they give you a nicer place. If you give them a hard time they just don’t have to do it. So, I think Fukuyama is making a fortune, just so he can say that. But, I think that the tenure is at the core of the university. It’s the only thing that protects faculty – and it’s not even that strong, by the way.

The public universities in most states have unions, a very rigid kind of thing. Now some of the rigidity is not good, but at the same time, they are protected. You would have a harder time doing something to somebody. It’s very hard in a private university to prove bias, like let’s say a chairman didn’t like you. It’s hard because it’s judgment, but if I write a book and there is nothing to say that the people who read this say it is a good book, they could say well this is a pretty awful book, or it’s dumb, or whatever – they can say anything they want.

Media Ecology, Medium Theory, The Toronto School of Communication, Canadian Communication Theory… Is there a difference among these terms, in your view?

Lance Strate wrote an article about ten years ago at least wherein he talked about the three schools of media ecology – the Toronto School, which of course would have been Innis and McLuhan, the St. Louis School, which would be Walter J. Ong, and then the New York School, which was Postman and the rest of us here. He sort of grouped us all that way and yes – we share the same name. There has always been some argument about who first used the term “media ecology.” McLuhan used it and liked it, but we used it for the program and liked it for a long time. I still am a professor of media ecology here even though there is no program any longer. “Media theory” is something else. I always think that that smacks of Europe – the Germans, French, and other thinkers. But the Toronto School would have been very compatible with us. I don’t know about Canadian communication theory now. If you mean the classic stuff, then yes, we are all thinking the same thoughts and working toward it in the same of way. At the moment the name of department is Media, Culture, and Communication, which is not a bad name, given the sense of what we were trying to do. Postman used to say toward the end of his life that what we were really doing was contextual analysis. We were analyzing contexts, communication contexts, environments. He was always really strong with that environmental idea.

What do you make of the fact that the doctorate program at NYU no longer carries “media ecology” as its title? What do you see media ecology evolving into in the future?

It bothers me a great deal. I think it was one of the greatest errors ever made. It wasn’t that they had anything to replace it with; they just wanted to get rid of it. Partly because they think that the people who voted on this didn’t really understand it. They never committed themselves to it. In fact, they lied when they got their jobs. But it was a deliberate thing to wipe it out after Neil died. If Neil had lived, it wouldn’t have happened, if he were there. But I was out-voted. And they just did this thing and – I say this as analytically as possible – they haven’t found a core to replace it. So we have meetings every year wherein we try to find out where we are going and what are we doing. And all of their complaints, all of what’s wrong, is exactly what they caused by destroying media ecology, which wasn’t just the program’s way of thinking. It was a way of behaving with students. It’s that kind of congenial collegiality. And we used to fortify that with conferences wherein we would talk to our students as equals. This faculty didn’t want to do that any longer because they didn’t want to associate with students. They wanted to just deal with them as professor-student, not as equal thinkers. I think they made a tremendous error. The place is making a tremendous amount of money, but it was built on media ecology. We were the ones who designed the original doctoral program; we designed the undergraduate program, which now has 750 students who support the graduate programs. All of that came from media ecology. But there is no center now, there is no core, there is no direction. Every time we have these crazy meetings it’s the same issue –  they identify all of their problems, but they don’t see what the solution is, which is putting media ecology back into the program.

One of your areas of specialization is propaganda, both political and sociological. Has your approach to propaganda been informed by the media ecology tradition in any way? How can these two areas of scholarly research/inquiry inform one another?

Oh, totally. I learned propaganda analysis from George Gordon, and one of his inspirations was Jacques Ellul, and his great book on propaganda, Technological Society. Ellul’s Technological Society was one of the basic texts of the media ecology program. He was our way of looking at technology. He has a very McLuhanesque view of it – that the medium is the message, the technology is the message. Alewell is my guide in this whole thing. Of everything I have read of the history of propaganda, from ancient time until now – and I read hundreds of books on it – Ellul is still to me the best guide, and I still use his books every year in my propaganda classes. Ellul was a modelistic sociologist, but he is all over the place – not a rigid fellow. And the two books Propaganda and The Technological Society are part of what we saw as the foundations to what we were doing. We were using Lewis Mumford as well, On Technology, but he seems a little out of date now. Essentially Ellul’s argument is the same as McLuhan’s: that the medium is the message because, he argues, the content of propaganda doesn’t matter. It’s the structure that does. And whether you are selling democracy or totalitarianism, Nazism or communism, the structure is the same; you produce the same kind of thinking and behaving person – someone who is not an independent thinker. I think he says somewhere that a person can do a lot of things with propaganda, but that person can’t make a democratic person. He also said that all you do is wind up getting a storm trooper spouting democratic slogans. And that is so clearly McLuhanesque.

What are you currently working on?

My editor thinks – and she is pushing me on this – I’m trying to write a book on analyzing propaganda. I want it to be media ecological approach. And I have been troubled by it. Because I have been teaching it for a long time, and have taught it in different ways, I just can’t figure out which way to do the book at the moment. I’m trying to break out of my historical bias, and do it in another, more thematic way. And until I can get that idea crystalized, I can’t go ahead with it/ My hope is that I will figure it out sometime this semester and get started over the holidays on the book and finally get it written within the next 6-8 months.

Any final thoughts?

Just the totality of all of it. I was very fortunate in that I was first trained as an English scholar. I learned how to read critically and I also learned about language and the structures and semantics of language. I thought that was a tremendous background for me. If you know how to decode literature, you can decode anything. You are used to looking at symbols and structure and figuring out how they work. You are taught to be analytic at all times. And especially, I was lucky enough to study in the department that was influenced by a woman named Louise Rosenblatt – she wrote a very important book back in the ‘30s calledLiterature’s Exploration. Essentially, Louis’ theory was that literature was not a text; it was an experience. What she was interested in was the relationship between the reader and the text, and why people were making meanings, what kind of meanings readers were making out of a text, and why? What influenced that, and how do you do it? Your question wasn’t what is Hamlet’s motivation, the question becomes, “well how do you react to Hamlet, what do you think his motivation is, and why do you think that?” It becomes something about you, and I have always thought that that was quite useful.

And there is one other thing, the other end of it – the writing. One of the things that Postman did was he wrote so clearly. He used to say if you can’t figure it out, then you don’t know what you are talking about. No tolerance for these very arcane, convoluted discussions, like how some of the theorists do; they twist it. I like clear writing, absolutely clear writing. Some people think that McLuhan is not writing clearly. But he is if you know what he’s read. That was the thing too. I guess we were really privileged to have had an English background because we knew what McLuhan was talking about, we knew what his references were. He didn’t like to explain where they came from, but they were there. He’d be tossing in all these things from Finnegan’s Wake. If you knew Finnegan’s Wake, then you knew what he was talking about, but if you didn’t, you thought it was gibberish. I truly treasure the quality of writing. I like writers who are very clear in what they are writing about, and get to the point. I try to teach that to my students too, to be as honest as you can, and if you understand it, tell the people what it is about.

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and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Cirucci, A. (2012). “A Conversation with Terrence P. Moran,” Figure/Ground. October 26th.
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