Interview with John Caputo


© John Caputo and Figure/Ground
Dr. Caputo was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. March 27th, 2012.

Dr. John Caputo is Professor and Chair of the Master’s Program in Communication and Leadership Studies at Gonzaga University and the Walter Ong S.J. Scholar. He founded the MA Program in 2004.  Dr. Caputo earned his Ph.D. from the Claremont Graduate School and University Center. He has been teaching communication courses for more than 30 years and has appeared on radio and television news and discussion programs. His areas of expertise include communication theory, intercultural and interpersonal communication, and media and social values. He is the author of seven books: Effective Communication HandbookCommunicating Effectively: Linking Thought with ExpressionDimensions of Communication; Interpersonal Communication: Competency Through Critical Reasoning, which was co- authored with Bud Hazel and Colleen McMahon; Public Speaking Handbook: A Liberal Arts Perspective with Bud Hazel; McDonaldization Revisited: Critical Essays on Consumer Culture which he co-edited with Mark Alfino and Robin Wynyard for Praeger Press and his newest book, Effective Communication. John Caputo has written more than 25 articles in professional journals, been honored as a Visiting Scholar In-Residence at the University of Kent at Canterbury, England. Dr. Caputo Directs the Gonzaga-in-Cagli Project, a cultural immersion multi-media program in Italy each summer. He has been honored with Master Teacher Awards by the Western States Communication Association and the University of Texas at Austin and most recently received an Exemplary Faculty Award form Gonzaga University.

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

I wanted to be a teacher from very early days.  Once I realized I was not destined for the priesthood, teaching seemed like the closest thing to it, so in 7th grade I joined Future Teachers of America.  I meandered throughout college on several ventures in rock and roll, etc., but in my heart I still wanted to be a teacher.  I taught high school for four years, earned my first MA and thought I would teach community college.  It was while teaching community college that I really thought I could teach at a University.  That led me into further graduate education earning a second Master’s and then a PhD.

Who were some of your mentors and what lessons did you learn from them? 

I have been very fortunate to have great mentors who allowed me to stand on their shoulders and guide me to places I really didn’t think I could get to.  As a first generation college student in my family I was clearly going into unchartered waters.  Two mentors that really stood out were Ellis Hays, at CSU-Long Beach and John O. Regan at Claremont Graduate School.

Ellis Hays was a PhD from Denver and Purdue. He came to Long Beach and opened up the world of communication theory and interpersonal communication for me.  My undergraduate work had been primarily in rhetorical studies, and so the shifts from speech, to speech communication, and communication were major, and rifts in departments created significant tensions in departments of communication.  Ellis Hays introduced me to General Semantics, Neil Postman, interpersonal communication and communication theory. Along the way he helped me to develop my voice, improve my writing, and to take abstract theory and make it practical.  Much of this happened outside the classroom, nurturing my development in his spare hours. He helped me get small articles published and allowed me to make contributions to several of his own writing projects.  He really helped me to think about being a college teacher. Perhaps the most important lesson was to keep working, don’t worry how many revisions you need to make, and to enjoy the journey.

John Regan came to Claremont from University of Alberta. He hails from Melbourne, Australia and came to Canada to earn his PhD.  I went to Claremont to study language and communication with John.  He calls himself an anthropological linguist and studied with McLuhan.  At Claremont he helped guide the Blaisdell Institute of World Cultures and Religions and he also founded Claremont Graduate School’s Communication Project and its central public focus, the “Issues in Communication” series.  The history of the seminar series, with over 40 symposia and workshops held on topics of verbal and nonverbal creativity, is well known.  Scholars in fields of linguistics, anthropology, communication, and education would come to Claremont from all over the world.  As John’s Research Assistant, I was normally the person who would collect these visitors at the airport, bring them to events, and be invited along to special dinners.  It was these informal meetings that allowed me to build relationships with colleagues around the world and find resources to make such journeys happen.  It also helped me to be invited to share my work at other universities on the national and international level.  John is a clear thinker who taught me how to pay close attention to small details, especially for observational ethnographic work.  He lent me his library on Innis, McLuhan, and Ong.  He got me engaged with scholars like M.A.K. Halliday, Sydney Lamb, George Traeger, Henry Lee Smith, Thomas Sebeok, E.T. Hall, and of course Walter Ong, S.J.. John instituted a set of weekly dialogues with me called the Marco-John Dialogues (he got to be John while I was Marco – I think he liked it from Marco Polo and searching) in which we probed many questions that became my curriculum at Claremont.   We would meet for about 2 hours a week in some out of the way place on the Claremont campuses, share a can of Melbourne Bitters and carry on our Socratic conversations.  The works were then transcribed by me and became the core of my study into seamless webs (Edward Sapir’s words) of user and use, figure and ground, language and communication.  The work was placed on reserve in the library and available for others to read.  I don’t really know what ever happened to them.  They are of course utilized in many ways in my PhD dissertation.  The most important lessons I learned from John are about being a gentleman, to be a good husband and father, and how to steal away time to work on scholarship when there are other demands all around.  He is a model of civility and much of my academic life has been modeled on Mr. Regan (Claremont didn’t use titles)

How did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?

The role of university professor has changed significantly, but good teachers are good teachers.  My undergraduate classes were lecture classes (sage on the stage) with a small quantity of discussion, papers and exams.  By the end of my undergraduate days, classrooms began to move more to interactive discussions and experiential learning with simulations, case studies and occasional films.  By the 70’s – 80’s electronic technology was entering the classroom, and scholarship was becoming more public rather than just in professional journals. Distance education had moved from “correspondence school” to flying into remote places–then to compressed video being shipped places, and then list-serves being used to open up 24-hour classrooms or “classrooms without walls”.  Many faculty began to create webpages for students to access class content and participate in discussions. Professors no longer gave their work to secretaries or typing pools.  It became his or her own work to do. The computer freed them and created much more work simultaneously.  University professors moved from “sages” to “facilitators” in many cases.  Classroom content management systems like Blackboard became common and expensive while a large amount of University budgets became dedicated to computer technologies.  On any given day, a professor could be bogged down in tech difficulties, and whatever time there was for reflection seemed to evaporate. Currently, I teach students utilizing technologies that have evolved over the past 20 years.  I teach face to face, online, hybrid, and overseas.  I use doc cameras, smart boards, conference calls, video Skype, and gotomeeting.  I still give public lectures, write and publish in books and journals.  Some of the journals are online only.  My university is starting a virtual university. I can be away at conferences or even teaching overseas, but still doing work at my campus.  I can have a SKYPE video call from a colleague in Vietnam, walk into a classroom, and by the time I get back to my office have a conference call to Rome.  I am reading papers on computer screens, and posting commentary and grading right on the same documents.  I am also co-writing papers with colleagues that we share and send electronically to each other. Does it sound tiring? It can be.  My academic classroom is unlimited and I seem to be the only one who can set any limit on it, if I want to. It’s challenging and rewarding.

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?

This is an extension of my last answer.  There are no sure fire ways to get attention, and some would say we don’t need all that attention, that we are effective at multi-tasking.  I remember a theory from process-oriented communication that said humans are basically single-channel receivers.  I can’t remember if that came from McLuhan but I know it had to do with dominance of the senses, and humans had to focus on one sense at a time, but could rapidly change focus.  I just started a new course on college teaching of communication entitled “Communication Teaching and Pedagogy.” In that course I have mentioned that good teachers still have to develop their relational communication with their students and that there is a high need for authenticity.  Good teachers also have to weave interesting narratives and tell stories. Knowledge is a crucial part of preparation. Both in face-to-face and online education, multiple forms of delivery help different kinds of learners.  At the same time, the advertiser’s slogan of “cut through the clutter” rings true.  When some of my students say they have not been successful reaching a particular professor, I ask them have they ever considered “changing the medium?”  That is the same question a good teacher needs to ask.

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

The advice I give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors is that advanced degree work takes endurance and that teaching is a calling.  It builds over time and sooner for some like myself than others.  If you don’t have the calling, it is probably not a place to go.  When addressing new students I talk about the only reason for gaining new knowledge is to give it away and hopefully make the world a better place.  I have, when in a flippant mood, described my job as getting paid for “thinking out loud.”  If someone is willing to pay me for that, great, but that is not the reason I do it.  I do it because I care about it.  My university is very mission-driven, and a central principle of that mission is “men and women for and with others.” So learning, experience, reflection, and action are all important steps toward solidarity.  These are not slogans but a way of being.

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 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 and digital interactive media?

I am not so sure that McLuhan’s view coincides with my experience.  Departments are very strong silos and interdisciplinary work is still rare even when encouraged.  My former graduate school always talks about transdisciplinary work.  A prospective graduate student wrote to me about wanting to do a joint MA with my program and philosophy.  The philosophy department said no, because they thought disciplinary methods of philosophy were so crucial for their MA students and that the prospective student should choose our degree or theirs.  I have actually heard colleagues say they don’t know how to talk to other departments so how could they be interdisciplinary? Of course communication departments like my own have always been interdisciplinary.  Regarding whether institutions are in crisis or under threat, it is certainly a topic of discussion, but it seems to have more to do with the economics of higher education, and the commodification of culture, learning and education.   So the perceived threat is not in the technology itself, but in the ends of education.

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 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 sub-discipline. In a 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 are your arguments for or against academic tenure?

I cannot agree with Fukuyama and when my younger colleagues express something like that to me, I think they have not seen the need, yet.  Certainly the sociology of knowledge would hold that keepers of knowledge – academic departments, journal editors, and professional academic associations, have the ability to be the agenda setters for what gets published, what gets presented and what gets taught.  At the same time, almost every junior university professor knows that it is unwise to take a position of shared-governance, because you will feel muted from expressing contrary points of view to Deans, Vice-presidents, etc. Junior faculty know that it is their tenured colleagues who can help fight the battles over key decisions.  Tenure allows faculty to not only fight the political battles in the University, but additionally to allow academic freedom to pursue new lines of inquiry.  I happen to work in an institution that has a religious foundation, but I did not take a vow of obedience although I clearly support the mission.   My job is to be an educator and tenure allows me to bring truth to the endeavor.  There is no less need for that now from when tenure was first put into the academic enterprise.

Your areas of expertise include communication theory, intercultural and interpersonal communication. What attracted you to communication studies in the first place? Do you think communication should be a discipline in the first place, concerned as it is with mediation, the invisible effects of technological environments, and so on?

I was attracted to communication studies firstly because I loved public speaking and eventually entered high-school speech contests.  I was attracted to all things in rhetoric and communication and spent time in television, radio, music and other practical endeavours.  In college I was a debater.  When I was required to take my first theory class, (both rhetoric and the precursor to communication theory) I went with great trepidation and fear of boredom.  It was these classes however, that changed everything about the field for me and was at the dawn of new sub-specialities like interpersonal and intercultural communication. Theory and theorizing opened up so much for me and the expanding field of communication helped me to see all that I did not know and part of that was that so many disciplines, study communication.  Departments like biology, anthropology, engineering, sociology, psychology, broadcasting, philosophy, speech, communication studies, were all in pursuit. I was a Visiting Scholar at the University of Kent in their Social Psychology Unit because my PhD dissertation was on nonverbal communication and the connection to language learning and they were studying “motherese” and language development. At that point there were no departments in the UK for communication or media studies.  This is when my work started to expand into semiotics and media and culture. So although I personally see the roots of communication in the rhetorical foundations of ancient Greece, I do see the emerging departments of communication, communication studies, and media studies, as a healthy trajectory and yes, new discipline.  I read recently something like more students are studying communication than at any other time in history and the information age or communication age is the reason for this. Homes for this work will continue to flourish.

You are currently Walter Ong, S.J. Scholar at Gonzaga University. What attracted you to the work of Father Ong and in what ways does your interpretation of his oeuvre inform your research on the above-mentioned fields?

I was originally attracted to Ong’s work because of my interest in rhetorical theory. I was also attracted to the teaching of rhetoric (in the oral sense) in Greece and Rome and the place of the Trivium as the core of education. It felt right. When I read the work of Ignatius Loyola and came to Gonzaga, I realized how the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) were reforming teaching around the Triviumagain with the (re)birth of humanism. My own University has a core of classes 1styear students must take called “Thought and Expression” and it consists of logic, grammar and rhetoric.  The Trivium is thriving.  Ong’s ideas of orality and visualism helped me to extend parameters of communication, and realize that interpersonal communication (relational messages of immediacy, responsiveness and power), intercultural communication (cultural differences in thinking, logic, language), and communication theory (user and use, seamless webs of meaning, social construction of reality in language), were all parts of these extensions.   Eventually my interest in Ennis, McLuhan and Ong, led me to look more closely at the media of communication and the influence of media in the construction and transmission of culture.

As you know, there has been much debate lately amongst media ecologists about the differences between McLuhan and Ong. In your view, what place does Ong occupy within the media ecology tradition and what are your expectations about his centennial anniversary?

Clearly McLuhan and Ong shared perspectives but make different kinds of contributions.  Ong profoundly affected the study of communication and indirectly media ecology. Ong paid close attention to communication technology, modes of expression, and the cognitive and cultural impact of media. His work in Orality and Literacy explored how forms of communication interact with culture.  In Neil Postman’s talk in June of 2000,The Humanism of Media Ecology,he describes the beginning days of Media Ecology.  He said, “We put the word ‘media’ in the front of the word ‘ecology’ to suggest that we were not simply interested in media, but in the ways in which the interaction between media and human beings give a culture its character and, one might say, help a culture to maintain symbolic balance. If we wish to connect the ancient meaning with the modern, we might say that the word suggests that we need to keep our planetary household in order.” Postman goes on to say, “Let me conclude, then, by saying that as I understand the whole point of media ecology, it exists to further our insights into how we stand as human beings, how we are doing morally in the journey we are taking. There may be some of you who think of yourselves as media ecologists who disagree with what I have just said. If that is the case, you are wrong.” Ong clearly is part of Media Ecology as Postman and others like myself, describe it.  My expectations for his centennial anniversary are modest in light of Walter Ong being a modest man.  My hope is that his work will continue to inform and helps us to understand more fully the role language and communication plays in the development of consciousness and human growth.

What are you currently working on?

My current work is in media and social values, media and culture, and education.  I am working on a manuscript on communication and cultural dissonance and I direct the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media, a community based organization that teaches media literacy and looks to understand the effect of media on our community and in the creation of culture; works with media to enhance the vitality and development of our community; empowers youth and adults to become critical consumers of media, and encourages media to act as responsible, effective stewards of this critical public trust.

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

Suggested citation:

Ralón, L. (2012). “Interview with John Caputo,” Figure/Ground. March 27th.
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