Q&A: Mark Garrett Cooper and John Marx on Media U

This book powerfully demonstrates that universities have been media institutions all along, well before the mobile phone and the MOOC. Cooper and Marx challenge us to consider what is at stake when universities approach the educated class as an “audience” and what mindsets and strategies they deploy in the process.
~Lisa Parks, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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It’s the second week of September and students at campuses across the nation are settling into the new school year. As they do, we take a moment to consider the history of higher education institutions. To delve deeper into the topic our own, Donovan Redd, interviewed Mark Garrett Cooper and John Marx, authors of the newly published book Media U: How the Need to Win Audiences Has Shaped Higher Education. In this book, Cooper and Marx illuminate the role of universities as “media institutions.” They bring together a wide-range of university players — professors, students, university presidents, athletic departments, publicists, educational statisticians, student-service professionals, and more — to think through the university as a site of “establish[ing] and transform[ing] audiences,” “reproducing (and challenging) social hierarchies.”

Donovan Redd: Mark and John, congratulations on publication! We’re thrilled to share this timely and telling research. Let’s go back to the beginning of this project, how did the two of you come together to embark on bringing this book to life? Is there a specific moment that you two can recall where this went from a shared curiosity to a concrete research proposal?

Cooper and Marx: We know exactly when and where we started working on this project. It was spring of 2012, and we were on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles. Mark was driving us to pick up some colleagues before heading to a conference in Long Beach. We started talking about a slew of “crisis in the humanities” essays that were getting published. None of these engaged the humanities scholarship that most excited us at the time, which was about big data as well as media history. This work was getting read and seemed novel, not remotely in crisis. There’s got to be another story to tell than one of crisis, we thought, a story that explained a university that included humanities faculty getting hooked on computing and the cool collaborations between Hollywood and higher ed that were turning up in history books like Dana Polan’s Scenes of Instruction. We set out to write that book. Our first conference paper was titled “How Hollywood Invented the English Department.” It took us some time writing on our old work-in-progress blog to figure out that our book wasn’t really about “the humanities” in particular, but about the university in general as media institution.

Redd: Along similar lines, what were some of the biggest challenges, anticipated or not, of working collaboratively between the two of you? How did those challenges impact the completion of this book?

Cooper and Marx: The challenges were almost always logistical–we live on opposite sides of the country, our jobs would get busy at different times of year because John is at a school on the quarter system and Mark is at a semester school. This could be a problem if, say, you’re racing to revise your book manuscript heading into the fall semester. Which was exactly what happened.

Redd: Likewise, what were some of the biggest benefits of working collaboratively? How did each of you influence the way that the other went about thinking through universities as media institutions?

Cooper and Marx: Two heads really are better than one. Perhaps because we were working collaboratively ourselves, we were quicker to realize that our book was not going to be a story about individual visionaries but instead a history of collaborative groups. Collaboration very quickly became a major theme in the book itself. As we looked for inflection points in the history we were telling about how universities inform their audiences, we noticed that we were tending to find example after example of interesting teams including faculty, administrators, students and all sort of collaborators from off campus.

Redd: That makes me think about another collaborative process crucial to Media U, collaboration with universities. Both of you received a tremendous amount of support from universities, perhaps, in spite of your work turning the purported notion of universities on its head. What was it like navigating those institutional relationships throughout the completion of this work?

Cooper and Marx: It’s a two-way street. Probably all scholars who write about the university come to see their workplaces as something like laboratories. We’ve certainly both been trying to practice what we preach. In our responsibilities as department and program heads, we’ve been watching out for spots where the medium was as important to policy success as the message. John would certainly tell you about some misfires where the charts he was sharing with his department were producing more noise than signal. We worked out arguments about university engagements with off-campus audiences while Mark was interim director of his university’s moving image archive–a position that involved outreach of that sort. It is interesting who has been responsive to the elevator pitch. We’ve connected with administrators as well as faculty colleagues in a range of disciplines as well as friends outside the academy. This isn’t to say that everyone immediately gets the book, just that it seems able to link different constituencies. Certainly, everyone is alert right now to the problem that higher education is just not getting the word out the way it would like.

Redd: How do you anticipate universities reacting to the book now that it is out? Have you received any memorable responses thus far?

Cooper and Marx: People seem to find it empowering that we show more of the university than most histories do—from football to extension programs to the influence of philanthropic foundations. Readers are recognizing the value of an approach that looks beyond the institutional and disciplinary compartments that confine so many other accounts of higher education. Our media studies colleagues seem especially responsive to what we’re saying, which suggests that there’s something about our method that is appreciated.

People keep wanting us to issue policy recommendations. We do a bit of work along these lines in the epilogue, but we really see the book as a historical reframing rather than some kind of master plan. Our hope is that others might find it a helpful resource as they revise their strategies. Of course we’re still thinking about this as well.

Redd: Let’s hope the support continues! Now, diving a bit more into Media U itself, could you two talk us through the distinction you both made in defining media as a “method more than an object?”

Cooper and Marx: It’s important to remember that a medium is not a platform alone. TV, for instance, is defined not only by the technology but also by the practice of watching. It’s a set of relationships really, linking a technology or “channel,” the people who produce the information distributed by that channel, the form and content of that information, and the audience that it informs (gives shape to). There are many different ways to theorize and describe this multifaceted relationship, and lots of puzzles. Does TV remain “TV” when you watch it on your smartphone?

In the same vein, one should ask whether John Erskine’s post-World War I efforts to popularize Great Books had different effects when he left Columbia University’s classrooms to travel the Lyceum circuit, where he was liable to cap his lectures with a piano recital. Certainly, he reached different audiences when he was on the road. “Media” names a problem space that requires us to explore these kinds of questions, a method rather than a stable object.

Redd: Could you both return to the relationship between “mediation” and “information” as it figures into your arguments about the university?

Cooper and Marx: We are trying to activate “information” and thwart its simplification as “content.” We want our readers to understand that content “gives form to” a communication situation and shapes audience interactions. This informing effect can occur quite apart from whether a message has been accurately received. Doesn’t every lecturer knows this? We’ve all taught classes we thought were going well until we got the first round of quizzes back and realized we weren’t reaching the students after all. In any case, our understanding of “information” as a multifaceted activity has an interesting multidisciplinary history, one that connects computation and information theory with biology, sociology, anthropology, and design. This history is itself one of the collaborations we talk about in the book.

Redd: Looking more closely at the university’s matrix of audience mediation, what actors, or groups of actors, did you find play the biggest roles as orchestrators of the university as a media institution? Do these research findings differ from both of your initial assumptions?

Cooper and Marx: Actually, the degree to which the US system of higher education lacks central coordination came as a surprise to us and is a recurring theme in the book. We encountered many shifts that resulted not from a deliberate strategy but from a cascade of ad hoc decisions that looked like a system-wide plan only after the fact. The division of curricula into “humanities,” “social sciences,” and “natural sciences,” for instance, was far from a centrally organized change, although it became common across the sector.

That said, one big takeaway concerns non-governmental organizations like the Carnegie Foundation. To a far greater extent than we would have guessed, these actors put the U.S. system of higher education together. They filled roles akin to those of central government planners elsewhere.

The credit hour, or Carnegie unit, is the most evocative example of the mediating force of these institutions. Every class you take is measured in credit hours. Time to degree, transfer, admissions, nearly every threshold moment that establishes the parameters of what it means to be enrolled as a college student would be unthinkable–or would take a very different form–without the credit hour. And who is pushing to shed that key mediating tool? More foundations! Lumina, Gates, et al.

Redd: At the end of the introduction, you both state, “… any worthwhile history of the university should intervene in its practice” and go on to ask your colleagues to think more critically about their relationship with their audiences and collaborators. In what ways do you hope for such a prescription to intervene in the practices of the university?

Cooper and Marx: It would be great to correct the canard that “the internet” revolutionized a university unchanged since the “industrial age” of printing. Our book should make clear to everyone that our universities are defined by student choice every bit as much as “industrial” standardization and that they have energetically embraced (and denounced) every new medium to come along in the past hundred years.

Thinking even bigger, we would love to help change how people inside higher education work together and how they work with outsiders as well. There is just so much talk these days about how no one outside higher education understands what’s going on inside it–how much faculty work, why college costs what it does, etc. This confusion, we are convinced, has as much to do with a dysfunctional division of labor within the academy as it does with changing opinions about higher education in Washington and elsewhere. We celebrate experimental approaches to higher education in our book and hope that these inspire our readers.

Redd: What further shifts, if any, are the two of you interested in seeing universities make in relation to its place in the matrix of mediation and social hierarchies?

Cooper and Marx: We’ve been mulling over merit lately. Distinguishing academic merit form inherited privilege has been a fundamental function of higher education in the U.S.. Americans have historically seen their universities as agents of socio-economic leveling–in contrast to European countries, for example, which have favored more direct mechanisms to redistribute wealth.

Yet everywhere one turns these days, faith in the university’s ability to certify merit is waning. It’s not just that cost shuts out talented students and threatens the quality of instruction, although those are serious problems. There is also growing suspicion that test scores, letter grades, and credentials do not make meaningful distinctions. These are mediation issues. Different audiences seem to have pretty different understandings of higher education’s value and of who benefits from it. Would new measures of merit make a difference? How could we become better at distinguishing talent from privilege?

Redd: Last question, now that Media U is completed and published, how have each of you rethought your own personal relationship to the university as a media institution and all of the collaborators, spoken and unspoken, that you operate in relation to?

Cooper and Marx: Thank you for asking this. We think about it a lot. Media U offers a history that we hope enables our readers to formulate new kinds of interventions. We hope faculty readers in particular will look beyond their disciplines and departments to contemplate collaborations across the university’s entire division of labor–including student services professionals, librarians, IT staff, and all the rest. We’re trying to take this advice ourselves and are finding it exciting to learn about parts of the university that most faculty take for granted. On our new blog, we’re starting to apply key lessons from the book to current events and controversies. Stay tuned!

Redd: Once again, congratulations on the publication of Media U and thank you for the opportunity to interview you today. We’d like to remind our readers to enter our raffle for a chance to win a copy of this book and to check back in with us tomorrow to read an excerpt from Media U.

Donovan Redd is a B.A. Candidate of African-American Studies and Creative Writing at Columbia University.


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