Interview with Dr. Lance Strate, our 2015 Harron Chair.

By Mirna Momcicevic

lance strate

Lance A. Strate is a Professor of Communication and Media Studies and Associate Chair for Graduate Studies at Fordham University. He is an expert in the field of Communication and Cyberspace and Social Interaction in an Electronic Environment. He earned his B.S. at Cornell University, his M.A. in Communication at Queens College, and his Ph.D. in Media Ecology from New York University. He is one of the founders of the Media Ecology Association, and he has served as the organization’s President since its inception. He is also a past President of the New York State Communication Association.

His scholarship has focused on the development of media ecology as a field of inquiry, with special attention to the work of Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, and Neil Postman; on the historical relationship between modes of communication and sociocultural phenomena such as heroes, religion, nationalism, the city, the self, and consciousness; on the impact of new technologies and digital media including online communications and mobile telephony; on media history and futurism; on language and symbolic communication as it relates to media and technology; on communication and autism; on popular culture phenomena including television, film, masculinity and alcohol. Dr. Strate is the primary editor of two editions of Communication and Cyberspace and Social Interaction in an Electronic Environment. He has served as the editor of the Speech Communication Annual, and Explorations in Media Ecology, and is supervisory editor of the media ecology book series published by Hampton Press

  1. Dr. Strate, as the primary editor of two editions of Communication and Cyberspace and Social Interaction in an Electronic Environment, can you discuss today’s state of social interaction in general, and social interaction via social media? What kind of approach to social interaction, both general and that on social media,should our graduate students take?

Social interaction has been affected by the electronic media in general, especially by television, and even more so by new media and social media. One of the changes has been towards increasingly more informal forms of interaction. While informality can come across as more personal, genuine, and inviting, it also means that there are few if any rules or structure to guide us, to let us know what to expect from others and how to respond. E-mail and other forms of messaging, for example, is often approached as a form of casual conversation, and I am my colleagues may react to a message that starts off with something like, “Hi, Prof, how ya doin?” with some mixture of bemusement or irritation, what happens when your boss sends you a message that is entirely informal and friendly? How do you respond, given the power differential? This also speaks to the blurring that occurs between different roles, and the boundaries between public and private. If you write a letter, the old fashioned kind with ink and paper, there are rules we follow, with the placement of your address and the recipient’s address, opening with “Dear…” and closing with “Sincerely,” and all that helps us to stick to a more formal mode of address in our communication. And all that is absent when we communicate electronically, so it is essential to be very careful about the messages we send, to think about what kind of relationship we have with the person we are communicating with, and what kind of situation we are dealing with. What is the appropriate mode of address? That is a key question.

There has been a great deal of concern expressed about mobile media in particular, and how that affects face-to-face interaction. Being constantly distracted is obviously a major problem. Eye contact is one of the most important form of nonverbal communication for regulating interaction, and obviously that becomes problematic when our attention is always called away to our devices. Being mindful of the ways in which we use technology, and understanding that we do not have to be online and available and instantly receive and respond to messages and alerts 24/7 is essential. Many of the new media mavens who promoted the internet back in the 90s are now advocating for taking breaks and turning devices off, and there are movements like that for having a Technology Shabbat or Sabbath. It is certainly worth considering.

At the same time, new media have extended our ability to connect with one another, and organize ourselves socially, and that has been enormously empowering. For example, my wife used email discussion lists (e.g., Google groups) to connect and organize parents of children with autism in the northern New Jersey area. Before this kind of connection was possible, parents in that situation were simply too overwhelmed and lacking in time and energy to meet face-to-face, and are often lacking in basic information on services and how to deal with schools and boards of education to receive what they are entitled to. Electronically-mediated social interaction has been a great boon for individuals who would otherwise be isolated.

  1. Dr. Strate, after so many years of being an expert, and with so much experience in the communication field, what are some of the most important advice you could offer to our graduate students? How should they approach the “real world” that comes after education?

Being an “expert” in communication is quite challenging, because the state of communication is always changing. Back in the early 90s, there were many predictions, some relatively accurate, about the future of communication, regarding the internet, virtual reality, increased access to information, and the like, but almost no one predicted the mobile revolution, the almost complete disappearance of telephone booths, or texting. So our job is harder than folks in many other fields, because we have so much to keep up with. The most important advice that I can offer, though, is never to forget that communication is fundamental to the human condition, that what counts are human beings and human relationships, and what Martin Buber termed the I-You relationship, treating others as persons, not as objects.

  1. How do you feel at Villanova? How is Villanova similar/different to other universities?

Villanova has proven to be a very convivial, congenial, and collegial environment, and I have very much enjoyed my time here with the communication faculty. I am very impressed with the quality of students at Villanova, and especially the graduate students. Coming from Fordham University, there is a great deal of common ground, although the Jesuits have their differences from the Augustinians. Fordham is more of an urban university, which has its advantages, but I very much like the Villanova area, the relaxed atmosphere, and of course all of the interesting historical and cultural attractions of the Philadelphia area. Villanova is also smaller that Fordham, and Fordham is much smaller than other universities like New York University, where I did my doctoral work, so Villanova has a very intimate feel.

  1. How would you describe our Department of Communication here at Villanova? What are some of our strengths, and how could we, in your opinion, improve ourwork?

You have a great department here, and I especially like the fact that it is so well grounded in the discipline of communication. I find that very refreshing, since that it my background, and it’s something missing from my department at Fordham. At the same time, I would certainly urge the faculty to take advantage of the interdisciplinarity of our field, which is in many ways our strength. Reaching out to and communicating with the general public is also very important. And I would certainly stress the need to have faculty with a background in media ecology, that is very important in my view, really essential, but of course I’m biased in that regard.

  1. Why is graduate school is important? Can you tell us how did graduate education impact your personality and life? What would you advice to our perspective students who have hard time deciding whether or not start graduate school?

I know some of my colleagues decided as undergraduates that they wanted to go to graduate school, maybe even were interested in academia that early, but that wasn’t the way it worked for me. Simply put, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was a senior undergraduate at Cornell University, so I wound up going on for my MA at Queens College of the City University of New York, where I met some doctoral students working in the Multimedia Lab there, Ed Wachtel, who I later became colleagues with at Fordham, and Joshua Meyrowitz,  and when they heard that I was interested in the work of scholars like Marshall McLuhan, Daniel Boorstin, and Jacques Ellul, urged me to apply for Neil Postman’s doctoral program in media ecology. So I did, was accepted, and again, having nothing better to do, started my studies there, but was not convinced that I wanted to be an academic until many years later. Somehow, it turned out to be the right thing to do, and I wound up being fairly good at it. So as far as I’m concerned, this path found me, I didn’t find it. And I remember Neil Postman saying that he decided to become a professor because it was in the classroom and with students and colleagues that he found a universe of discourse that he felt comfortable with, felt good about, and I guess that’s the same for me. It just fits. And when I was unsure, he said to me that nobody is getting rich these days, so you might as well do something that you love, that makes you find meaningful and fulfilling. He also suggested that if I didn’t, many years later I would realize my mistake, regret it, try to come back, and things would never be the same—this was said in a joking manner, he had a great sense of humor.

But apart from all that, being able to go to graduate school is a great privilege, it’s when you really know how to learn, what you want to learn, and can really appreciate the opportunity to do so. There are so many things in life that can interfere and interrupt the chance to pursue graduate education that you really ought to go for it if you can. And while it’s never too late, it certainly is easier when you’re younger, before life gets increasingly more complicated. And learning about communication gives you an edge in anything you might pursue in life. It’s practical in so many ways, but it also goes to the heart of what makes us human, and helps us in our efforts to retain our humanity in a technological age.

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