New to MIT but long familiar to the CMS/W community, Edward Schiappa, now associate head of CMS/W, brings a background in both classical rhetoric and contemporary media studies — a rare combination. This work has led him to study, write extensively on, and connect disparate bodies of work; I’m currently reading his book “Defining Reality: Definitions and the Politics of Meaning”, in which Ed exhibits some remarkable talents for comparativity, making sure Socrates rubs elbows with Justice John Paul Stevens, B.F. Skinner, and Benedict Spinoza while tackling the rhetoric surrounding how we come to define contested terms, from “wetlands” to “personhood”. We spoke in August, just ahead of the release of his new textbook “Argumentation: Keeping Faith with Reason”, co-authored with John P. Nordin. –AW
Andrew Whitacre: How would you describe your research path from Ph.D. to now?
Ed Schiappa: The three topics I have researched for the past thirty years may sound distinct—classical Greek rhetorical theory, contemporary argumentation and rhetoric, and media studies—but my study of each topic is animated by related questions: What is the relationship between thought and language? How does communication change our ways of thinking and behaving? And how can scholars best discover and understand such changes? These are questions that are relevant to a number of disciplines, obviously, which may be why I have published in psychology, communication, English, classics, and philosophy journals.
To answer your question more directly, I would have to describe my path as uphill and bumpy, because my work has challenged orthodoxies in each area. I argued the traditional narrative about the origins of Rhetoric were just plain wrong, I argued that definitions should be approach rhetorically rather than philosophically, and I argued that textual approaches to popular media studies should be replaced with comparative approaches. What I have learned is that it takes decades of persistence to prevail in such debates (right now I would say I am ahead on two out of three), but the view from this part of the path is pretty cool.
Why leave a nice gig at Minnesota for a brand-new community and academic environment in Cambridge?
The University of Minnesota is an outstanding public university—I had been there for 17 years, the past seven as department chair. Though I was happy there, I felt I had accomplished what I could and was ready for a change. MIT is an amazing institution and it became clear to me through the visiting process that MIT and I were a good fit. The Institute’s Communication Requirement could benefit from someone with substantial communication pedagogy and planning experience, for example. And as someone who had worked both in Rhetoric and Media, the merger of Comparative Media Studies & Writing and Humanistic Studies made sense and felt comfortable to me.
Tell me more about your work in media studies—you say you advocate comparative approaches?
Many communication scholars working on popular media engage in close readings or “close textual analysis.” One problem with such an approach is that to be publishable, you have to produce readings that are provocative or even counterintuitive. I would read work that claimed Jurassic Park promoted postmodern skepticism or that Will & Grace reinforced heterosexism, and I would think “that can’t be right!” So I became an advocate for comparative studies that would include audience responses, based on focus groups, surveys, or experiments.
In the process of collaborating with colleagues at Minnesota, we created the Parasocial Contact Hypothesis (PDF), which argues that certain forms of media contact with minority groups, such as gay men, can actually reduce prejudice. When Joe Biden gave Will & Grace credit for increasing support for same-sex marriage, he was on the right track. Our work was written up in Newsweek and our framework has been used in research all over the world now.
What would you point to as a sign that your work has had an effect on the field?
Google Scholar is a great tool for that—our original set of media studies has been cited over 200 times. Also, I have been asked to review several grant proposals from different parts of the world that use our theoretical framework. In Los Angeles, the Center for Global Engagement is now drawing from my work in their Entertainment & Media Initiative and asked me to join their Advisory Council.
CMS/W touts its active research relationship between faculty and master’s students — a principal investigator/research assistant model more common in the physical and social sciences but rarely at the master’s level in the humanities. Aside from the fact that such work is how we cover our graduate students’ tuition — I believe the only program in the school that does so — are there advantages and disadvantages to using that model?
I strongly support such a model. Research assistantships are sparse in the humanities, but I can assure you that most graduate programs would love to offer them if they could, as they give students great exposure to the research process and help the program’s research productivity. The only short-term downside is that graduate students in CMS do not get the experience of teaching their own class, but if they want to go on for a Ph.D., typically they will have the opportunity to do so in a doctoral program.
The CMS part of CMS/W has certainly bumped up against the social sciences — T.L. Taylor’s ethnographic methods and Sasha Costanza-Chock’s communications technology work, for example — but, looking back on your very-humanistic Greek rhetoric studies, on what kind of humanities work beyond publishing papers and books could you imagine partnering with a master’s student?
Well, I am interested primarily in publishing articles and books! I have co-authored now with ten different graduate students over the years, and in one case a former graduate student and I published a book together. Now that I am here at MIT, I am also thinking about other sorts of projects that could contribute to outreach efforts in Civic Media and CMS.
You hint at it, but one can look through your publications and see an evolution in interests. What were the inflection points where you said to yourself, “I really want to go in this direction now”?
Evolution is not a bad metaphor in this case as long as we recall that it does not imply a singular direction of change, but rather adaptations to a changing environment. For example, upon arriving at MIT I learned that we have the Thomas S. Kuhn archives here, so that has provided me the opportunity to publish and comment on a previously unpublished paper by Kuhn titled “Rhetoric and Liberation.” I don’t have a master plan. I pursue projects I find interesting and that are relevant to those big picture questions I identified earlier. I anticipate that being in the MIT environment will provide some rich opportunities for me to adapt and grow.