Media Theory University
Department of Education
University of Wales, Aberystwyth
What is your highest academic degree? Where did
you receive it?
My highest degree is my Ph.D. It was awarded
by the University of Wales in 1993, and I studied for it for three years
whilst pursuing my full-time teaching job at the University of Wales,
Aberystwyth. Doing this left me very little spare time with my family
and 4 children. The topic was 'The Experience of Writing: A Media Theory
Approach', and it concerned the psychology and sociology of the act of
writing (in particular, academic writing). I explored this topic in a
subsequent book on
The Act of Writing.
Could you describe your current job and briefly
describe your career path?
I am a lecturer
in media theory involved in both teaching and research. I teach undergraduate
courses in media theory and supervise research students in my field. I
am also the coordinator of a taught MA course in Television Studies which
is due to begin in 1997. I have been in my current
post since 1989, prior to which I was a freelance academic writer, educational
consultant and software designer for 8 years. I won two UK national awards
in 1986 for 'best software in schools' and 'home educational software
of the year'.
What topics are you currently interested in researching?
main research interest is in what I call the phenomenology of engagement
with media. That needs a little 'unpacking', I think! Some people might
say that I'm interested in how people feel about 'the use of tools', but
to me that would reflect only the instrumental standpoint according to
which some people seem to feel entirely in control of tools and regard
each as merely a means to an end. I regard this standpoint as one extreme
end of an experiential spectrum at the other extreme of which are those
who sometimes regard themselves almost as part of a medium. I'm interested
in how people frame their experiences of using almost anything which anyone
may regard as a medium of communication (mass or interpersonal). I'm particularly
interested in the issue of dissensus and consensus in interpretating what
may appear to be 'the same thing' (such as a particular television programme)
- what aspects do we differ about, and within what apparent constraints
do our differences range?
What research or writing projects are you currently
My two current research interests are in
viewers' interpretations of television programmes and advertisements (on
which I am writing a book) and
construction of identity in personal home pages on the World-Wide Web
(on which I am preparing a paper).
In your online paper,
"Media or Technological Determinism", you write "the notion of technological
'revolutions' and their associated 'eras' are only another manifestation
of technological determinism." In instructional technology, we talk a
lot about technological revolutions and eras of technology. Is this a
necessarily bad thing? If so, what is the alternative?
my main objection here is to the use of the term 'revolution', as in 'information
technology revolution' (or whatever). I won't dwell on the historical
and sociological weaknesses of this perspective other than to note that
such concepts underestimate continuities. But in relation to instructional
technology (usually called 'educational technology' in the UK, but representing
a slightly different coverage) I'd say that the main danger is in the
sense of a moral imperative to adopt a new technology which often divides
people rather too sharply into believers and heretics (even the religious
rhetoric is sometimes apparent amongst the technophiles and technophobes).
It's ironic for me to quote an extreme determinist here with approval,
but Marshall McLuhan once wrote: 'We are all robots when uncritically
involved with our technologies'. This is a saying I have returned to again
and again since I first became involved with microcomputers at the start
of the 1980s. The point is that in the fervour of promoting new technologies
people are encouraged to be involved but not often enough to remain critical
as well. Extreme technological determinism leaves many people feeling
like helpless victims of change.
Also in your paper, you write about the concept
of "reification." That is a fascinating topic that many of our readers
might be interested in. Could you describe that concept for us and explain
the dangers of reifying technology?
to reify something is to treat it as if it were a single concrete thing.
Reification is a typical feature of technological determinism and helps
to shore up the notion of 'Technology' as some kind of autonomous entity.
I sometimes catch myself talking about 'the computer' or 'the word processor'.
By doing so, of course, I downplay the massive differences between particular
tools and the rapidity with which they change. Of course, in day-to-day
life if we tried not to generalise in this way at all we wouldn't be able
to say very much about anything! However, in more critical and reflective
contexts such as articles and lectures we have the chance to avoid contributing
to the unthinking propagation of technological determinism in this way
(and many others). We could reduce the tendency to reify by ensuring that
our prime focus is on the use of particular technologies in specific contexts.
Another of your online papers deals with semiotics.
That is a very hot topic in instructional technology. Could you give us
a brief overview of the theory and its importance?
That's a very tall order! I'm delighted
that instructional technologists outside Europe might be interested in
semiotics; in the UK such interest is largely confined to those involved
in media studies and related fields rather than educational technology.
This stark separation of concerns, it has to be said, is itself to be
regretted, because the critical deconstruction of media texts is as important
in the context of the instructional use of media as in the context of
media studies. Most people who have ever encountered
semiotic texts would probably agree heartily with a remark by Paddy Whannel
that 'Semiotics tells us things we already know in a language we will
never understand'! Far too many semioticians seem to write primarily to
keep the uninitiated out of the 'club', which is why I wrote the web pages
for Beginners'. It's the most heavily-accessed of my on-line papers
(to my surprise). Professor Umberto Eco is one of the world's leading
semioticians and I confess that I was gratified when one of his students
(who shall be nameless) wrote to say thanks - now I can understand my
professor! I was gratified not only because my paper had been of some
use (and because of the opportunity to retell a self-serving anecdote!)
but also because I think that what Eco and other semioticians say is genuinely
valuable and it needs a wider audience. As for offering
an overview of semiotics, I'll leave that to my paper other than to offer
a couple of general observations. I imagine that in this context the nearest
that more technically-oriented professions would usually get to the territory
of semiotics would be the mythically more 'objective' content analysis.
Semiotics emphasizes that signs (words, pictures
or whatever) are related to what they signify by social conventions which
we learn. However, we become so used to such conventions in our use of
various media that they come to seem 'natural'. When we take these relationships
for granted we treat the signified as unmediated or 'transparent', as
when we interpret television or photography as 'a window on the world'.
Since semioticians explore 'sign systems' of all kinds, semiotics could
also help us to explore the differences as well as the similarities between
various media - a matter which should concern instructional technologists,
especially since research in this field has a long history of abortive
comparative studies. I would hope that semiotics,
together with an awareness of the dimensions of technological determinism,
would also help us to explore the non- neutrality of media, a matter which,
in my opinion, ought to be of major concern to instructional technologists.
Those who are interested might like to read a brief paper I wrote for
Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine on
and Being Shaped: Engaging with Media', in which my stance is that
of a socially-inflected and moderate technological determinism.
You are the General Editor of The International
Journal of Media and Communication Studies. What are your duties as Editor
and what are the professional pros and cons of editing a journal?
Well, this is a new journal and we're still exploring
what its policies will be. But there's plenty of room for improvement
on traditional journal practices. My roles involve eliciting views from
the board, trying to establish a working consensus and trying to make
the project work. I'm very 'hands-on' and this involves doing all the
coding and design myself at the moment - I don't know how I'll cope later
on but at this early stage it's feasible. If I do a good job this could
earn me some kudos within my field I suppose, but ironically little in
my own department where most people would either have no idea that I was
running the journal or little idea of the work it involves! Academically
Significant Others have always been geographically distant, but at least
the internet offers a tool to unite us into our virtual communities!
What process do you go through when writing a paper?
Personally, I am so much of a 'Discoverer' that
I don't know much about what I want to write until I've written it, and
consequently rarely know where to publish it until it's done. The exceptions
are those cases where I get invited to write something for a particular
journal or book (this is great, because I hate submitting things cold
to editors - it's so disappointing when it turns out not to be what they
wanted (and they often take months to say so!). I should touch wood here
in case I have tempted Providence and get something turned down now!
Can you recall a research or writing project that
was rather difficult for you? What made it difficult and how did you overcome
Every one is difficult. Mark Twain once said about
reading that 'a classic is a book that everyone wants to have read
but nobody wants to read'! I think to an academic a paper or book is what
everyone wants to have written but none of us wants to have to write.
For those like me (and probably for most of us) it's such hard work. My
exploratory style often leads me to generate far more text than I finally
use - I revise and revise. But people differ dramatically in the way they
write, as I explain in
book on writing. A colleague of mine in another department wrote an
entire book in 21 days with no revision at all! He actually hated the
process of writing so much that he did it this way to get the task out
of the way as fast as possible. His skill as a writer and expertise in
his subject ensured that the book was nevertheless regarded as a good
one by his peers. Faced with such fluency, I console myself with the thought
that revision is profoundly important to my sense of identity. Interestingly,
these answers seem to be flowing quite well - I'm not revising very much.
Is it perhaps because - though conducted through email - I am treating
it as closer to conversation than to writing. Or am I just being glib?
The Puritan ethic might suggest that if it isn't hard work it isn't much
Do you have any suggestions on writing for scholarly
journals -- how a person can improve their chances of being accepted,
Well, because of the time it
takes me to write (and rewrite) I'm not a very prolific writer and can't
boast, as some colleagues can, of having had a hundred papers published
in refereed journals. So I don't know how useful my advice is. However,
I do get published, so here goes... I've never done it this way
but perhaps ideally one would assemble all of the potential journals in
one's topic areas and write from the start with a particular journal in
mind. Since this could be a bit of a gamble it would be wise to chat with
the editor about whether your proposed topic and methodology would be
'their sort of thing'. At least that would rule some of them out and save
you wasting a lot of effort. I suspect that if an editor had agreed that
what you were proposing sounded like their sort of thing they'd feel obliged
to take it rather more seriously than a cold submission. I always show
what I've written to a few close colleagues and implement any changes
they suggest which I feel able to deal with. However,
traditionally at least you never know who the editor will ask to review
your work and you can even get totally contradictory responses from journal
referees. A good editor shouldn't leave you trying to reconcile these.
What are your long term research interests and professional
Well I often say I'm not ambitious
- since I can be rather pushy in some contexts this causes
some of my colleagues to fall about laughing, but I believe that it's
true! I do want to find my work fulfilling (teaching, research and publishing)
and like anyone else I am gratified when others appreciate what I do.
But I'm not interested in chasing job opportunities to 'further my career'.
I chose where I wanted to live and then found a job I wanted to do there;
some other people reverse these priorities. To test this out, I suppose
someone would have to offer me a chair elsewhere!