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Exclusive interview of Dr. Edward Schiappa, head of Comparative Media Studies and Writing at MIT

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Interview by Syed Qasim Raza

I do know that there will always be need for writing. Every survey of employers that are done in terms of what skills are you looking for your employees, communication skills, written and spoken, is always one or two on their list. Regardless of what it is that people are going to be doing in their career, they’re going to be needing to do writing and communicating. Dr. Edward Schiappa, Head of Comparative Media Studies and Writing at MIT, shared his opinion in an exclusive interview with The Educationist (USA).


The Educationist: Please tell the Educationist’s readers about your early life and education.

Dr. Schiappa: My family moved around a lot when I was young but I mostly grew up in Kansas in a town called Manhattan which is also the home of the University. So, I ended up going through secondary school and to college there and then I went to graduate school at Northwestern University in the early 80s and then actually I came back to Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas for my first job and moved around somewhat and then ended up here in 2012. I did my Master’s and my PhD from Northwestern University. I was awarded the PhD in 1989. I was finishing my dissertation while I was an instructor and then promoted to professor once I finished the degree.

The Educationist: How many universities have you served in and in what roles?

Dr. Schiappa: Four. So Kansas State University was my first job. I was the debate coach and ran a competitive debate program for five years there. I then went to Purdue University and while I was at Purdue University. It’s in Indiana it’s in a town called West Lafayette. I was a professor there and, also, after a couple years they made me the director of Graduate Studies and that started administrative dimension of my career that pretty much continued after that. In 1995 I moved to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I stayed there for 17 years. I was department chair my last seven years there. I was fully intending on staying there for the rest of my career and I was pretty happy, pretty well settled there. But then MIT advertised a position for professor of rhetoric which is my specialty and that’s kind of unusual and MIT is, as you know, one of the best universities in the world and so I was intrigued by that and I looked into it and I knew it was going to be quite different than my previous jobs.

The Educationist: Why did you think it would be different?

Dr. Schiappa: Well, the departments I had always been in were traditional communication departments and pretty much everybody in the departments had their PhDs in communication from kind of the same list of about 25 universities so it’s a recognizable discipline. The unit I’m in here is very eclectic. We have people from Sociology and Anthropology, Computer Science, Creative Writing, English and so it’s really not a traditional communication department at all. And, in fact, the department that I have now, was the result of a merger of two smaller units; one that focused on writing; and one on Media Studies – so very different than a standard communication department.

The Educationist: You have achieved many awards in your career, what is the nexus of your knowledge?

Dr. Schiappa: Well, I think I’m old enough now. I’ve really had a couple of areas that I’ve done fairly deep research in. So the first area that I really specialized on and the area that my dissertation was in was Classical Greek Rhetoric. The second area is more contemporary rhetoric and argumentation. And the third area is more media studies and that was kind of an odd side venture initially but it ended up being really interesting and I teamed up with a couple of scholars back at Minnesota and worked on a series of empirical studies on whether or not certain kinds of media portrayals could change viewers attitudes towards minority groups and we coined a theory called ‘The Parasocial Contact Hypothesis’ and that ended up being influential. We actually just this last year won an award for it the award was for kind of an article that has stood the test of time proven influential and it has been cited by a lot of people who study Media, Media Effects, Media Psychology things for that sort because we proved it could. The TV and film can educate people about minority groups that they may not have contact with in real life and reduce their prejudice.

The Educationist: If you have to give a percentage, how many people are getting their information or knowledge through TV, digital media instead of books?

Dr. Schiappa: Well I don’t know. But I would say that you know for the population as a whole it would depend on probably on things like education level but the population as a whole there’s no question that TV and film have a ton of influence. And I think particularly when it comes to exposure to, again, minority groups, because even if you’re reading a book about that has minority members in it, you may not have a picture of that person in your head. So I don’t know I actually haven’t studied whether or not you could accomplish the same ends with a book or not.

The Educationist: You have written eight books, which one do you think is best and why?

Dr. Schiappa: Oh wow. I don’t know how to answer that. It’s sort of like which of my children do I like best. On the classical work there’s a book that I published in 1999 called ‘The Beginnings of Rhetorical Theory in Classical Greece’ and it’s probably if I had to pick just one it’s probably my best both because of influence but also because the number of methods are used in the book is probably the most of any project I’ve done. I have a chapter where I use formal logic to analyze a Greek text that was making an argument. There’s another chapter where you can analyze Greek verse by scanning it into long and short syllables and seeing what the patterns are and I did that for a chapter. So I think if I had to pick one book, now that you made me think about it a little bit, it would probably be that one.

The Educationist: Given the powerful impact of television and electronic media, what new challenges does writing face currently?

Dr. Schiappa: Well, I think we’re trying to figure that out. I think there’s a tendency to want to know where we’re going to be in five years and it’s very hard to predict that we are in a very fluid situation. We do know, for example, that the newspaper industry in general is trying to adjust to this electronic era. The traditional revenue from the hardcopy newspapers is way down. I think the single biggest technological development in terms of changing how we communicate broadly speaking is the mobile phone. So we do know that people are increasingly watching videos on their phones and consuming their news, entertainment so you know a lot of what, some of my colleagues are interested in, is exactly that what’s going on what are the changes and how do we adapt to that but we also have to keep in mind that the human brain has not really changed and humans have not changed markedly for tens of thousands of years and so while technology is obviously very important we still use it to meet the same needs that humans have had for thousands of years and so the question is what is changing and what’s not changing and that’s what I think is an interesting subject to keep looking at.

The Educationist: So do you think that print media and writing definitely are facing a threat?

Dr. Schiappa: Well all I said about that was newspapers and I think some magazines. I don’t know what the magazine industry as a whole how it’s doing but you know books seem to be doing fine. I mean book sales are still good. There are fewer bookstores now but they’re not completely gone. It’s not like blockbuster that’s gone. Blockbuster Video is gone and there will not be a replacement for it and so we see the rise of things like Netflix and other streaming kinds of things but how long that trend is going to continue I don’t know, I don’t know what it means for magazines. I do know that there will always be need for writing. Every survey of employers that are done in terms of what skills are you looking for your employees, communication skills, written and spoken, is always one or two on their list. Regardless of what it is that people are going to be doing in their career, they’re going to be needing to do writing and communicating.

The Educationist: How do external relations and networking play a part in the development of the faculty and overall education standard at a university or a department?

Dr. Schiappa: I think it varies quite a bit. I think there are still professors who kind of come into their office and that’s their little castle and all they need is their computer and their books. But I would say that one of the things that to me is interesting about MIT is that most professors are interested in connecting with the outside world in one way or another. So for example in my case you know, on the side I teach professional communication for the Sloan School of Management. I really like meeting people out there in the so-called real world who want to learn the latest and want to enhance their skills and beyond that. We have some very very good science writers and one has produced the documentaries for like Public Television, another wrote a very influential book on vaccine hesitancy, and has met with government officials and worked with both state and federal organizations, trying to figure out how to decrease vaccine hesitancy.

The Educationist: What about external relations and networking in the administrative perspective?

Dr. Schiappa: Well, there are multiple dimensions to that but, certainly, one is fundraising and you know right now MIT is in the midst of a major capital campaign. So they are hoping that alumni and supporters of the Institute will make donations to help support the Institute and it’s an important time because depending on what the Trump administration does. There are policies that the Trump administration is considering and proposals that would really severely impact every major American research university and include us.

The Educationist: CMS/W’s website’s ‘About’ page reads: “At CMS/W, we are devoted to understanding the ways that media technologies and their uses can enrich the lives of the individuals locally, across the US and globally”, what work has been done in regard to this statement in US perspective and, particularly, in global perspective?

Dr. Schiappa: It depends on the individual project. One of the global examples is that we have a professor who works with people in China with NGOs. She’s an example of a faculty member who really does have a very global connection we have another professor who studies Japanese popular culture. We have a new faculty member who literally goes all over the world to study different impacts of satellite technology and she does this more from a critical perspective. She has written about US drone policy and imaging policies and how you know from a critical standpoint both the strengths and kind of some of the problems that are associated with that technology. Her name is Lisa Parks. I can’t say that they’re doing it on behalf of the Institute. Do they at least indirectly represent the Institute? Yes, but they’re not on a mission from the Institute. Our president, who I liked a great deal, President Reif, he likes our global contribution and so he certainly encourages that. And in fact the substantial investment MIT has made in online education for example, he sees as a form of global outreach, sharing MIT’s knowledge with the world so it is a value of MIT’s but that’s not quite the same as sort of people being assigned to go out and do good.


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