Thursday, October 28, 2010

Can you rewind…?

Yesterday I was introducing Marshall McLuhan to students of my COMM 101 class. I started with that famous scene from Annie Hall when Woody Allen pricks a media studies professor's pompously incorrect diatribe about McLuhan's notion of hot and cool media by pulling the famed theorist from behind a conveniently placed stand.

McLuhan proceeds to berate the prof: "You know nothing of my work. You mean my whole fallacy is wrong." It's a wonderful moment that humanizes theory, complicates common sense, and sets up the larger postmodern context that my students are beginning to enter (if only in the classroom).

Thereafter I started working through McLuhan's media theory of history, comparing oral and textual eras of society. Folks were asking questions, making notes, and struggling to see the bigger point. For many, I suppose, it seemed like we were plowing through some dead history without relevance or utility. What does Marshall McLuhan tell us about human communication today? Then this moment:

McLuhan's endlessly frustrating, endlessly fascinating aphorism, "The medium is the message" is hanging in the air when one of my students raises his hand. "Hold up," he says, looking through his notes with an earnest expression. "Can you rewind and say that again?" He's a smart guy, this student, but he doesn't yet see the what just happened. I ask for him to repeat his question, and for his colleagues to listen closely to the words: "Can you rewind…?" The student smiles and a few of his peers laugh good-naturedly. They get it.

If McLuhan could somehow enter my classroom, he might find my own media cluelessness just as incredulous as he found that fellow in Annie Hall. But I have no doubt that he would have loved the moment.

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