Wednesday, June 8, 2016
1. What research questions currently preoccupy you?
While my research has generally focused on communication and the built environment, studying structural and perceptual flows whose apparently distinct places convey inhabitants to a singular space, I have begun to examine disruptions in those flows. Initially I explored, somewhat optimistically, the production of “locale” in roadside architecture, arresting places whose evocations of home and community provide a nostalgic and therapeutic response to the stresses of contemporary life. More recently, though, I have concentrated on the somewhat more ambivalent rhetoric and performance of seemingly (but almost never actually) abandoned places. Currently I am interested in the uses, aesthetics, and ethics of “ruin-tourism” practiced in places like Detroit, Post-Katrina New Orleans, and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
2. What personal factors contributed to your study of communication and the built environment?
I recall a conversation with a senior colleague, now retired, in which I outlined some plans for research into the history and design of postwar motels, now often used as long-term apartments, halfway houses, and shooting galleries. Summarizing my plans, I noted how my interest in roadside architecture began during the years when my spouse and I drove between Ohio and Florida to see our families. I was quite surprised when my friend asked, “but didn’t you tell me that you lived in motels for awhile?” I was amazed that I had somehow forgotten that dimension to my personal interest in the built environment. Fleeing an abusive relationship, moved by my mother to the relative safety of a Mom and Pop motel, I grew to appreciate the freedom evoked by roadside architecture – and the fear too. Coming to grips with that continuum of feelings is a personal factor shaping my research that long precedes the academic purposes of my work.
3. What has been most challenging in your research and teaching?
While I bring a scholarly interest in theories and frameworks to the classroom, as well as a humanist belief that study and contemplation are valuable skills whose outcomes may not be “measured” or “assessed” in some contemporary meanings of the words, I recognize that many SJSU students (and some administrators) bring what they perceive to be more practical concerns to our interactions. Many folks struggle with the notion that we should cultivate a keen interest in the world beyond our material ambitions, to read, to travel, and to explore a wide range of topics for the pleasure of doing so, for the opportunities to join the human conversation of values, interpretations, and possibilities, without being forced to account for the energies expended in these endeavors as one would complete a spreadsheet. Of course, addressing this struggle is a challenge worth undertaking.
4. How has your position in SJSU contributed to your research and teaching?
As an SJSU faculty member, I have sought out opportunities to fund my travels, chances to experience the flows and disruptions of places that have contributed directly to my publications and lectures. Along with traditional college grants and departmental matching funds, I have sometimes needed to negotiate some non-traditional opportunities. For example, when asked to teach a second peer training course during my service as director of the university peer mentor program, I agreed with the proviso that my additional work be compensated with a one-time travel allotment. With those funds I completed a cross-country road trip in 2008 whose outcome included one of my most favorite scholarly articles, “Two roads diverge: Route 66, ‘Route 66,’ and the mediation of American ruin.” Though my research has required some similar appeals over the years, I have found that my university is willing to support my road-tripping and globe-trotting ambitions as long as I advance a productive array of scholarly output.
5. Do you have a hidden teaching talent?
I have developed a small repertoire of songs that I’ll sometimes share with my students to advance one point or another. For example I love to sing “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” in COMM 149 (Rhetoric and Public Life) when we’re discussing Disney’s corporate vision of American domestic spaces, an ideal future of consumer technology. I also sing “[Get your kicks on] Route 66” in any class that includes a discussion of travel and tourism. My singing is not technically a talent, because I can hardly boast a gifted voice. But my willingness to express myself in song contributes to a memorable learning environment – for good or for ill.
6. What is one book that changed your life (or teaching/research) and why:
John R. Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic is a nearly perfect collection of essays that build to a coherent argument for the need to sharpen our acuity about the human-made world around us. I return to his book often to borrow illustrations about how the built environment consists of layer after layer of patina that can be scraped away through physical or mental means, revealing more than mere history as an intellectual exercise but rather the means to encounter bygone modes of life that shimmer like William Gibson’s semiotic ghosts. Outside Lies Magic encourages readers to become explorers of the “why” of everyday life. One example: Stilgoe says that if you peer into the cabinet under the kitchen sink of an early twentieth century house, you stand a good chance of finding apple green wallpaper – the same color found in that era’s police stations and asylums. Read the book and find out why.
7. What is one website/journal/newspaper (in your field) you follow without fail?
While I scan the international, national, and regional journals that host the scholarly conversations of my field, I must confess that I almost never read an issue cover to cover. Speaking as a former journalist whose work was measured by its relevance and accessibility, I find far too much of our academic writing is laden with foggy, derivative, and frankly soul-sucking prose. Accordingly I don’t follow publications as much as I read a few authors whose works, which typically appear within and beyond one particular field, demonstrate a balance of intellectual sophistication, practical utility, and aesthetic quality that inspires me to improve my own writing.
8. What is some advice you’d give to newer faculty or students?
I encourage newcomers to balance enthusiasm and dedication with a healthy degree of stoicism. Far too many folks approach their duties with a kind of zealotry that blinds them to the subtleties of why people and things work as they do. People who approach each challenge and each obstacle as a matter of success or failure (or worse, as good or evil) end up being frustrated – and frustrating as co-participants in SJSU life. Successful faculty and students bring zeal to their tasks, yes, but they never lose sight of the fact that the world is far more complex than their desires, and that they are merely one part of a much more complex universe whose workings often defy easy understanding. A little stoicism – not dour acceptance but a deeper reservoir of patience and humility – goes a long way in this life we have chosen.