Friday, June 5, 2009

Thom Gencarelli, Ph.D, Communications Chair at Manhattan College

Thom Gencarelli, Ph.D. (NYU, 1993), is the Chair of the Communication Department at Manhattan College in Riverdale, NY. Thom was hired by Manhattan to create its Communication department after spending 14 years on the full-time faculty at Montclair State University in Montclair, NJ, four years at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY, and seven years on the part-time faculty of the M.A. program in Media Studies at The New School in NYC. Thom is currently the Vice President of the Media Ecology Association, a Past President of the New York State Communication Association, and a two-time Past President of the New Jersey Communication Association.
In addition, Thom is a songwriter and musician, and his debut CD with his ensemble bluerace was released in June 2009. (The group is presently at work on their follow up release.) Thom lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, with his wife Alison, and their two sons Miles and Griffin.

What is your title?

I am the Chair of the Communication Department at Manhattan College and I am an Associate Professor.

What degrees do you hold?

I have a BFA degree in Communication Arts, an MA in Media Studies and Ph.D. in Media Ecology.

What is Media Ecology?

Ah, the great question… Media ecology is the study of media as part of the environment in which we live…it’s the study of how we use these means of information, these sources of information in daily life and how the media we use matter as much as the messages we get from them and send through them…and the ecology part is the same as what the term means when we talk about the natural ecology…it’s about balance… We need to strike a balance in our use of media. I mean, if we lose print, we’re doomed. If 75% of people in the United States get most, if not all their news from television…that’s a problem.

What inspired you to do this?

Inspired me to do what? To become an academic? How did I end up…I’m wondering what the question is…

Umm....a professor…

Interesting question… (pause) Well, I’ll tell it as a story: When I got out of undergraduate school I hacked around as a songwriter/musician. And the most honest way to say it is that making a living in that way started to seem a little…dicey. I chickened out. So I applied to law school. And thank god…divine intervention permitted me from becoming an attorney…
I decided to return to school, though. And I wanted to stay with and study about music. But not like musicians and musicologists study it…I was interested in music as communication. And I’ve always been interested in questions about how things happen in the popular culture…how they make a splash and catch on. And so the real interesting question is…well, here you and I are talking. And language is the default medium when we think about communication and what meaning is. But with respect to music and all art…well, what is meaning in music for people who aren’t schooled as musicians? How is music meaningful to them? This is the kind of thinking that got me started.

What’s your teaching schedule?

As a chair, I teach during the academic school year, and during the summer I do administrative stuff… But you know, prior to September of 2008, this program did not exist. I was brought in to build it, which has been a great opportunity…it’s been a great ride (smiling).

What are some projects you like to give to your students?

Probably the most important thing we are dealing with right now in this program is this place we’re in between what we call the traditional media and the mainstream media, or “msm,” and the digital future that we’re heading head long into…there’s a lot of change happening, it’s vast, it’s rapid change and, uh, even those of us who are supposedly “experts” in the field, we’re not sure where we’re going. So the best projects are the ones where we engage with our students to inquire into where are things going… I mean, they live in a world where there’s a lot of sales in marketing talk about digital media and technology in general….and the trick becomes to separate out the sales pitch to figure out where things really might be headed.

Is there anything about technology that stumps you?

No, there are things about the culture in which we live that stump me.

So, you’re saying that you can program and figure out any form of technology?

Oh, you mean using technology? I’m not a technophile or a technophobe… I don’t spend my days immersed in a world of machines and toys and gadgets. But it’s certainly a part of what we do here…I helped design a television studio.


It was finished in August of 2008.

What was the studio created for?

One of the things the college set out to do when they created this program was that they knew they needed to build a TV production, and build it from scratch. They put their money where their mouth is, and they asked me to create it… It’s pretty state of the art.

Any shows been aired?

Not yet… There will be, that’s part of our mission.

Is this your first college teaching position?

It is my third…the other jobs prepared me to do this.

With a communication major, what are some jobs that students can attain?

We’re the largest major at this college. And there are 4100 colleges in the U.S. that, with the exception maybe of the Ivy League, have programs like this…it’s amazing how many students want to study this stuff. And your question is a great one because we have a program that has a traditional orientation: advertising, broadcasting and telecommunications, journalism, and public relations. But you know, as I said before things are changing. And are our mainstream media where these folks are going to end up? You know…journalism…they don’t come to study the role of newspapers in a democratic society and the critical importance of newspapers to citizens. I mean, we get a lot of women who want to work for fashion magazines… And so what? Aren’t newspapers dying anyway? Or maybe they’ll just migrate to the web. But then you can’t call it a newspaper, it’s not paper anymore… And so while it’s fascinating to think about these kinds of changes going on…it’s hard to counsel students on what to do… And the point is: What’s going on when all of these people are coming into this field and it’s changing…in 5-10 years from now it’s going to be vastly different…but we don’t know how it will be different or how much different it will be.

What types of classes do you teach?

I teach in the broadcasting and telecommunications concentration, mostly about television and video…well, also about radio… I also teach ethics.

Would that be considered ethics and media?

Yes. And I teach the introductory course and the senior thesis course…so they get me coming in and I’m the exit interview on the way out.

Do you have an exit project?

They have to do a senior thesis.

What’s an example of a senior thesis?

An example…I had a student last year who wrote about traditional television moving to the web and companies like HULU…

Which is?

Um, which is a …what do I call it? It’s a property owned by the News Corporation and NBC Universal as they’re both trying to figure out and control the migration of the television screen to that screen (pointing to the computer). So her thesis was about what this is going to mean for the TV industry and what it’s going to mean with respect to how people watch.

Any surprises?

Most of the students, who all think they’re so savvy…they think they’re so cool and we’re so uncool…they didn’t know it was owned by the same players who are already in control of the industry…they thought it was a continuation of everything that’s been happening since Napster… They thought it was some subversive way they could watch television whenever they wanted to, commercial free.

What do you prefer, radio or television?

Well, it’s apples and oranges… And not to evade your question, but here’s a more interesting one. Here we are doing an interview that’s going to be on your blog… Well, it wasn’t until 2004 that “weblogs” suddenly appeared on the cultural radar, and suddenly people started blogging and it became wildly popular and people started talking about things like citizen journalism replacing the whole journalistic enterprise, or at least becoming as important as professional journalism. And then you have practices like my student who is in Florence right now who’s keeping track of and reporting on her Italian experience via a blog…I mean, how many millions of blogs are there NOW and what’s up with that?


I think that’s a fascinating question…I don’t have an answer but I do think it’s important to think about and talk about this as we all blog away… Think of it this way: What you and I are doing right now is point-to-point communication…back and forth from me to you. But in the past when I’ve been interviewed like this it was for some medium of mass communication, some point-to multipoint means of communication, you interview me for a magazine and that gets distributed to a mass audience… Now, you’re interviewing me for a blog and in a way the blog is point-to multipoint. But when there are literally millions of blogs you have a media world that is multipoint to multipoint, all these millions of blogs competing for the attentions of all Internet users and surfers… Wow! What a world!

Is there a required tool for this program?

I used to say this (holding up a pen). Now I would say it’s simply the ability to type words. Literacy is the basis for it all…writing is the basis for it all. And of course you can’t write if you don’t read.

Are there books out there that can improve this for students?

Well, my great mentor and teacher was a fellow named Neil Postman, and he wrote a whole series of books on the subject…um, but one of his influences was a Canadian named Harold Innis…Innis wrote two important books about communication, Empire and Communication and the other one is called The Bias of Communication. And to bring this all full circle, I think those are the two books that are the root texts in the study of media ecology.

Wow, this was inspiring and very informative, thank you!

You’re welcome.