The year was 1968. The Vietnam War was raging, counterculture was flourishing, and Marshall McLuhan was teaching media at Fordham.
On Saturday, Sept. 17, a group of McLuhan’s former Fordham University students shared their recollections as part of a Centenary Symposium recognizing what would have been the media theorist’s 100th year. The symposium was coordinated by Lance Strate, Ph.D., professor of communication and media studies.
One of the most enigmatic theorists of the 20th century, McLuhan equated the rise of electronic media with a revolution in human thinking and group behavior, and launched the idea that “the medium is the message.” In the 1960s, he predicted the proliferation of the Internet and the shift to electronic books.
During the 1967-1968 academic year, McLuhan, the Albert Schweitzer Chair in Humanities, oversaw an alternative curriculum of lectures, film showings and independent study assignments for students. McLuhan’s appointment came about through communications professor John Culkin, S.J., a longtime colleague of McLuhan’s and himself a media expert.
Pete Fornatale (FCRH ’67), recalls the first time he heard of McLuhan at a seminar during the summer of 1965 on how to use media in the classroom.
“We were astounded by this man,” Fornatale said. “To this day, I say that it was the day that changed my life. Everything I have done in my career has somehow reflected the wisdom that I got from that core group of people that Father Culkin brought to Fordham in the ’60s.”
Following McLuhan’s lectures could be difficult, said students, given his belief in—and fascination with—non-linear means of communicating in the electronic age.
“There were times when I couldn’t understand a word he said,” said video producer Anthony Perrotto (FCRH ’69). But Perrotto was impressed with a film lab he did with McLuhan, in which they got access to the original studios where Thomas Edison did his early filmmaking.
“We took the studio over,” he said. “We painted it all kinds of psychedelic colors and made sound and light shows with music from the ’60s,” he recalled. “That was what gave me the seeds of love for communication and film.”
Panelist Paul Ryan, associate professor of media studies at The New School, said he came to Fordham to do his alternate service on a Conscious Objector draft status with McLuhan–who believed that the Vietnam war was lost in the living rooms of America and not on the battlefields.
“Afterward, I stayed with that trajectory,” said Ryan, whose projects have included using video to interpret ecological systems. “I got involved in the alternate video movement and went on to work with video for many years.”
The controversial McLuhan presence at Fordham that year, said John Carey, Ph.D., professor of communications and media management, not only changed the trajectory of the19-year-old student’s plans for law school; it also benefitted Fordham.
“McLuhan put media studies on the map [even though]he was heavily criticized at the time,” said Carey, a former media research analyst who teaches in Fordham’s business schools. “Fordham was academically strong and very ambitious—we had our sights set on beating Columbia. For someone like McLuhan to come in . . . it advanced our reputation.”
Ironically, McLuhan’s year at Fordham was never captured on film (An audiotape of one of McLuhan’s lectures is posted at the symposium’s website).
But McLuhan’s ideas and theories are evidenced every day, Fornatale said. He recalled how a false rumor that Bruce Springsteen was going to do a live concert at a New Jersey theatre prompted hundreds of fans to turn up outside the theatre.
When Springsteen’s promoter showed up to tell the fans that there was no concert, the fans ignored him.
The promoter then called Fornatale’s station (at the time, WNEW-FM) and asked if he would announce there was no concert over the air. Fornatale did so, and the crowd disbursed.
“I never saw as clearly as on that day the connection between humans and media,” Fornatale said. “It was undeniable.”
The all-day symposium featured a lecture by McLuhan’s son, Eric, a professor at the University of Toronto, on “Media and Formal Cause.”
The younger McLuhan accompanied his father during the 1967-1968 year at Fordham. He taught one course on the “Effects of Television,” where students helped measure the results of film versus television viewing on themselves.
The event was sponsored by the president’s and provost’s offices at Fordham, the Department of Communication and Media Studies and others.