Robert "Bob" Kalwinsky
Media Arts Professor Robert Kalwinsky has a bachelor’s degree from Temple University, a master’s degree from San Diego State University and a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. Dr. Kalwinsky's interests include digital media and new media theory, health communication and television production.
His published research includes articles in the Journal of Communication Inquiry and the Journal of Transcultural Nursing, and he is an active member of several national and international organizations, including Kappa Tau Alpha and the International Digital Media Arts Association.
Prior to earning his doctorate, he worked in television production (at public television stations WHA, KPBS and WNET) and in mass media (at the City University of New York and at the University of Guam). He has also taught at Drew University, the University of Guam, and the University of Iowa.
He spoke to Beverly Keel about researching tweets and flipped classrooms, as well as adjusting to an academic setting after working in television and knowing Fred Rogers and Carl Sagan.
How did you become interested in digital communication, film and health care? Which one came first? At first glance, they seem like disparate topics. Is there a common thread that links them?
I have always enjoyed the sciences and the liberal arts, so I have ranged widely. I had an undergraduate double major in English and Biology, and when I applied to graduate school, I had to choose between microbiology at the University of Arizona and mass communication at the University of Iowa. I went with my gut – and with the money offered. But it helps a lot in research- for example, understanding how cultural studies gets the Heisenberg uncertainty principle wrong – although what they developed works (just in a very different way).
When and how did you decide to teach full time?
More by necessity. My original plan was to keep working in the field then use teaching as a bridge to retirement. But when I became disabled and wasn’t ambulatory for a few years, life intervened. I was able to read and think well enough, so I needed something that was aligned with my needs – a Ph.D. was perfect. But I ended up teaching full time far earlier than expected.
Before earning a Ph.D. at the University of Iowa, you worked in television production at public television stations WHA, KPBS and WNET and in mass media (at the City University of New York and at the University of Guam). What was the hardest part about transitioning from the media world to an academic setting? What advice do you have for new professors adjusting to a new environment?
They are so different. There is a lot of competition in the media world, but somehow it isn’t what I recall the most – it is the camaraderie. We all were working hard toward a common goal, and the further up the ladder you went, the better it got. You will note I worked primarily in public television, and so my impressions are gleaned from that experience. When working, there was a lot of experiential range – you never quite knew what the day would bring, which I liked - and lots of collaboration. And very expressive work experience. Higher education is different – you are taught in graduate school to focus and dig deeply, so what you finally unearth is often unrecognizable from a macro view – but you find out things that you can’t discern any other way. Like Gaye Tuchman’s strategic rituals – that changed (and are changing) journalism, but it took the outside research perspective to reveal it. So, it is a different way of viewing the world. Another difference is related, perhaps, to the anti-intellectual aspect of our culture. Academicians tend to be far more sensitive about status. The old saying about academics that ‘the smaller the issue, the bigger the battle’ does seem to apply. I think the higher value society places on working in the industry versus being an academic makes academicians more sensitive to some issues. My advice to new folks from industry or from academia: try to be flexible and realize you come from very divergent approaches to knowledge and work. It seems like a good step toward diversity in general – being flexible. About the ego issue – don’t have an answer to that one.
Do you remember the first time you saw your byline in an academic publication? How did it make you feel? Do you still get that thrill or has it become old hat by now?
A lot of people seek fame and fortune, but I never wanted fame; maybe fortune. In many cases, fame is a way to obtain fortune, but not necessarily. And I actually have never focused on money, either – my wants and needs are pretty basic. I have always focused on what I love to do; the rest seemed to come along with it. So, when my name was on a byline, it really didn’t affect me. Odd, but true. I do value achievement, but it isn’t the most important aspect of someone, at least for me. Since I can remember, I have always valued the way people treat one another and how they behave more than their status; I suppose I learned this, and it impacts how I relate to this question. For example, I was lucky enough to have known Fred Rogers and Carl Sagan a bit – and the fact that they were such fantastic people off-camera meant as much to me as their accomplishments, which are obviously formidable. It was an honor to know them. I guess you should ask my Mom why I think this way.
You are working with Prof. Stephanie Dean on a paper called "Political Action in Social-Mediated Twitter Initiatives: Is It Successful Without Praxis? " It explores the reasons behind the falling away/lack of traction of hashtag movements, including apparently successful ones. What drew you to this topic? What are some interesting things you have discovered?
Well, we were interested in the #familiesbelongtogether movement, and the more we observed what happened, the more it was apparent it was an echo chamber. So many of the tweets and retweets became limited to the same groups. And then when you delve into #metoo or the Arab Spring – or any of the hashtag movements – you notice an initial effect then a diminishment and limitation. So, we wondered why the initial successes became limited. You can make sense of it through neo-Frankfurt School theory, branching off Habermas’ notion of the public sphere in the internet age, and there some other theorists like Bourdieu who have some insights, and we are trying to integrate this with social loading theory, which is a psychology theory. The integration makes it a bit more complicated, but it explains a lot. Of course, part of this is – or should be – old hat. As Ogan and Saffo note, change never happens quickly, even though it seems it must – it takes about three generations for major change to take effect (think about feminism, etc.). That’s because culture is our bedrock, so we are very reluctant to change. That gets into the neo-Frankfurt School. But the psychological dimension is also interesting and puts a different spin on it. We shall see.
You are on an upcoming panel at BEA entitled "Addressing Representation and Inclusion of Cultural Minorities." How are you preparing for this? What do we need to know about this area?
: I am going to prepare by reviewing my favorite writers and theorists about this issue – including bell hooks and Jin Haritaworn and Toni Morrison. What do we need to know about this area? Everything! We may not like cultural change, but it is here. I tell my students how proud I am to live in a country where we are trying so hard to embrace multiculturalism – I don’t know any other country that is trying to do this as earnestly as we (sorry, Australia). It is one of the paths that offers so much promise for the future.
An upcoming research project reflects the transition from looking outward (e.g., the heavens and gods; the amphitheater of Greece) to Renaissance times (the enclosed theatre of Italy), which meant a view toward individuals and the horizon line (dimensional art), to the internal focus from the 19th C. You note that today we have interesting expansion into the heavens again, but with a different focus, yet a simultaneous (and even stronger) exploration of the internal - the mind - related in part to the digital turn and neural networks. We can see that culturally in our arts and sciences, such as in the Matrix movies. With that as a beginning point, how and where do you research? How could a film or theater faculty member collaborate with you on this?
Actually, I am not sure this is technically research – more of a survey with some analysis. As I approach retirement, I want to explore this and not necessarily dig too deeply. There are two aspects. One is the transition in the performing arts, as seen in film, TV, and theater, and the other is the movement toward an internal focus. Let’s just focus on the latter. It is more of a philosophical enquiry into what is going on in the arts – and the world. If you look at how focused we are on the internal since the late 19th Century – and now in a more accelerated fashion – there is something striking going on. And it seems to be rippling through economics, science, the arts. Let’s look at media. I know the AI known as ‘Benjamin” made a movie that critics think is ‘encouraging,’ and that it questions what a director (writer; actor) is. And they recently used neural networks to upscale the Lumiere brothers “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” – a film from 1895! – and it looks spectacular. But these technical uses are the tip of the iceberg. Some of the reaction is postmodernism: the way theater and film become enmeshed in movies like Birdman or Dogville. The performing arts are trying to adapt to change. But I am interested in something else – how this attempt to explore the internal is manifesting in art, and since I am interested in the performing arts, that is my focus. I already have a researcher in Sweden interested in working with me, but I am open to others. Let me frame it this way: When Einstein’s theory of relativity came about, Picasso took it up and (somewhat erroneously) applied it to art. Artists are often heralds of emerging trends (just never ask an artist what their work means – they are often the last person to ask, if only because they can be so mischievous). I want to explore what is going on at Ars Technica and the Media Lab at MIT and what people like Bill Viola are doing, to try and pull together a sense of where we are headed with this movement. It’s a focused exploration at what the artists are doing with this move to the internal and the performing arts.
You are also known for your research in the intercultural/development aspects of science and health communications. What is going on in this area that is interesting to you know? What do we need to know about the latest research, happenings or best practices?
I think the most important thing going on in science and health communications has to do with economics. That we are the only wealthy country with such problematic health coverage is part of the issue, and I think that brings up so many related questions about what is sustainable in health, the environment, etc. Toby Miller does a great job of researching how mass media is strongly related to environmental issues and health, so even though we think of health and science as being distinct from us, we are actually integrally related to them.
You have researched flipped classrooms. Can you explain what that is and what we need to know about it? Have you changed your teaching style since conducting this research?
The flipped classroom is a form of instruction involving student use of video lectures, podcasts, and reading material outside of the classroom, usually at home, while the on-site class period the next day is used for task-based learning, more personalized guidance and interaction with the instructor and other students. Basically, the lectures are conducted asynchronously (both spatially and temporally, and thus usually online) before the class commences. It works best for improving technical abilities. But the biggest drawback is that it does not work well for at-risk students. I am pretty stubborn so I don’t know how much I have changed my teaching style save that I do try to offer far more encouragement to students, knowing how difficult it is for many of them (based on this research).
Tell us about a fun “a-ha” or light bulb moment during research, when you discovered something new and/or something that either you had been looking for or tied your project together nicely.
Actually, all my ‘a-ha’ moments have involved waking up after dreaming; sleep is such a creative process. I think there is something as close to alchemy as we can get that occurs during the night. I remember some early research I did that wasn’t coming together and I had a dream that Nicholas Negroponte was talking to me, and in the dream I remembered he worked at MIT. The next day, almost on a whim, I looked up the MIT Media Lab online and he had his email listed! That is like Nicole Kidman having her email listed! I emailed him and he answered me! – astonishing! – and his advice helped me sort out the issue. Lesson: get enough sleep and listen to your instincts.
Do you have tips for us on how to get students excited about research?
You can use current events of interest to them, and for data analysis, candy always works. I get the most gratification when they have epiphanies about research itself – see the next question’s answer for more.
What are common mistakes you see students make when learning how to conduct research?
Like all of us, they mistake correlation for causation. It’s a great lesson, because it helps them evaluate the media more effectively when it comes to polls, research, etc. It is very, very satisfying when you see the lightbulbs turn on, as they realize why one year bananas are discouraged but next year are championed, or why polls can be misleading, or why media has such varied effects. They start putting together sample size, random sampling, lack of control groups, and it changes how they view the media and the news and research, it makes them better world citizens.
How do you carve out time for researching and the thinking that leads to research? Do you have any tips for us?
Actually, the time spent preparing for teaching often leads me to ideas about research, especially if I am teaching an advanced class. There isn’t enough time to delve into the journals the way I would like, unless I make that part of teaching – so I do, as much as possible.
What do you like to do when you aren’t working?
I spend a good deal of time with nature and with reading fiction. As a member of the Germantown Book Club, I have gained some wonderful friends. I used to love mountaineering and scuba, but now I mostly do some hiking when I can, and I garden. My dog walks me a lot. Socialization is important, and I go out to dinner or make time for activities with friends. Interestingly, the friends I have from MTSU come from all over the academic map. I have one dinner group that is mostly English and Art faculty, and another that come from the Liberal Arts and the Social Sciences. Don’t know how that happened. But I must admit, I once watched the Academy Awards with the first group and some theater folks – it was an eye-opener. Let’s just say that spectacle plays a far more important role for theater folks than for me.