Jay G Blumler and the Joy of Academia

Jay G Blumler – Embodying the Joy of Academia

On 30 January 2021, Professor Jay George Blumler died at his home in Leeds. His family was with him in the last days of his 96 years. Over the last several months following his death, many beautiful tributes have conveyed the love and admiration of his family, friends and colleagues for one of the world’s leading scholars in the field of Political Communication – an American born, but British-based theorist of communication and media. Jay was active for nearly all his academic career at the School of Media and Communication at Leeds University, but he had many ties with colleagues and academic institutions around the world, including the University of Maryland and the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California, where I met him in the early 1980s. 

Jay Blumler at the Duttons

I will point you to some of the many tributes to Jay, which wonderfully capture his life and work in more detail and in the words of those he worked with throughout his career. At one of the last tributes given for the members of the International Association of Media and Communication Research (IAMCR), six world class scholars in the communication field commemorated his life and work, including Lance Bennett, Nico Carpentier, Stephen Coleman, Mark Deuze, Sonia Livingstone, and Claudia Mellado. While each was a leader in their own field, each noted Jay’s role as a valued mentor to them. I could hardly believe that I knew of the work of all six initially through Jay. It seemed as if early in every visit I had with Jay, whether he or I was getting off a bus, train or plane, he would without fail call my attention to the work of some promising new scholar of communication he had met, and whom I should follow. My colleagues could not have had a better mentor and scholarly promoter. I could easily say that Jay was proud of each of them. He truly was. He was absolutely buoyed by the success of his colleagues. 

That brings me to one personal reflection I would add to the many tributes: Jay Blumler found real joy in academia. He found delight in all aspects of the academic enterprise. Many mentioned how he never failed to ask a penetrating but incisive and constructive question at seminars. He’d be in the front row and raring to join the discussion. But in so many different situations and interactions, Jay was able to creatively construct a fun and valuable occasion. 

For example, whenever I asked him to comment on a draft paper or outline, I came to realize that I would not just get a quick sign of approval or a few recommended citations. To the contrary, I would get an invitation to tea or a meal at which he would bring his notes and we would speak for hours about my work and how it could be refined, rethought, better conceptualised, and tied to earlier work. He constructed such tutorials in ways that not only contributed to my work but educated and entertained me and anyone nearby. He initiated me to this process in the early 1980s when we co-edited a book, with Ken Kraemer, entitled Wired Cities, about how networking communities would have major social implications. He made that such an enjoyable experience and such a better book.  

That was just one example. Those in academia know that being asked to comment on a paper or book can be seen as a burden. It can be an occasion when many academics would not bother to respond or offer a quick reply. Many – including myself on occasion – are often too busy and too seriously focused on their own work to be distracted by helping a colleague. Not Jay. 

Jay would make what could have been a burdensome task into an enjoyable experience that was socially and educationally memorable. Maybe even a nice meal at a new restaurant. He enjoyed himself in the process and that joy infused his colleagues with greater enthusiasm to refine their own work and also to spare more time for those seeking their help, having learned from Jay’s example. 

This is not to say that Professor Blumler was not aware of the slings and arrows of academic criticism and one-upmanship. As a theorist in his field, his work was highly visible and the subject of critiques as well as praise, such as around his pioneering work with Elihu Katz and others on the uses and gratifications of the media. While critics never seemed to hurt his feelings, they could make him cross. But he was seldom if ever angry, as he seemed to be able to focus on the work and those colleagues he admired rather than fretting about those he did not. I never recall him criticising or dismissing any academic. Instead, he championed those he most respected and whose work he followed most closely.

Jay is famous for adding a song to his keynotes or seminar talks. He loved to sing and had a wonderful baritone voice. But that is just another one of many ways in which Jay found and spread joy in academia. He made academia a better place for all those who knew him. 

Tributes to Jay G Blumler include

Stephen Coleman’s written for Leeds University, where Jay founded the former Centre for Television Research and was an Emeritus Professor, and which is available on his family’s memorial website at: https://everloved.com/life-of/professor-jay-blumler/obituary/

Sonia Livingstone’s written for the International Communication Association, for which Jay was President (1989-90): https://www.icahdq.org/blogpost/1523657/366476/In-Memory-of-Jay-G-Blumler

Roland Cayrol’s written for La Monde: https://www.lemonde.fr/disparitions/article/2021/02/10/la-mort-de-jay-g-blumler-professeur-de-science-de-la-communication_6069476_3382.html

Antioch College, where Jay studied in the US and remained a proud promoter, published this tribute: https://antiochcollege.edu/2021/02/jay-blumler-47/

The Bad Collaborator

A good colleague of mine asked: Has anyone ever told you that you were a difficult colleague to collaborate with? I said “no”, as he was the first to explicitly suggest that. But the more I thought about this question, it is probably true that I am difficult as a colleague. But does that make me a bad colleague or bad collaborator? (I should add that in academia, it is ‘good’ to collaborate. You are not a traitor or defector – a collaborator in a bad way – but a colleague.)

I immediately recalled one of the earliest and most valuable collaborative projects I was involved in – an evaluation of Urban Information Systems (URBIS), which was conducted by a team of researchers at the University of California, Irvine’s former Public Policy Research Organization (PPRO). I was one of five principal investigators, led by Ken Kraemer, but including James Danziger, the late Rob Kling, the late Alex Mood, and myself. We worked together from 1974 through 1979, leading to a couple of books in the early 1980s.* Ken was a management scientist trained in public administration and architecture. Rob was a computer scientist focused on artificial intelligence. Alex Mood was a major statistician and co-author of the famous Coleman Report.** Jim and I were political scientists.

Most of us were difficult to collaborate with. We debated every substantive and methodological decision and every idea developing out of the project. While we would let each other have time to explain their position on an issue, most of us would give real time reactions through making faces, changing our posture, yawning, grimacing, rolling eyes, and subvocalizing if not muttering sounds of disapproval. We would write memos to each other to make our case or critique another’s. We had to fight for each forward step in the project.

Courtesy of Elsevier.com

I should say that not all of us were difficult. Alex mainly gave advice when asked. Ken was always the best listener and translator across disciplinary boundaries. He would explain that Rob was saying this, and Jim was saying that, and enable us to better understand each other’s points. Moreover, while we disagreed and debated nearly every point, we liked and respected each other. We took each other seriously.

That said, the difficulties in collaborating contributed to the best aspects of our work. For example, we would never be able to settle on the first good idea that emerged unless it survived repeated challenges. Most often, we ended up with better ideas downstream that combined features of several contributors. Also, when we met with research teams evaluating our project and the final outputs, we found that we had already addressed every argument and counter argument that could be raised about our work. We had already raised and settled them ourselves. As a consequence, we had no surprising critique of our project and found only a surprising degree of support for our work.

Ever since that experience, most of my collaborations have been difficult but successful. In short, it is possible that a difficult collaborator is not necessarily a bad colleague. Harmony sounds good in all walks of life, but harmony often emerges at the end of a lot of discord and struggle. Certainly in academia, it is not always the case, but quite often, a difficult colleague can be valuable to your work.


*Kraemer, Kenneth L., William H. Dutton, and Alana Northrop (1981), The Management of Information Systems,New York: Columbia University Press; and Danziger, James N., William H. Dutton, Rob Kling, and Kenneth L. Kraemer (1982; 1983 paperback), Computers and Politics: High Technology in American Local Governments, New York: Columbia University Press.

** Coleman, James S., Ernest Q. Campbell, Carol J. Hobson, James McPartland, Alexander M. Mood, Frederick D. Weinfeld, and Robert L. York. 1966. Equality of Educational Opportunity. Washington: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Office of Education.