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/

International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) special session: https://iamcr.org/nairobi2021/online/special-sessions

Visiting Leeds University and Jay G. Blumler

I had a short but pleasant visit to the School of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds that provided me an opportunity to catch up with new and old colleagues. The School has made some brilliant new hires, such as Christopher Anderson. Chris is finishing his first year at Leeds with a new and timely book, forthcoming in 2018 through Oxford University Press, entitled Apostles of Certainty: Data Journalism and the Politics of Doubt.

The University of Leeds is also home to one of my oldest and enduring colleagues, mentors and friends in the UK, Professor Jay G. Blumler.  Jay first took a position at Leeds as Granada Television Research Fellow in 1963, going on to direct his Centre for Television Research. He has taught at a number of universities since, but continues his affiliation with Leeds today as an Emeritus Professor.

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Jay and Bill, 2018

On my very first trip to Leeds in the early 1980s, I stayed at Jay’s home, and recall watching Top of the Pops with his family. Lo and Behold, a rerun of that classic was on television decades later, when I walked back into Jay’s home after dinner this past Friday evening. But a more important, enduring feature of my return, was Jay’s continuing pursuit of creating – not just listening to – music, a charming aspect of his entire career. For example, Jay often entertains his academic audiences with brief refrains from a wide range of songs. He has a clear, baritone voice that led to him being involved in, and most often organizing, all sorts of singing groups throughout his life – a topic we discussed that evening.

Even before I was born (if you can imagine that), in 1944, Jay was part of a quartet of American servicemen studying Russian language at Georgetown University. They called themselves ‘The Four Freedoms’, playing off of FDR’s Four Freedoms speech, given in 1941.  A colleague who heard them sing arranged for Jay and his quartet to perform at a recording session for the Folk Song Division at the Library of Congress (photo below).

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In 1946, while still stationed in Berlin, Jay was Chair of the American Veterans Committee, a group he helped found and organize in Berlin. In that role, he was invited to have tea with Eleanor Roosevelt when she visited the city. She had heard of some of the charity work the committee had done and asked to meet with them. A diary of her day in Berlin mentions her conversations at a ‘soldiers club’ in the last paragraph.

After the service, Jay taught Social and Political Theory at Ruskin College, Oxford, serving several years as Resident Tutor at the Rookery, later called the Ruskin College Academic Building. As the tutor, he formed another group, called ‘Jay and the Rooks’ (photo below).

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Jay and the Rooks

If you ever have the opportunity to visit with Jay, don’t hesitate to ask him if an appropriate tune comes to mind. It will. I am delighted that Jay decided to pursue an academic rather than a singing career, as he has done so much to advance the field of communication, such as in serving as President of the ICA, and advancing studies of political communication in particular. However, I am so happy that he has found ways to spice up his and others’ academic presentations with an occasional song.

Notes

Jay G. Blumler on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jay_Blumler

Essays in Honour of Jay G. Blumler

I have just received my copy of a new and wonderful book, entitled Can the Media Serve Democracy? Essays in Honour of Jay G. Blumler (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), edited by Jay’s colleagues at Leeds, Stephen Coleman, Giles Moss and Katy Parry. What a fitting tribute to Jay. The volume focuses on the question that has driven Jay’s work over the decades, and the essays assemble some of the luminaries in the field, including Elihu Katz, Paulo Mancini, Denis McQuail, James Curran, David Weaver, and Sonia Livingstone, along with an interview with Jay himself.

The book was the centerpiece of a Festschrift held for Jay in Leeds this month, February 2015, organised by the editors. I could not be there, as I was attending a conference in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Comparative Communication Research at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. You can imagine my pleasure when the first paper and panel of the conference provided a review and citation analysis of literature in this field and Jay G. Blumler was noted as perhaps the most prominent, and influential communication scholar of comparative media studies. Moreover, Jay continued to be praised throughout the conference, including his role as President of the ICA and an editor of Comparatively Speaking (1992). What great illustration of the global impact and longevity of his work? In sync with the message of influence provided at the Hong Kong conference, James Curran’s essay in the Festschrift book is entitled ‘Jay Blumler: A Founding Father of British Media Studies’.

This is a book that is must reading for any media and communication scholar. It grapples with the fundamental question of media studies, including studies of the Internet, social media and related new media. Jay stayed focused on the big questions, whether studying British election coverage, the emergence of wired cities, back in the 1980s with me, or the rise of new media since the turn of the century. And the range of contributions from key scholars in the field make this book one of the best contemporary treatments of the media and democracy available, not only for scholars of the field, but also for students, who can see through this book the potential of an individual to shape major fields of communication. My thanks to the editors for such an outstanding collection.

References

Blumler, J. G. (1992), Comparatively Speaking. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Coleman, S., Moss, G., and Parry, K. (2015), Can Democracy Serve Democracy? London: Palgrave Macmillan.

 

Society and the Internet: a new reader for courses

A new book edited by Mark Graham and myself is in print and available for courses: Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing Our Lives. It is published by Oxford University Press, and material about the book is available on their website at: http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199662005.do

How is society being shaped by the diffusion and increasing centrality of the Internet in everyday life and work? By bringing together leading research that addresses some of the most significant cultural, economic, and political roles of the Internet, this volume introduces students to a core set of readings that address this question in specific social and institutional contexts.

Internet Studies is a burgeoning new field, which has been central to the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), an innovative multi-disciplinary department at the University of Oxford. Society and the Internet builds on the OII’s evolving series of lectures on society and the Internet. The series has been edited to create a reader to supplement upper-division undergraduate and graduate courses that seek to introduce students to scholarship focused on the implications of the Internet for networked societies around the world.

The chapters of the reader are rooted in a variety of disciplines, but all directly tackle the powerful ways in which the Internet is linked to political, social, cultural, and economic transformations in society. This book will be a starting point for anyone with a serious interest in the factors shaping the Internet and its impact on society.  The book begins with an introduction by the editors, which provides a brief history of the Internet and Web and its study from multi-disciplinary perspectives. The chapters are grouped into five focused sections: (I) Internet Studies of Everyday Life, (II) Information and Culture on the Line, (III) Networked Politics and Government, (IV) Networked Businesses, Industries, and Economies, and (V) Technological and Regulatory Histories and Futures.

A full table of contents is below:

Society and the Internet How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing Our Lives

Manuel Castells: Foreword

Mark Graham and William H. Dutton: Introduction

Part I. Internet Studies Of Everyday Life

1: Aleks Krotoski: Inventing the Internet: Scapegoat, Sin Eater, and Trickster

2: Grant Blank And William Dutton: Next Generation Internet Users: A New Digital Divide

3: Bernie Hogan And Barry Wellman: The Conceptual Foundations of Social Network Sites and the Emergence of the Relational Self-Portrait

4: Victoria Nash: The Politics of Children s Internet Use

5: Lisa Nakamura: Gender and Race Online

Part II. Information And Culture On The Line

6: Mark Graham: Internet Geographies: Data Shadows and Digital Divisions of Labour

7: Gillian Bolsover, William H. Dutton, Ginette Law, And Soumitra Dutta: China and the US in the New Internet World: A Comparative Perspective

8: Nic Newman, William H. Dutton, And Grant Blank: Social Media and the News: Implications for the Press and Society

9: Sung Wook Ji And David Waterman: The Impact of the Internet on Media Industries: An Economic Perspective

10: Ralph Schroeder: Big Data: Towards a More Scientific Social Science and Humanities?

Part III. Networked Politics And Governments

11: Miriam Lips: Transforming Government by Default?

12: Stephen Coleman And Jay Blumler: The Wisdom of Which Crowd? On the Pathology of a Digital Democracy Initiative for a Listening Government

13: Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon: Online Social Networks and Bottom-up Politics

14: Helen Margetts, Scott A. Hale, Taha Yasseri: Big Data and Collective Action

15: Elizabeth Dubois And William H. Dutton: Empowering Citizens of the Internet Age: The Role of a Fifth Estate

Part IV: Networked Businesses, Industries AND Economies

16: Greg Taylor: Scarcity of Attention for a Medium of Abundance: An Economic Perspective

17: Richard Susskind: The Internet in the Law: Transforming Problem-Solving and Education

18: Laura Mann: The Digital Divide and Employment: The Case of the Sudanese Labour Market

19: Mark Graham: A Critical Perspective on the Potential of the Internet at the Margins of the Global Economy

Part V. Technological And Regulatory Histories And Futures

20: Eli M. Noam: Next-Generation Content for Next-Generation Networks

21: Christopher Millard: Data Privacy in the Clouds

22: Laura Denardis: The Social Media Challenge to Internet Governance

23: Yorick Wilks: Beyond the Internet and Web

Let us know what you think of our reader, and thanks for your interest.