In Remembrance: John Fiske—A Great Mentor

I had two great mentors in my PhD program—David Bordwell and John Fiske. I learned with much pain and sadness that John Fiske has passed away (here is his obit).

I was lucky to have been asked twice to write about John and his impact on the field of cultural studies. This morning, I find myself rereading one of the two essays which has a passage describing how John enter my life. This quote comes from my contribution in Renee Hobbs (ed.) Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy Through Personal Narrative:

"The first time I saw him, I was struck by his broad, toothy grin, the crinkle of his leathery skin, the wicked sparkle in his squinting eyes, and the Akubra hat he was wearing in the frozen wastelands of Iowa City. He entered our lives as “the Man from Down Under”—someone exotic, wild, and untamed, yet it did not take long to discover his gentleness, his modesty, and, above all, his care for his students. When Fiske came to the University of Iowa, he sparked a degree of intellectual excitement I have not experienced since. Every week, more students were showing up at his seminar, eager to learn what for us was a new conceptual framework, drawn from the cultural studies that informed his work.

...Like Williams, Fiske offered us a way to see the world that was critical of inequalities of opportunity and the imposition of cultural hierarchies, and yet was hopeful about the prospects for meaningful change and respectful of diverse forms of cultural experience.

Raymond Williams had been Fiske’s personal tutor when he was pursuing his B.A. and M.A. in English literature at Cambridge, so it would be hard to imagine a better guide to the British cultural-studies tradition. I was lucky to have studied under Fiske twice—first when he was a visiting scholar at the University of Iowa and second when he was a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Like any great mentor, he empowered me to find my own voice, to draw on my own knowledge and experience, and to make my own original contribution to the field. I soaked up everything I could learn from this man and, in the process, absorbed vocabulary, concepts, philosophies, and ideological commitments that have become so deeply enmeshed in my own worldview that I am still surprised to come across phrases in his writing that I had thought entirely my own (2016)."

I write more extensively there about John’s influence in my New Media Literacies work. Here’s a quote from Fiske about his relationship to Media Literacy:

"I learnt the close reading skills of New Criticism while studying English literature at Cambridge, and soon realized that I wanted to apply them to popular media, television in particular, rather than literature. I had two interlinked aims. One was to show that TV was as multi-layered as poetry and thus worthy of equally serious attention, and the other was to equip “literate” TV readers with the analytic skills to protect themselves against the hegemonic thrust of mass TV. My later work on the active audience grew from evidence that teaching this defensive literacy was less necessary than I had believed. Audiences were already literate in their viewing and had little need of academics like me..."

"...They were using their literacy not just defensively but actively in a way that turned a hegemonic text into a subordinate pleasure. They taught me what actual media literacy was all about."

(Fiske, personal communication, 2013)

This photograph represents the last time I saw John. I was in Cambridge spending a term at Microsoft Research New England doing the original conceptual work that would lead to Comics and Stuff. Jonathan Gray and I were having dinner together at an Ethiopian place in Central Square. I heard Fiske's voice first and then looked up to see him many tables away. His voice is one that I still hear today as I am writing this essay and his presence was so vital it is hard to imagine a world without him in it. He had retired from the academic life early to start a new life selling and writing about antique oak furniture. I was not altogether sure he really welcomed the intrusion of people from his old life into the new world he had built for himself. So I walked over to the table timidly but he gave me a big smile. After some awkward chatting, we set up a time to meet the next time he came to Cambridge to see his doctor.

I was late. I had set up a time and place, but had not realized there were two locations of this particular coffee house and I had gone to the wrong one. We had warm drinks on a cold day and some pastries. And we just talked, picking up where we had left off a decade or so before. I shared some of my early thinking about "stuff," the material culture elements of my new project, and he connected it with some observations he had been making through his shop and newsletter about collector cultures. He shared something he was currently writing about people who collected old typewriters in part as a political response to digital surveillance.

He was as sharp and engaged and witty and nurturing as he ever was, and I felt like I was back in his classroom again as his student.

My eyes watered as he told me he was proud of what I had accomplished through my own life and work. And, tears are rolling down my face as I write this. We said to each other what we both needed to hear. When I look at this photograph, I still feel the weight of his hand on my shoulder.

These two moments—when I first saw him and when I last saw him—sum up one of the most significant relationships in my life. Every time I enter a classroom, I channel three things—my mother's playfulness, David Bordwell's intellectual rigor, and John Fiske's gentle affection for his students. Each of them made me a better teacher, a better writer, and a better mentor.

Books by John Fiske:

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