The McLuhan Program in Culture & Technology, University of Toronto

23Jul11

100 Years Later: The McLuhan Program That Could

Marshall McLuhan at the Centre for Culture and Technology during one of his famous Monday night seminars.

One hundred years ago today, one of Canada’s most iconic and controversial academics was born. More than 30 years after his death, Marshall McLuhan is still credited with changing the face of communication studies — even if many have dismissed his famous one-liners as contradictory and superficial (hot media, cool media, anyone?).

And, a beloved series of weekly gatherings he began in the 1950s is making a comeback.

Though he was born in Edmonton, grew up in Winnipeg, and was educated in England and the United States, McLuhan and his family settled in Toronto in 1946. McLuhan became a fixture at the University of Toronto, where he held his famous Communication and Culture seminars on Monday nights; every week, scholars from across all disciplines and non-scholars alike would meet to discuss the role communication technology played in shaping people’s lives. These innovative, multi-disciplinary seminars propelled Canada onto the world stage of communications research, and laid the groundwork for what became the Centre for Culture and Technology in 1963. Tucked away in the Coach House building on the eastern edge of campus, the centre was essentially McLuhan’s personal research facility, where he was free to investigate the effects of technology as he pleased. He ran the centre until 1979.

Following McLuhan’s death in 1980, however, the future of his centre, and his research, didn’t seem entirely secure [Indeed, the University of Toronto tried to shut it down; it was the intervention and protests of individuals like Woody Allan and Pierre Trudeau, who sent in their protests that saved it.]

Marshall McLuhan at the Coach House on the University of Toronto campus, c 1950s (courtesy Robert Lansdale Photography, University of Toronto Archives).

McLuhan outside the Centre for Culture and Technology, which he directed between 1968 and 1980.

“Many people thought he was kind of a flake,” recalled David Olson, who was appointed to resurrect the centre in a different form. Olson became the first director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology, and he worked up a program that aimed to turn McLuhan’s clever quips into academically sound research questions. Although it eventually made its way up the administration chain and was approved in 1983, the program met with harsh reservations along the way. Olson remembers one administrator who reminded him, “McLuhan was no genius, you know.”

There were growing pains—largely in the form of severe financial restrictions—along the way, but the young program quickly established itself by sponsoring or co-sponsoring more than a dozen national and international conferences. Philosophers, psychologists, and academics of all sorts got involved in pursuing research related to media and communication arts. But as Olson’s time at the McLuhan program wound down by 1990, he conceded: “The program had good content, but we didn’t have any independence and we didn’t have any money.”

Without independence or stable funding, the program joined up with the Faculty of Information Studies in the 1990s under the direction of McLuhan’s former colleague Derrick de Kerckhove. Again, though students and scholars enthusiastically researched and created new technology, administration remained reluctant to fund the program’s $25,000–$30,000 base budget. As then–Vice Provost Paul Gooch told Canadian Business back in 1995, “The problem is….it’s very difficult to find new money within the university’s own budget for any new ventures these days.”

The McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology has undergone more significant changes in the last several years. In 2008, Dominique Scheffel-Dunand was appointed the program’s new director. And in 2009, the Faculty of Information launched the Coach House Institute, a research unit under which the McLuhan Program operates. The mandate for the renewed program is clear: “to investigate and debate the fundamental issues raised by digital media,” Scheffel-Dunand says.

Though McLuhan is famously known for coining the term “global village,” and the McLuhan Program garnered attention back in the 1980s by hosting international conferences, Scheffel-Dunand is taking a different approach. “We’re doing things locally again,” she told us. “We’re not focused as much on the international. We want to rekindle what Marshall McLuhan did here within the university, and within the community.”

Scheffel-Dunand wants to do that by putting Coach House back on the map. For starters, she helped bring aCONTACT Festival exhibit to Coach House in celebration of McLuhan’s centennial birthday. But perhaps most importantly, the McLuhan Program is re-launching the Monday night seminars that McLuhan himself began about 60 years ago—same night, same building. The University of Toronto has committed to two years of weekly seminars, starting September 12, with a seminar called “Performance, a Critical Path.” The project is called “Edge of Academe,” a name meant to encapsulate the wide range of people across many disciplines the seminars hope to attract.

“What I’m trying to do is to point out that this space is particular,” Scheffel-Dunand says, about using the space in the spirit of McLuhan. She hopes the renewed speaking program will call attention to Coach House and its history and significance, and keep McLuhan’s ideas vibrant in the city in which they first took shape.

Photos from the University of Toronto Archives and Records Services, Lonsdale Fonds.  http://tinyurl.com/3whpxpj

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