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Joanne Cantor.


Born: 1945 in Newport News, Virginia

Education: 1967 B.A. in French literature, Cornell University

1971 M.A. in communication, University of Pennsylvania

1974 Ph.D., Indiana University

Career: 1974 Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin at Madison

1978 Tenure

1990-1994 Associate Dean, College of Letters and Sciences

1999 ICA Fellow and B. Aubrey Fisher Mentorship Award

2000 Emerita

Personal: Married, one son

Can you tell me something about your parents and your first professional dreams?

My parents were both supportive and very much in favor of education. In fact, when I was three and we moved to Washington, DC, they looked first where the best public schools were, and then for a house in the area for those schools. My father went to Cornell, which he considered one of the greatest things in his life. I was the youngest of three children, and it was assumed that we'd all go there, which we did. Way back in the mid-1950s and the early 1960s, women were not really supposed to have high-power careers. There were three appropriate options: teaching, secretarial work, and nursing. I thought I would either be a teacher or a secretary. I also assumed that I would only work until I got married and started having babies. That was what everybody seemed to expect in those days.

What was your favorite option: teacher or secretary?

I thought mostly about teaching. Even in first grade, I would always think about how the teacher was trying to explain something, and how I would have explained it better when kids didn't understand. So, I had the idea of being a teacher very young, but I also thought about being a secretary. When we were in high school, girls had to take typing while boys had to build things, so I learned how to type. My father belonged to the only golf club in Washington that had Jewish members. All the Jewish Congressmen and Cabinet officials were honorary members there. My father got to know Newton Minow, who was the FCC Chairman under President Kennedy. Minow would come to our house for breakfast before playing golf with my father. I had to pass a civil service test, but my first summer job was working in Minow's office. My first job in the communications field.

What did your father do for a living?

He was originally an attorney, but he started out during the Depression. When he couldn't make enough money as an attorney, he became a building contractor.

What about your mother?

When I was young, she didn't have a paid job, but she was a constant volunteer in social organizations. She went back to school when I was in high school, got a master's degree in social work, and became an administrator in Washington, DC's Department of Social Welfare.

Did religion play any role in your childhood?

We were raised in a Reform Jewish household. I went to Sunday school, but I never got into organized religion too much. However, there are two things I took away from my training. One, we should do good on this earth because it's the right thing to do, and not wait for rewards in the afterlife. And two, when you die, you live on in the hearts and minds of those who cherish your memory.

Do you still remember why you chose to study French literature?

I was good at languages. I had taken French and Spanish in high school and thought I would be a high school teacher of French.

What happened to that idea?

When I got to my senior year in college, I decided that this was going to be a very unpleasant way to make a living. In my own high school, teaching language was so much about drilling and repetition, and most students didn't want to be there. You can learn a language much better if you go to live with people who speak it. My roommate and I decided we would go to live in France after graduation. I ended up with two choices: teaching English to young children in a convent school in a small town, or working as a secretary in a bank in Paris.

Of course, you took the bank.

Yes. I lived in Paris for two years, but I left the bank after three months. I then got a job at Twentieth Century Fox-France. This was a production office, much more exciting than the bank. I was there when they were filming Patton.

Your second brush with communication.

Yes. And it was a wild time to be in Paris. I was there during the riots and general strikes of 1968. So, it was quite an experience. Most of my friends were other expatriates. They were German, Belgian, and British.

How did you finally get back to university?

I got bored of a job that was just that. Although I was officially an assistant to the casting director, I was basically a secretary. So I decided to go back to college. The problem was that my undergraduate major only prepared me for subjects that I wasn't interested in. Then I read in the International Herald Tribune about Marshall McLuhan and the new field of communication. There were only a few schools with graduate programs, and they had no undergraduate prerequisites for applying because the field was so new. That's how I ended up at Annenberg.

Sounds like pure chance.

Not pure chance, but there were certainly chance elements to where I ended up. I had applied to Stanford, too. I really wanted to live in California, but somehow my scores got lost and they didn't arrive in time. I got a scholarship to Annenberg. I think chance plays a big role in most people's career trajectories.

How would you compare the student Joanne Cantor with today's students?

I was totally lost as an undergraduate, and I decided on my major too soon. As a graduate student, I still didn't know what I was interested in until I saw what Dolf Zillmann was doing. Once I got into that kind of work, I was totally motivated. You couldn't keep me out of the lab. I still didn't know what I wanted to do with my degree. I just knew that this was the most fun and the most rewarding work I had ever done. Today's students are a mixture of people who are really strongly motivated and those who are there because it's expected of them. Most of the students that I have been privileged to mentor have had feelings similar to mine and have had a great work ethic.

Could you tell me a bit more about your main academic teacher?

Dolf Zillmann was the person who lit a fire within me to be excited about communication research. He was enormously creative in so many different areas, but also great in methodology. He had very high standards, but he was also supportive. When Dolf left Annenberg to go to Indiana, he took me along as his research assistant.

When did you know that you wanted to become a communication scientist?

I didn't really think I wanted to be a professor necessarily. I just loved doing the research. It was the obvious next step to become a professor once I completed my dissertation.

Were you confronted with a crucial experience that led you to study children's fright reactions to television?

When I was in graduate school, I mainly studied the things that Dolf was interested in: media violence and its effects on aggression, persuasion, and emotional effects. When I got to Wisconsin, I continued these topics for a while, but I was also advised that I should carve out my own area. Some of my graduate students started telling me that they couldn't understand why their children were frightened by certain television programs that didn't seem frightening. One of these programs was The Incredible Hulk, actually. I also remembered how scared I was as a child by The Wizard of Oz. So I started thinking about studying fear because it interested me and nobody was studying it at the time.

That's funny, because Barbara Wilson told me about exactly the same Wizard of Oz experience.

I had certain movies that really got me, Wait Until Dark, for example, and Jaws. Fear responses to media turned out to be an extremely fruitful area for research. For my first major grant, I related theories of cognitive development to children's fears to make predictions about what should frighten children of different ages and which coping strategies should be effective (Cantor, 1998).

Is there any evidence that politicians or lawmakers use your knowledge?

In the early 1990s, I was involved in the National Television Violence Study. My research showed that the age recommendations in movie ratings actually attract kids to content geared to more mature audiences. I testified before Congress a few times about the new rating system the TV industry was developing. The industry's proposal involved age recommendations only. Together with the National Parent Teacher Association, we did a survey and showed that parents prefer content information over age recommendations.

Were you successful in pressuring the networks to add content information to their ratings?

With the help of a few Congressmen, yes. I also had a lot of input into the medical, psychology, and psychiatric communities, giving presentations to their groups and contributing advice to their publications. Even now, I get calls from the media all the time for articles in parenting magazines and feature stories in newspapers about how can we help our children cope with what's on TV, particularly during times of natural disasters or war. For the past few years, my new area has been cyber overload-that is, overcoming digital distractions. My advice receives lots of exposure on radio and TV, in newspapers, and on the Web about that as well. I also blog regularly on this topic for Psychology Today. And I give presentations to corporations, professional associations, and colleges about making the most of your time and your talents in the Internet age.

Do you like being a public spokeswoman?

I enjoy it very much. Getting our information out is one of the most important things for communication people to do. We should not just do our academic research. If we don't share it, somebody else will advise the public based merely on intuition. We need to share what we do. Communication researchers need to be good communicators!

How would you rate the position of scholars that are interested in children within our discipline?

We have some superstars. Certainly Patti Valkenburg is one. So, we do very well. I don't know how to compare our area to others in terms of prestige. I think most people rank their own area more highly than someone else's area. But studying children and media is a relatively new tradition. When I started in the area, there was a very small group of people doing it. Now we suddenly have an ICA division. It's a thriving and a really fundable area.

How would you rate the position of psychological-orientated scholars within communication?

I think it's high, and there is a growing acceptance of psychological and social science research. Ages ago, I had a job interview and talked about my research on the effects of media on fear. Some of the faculty members objected and said, "This is not communication; it's psychology." But I think that opinion is rare now. The psychological effects of communication are a central part of our discipline.

Jennings Bryant told me that you influenced a whole generation of scholars. How would you yourself describe that influence?

I have been fortunate to have some of the greatest students. They came to me already being very smart and very motivated. I'm extremely proud of them. Most of them have gone on to academic careers at good places. They have become good mentors, too. If I role-modeled that, I'm happy. It's really fun for me to go to ICA and to see some of my academic "grand - students" talking about their research. A few years ago, I actually met my first great-grand-student. I'm proud that there are four generations still being productive.

Your portrait in the book Women in Communication tells a lot about the challenges you faced as a female grad student in a sexist environment (Nathanson, 1996).

It wasn't just sexist. There was a lot of overt sexual harassment. Things that would be crimes now were going on routinely then. When I was an undergraduate, people felt women were taking up space that a man could put to better use, because we were supposedly only there to find a husband. Then, in graduate school, many people didn't believe that women would actually go on to be professors. When I came to Wisconsin, I was the only female faculty in the department. My first teaching assistant was a male, and everyone assumed that he was the professor and I was the TA. I helped to change the gender ratio in my department. One semester, when I was acting chair, I ended up hiring five new people. All of them were women because they turned out to be the best candidates. I believe they accepted the offers because I helped make them feel that this was a welcoming environment for women.

Obviously, things are changing.

Yes, but there are still problems even today. At least three of those five women left because their spouses had a job somewhere else. My guess is that on average, the men in our field are still making more money than the women. Many women also have children and lack the flexibility that is necessary to move repeatedly in search of more lucrative offers. The academic career is stressful, too. For me, I love doing research. So work was never a chore. But when you have a child and he's clamoring for your attention, achieving a balance and not feeling guilty is always a challenge. I already had tenure by the time my child was born, and that made it easier.

You retired very early from Wisconsin. Was there nothing to do anymore?

In fact, there was too much to do anymore (laughing). I had become successful not only in the academy; I was called to Washington to testify and was being asked to travel for media appearances. I just felt like I was being split in too many directions, so I decided to retire from teaching. I had been teaching for 26 years in the same department. When I stopped, it allowed me actually to do more research, more writing, more speeches, and more traveling. I feel like I'm on sabbatical. I don't have my own PhD students, but I continue to mentor younger scholars informally. And as Outreach Director for the Center for Communication Research at Wisconsin, I still stay connected with my department.

Sounds like a good decision.

I feel like I'm more productive and creative since I became an Emeritus Professor. I would never have retired just to retire. I always have to have a new project. In studying the research on information overload and creativity for my latest book (Cantor, 2009), I've learned that you are more likely to come up with creative ideas when you are not constantly working. It's not an academic book; it's just 100 pages. I enjoy taking academic findings and making them accessible and useful to the general public. And I'm getting really positive feedback from readers and attendees at my presentations.

How did you feel when you became an ICA Fellow?

I didn't know I had been nominated. So I was totally surprised and very happy.

Who is Joanne Cantor: a researcher, a teacher, the public spokeswoman, the role model for female professors? What is the most important part of your academic life?

Am I supposed to choose one?

It's up to you.

I feel it's a combination. I'm a researcher who enjoys making findings useful to the public and mentoring other people to follow in that track. What got me into this was Dolf's idea that you can discover something important that nobody knew before, and that is useful to others. Because you did the research, you are the world's expert on what you did. Studying French literature, I never knew what the answer was because I didn't have any criteria. I would write a paper for a class and have no idea whether I would get an A or a C. Doing social science, it was different. I knew when I had the right answer. I appreciate the fact that whenever anybody replicates a part of one of my studies, they confirm the same basic principles and outcomes. And also, whenever I speak about fear, I always get anecdotes from the audience that fit exactly with my theories.

What is your definition of communication? What is the subject all about?

I'm not a big definition person. I think communication is really the interaction between people or between people and machines. So, I have an expansive view of communication. When I was studying with Dolf and we would talk about almost anything, he would always end up saying, "In the end, it's really a communication problem." And he was right.

Most of my interviewees told me about missing respect from old-established subjects. How was the reputation of the discipline at Wisconsin?

In general, it was the same. The older the discipline, the more respect it has. Math, physics, and chemistry have great respect. Then you go one step down to psychology and sociology. Communication is even further away. I've had really good relationships with psychology professors at Wisconsin. They have respected me individually, but when my students have taken their courses, those professors seemed to be surprised by how good the students were. On the other hand, at Wisconsin we have had a lot of stars in communication. So, we are very competitive as individuals. Our department also has had many people being selected as academic deans.

Could you please draw a landscape of communication worldwide? Where are skyscrapers, where construction sites, and where, maybe, fire trenches?

I don't know so much about the academic landscape worldwide. Obviously, ASCoR is a great place. But in general, I'm more familiar with my area than with the reputation of whole departments. But overall, I think that communication is a very hot discipline in terms of students' interest. This will continue to grow because we have all this new electronic technology that everybody is trying to come to terms with. Communication is burgeoning everywhere.

Are there any scientists who you would call a role model?

Dolf Zillmann was my role model in many ways. It was the enjoyment of finding out new things with methods that allow you to be confident in your findings, as well as looking at a lot of different interdisciplinary influences and not focusing only on communication scholars.

Are there other role models as well?

Some of my students. I would always recommend that they take courses in other departments and then come back and tell me what they had learned. They also have much more statistical expertise because many of the statistical tests that are used now did not exist when I was in grad school.

Looking back on 40 years in communication, is there anything you are especially proud of?

I'm very proud of the research program on fear. I'm also extremely proud of my graduate students who are now, in some ways, continuing my tradition. And then I'm proud of my ability to bridge the gap between academia and the general public, and to write books that don't sound like academic texts.

Then again, is there anything that you would do differently today?

I guess I would try to make more face-to-face connections with people in other fields. But all in all, I'm happy with the way things have turned out.

What will remain when Joanne Cantor is gone? What should remain if you could influence it?

One of the reasons I don't feel so bad about not teaching in the classroom anymore is that I've influenced some people who are still teaching. So I feel that some of my ideas about communication research will continue for some time. I also hope that more communication scholars translate their findings for public consumption.


Cantor, J. (1998). "Mommy, I'm scared": How TV and movies frighten children and what we can do to protect them. San Diego, CA: Harvest Books.

Cantor, J. (2009). Conquer CyberOverload: Get more done, boost your creativity, and reduce stress. Madison, WI: CyberOutlook Press.

Nathanson, A. I. (1996). Joanne Cantor (1945-). In N. D. Signorielli (Ed.), Women in communication: A biographical sourcebook (pp. 50-59). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
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Article Details
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Author:Meyen, Michael
Publication:International journal of communication (Online)
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 30, 2012
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