Stephen D. Reese: John Downing - Interviewed by Andrea Allen

Steve Reese

Ironically while John Downing, professor of Radio, Television and Film at the University of Texas has taught in communications for over 20 years, he has never taken a communications class. Downing received a B.A. and an M.A. in theology from Queen's College in Oxford, and an M.S.c and a Ph.D. in sociology from the London School of Economics. For the next 12 years Downing taught sociology in England before moving to the United States. When Downing began looking for a job in the United States, he found that American sociology was too quantitative for his tastes. Communication, he felt, was more conducive for his qualitative approach. When Downing entered communication in the early 1980s, he said it was a relatively young field which had "virtues and vices." He said at the time scholarship was sloppy, but the field was open to adopting methods and ideas from other fields like sociology and anthropology.

Downing says if he had to sum up his research topic it would be "communication and power." He has followed several basic related research topics throughout his career. They are 1) racism and ethnicity, 2) international communication which a special focus on the former Soviet Union, Hungary and Poland and 3) activism. Downing's interest in the USSR was "an accident," because he had to teach a class on the region when nobody else would back in the United Kingdom. More recently Downing's interests have shifted into activist research, where by he poses questions about communication and power and then explores what can be done about it.

In his career Downing has published eight books and over 60 articles, including five in the Journal of Communication. When asked how he stays productive, Downing says he keeps an eye open to paper calls and book submissions. He feels the deadlines of a project spur him on work harder and force him to articulate ideas he has pondered for years but has yet to think through thoroughly. After receiving a book, article, or chapter commission, Downing's first step is an "intensive burn-up" of relevant literature. This can include discussions with colleagues. Eventually Downing sets out to write a skeleton of his project knowing full well it will probably change. While reworking the skeleton, Downing will often show portions of his work to colleagues and friends for feedback. "I want to know if I'm a fool or not," he said.

Downing said he likes to write in units. Rather than work on a project from beginning to end, Downing separates sections to concentrate on and waits until the end to stitch them together. He believes that sometimes working from beginning to end can only slow him down because he will need to reread everything he has written each time he wants to keep going.

Downing says theory can help orient a researcher and help him or her form a series of questions to investigate. Personally Downing gravitates toward certain theorists including Karl Marx, Max Weber, Antonio Gramsci, Jurgen Habermas, Roland Barthes and Stuart Hall. That said, Downing likens his practice to grounded theory analysis by which he may start with theory which at the end of the project needs to be refined. "Theory isn't set in stone," he said. "It provides a heuristic value."

When asked about the difficulty of balancing teaching, research and a personal life Downing said he himself wasn't quite sure how he got it all done. "I just do it somehow," he said. Downing said a good deal of his time is spent writing grant applications and references for students and faculty. Downing said he had a burst of production the past six or seven years because his kids were grown, his wife was heavily involved with her own work and he was no longer department chair. Downing was department chair in Radio, Television and Film from 1990 to 1998. Downing said for him the hardest project is editing a book with multiple chapters. "It is hard to sustain momentum when chapters are coming in at different deadlines," he said.

I asked Downing how he practiced activism and worked in a field beyond academia. Downing said most of his activism is literary. He writes in a variety of alternative publications, including Peace Review or Socialist Review. Downing says he also serves as an activist by organizing conferences or participating in campus committees on topics such as affirmative action. Downing was also the vice president for Austin Community Television from 1993-1995.

Finally, I asked Downing what advice he had for someone just beginning a Ph.D. program. He suggested studying both successful and unsuccessful grant applications in order to see what kind if projects receive funding. He said it is increasingly important for academics to find outside money for their projects. Downing received a Ford Foundation grant in 2002. Downing also stressed learning another language. Downing speaks French, Spanish, German, Italian and Russian with varying degrees of fluency. He said speaking a foreign language can expand a researcher's relevant body of literature and provide him or her with a unique opportunity to study topics cross-culturally.

(note: Downing has since relocated to Southern Illinois University, Carbondale)