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Recent News and Events

Susan Douglas Awarded the Leonardo Da Vinci Medal

The Leonardo daVinci Medal, SHOT’s highest honor, is bestowed annually in recognition of an individual’s outstanding sustained contribution to the history of technology.  The recipient for 2009 is Susan J. Douglas.   A prolific scholar and public intellectual, Professor Douglas has energized the study of broadcast radio and other technologies of mass media for more than three decades.  With unparalleled sophistication, insight, and flair, she has alerted specialists and the broader public to the myriad and complex ways in which these technologies have mediated politics and gender in modern American culture. 

Douglas embarked on this course while pursuing a doctorate in Brown University’s distinguished program in American Civilization, where she enrolled in fall 1972 after graduating Magna Cum Laude from Elmira College with a B.A. in History and membership in Phi Beta Kappa.  Her dissertation traced the emergence of radio broadcasting in the United States from its roots in ship-to-shore wireless devices through establishment of the first commercial stations.  The resulting book, Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), immediately secured an enduring place on the short list of essential works in the history of radio and radio technology. 

Beyond its centrality to the history of media technologies, Inventing American Broadcasting was also widely recognized as an exemplary contribution to the study of invention and innovation, a subject of intense interest at the time among historians of technology and business historians.  While paying ample attention to the inventors, entrepreneurs, and regulatory authorities who frequently receive pride of place in such studies, Douglas insisted that we also take into account the vital contributions of a more diffuse community of “amateur operators” who engaged radio with deep personal enthusiasm and in the process brought the influence of popular culture to bear upon its development.  This fundamental insight, which Douglas originally articulated in a 1981 presentation to SHOT entitled “Crystal Sets, Popular Culture and the Democratization of Radio,” would achieve widespread notoriety in many disciplines.  Reprinted in several sources and still widely cited today, her ideas have enhanced our understanding of other emergent technologies, most notably the personal computer.

Historians of technology, quickly grasping her talent and significance, wasted little time in tapping Douglas to take a leading role in shaping their maturing discipline.  Within a decade of delivering that first paper, she had chaired SHOT’s program committee and served two three-year terms on the Society’s Executive Council.  During this period MIT Press named her an advisory editor for an important book series in the field, a position she still holds, and she served a term on the IEEE History Committee.  In 1994, SHOT appointed Douglas to its long-range planning committee, and in 1998 she began a five-year stint on the Advisory Board of Technology and Culture.

Douglas accumulated this exemplary record of service while actively pursuing her intellectual interests in media and popular culture onto new terrain.  Her second book, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media (Times Books), appeared in 1994.  In it Douglas again focused her inquiry upon a gendered community of users who incorporated new media into their lives and worldviews.  Now, however, that community included a much wider cross section of the population, and her analysis necessarily involved more extensive reading and interpretation of program content.  With this second book, moreover, Douglas dared to reach for a larger audience.  Drawing on skills she had cultivated while writing occasional pieces for In These Times and other forums, she found a new voice, one which capitalized on her willingness to reveal a bit more of herself in the narrative and to address forthrightly the concerns of contemporary readers.  This highly acclaimed volume garnered widespread attention from National Public Radio and other respected media outlets, while also drawing favorable response in academic circles.  More than thirty colleges and universities have invited her to speak about the book.

Even before the appearance of Where the Girls Are, the Sloan Foundation approached Douglas about writing a history of the American radio audience.  This project culminated in 1999 with publication of Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination (Times Books).  Awarded SHOT’s Sally Hacker Prize for an outstanding book on technology and culture intended for a popular audience, this work stands as a model for those who seek to bring scholarly research in the history of technology to a wider readership.  The book is lively and engaging, yet it conforms to extraordinarily high scholarly standards.  Douglas develops and sustains a nuanced (and convincing) exploration of radio and masculinity, and she incorporates original scholarship into matters such as the audience research techniques of Paul Lazarsfeld, the subject of a presentation Douglas made to the Organization of American Historians and several other scholarly forums.  While delving deep into program content, Douglas always retains a keen eye for how the apparatus and the circumstances in which it is used exert a powerful effect upon listeners.  She suggests, for instance, that radio between the wars encouraged a shift in American language toward quick staccato repartee that complemented the jazz music of the age.  Hers is an informed, accessible inquiry that never neglects the technology itself, while subtly and insistently situating that technology in a larger cultural frame. 

Such extraordinary ability to bridge multiple scholarly domains and reach the wider public is evident in her professional appointments.  In 1996, after fifteen years in the professorial ranks of Hampshire College, Douglas assumed an appointment as Full Professor in the Department of Communication Studies and Faculty Associate in the Program in American Culture at the University of Michigan.  In 1998, Michigan named her the Catherine Neafie Kellogg Professor, a post she still holds.  She has also held the Arthur F. Thurnau Professorship for excellence in undergraduate education.  After directing its graduate program for five years, in 2004 she became chair of her department, a post she still holds while also directing a program on Gender, Media and Social Change.  She previously directed the Marsh Center for the Study of Journalistic Performance and currently serves as a board member for the prestigious George Foster Peabody Awards.  Since 2004, she has served on the Advisory Council of the American Studies Association.   

While shouldering these professional responsibilities, Professor Douglas has sustained her remarkable output as a researcher and writer.  Since 2001, she has written “Back Talk,” a monthly column for In These Times devoted to contemporary media, as well as numerous other pieces for journals such as The Nation.  In 2004, she authored (with Meredith Michaels) The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women (The Free Press), and she is currently at work on a book for Henry Holt and Company on the representation of women in the media since 1990.  Revisiting and updating themes and subjects she first explored in Where the Girls Are, these works retain the subtle appreciation for technology that has always characterized her work. 

The distinctive flavor of her scholarship, and its deep roots within the history of technology, are on full display in a recent essay entitled “The Turn Within: The Irony of Technology in a Globalized World.”  Appearing in a special issue of American Quarterly, a journal published by the American Studies Association, the essay draws upon a variety of canonical works in the history of technology before concluding with this paragraph:

Media coverage of new communications technologies either suggests some unilinear trajectory or lapses into a utopian versus dystopian framework (the Internet will produce a thriving new public sphere; the Internet will allow child pornographers to stalk our kids).  As we in American studies struggle in our own lives with the multiple, contradictory consequences of the digital revolution and with the rapid but unequal global diffusion of communications technologies, we must always remember the irony of technology, and the ongoing gaps and tensions between technological capabilities on the one hand, and the not insignificant power of ideological frameworks and corporate-state interests on the other.  It is at this nexus, in this struggle and mess at the middle levels, that we will find the most interesting and important stories to tell about technology and modern life in the twenty-first century.

For more than a quarter century – half of SHOT’s existence – no one has told such stories more effectively than Susan Douglas.  No one has done more to develop core ideas from the history of technology and to demonstrate their meaning and continuing relevance to the lives of so many.  For this, we are pleased to award her the Leonardo daVinci Medal.